Blogs at Amazon

« Old Iron and Inadvertent Documentar | Main | Face Off--BMW M3 (E30) vs. Mercedes »

De Tomaso Pantera

I don't know about you, but I've always had a bit of car lust for mid-engined Italian sports cars. You know the kind: the low, swoopy, wicked cool Hot Wheels car in 12-inches-to-the-foot scale that accelerates like a surface to air missile and corners like nobody's business. A car like the Maserati Bora or the Ferrari 308 or the Lamborghini Miura. Sure, it'd be hideously expensive and maintenance-intensive, but a car like that out-cools everything else on the road and gets you noticed, baby! What could possibly be better than one of those?

How about a low, swoopy, wicked cool mid-engined Italian sports car that you can actually get parts for? One that any neighborhood corner gas station could fix.

There really once was such a thing:

It was called the De Tomaso Pantera.

Argentine race driver Alejandro de Tomaso emigrated to Italy in 1955, after getting on the wrong side of dictator Juan Perón. He settled in Modena and married a wealthy American, Isabelle Haskell, who was a race driver herself. In 1959, he founded De Tomaso Automobili SpA and went into the business of building prototypes and race cars.

One of those prototypes, the mid-engined Vallelunga two-seater, became de Tomaso's first production road car. Powered by the 104 HP four-cylinder Ford "Kent" engine (which Lotus was using in the Elan), the 1,600-pound Vallelunga had a Lotus-style "backbone" chassis and tidy, attractive styling--sort of a Ferrari 275 pastiche with a touch of Porsche 911 and a dash of E-type Jaguar. A little over fifty were built from 1964 to 1968.

De Tomaso re-engineered the Vallelunga chassis to take a Ford small-block V-8 and draped it in don't-mess-with-me bodywork designed by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro to create the Mangusta (Mongoose). With a curb weight of only 2,600 pounds and as much as 306 ponies under the gull-winged engine hatch, the Mangusta had a top speed around 155. 401 Mangusti were built from 1967 to 1971, of which about 120 survive.

Meanwhile, in far-away Dearborn, Mich., the Ford Motor Company was looking for an Italian sports car. Henry Ford II had a long-time dream of getting Ford into the European motorsports and sports car scene. Ford came close to buying Ferrari in 1963, but Enzo Ferrari backed away from the deal at the last minute. In response, an enraged "Henry the Deuce" directed Ford's motorsports operation to jump into endurance racing with both feet, with the stated goal of beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Ford's anti-Ferrari vengeance weapon was the GT40, the legendary mid-engined race car which took the top three spots at Le Mans in 1967.

Henry Ford also wanted to out-Ferrari Ferrari off the racetrack by offering high-end performance cars in his company's showrooms. This led Ford to acquire Italian design house and coach-builder Ghia, and to enter into talks with De Tomaso about producing specialty and niche vehicles in cooperation with Ghia which would be sold through Ford's dealer network. The Ford people liked the Mangusta's basic concept and good looks, but not its engineering. (The Mangusta's fore-aft weight distribution was less than ideal, and the car suffered from a lack of structural stiffness, making speed runs on squiggly roads a little bit of a tricky proposition.) De Tomaso showed them the drawings and models for the Mangusta's planned successor, to be built using unibody construction for better stiffness. It was called "Pantera," the Italian word for "panther."

The styling by Tom Tjaarda, an American designer working at Ghia, was sleek and sexy, yet tastefully understated. In an age where mainstream automotive styling was trending alarmingly toward bling-happy rococo excess, the Pantera stood athwart history, yelling "Stop!" It looked fast and aggressive and expensive, but it got its point across with clean, simple lines--and without trick doors, excessive fender flares, or overstated air scoops.

The chassis was engineered under the direction of Gian Paolo Dallara, who was hired away from Lamborghini for the Pantera project. In the engine bay was a Ford 351 "Cleveland" V-8--specifically, the high-compression "M-code" version with a four-barrel carburetor. This was the same 300-horsepower engine that was optional in the "Mach 1" Mustang. It was mated to a 5-speed ZF transaxle, the same unit used in the Mangusta and the Maserati Bora. This combination was smoking hot, good for a 0-60 time of 5.5 seconds, a 13-second quarter mile, and a 150-mph top speed. Like any good mid-engined sports car, it had a fully-independent suspension and handled the corners just as well as it did the straightaways.

This was the car that Ford was looking for, and it was quickly approved for production. Ford would market the Pantera in North America, while De Tomaso retained the right to sell it in Europe. While the plant was tooling up for assembly line production, a few hundred hand-built examples were assembled at Carrozzeria Vignale in 1970-71, of which as many as 97 made it to the U.S. These had a different door latch than the mass-produced cars, and are known in De Tomaso fandom as the "push-button Panteras."

Full production began in April of 1971, and the first U.S.-spec Panteras arrived at Lincoln-Mercury dealers later that year. The sticker price was "around $10,000," which was about a grand more than the most expensive Lincoln on the lot (a fully optioned-up Continental Mark III) and equates to something well north of fifty thousand of today's dollars. While that's a wallet-crippling sum of money by any measure, it's much less than a Ferrari, Maserati, or Lamborghini went for in those days. The Pantera had a performance envelope that was as good as those competitors, and it had a secret weapon of sorts in the engine bay. Unlike a Ferrari or Lambo, the Pantera had a mass-production Yankee V-8. Any Ford or Lincoln-Mercury dealer could get parts for it; any competent mechanic anywhere on the fruited plains of North America could fix it if the need arose.

As the project got underway, De Tomaso talked enthusiastically about producing as many as 10,000 Panteras a year. In a just and rational world, this would have happened; the Pantera, with its muscle-car powertrain, race car suspension, and exotic looks, would have become a legend on the back roads and dragstrips. Panteras would have shown up in product-placement deals on Charlie's Angels and Hawaii Five-O; the Beach Boys would have written surf-rock ballads about them. GM and Chrysler and maybe even AMC would have rushed out their own mid-engined sports cars. The 1970s would have been a golden age of sophisticated high performance.

We do not live in a just and rational world.

The first problem was with component supply. ZF couldn't provide De Tomaso with 10,000 transaxles a year, or even 5,000; they didn't have the production capacity. The best they could do was 2,100 per year. The ZF supply situation became the limiting factor for Pantera production.

Those early mass-produced Panteras also suffered from assembly quality issues. Now, admittedly, this is the 1970s we're talking about, when more than a few manufacturers had assembly quality issues--something Italian car builders were particularly known for. ("Fix It Again, Tony!"). In De Tomaso's case, the situation was made worse because the company had no prior experience running an assembly line, much less managing quality control on one. Some of those first Panteras had fit-and-finish and reliability issues that made a mockery of their sticker price. Elvis Presley bought one--it must have looked out of place sitting in the Graceland garage next to the Stutz Blackhawk and the Rolls Royce Phantom--and The King was so frustrated by the Pantera's propensity to stall at odd moments that on one occasion he pulled out a gun and shot it! (The Pantera recovered from its wounds and survives in a private collection, still bearing a bullet hole in the steering wheel.)

De Tomaso eventually got the build quality issues more or less under control. In 1972, the design of the U.S.-spec Pantera changed in response to federal safety and emissions standards, as well as Ford's discontinuance of the M-code 351. The revised version was called the Pantera L, with the "L" standing for "Lusso" (luxury). Pantera L's had black 5 MPH bumpers, a redesigned instrument panel, a slightly nicer level of interior trim, and a smog-controlled 248-horsepower version of the 351 Cleveland. Panteras that came before were retroactively nicknamed the "Pre-L."

In Europe, De Tomaso sold a more aggressive variation dubbed the Pantera GTS. Enthusiasts lobbied Ford to bring the GTS to the United States. Rather than import the more ferocious breed of cat, Ford cheated: it had De Tomaso stick the European GTS graphics on Pantera Ls and changed the name to "Pantera GTS."

By this time, increasingly stringent emissions controls were taking away the Pantera's edge, and high insurance rates were making high-performance cars expensive to own (and pretty much killing the market for American muscle cars). The 1973 oil price shock was the final blow; sales dried up and Ford ended the importation of Panteras at the beginning of 1975, having sold about 5,500 in four years--but less than 500 of those in 1974.

The Pantera continued in production until 1993 as a hand-built specialty car for the European market. Several came from the factory as purpose-built Group 3 and Group 4 racers. A small number sneaked into the U.S. in the 1980s via "gray-market" importers. Later-model European Panteras included the GT5, which was tricked out with air dams, fender flares, and a Countach-wanabee rear wing. Though nowhere near as overdone as the Lambo it was imitating, the GT5 still looked like some mad scientist had taken a perfectly good Pantera and clubbed it senseless with a J.C. Whitney catalog. I prefer the cleaner look of the original.

So, have I whetted your Pantera lust? Do you want one of your own? You do? Well, let me tell you, there's bad news and good news.

The bad news is that a well-restored Pantera can run you well into the upper range of five figures. Unrestored cars can have serious corrosion problems, thanks to moisture traps in the unibody and the infamous metallurgical properties of 1970s Italian steel. Be prepared for a lot of patching and welding.

The good news is that, once fixed up, Panteras are relatively easy to maintain. Like so many others with an affection for rare-bird cars, Pantera owners and forum participants are generous with their technical knowledge. The 351 Cleveland itself is a sturdy and straightforward engine, and fixes and work-arounds have been developed for the Pantera's few other mechanical issues. All of the aftermarket parts that the muscle car community has developed for the Cleveland engine will work just as well in your Pantera as in your neighbor's Mustang Mach 1. Indeed, it seems most surviving Panteras are at least a little bit hotted-up from stock.

So if you've got the time and skill to patch one up--or the cash to get one that's already been restored--a Pantera can make for a very livable, user-friendly, badass-wicked exotic sports car. Tom Tjaarda's styling doesn't look forty years old. It's as fresh today as it was back then, and it'll still get you noticed.

Of course, there's good and bad kinds of "noticed."

Let's be careful out there.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The red Pantera at the top of this article was photographed by Flickr user Have Fun SVO. The publicity shot of Alejandro de Tomaso himself with a Pantera at Ford headquarters comes from the De Tomaso Internet Community website, which also supplied the pictures of the black Pantera L and the white GT5. The blue '72 belongs to Matt Merritt; the photo came from the gallery pages at The Pantera Place. The last shot is of a Pre-L owned by Pantera International Car Club member Will Demelo; we hope for his sake that the photo was staged.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00e54ed05fc2883301347fc2c317970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference De Tomaso Pantera:

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

As a wall poster all-star and a car at which people would exclaim, "Dude! Awesome Pantera!" I have to admit that the Pantera used to annoy me as the kind of Italian sports car beloved by the meatheads at my junior-high school.

Time has erased that impression, though, and now I find myself entranced by the Pantera's designer 1970s Italian lines. It's got a little bit of Lambo Miura to it, and a little bit of Fiat X1/9, and anything that combines both is just fine with me.

Pragmatically, the fact that the Pantera uses a muscle car engine is a huge win, and I'm sure it gives a torquier and stronger thrust than most engines of the era. But--and maybe it's just the romantic in me--getting a high-end 1970s Italian exotic without 12 cylinders, four overhead camshafts, and multiple finicky carburetors just feels like cheating.

I recall these while in high school...would occasionally see one in the Lincoln-Mercury dealer showroom.
Sadly, $10,000 was a huge amount of money...my dad bought a loaded LTD hardtop for about $4500 in 1969 and a few years later I'd buy a nice Mustang II for about $3100...So 10K wasn't chump change.
But to put it in persective, $10,000 was only (about) twice the cost of a well-equipped family sedan.

That would be like getting a Ferrari-type car for $60-75,000 today.
Doesn't seem like too bad a deal in retrospect.

Absolutely gorgeous. Lust is too weak a word in this case.

Conceptually, this sounds somewhat similar to the modern-day Corvette or the Dodge Viper - major American car maker decides to create a supercar and leverages existing equipment to make it comparably affordable, but puts enough effort and time in to make sure it's not just badge engineering. It's a great formula, though volume never seems to be quite as high as the manufacturer would like, and execution is never quite as great as everyone else originally hoped. That said, it still looks like an amazing car, especially given the time period it came from.

It's still no Shelby Omni, though. Now there's an American-born, European-bred car to lust after!

I saw one once - it was pretty bad-ass.

This post is very timely as Pantera lust has consumed me for the past month. The latest issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car features a beautiful electric blue Pantera as their cover feature car this month. They did a great job of building up my want for one. Then I headed to the Easter classic car show in town a couple weeks ago and there were 3 Panteras in attendance, all in top condition. A red one, white one, AND one in the flesh in that beautiful blue. I was drooling severely. A DeTomaso Mangusta frequents the local summer European auto show as well, talk about a show stealer!

...a ubiquitous high-performance drivetrain in a handbuilt mid-engined chassis is a wonderful recipe which makes niche exotica affordable to mere mortals; most people are dumbfounded when i explain that not only did i pay less for my used elise than a well-appointed honda civic, but that its ongoing maintainance is only about a quarter what my brand-new turbobeetle cost every year for a decade...

...the pantera is a fantastic car!..i absolutely love not only the recipe, but its particular well-seasoned character which i'll beg to differ *doesn't* look modern, but rather the artifact of a very specific aesthetic approach to a very specific time and place...that it wasn't a resounding success works in the pantera's favor, i think - it just oozes character and not many people even know what it is when they see one...

...one of my first spontaneous sunday afternoon drives soon after buying my elise, i stumbled upon a yellow pantera about three cars ahead as we approached a local freeway on-ramp, and within moments both of us darted ahead through traffic enjoying a spirited cat-and-mouse jaunt at pace before being joined by a GT-40 of all things a few minutes later...serendipitous encounters like that are priceless, far more invigorating than scheduled drives or cruise-ins, and it was obvious that the pantera owner had spent many, many leisure weekends in intimate rapport with his car...

...i don't think car lust gets any better than that...

I love the looks of the Pantera and the concept of an Italian-built American-engined gorgeous mid engined car. Other than Elvis, I have not heard much of a reaction to actuallydriving these cars. Does anybody know whether the Pantera is actually a good car?

Yes, the "Kill Bill" car is a Mangusta, a De Tomaso Mangusta, and the Pantera is a De Tomaso Pantera.

I used to commute long distances through the mountains on a motorcycle, and one drive I will never forget is following a pantera over the Santa Cruz mountains. Never before, nor since, have I had trouble keeping up with a car. This thing could fly. It had obviously been breathed on by a performance shop, because on downshifts I could see the flames lighting up the inside of the headers while I was riding behind the beast.
Truly awesome.
Now I want a mid-life crisis, just so I can get one.

I wonder if the wing on the GT5 versions are more functional than the Countach's...

It's interesting that you picked the AMX/II instead of the AMX/III as AMC's example...the AMX/III was so frustratingly close to being produced (kind of like an expert stripper, yar).

Apparently some dude was trying to start producing a replica of it a while back as Sciabola Inc a while back. I have no idea what's going on with it now.

When I was in the military in the early '70s, a civilian contractor I worked with had a red Pantera. Rode with him in it a few times. It really could go and appeared to handle quite well. He was showing off a bit the first time out and nearly got us killed. I still remember the sounds that engine made when it was winding up...right there at your elbow.

At the time the car seemed to me to be incredibly good looking. It still does. Doesn't look at all dated. I had forgotten that it had a Ford V8.

The automotive writer Ken Purdy (among other things, auto editor for Playboy) campaigned for this kind of car for 20 years. He road-tested a Pantera, wrote a glowing review that stated there would never be another like it, and shot himself. His end reminds me of Fred Astaire's role in "On The Beach."

Great piece. I didn't know the whole story behind the Pantera. Now I have another car after which to lust - thanks!

I see one parked occasionally in the lot of a nearby golf club. Next time it's there I'm going to take a much closer look.

Really prefer the mangusta to the pantera. That said, both were pretty cool.

I remember the switchgear and gauges being similar to the CaPRI at the time. And not tons more money than a vette and less than a 911S back then

The Pantera is a car you can live with,
It dosnt have to have it's cam bearing's, or belt's changed like alot of TR's and 308, 328's Ive seen, at low mileage,
the engine Is one of the best in the business, and the overall design is clean, simple and timelsss,

First one I saw of these was a white one in Huntington Woods MI (a rather small suburb N. of Detroit. That was in 1969 (my then girl friend and I were in her 1969 Camaro SS, orange with black rally stripes-- gee, wonder how much would be worth now?) She said she thought the driver was a manager of a car dealership that her Dad knew. I saw it several more times, and being an art director at the time, really loved the lines of that car!

The Pantera is a FANTASTIC car! I know; I have one. It combines sexy Italian styling with the power and reliability of the Ford 351C. It's fast, it corners like it's on rails, it's comfortable, and it's practical. Practical? Yes, practical; it has a 9 cubic foot trunk in back which can accommodate all of my wife's luggage for a weekend away. Or, I can toss my gym bag, lap top and a set of golf clubs back there to get 9 holes in before going to work. Interestingly, a couple mornings I had a late model Porsche (993 or 996) and a Ferrari 360 park next to me at the course and they were thoroughly impressed that I could put my clubs in the back trunk along with all my other stuff while they were sliding their clubs into the passenger seat. I can actually fit two sets of clubs in there!

It's also a comfortable car to take on road trips. I've made several 5-7 hour trips to SoCal and find the car just hits its stride at freeway speeds - a comfortable ride, effortless to drive, and endless power to pass slow-moving minivans or semi trucks going over Cuesta Grade (101) or the Grapevine (I5).

And one of the best aspects of Pantera ownership is the friends you make. The Pantera community is a very tight knit group of genuinely good people who are down to Earth and always willing to help one another out. For the most part, it’s not a pretentious logo-flaunting crowd trying to show off their status. It’s mostly just a bunch of gearheads and genuine enthusiasts who love to drive their cars. Vendor support for the Pantera is superb too. There are a good number of Pantera vendors who stock parts – there are very few obsolete parts – and who have developed improvements for any original shortcomings (e.g. the perpetual ‘overheating’ myth).

Anyway, it's a beautiful yet practical car with excellent parts availability, easily serviceable, and it's a blast to drive!

To learn more about the Pantera, check out http://www.poca.com/

As for the AMX/3 replica that's being produced, here's more info: http://www.amx390.com/

You write, "... the GT5 still looked like some mad scientist had taken a perfectly good Pantera and clubbed it senseless with a J.C. Whitney catalog. I prefer the cleaner look of the original."

I agree the Tom Tjaarda original design was clean, elegant and timeless. Tjaarda himself would reportedly agree with you to some degree on your assessment of the aesthetics of the later cars. However, I suspect that just as many people would disagree with you. I, for one, was absolutely taken with the GT5 when I first saw one as a young man. I was sufficiently struck by its low, wide and aggressive stance that it immediately became my dream car, a dream that never varied until I was finally able to acquire one.

The early Panteras are indisputably pretty, but the GT5 is about as mean looking a car that was ever conceived and put on the road. Drive one down your street, and every pedestrian's and fellow driver's head will turn. The car is stunning but not to the point of being outrageous like the Countach. It's also faster and much more liveable than the Countach.

As Car and Driver magazine wrote when reviewing the GT5 in their August 1984 edition, "This here ain't no Little Bo-Peep car. It's no breathless blue-blood bunny banger for tripping ever so daintily down the lane. This is a car for kicking ass. It makes you feel tough. It makes you drive tough. It makes you look tough in the eyes of the world. And if you can drive it well when calling on its prodigious speed, you ARE tough!"

The GT5 is a different kind of beauty, but a beauty nonetheless. You just have to ask yourself whether you would rather marry a ballerina or date a really hot hooker. It's a self-defining question, isn't it?

Garth & Peter:

Thanks very much for stopping by and sharing with us your experiences as Pantera owners.

Peter, I hope you do not take my comments on the GT5 too harshly. Whether you prefer the original Pantera or the more dressed-up versions is purely one of personal taste. I tend to prefer cars that look clean and understated. Your tastes are obviously different, and if you prefer the GT5, at the end of the day it's your ride and that's what matters.

I've no doubt that a Pantera of either flavor is an absolute joy to drive. May you both have many thousands more miles with your Panteras.

A friend of mine has a yellow Mangusta, and it is such an amazing car! Sure the handling can be a bit wild, but that car absolutely flies! I personally think it looks better than the pantera as well; but they are both gorgeous.

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

Powered by Rollyo

Car Lust™ Contributors

November 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
            1
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30