The story of DeTomaso sports cars isn't exactly a new one. The notion of a race-car driver turned sports-car manufacturer is hardly a new one -- actually, it seems to be a formula for success. Argentinian Alejandro de Tomaso went from racing cars to building them, with 1966’s DeTomaso Mangusta (“Mongoose” in Italian) as his initial offering.
Combining a proven Ford V-8 engine with bodywork from Ghia’s Giorgio Giugiaro, the DeTomaso Mangusta had power enough to shout down some of its flaws. The handling wasn’t fantastic, though a little cramped, but the Mangusta could really move. And move it did -- both on the road and on the sales floor.
A few years later, the DeTomaso Pantera picked up where the Mangusta left off. Correcting some of the obvious drawbacks of the previous car. The Pantera couldn’t quite keep up momentum, though it fared better in Europe than it did in the United States.
Read on to find out more about DeTomaso’s sometimes-turbulent history, with vehicle profiles and photos, including where you might find a brand-new Pantera of your own.
To learn more about DeTomaso and other sports cars, see:
Alejandro de Tomaso was an Argentinian race-car driver who emigrated to Italy to build competition machines after first settling in the United States, where he married and continued racing for a rime (with his wife). In the 1970s he built DeTomaso Automobili into a small power in the motor industry of his adopted country. Today it owns Maserati and Innocent!, and also builds DeTomaso cars, as well as Benelli and Moto Guzzi motorcycles.
But in the early Sixties, Alejandro was struggling to make the shift from race-car constructor to road-car manufacturer, producing prototypes that always seemed to have a lot of potential but no future. Accordingly, no one took much notice when he revealed a Ford-powered mid-engine coupe in November 1966. Yet this car, the DeTomaso Mangusta, would become his first series-production model, thus laying the foundation for DeTomaso’s future mini auto empire.
The DeTomaso Mangusta (“mongoose” in Italian) wasn’t Alejandro’s first roadgoing sports car. That was the Vallelunga, which appeared in 1964. A smallish open two-seater, it featured a novel “backbone” chassis with all-independent A-arm suspension and a midships-mounted 1.5-liter British Ford four-cylinder engine. Alejandro hoped to sell copies or at least interest a major automaker in production rights, but could do neither.
Then, a turning point. In 1965, DeTomaso persuaded young Giorgio Giugiaro, formerly of Bertone but then working at the house of Ghia, to design a dosed body for the Vallelunga chassis. It attracted attention and Ghia built a few prototypes, only to discover that lack of chassis rigidity around the drivetrain created insoluble vibration problems. This left the Vallelunga stillborn but Alejandro with a valuable contact.
It didn’t take long to pay off. Determined to make his chassis work, DeTomaso decided to try a scaled-up version with a small-block V-8 from Ford Dearborn. American racing specialist Pete Brock designed an open competition body for it with an eye to the 1966 Sebring 12 Hours, but the car never made it to Florida. Again thwarted but still undaunted, Alejandro turned to Ghia for a show car based on this “big” chassis.
Meantime, Giotto Bizzarrini (whose name crops up in connection with Ferrari, Iso, and Lamborghini) had just designed a mid-engine chassis of his own, for which Giugiaro had created shapely coachwork of elegant simplicity. This proposed P538 “Bizzarrini” was never built, but Giugiaro’s styling was applied to DeTomaso’s show car, essentially the DeTomaso Mangusta prototype.
First displayed at the 1966 Turin Show as the Ghia Mangusta, the result was stunning: wide and wickedly sleek, low to the ground, sexy and sophisticated. Happily, nary a line was changed for production. Highlights included a simple grille with two or four headlamps (depending on country of sale), a very wide hood, big cast-alloy wheels hulking beneath aggressively flared fenders, and a fastback tail with a distinctive dorsal rib on which twin engine access covers were hinged gullwing-style.
The DeTomaso Mangusta chassis was a classic example of the mid-engine layout then sweeping the competition scene. The powerful 289-cubic-inch Ford engine, tuned as for the new Shelby-Mustang GT-350, sat longitudinally behind a rather cramped two-seat cockpit and ahead of the rear-wheel centerline, driving through a ZF 5-speed transaxle of the type found in such cars as the Ford GT40 endurance racers. The chassis was still DeTomaso’s pressed-steel backbone affair, with box-section and tubular superstructures carrying engine/transaxle, suspension, steering, and seat mounts.
Some say that this design was influenced by that of Mickey Thompson’s unsuccessful 1964 Indy race car, others that Alejandro had merely mimicked Colin Chapman’s Lotus Elan chassis. Regardless, the DeTomaso Mangusta’s backbone platform was too flexible for the muscular V-8, and the resulting erratic suspension geometry made handling unpredictable. A rearward weight bias -- no less than 68 percent -- hardly helped.
Later, at the suggestion of consultant Gian Paolo Dallara, the talented Lamborghini engineer, DeTomaso tried to compensate by fitting much wider rear tires (225-section versus 185 front), but it wasn’t enough. Ground clearance was very limited and roll center low, but the chassis flex gave the DeTomaso Mangusta a mind of its own: sometimes it understeered, sometimes it oversteered. Needless to say, high-speed driving could be tricky business, especially on slippery surfaces.
Not that this was any great surprise for what was essentially a detuned race car. Which brings up the DeTomaso Mangusta’s other chief failing: lack of practicality. Even for a high-performance GT, it didn’t have nearly enough passenger and luggage space, and outward vision was difficult, especially astern. What it did have, of course, was speed aplenty -- DeTomaso claimed a 155-mph maximum -- plus that gorgeous Giugiaro body and, thanks to the low-cost proprietary drivetrain, a reasonable price: $11,500.
Flawed though it was, the DeTomaso Mangusta was a car Alejandro could sell. His wife gave him the means. Her brother, as it happened, was a director in the American firm of Rowan Controls, and she persuaded him to have Rowan buy not only the DeTomaso factory but Ghia as well. Alejandro soon had 300 orders in hand, and the DeTomaso Mangusta went into production during 1967. By 1971, another 100 or so had been sold in Europe. DeTomaso was on his way at last.
To learn more about DeTomaso and other sports cars, see:
Having made a small start as an automaker with the Mangusta, Alejandro deTomaso turned to a more ambitious project: a mid-engine supercar for the American market, built in unheard-of numbers for an Italian specialist producer. Its name: DeTomaso Pantera.
Revealed at the New York Auto Show in March 1970, the DeTomaso Pantera originated as simply the Mangusta’s replacement, with new bodywork over the same sort of chassis with Ford V-8 power. But DeTomaso knew that Ford was seeking a successor to its roadgoing GT40 for the European market, and an exotic “image car” for its U.S. Lincoln-Mercury dealers to sell alongside the imported Capri.
The DeTomaso Pantera fit both bills, so Alejandro proposed supplying the new model in quantity to Ford for U.S. sale; he’d handle distribution elsewhere. Included was the implication that if the deal worked out well for all concerned, Ford just might be able to buy into Ghia and DeTomaso Automobili, both of which he controlled. Dearborn agreed (and ultimately bought Ghia, in 1974).
Consultant engineer Giampaolo Dallara had given up on the Mangusta chassis, so the DeTomaso Pantera received a newly designed pressed-steel unitized structure (which would cause a lot of pain for restorers in subsequent years). The extra tooling expense was justified by high anticipated U.S. demand, and DeTomaso quickly geared up to build cars by the thousands, not hundreds.
Vignale in Turin was tapped as body supplier, with final assembly to be completed at the DeTomaso factory in Modena. Predictably, the styling assignment was again handed to Ghia, this time to American Tom Tjaarda. The result was more practical than the Mangusta yet just as sleek despite no change to overall length.
Chassis design was much as before, but weight distribution was much more favorable, with a “mere” 58-percent rear bias. So, unequal-size tires were retained: 185-section in front, 215-section rear. Dearborn’s desire for easy servicing and high reliability dictated more standard Ford components, so power was supplied by the H.O. (high-output) version of the American 5.7-liter/351-cubic-inch “Cleveland” V-8, mated to the usual 5-speed ZF transaxle. Horsepower was initially rated at 310 in U.S. form and 330 for European models. Emasculating emissions controls would bring the former down to 250 bhp by 1973.
Though hardly spacious by absolute standards, the DeTomaso Pantera was at least roomier than the Mangusta. Reflecting Ford input, detail engineering was more thorough and professional, equipment more complete. Even air conditioning was included, unusual for a low-volume Latin but necessary to satisfy U.S. buyers. Practicality also dictated more conventional body construction, with a single engine lid, hinged at the cockpit end, instead of the Mangusta’s flamboyant gullwing panels.
The DeTomaso Pantera made quite a splash when it reached the U.S. for model year 1971. The reason was price. At around $10,000, it offered all the panache of a Ferrari or Maserati for far less, plus a rugged, well-known American engine that could be serviced almost anywhere. It even came with Ford’s normal new-car warranty.
A good thing too, because the DeTomaso Pantera was something less than a dream come true. Its Italian style, mid-engine sophistication, and fine handling were undeniable, but so were its cramped cockpit, peculiar driving position, and indifferent workmanship. Worse, complaints about engine overheating and excess cabin heat surfaced early, and performance wasn’t all it should have been, at least in U.S. form.
European models, unfettered by “detox” gear, could beat 160 mph, but American DeTomaso Panteras weren’t nearly as fast. Then too, that simple Yankee iron was hardly a bragging point when everyone knew that real Italian exotics had all-aluminum engines with overhead cams.
Despite DeTomaso’s clever dealing, the DeTomaso Pantera was designed with a curious disregard for pending U.S. safety and emissions standards. An ugly black-rubber nose guard and bigger back bumpers were in place by 1974, but the ’75 standards would have required a major redesign, including a new powerteam.
Ford bean-counters deemed it too costly for the car’s modest sales rate, rendered even more modest by the 1973-74 gas crisis. As a result, U.S. DeTomaso Pantera imports were halted after 1974, though not before Dearborn stylists mocked up a full-size proposal for a rebodied replacement.
Lincoln-Mercury says it sold 6091 DeTomaso Panteras in four years, but some historians -- and cynics -- think this exaggerated. In fact, some sources list the 1971-74 total as only 5629 units.
Regardless, the DeTomaso Pantera carried on for Europe (it proved especially popular in Germany), and is still in production at this writing, albeit at much-reduced levels, no more than 100-150 per year. It’s seen remarkably little change since ’74 apart from a switch to Ford Australia engines (once Dearborn quit offering 351s), higher prices (now near $60,000), and the advent of the bespoilered, “ground effects” GTS model, a reply to the Lamborghini Countach. Interim offerings comprised a “base” L model and the more aggressive-looking GTS.
Unlike most Seventies-car stories, this one has a happy ending for U.S. enthusiasts as DeTomaso Pantera imports have resumed, though on a more limited basis (about 50 units annually) and through private auspices, not Ford’s. The car was recertified in 1981 by two Americans operating under the Panteramerica banner in Santa Monica, California, but distribution has since passed to Stauffer Classics, Ltd. of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.
Thus, you once again can buy a brand-new DeTomaso Pantera, this time with 300 or 350 U.S.-legal horsepower. If that’s not good news, we don’t know what is.