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.