Allesandro De Tomaso took up motor racing in his native Argentina in 1951, but by 1959 had moved to Italy and rather cheekily set up shop in Modena to build his own single-seaters while he was still working as a mechanic for Maserati. He formed De Tomaso Automobili in 1960, and his first cars under that name were based on the Oscas he had been racing; soon they became De Tomaso-Fords at the beginning of what was to be a long association with the Ford Motor Company. These latter cars were entered in Formula One during the 1970 season, and De Tomaso works drivers included such luminaries as Tim Schenken, Brian Redman and Piers Courage. Still the team fared badly, and was withdrawn from racing halfway through the season. Away from Formula One, De Tomaso sportscars enjoyed a more encouraging run of luck, and though he occasionally became involved with other European makers for short periods De Tomaso always came back to Ford as a source for his engines.
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He had been lucky with sportscars powered by small British Ford engines. His first commercial project had been the Vallelunga, powered by the 1500cc Cortina engine and with a fiberglass body styled by Ghia; as with Ford, De Tomaso would remain loyal to Ghia, eventually buying the company completely as the De Tomaso cars built a reputation for themselves. In fact De Tomaso himself had an acquisitive nature, and during a short period bought Benelli, Moto Guzzi, Vignale and Maserati, saving the latter from extinction in1976 and subsequently inspiring production of the four-seat Kyalami.
But the De Tomaso Vallelunga was built only in small numbers: probably less than 100, although there are no production records to prove even this figure. But the next project was already in the pipeline, and the Mangusta was scheduled to make its debut at the 1966 Turin Motor Show. Power was again from Ford, but this time De Tomaso looked to the bigger American V8 engines to give his car the sort of power which the factory a few miles up the road was currently getting from their engines.
The same formula had already worked for Ford once; their 289ci V8 engine, settled into a chassis from the small independent AC factory in England, mixed with some Shelby racetrack genius, was proving to be a highly potent, almost lethal combination called Cobra. There seemed no reason at all why the combination of ex-race driver, small chassis builder and Ford V8 shouldn’t work again, and the result of the co-operation between the companies would be sold by Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division in the United States and called – Mongoose.
The Italian name is far better known, however, and the prototype which appeared at Turin in 1966 bore a 500bhp De Tomaso-built all-aluminum version of the 302ci Windsor engine in a 43-inch tall fiberglass body styled by Giugiaro (still at Ghia) and was called Mangusta. The prototype from Turin finally made production with a midmounted Ford-built 289ci iron motor and with a steel-and-aluminum body. It was fast enough though, with a usable 270hp from the Ford engine, and went into immediate but not especially rapid production. Just 401 Mangustas were built in five years (making it now an exceedingly rare vehicle), but mass production was never the De Tomaso strong-point. Like many other cars from race and sportscar builders there were a number of minor changes made and few of the cars produced exactly match the makers’ original specification.
While this may have been frustrating for Ford there were still advantages; European sportscars, especially Italian ones, were still very fashionable in the tremendously large – and growing – American enthusiast market. Moreover, the De Tomaso purchase of Ghia had brought this famous styling house, with all its reputation and expertise, within Ford’s grasp. Thus there were a number of reasons why Ford should continue their association with De Tomaso, and when the prototype Pantera was drawn up by Tom Tjaarda it too was incorporated into the transatlantic deal and eventually replaced the Mangusta in 1971.
Design and development were all done in Italy, and Ghia produced another low, aerodynamic and eye-catching two-seat body to go over the spaceframe chassis and midmounted engine. The engine was the 35ci Ford smallblock, which was rated at 300hp as fitted to the Torino, but which for De Tomaso produced 330hp. Installed in the Pantera it gave a 0-100mph time of 17 seconds, ran the standing quarter in 14.5 seconds and topped out at about 130mph. In European specification, without emission control gear, the Pantera had a top speed closer to 160mph.
But like the Mangusta before it, the Pantera was not entirely without its problems. Its sales appeal was strong, since it offered all the traditional Italian virtues of design and handling coupled with a high-perfomance engine which didn’t have to be shipped back to Italy every time it needed servicing. Theoretically any Ford garage should have been capable of maintaining a Pantera, but that wasn’t always the case. Most of the final refinements which go into a new car before it eventually goes into production are skipped by small specialist builders, otherwise their cars simply wouldn’t get built, and De Tomaso seem to have been especially bad at this.
Once again Ford’s patience proved equal to the task, however, and they supplied expertise and knowledge which straightened out the production of the car inside two years. In fact the later Panteras, from 1973 onwards, were so much improved that they were specially designated Pantera L. But Ford had carried out work which should never have been forced upon them; the wipers were totally inadequate for a car with this speed capability but De Tomaso himself was disinterested, saying that the car shouldn’t be driven in the rain. And as Federal safety regulations began to affect more than just engine emissions De Tomaso again showed his complete lack of concern; he wasn’t interested in bumper height regulations because his car had been designed to be driven, not parked.
This might at first seem to be characteristic of a rather splendid arrogance such as might be expected from a slightly rebellious genius, and that may indeed be the truth. But Ford saw it as a sign of a careless attitude which included half-finished projects and rapidly changing enthusiasms. The latter was probably much closer to the real facts; by 1973 or 1974 De Tomaso’s interests had moved away from his road cars and gone back to his first love – racing. He was now deeply involved with Group 3 and 4 racers, and claiming some 570hp from his Ford V8 engines. Attractive as that might once have been for Ford, the climate in America had switched away from performance, and involvement with desperately powerful race cars was by no means as desirable as it had been when the Pantera project had begun. In fact, involvement with very fast sportscars was a great deal less desirable than it had been in 1970 as well, so Ford terminated the relationship – and when they left Modena Ghia went with them.
De Tomaso continued on his way, buying up Maserati and then Innocenti, created two more cars under his own name, the Deauville and the convertible Longchamps, and continues to make Panteras in haphazard fashion. Once again there are no production records, so it’s not possible to say how many have been made over the years. In any case there have been several versions since the Pantera L, and it is now also available as the GTS and the GT5. But over the years the cars seem to have been little more than rich men’s toys, apparently doing little for De Tomaso himself other than satisfy the occasional passing whim; they have probably achieved precisely the same for those few who have owned them.
In the early eighties came the news that Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca, who was Dearborn’s top man during the original Ford/De Tomaso alliance, was to give the Italian firm more than two million dollars of MoPar money to design and build a new Pantera-type sports-car to be sold across America in Chrysler and Maserati dealerships. The engine is likely to be based on the 2.2-liter turbo unit currently powering the Varde Charger under the Chrysler race program, into which Iacocca has already incorporated another racetrack pal from the old days, Carroll Shelby. Perhaps with the old team back together the De Tomaso name can produce enough cars to allow ordinary mortals a chance to grab some of the magic.
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De Tomaso Pantera Reviews