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.
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.