DeTomaso Pantera

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From the May 2004 issue

Posted in Buyer's Guides

Some say the De Tomaso Pantera found its way into Ford dealerships in 1970 because Lee Iacocca wanted a sports car that his dealers could offer to match the Corvette. Certainly, Ford hadn’t had a sports car to attract customers since the earliest Thunderbirds. That would be the business justification for the involvement with De Tomaso/Ghia and the development of the Pantera.

Others say the De Tomaso project took shape out of Henry Ford II’s ego and pride. When Enzo Ferrari imperiously turned down Ford’s buyout offer, “The Deuce” had to prove he could beat the Modena magnate at his own game, so he developed the GT40s to beat him at Le Mans and hooked up with De Tomaso Automobili to beat him on the showroom floor.

Regardless of which interpretation of history you prefer, the fact is that for a brief period from 1971 to 1974, the exotically styled but reasonably affordable Pantera, with a Ford Cleveland V8 stuffed amidships, could be purchased from your local Lincoln-Mercury dealer. And that means that today you can buy a classic Italian supercar at less than muscle car prices, and get most of the mechanical and engine parts for it through Ford restoration specialists.

Argentina, Italy, America

The De Tomaso Pantera made its motoring debut at the New York Auto Show in April 1970. Unlike the other cars on Ford’s turntables, however, the Pantera didn’t make its way to the New York Coliseum through the normal Dearborn product-planning channels.

To find the seed of this bloom, one must go back to Argentina, where Alejandro De Tomaso was born in 1928. De Tomaso got his start in the automobile industry by motor racing in his home country. Fleeing the anti-Peron upheavals in 1955, he made his way to Europe, where he found work as a driver for the Maserati Brothers at OSCA. He also married Isabel Haskell, a wealthy and well-connected American he met while racing in Europe.

De Tomaso wanted to build his own race cars, and having married well, had the wherewithal in 1959 to establish De Tomaso Automobili S.p.A. in northern Italy’s automobile design center around Milano and Modena. To get a more stable financial foundation for her husband’s efforts, De Tomaso’s wife persuaded her brother, a director of the U.S.-based Rowan Controls Inc., to take a financial interest in the company. Subsequently in 1967, Rowan acquired controlling interest in two of Italy’s prominent coachbuilders, Ghia and Vignale, and put De Tomaso in charge of this little Modena empire.

A Marriage Made in Heaven?

De Tomaso’s relationship with Ford first began in 1963, when he developed the Vallelunga, a mid-engined, center-backbone grand touring car, and selected the four-cylinder Ford Cortina engine as its powerplant. Following that, he was approached by Ford and Shelby to develop an Italian body for Shelby’s Cooper-chassis Cobra, though that project never came to fruition, as Shelby chose instead to work with AC Cars instead to create the Shelby Cobra.

The stillborn De Tomaso Shelby chassis was used, instead, as the basis for the Mangusta (Italian for mongoose, the creature known for its cobra-killing abilities). Powered by the Ford small-block Windsor engine and similar to the Vallelunga in that it had a center-backbone tubular chassis, the Mangusta was widely noticed in the automotive press, but its variety of niggling problems made it a source of continuing discontent among most owners.

Nevertheless, with his interest piqued by the Mangusta, Lee Iacocca, head of Ford North America, had Ford’s product planners undertake discussions with De Tomaso about the possibility of De Tomaso designing a new monocoque body, with lines similar to the backbone chassis Mangusta, around the Cleveland big-block V8 engine. At least as early as June 1969, a Mangusta was being wrung out at the Ford test track in Dearborn to lay down specifications for a new automobile.

As is widely known, Henry Ford II had made an unsuccessful bid to buy Ferrari in 1963, and lost again in his attempt to buy Lancia in 1967. Ford Motor Company President Bunkie Knudsen was never much interested in anything Italian, but he was ousted from Ford in August 1969 with Lee Iacocca moving into his place as president. Within weeks, Ford issued a press release announcing an agreement between Ford and the De Tomaso/Ghia/Vignale group for “an exchange of technical services” including the “building of specialty sports cars.”

Concerned about controlling this international relationship, in early 1970, Ford acquired 80 percent interest in Ghia and Vignale from Rowan, and installed Iacocca as chairman of the combined entity. De Tomaso continued as head of his own firm, but soon relinquished his management positions at Ghia and Vignale.

By March 1970, the De Tomaso Pantera was on the Ford stand at the New York Auto Show. While similar in lines and general layout to the Mangusta, the Pantera differed significantly in its structure; it was based on a monocoque pressed-steel chassis rather than the center-backbone structure of the Mangusta. Its engineering was done by Gianpaolo Dallara, whom De Tomaso had lured away from Lamborghini, and the bodies were stamped by Vignale.

Journalists noted that the Pantera’s wedge shape and sleek lines made the Corvette’s design look bloated in comparison, and predicted that they had seen the future of sports cars: dramatic, wedge-shaped styling and true mid-engined engineering.

Although the car exudes Italianate inspiration from every line and opening, it is not completely accurate to refer to the Pantera as an Italian design; the lines were actually penned by Tom Tjaarda, an American working for Ghia and the son of John Tjaarda, designer of the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

The promise of the car wasn’t lost on the press or public. A gorgeous automobile that contrasted dramatically with the overweight American poseurs pretending to be performance cars, with a proven Ford engine, for less than $10,000? What more could an enthusiast want?

Agony Before Ecstasy

Although it was applauded on the New York stands, the Italian-built Pantera was more promise than reality. Only a few display and press models found their way to the U.S. in 1970, and a combination of a slow start-up and dock strikes kept sales to a paltry 130 in 1971. Even in 1972, sales were recorded as 1552 units, which did not meet the target of 2000 per year that Ford was promising in 1970.

Production had been slow to ramp up because of quality problems that needed sorting, but even so, those first thousand or so cars were hardly applauded by their owners. Although they used proven Ford components wherever possible, the first cars sold were little better than prototypes.

With the engine mounted in the rear, engine cooling relied on a complicated system of hoses connecting the remote radiator. The design proved only marginally effective, with the engine easily overheating in traffic.

It wasn’t just the engine that overheated. The air conditioning refused to work on most of the first production cars, interior intake venting only functioned when the air conditioner was running, and no allowance had been made for interior air to escape. Thanks to the huge windshield in front of the driver and passenger, and eight cylinders of engine behind, the cockpit could feel like an inferno on even a moderately warm day.

In appearance, the five-speed manual gearshift looked attractive, with its neat Ferrari-style aluminum gates surrounding the gearshift lever. In practice, with multistage remote linkages between the shift knob and ZF transaxle, shifting was generally a stir-and-pray situation that undermined the value of the excellent ZF transmission. One reviewer noted that more than once he tried to put the car into third gear, only to find the shift lever firmly lodged in the first-gear slot.

The early Panteras were equipped with Michelin X 185x15 radials in front, and 205x15 radials in the rear. The combination offered good performance off the mark, but like other radials of the day on lightweight cars, gave a false sense of security in the early stages of turns. In a tight turn, the car would initially understeer, but given slippery pavement or a driver lifting off the throttle in the middle of the turn, the tires could break free, with the rear-end—carrying 58 percent of the car’s weight—viciously spinning out.

The brakes were also not up to the task of handling the car’s performance. The Pantera under braking had a heavy pedal, quick fade on repeated use and a tendency for the rear end to lock up in panic stops, further exacerbating the car’s tendency to spin out.

Even the ergonomics were challenged. The important portions of the speedo and tach were obscured by the Ford parts-bin steering wheel. A screwdriver was required to remove an exterior panel just to check the oil. The driver sat facing the steering wheel from an angle, and the front wheel wells restricted legroom. To save money, most of the interior, including the dashboard fascia, was trimmed in vinyl, rather than wood or leather. The few “wood” touches were actually plastic veneer.

Nevertheless, the Pantera was certainly an exceptionally attractive design, and for around $11,000 it was probably a better value than the $25,000 supercars that had many of the same quirks and failings.

Road & Track’s conclusion in August 1971, based on testing a Pantera a year after the initial introduction, was that the car was “just another high-priced kit car…One should be resigned to spending a great deal of money trying to make it work, and at the same time not overly hopeful of accomplishing it.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed

Thanks to some serious intervention by Ford engineers and pressure by Lincoln-Mercury dealers, things changed rapidly. Changes in ducting and hose installation, and reworking of the air conditioner system, largely solved both the engine and the interior overheating problems, although flow-through ventilation was still a problem.

The gearshift problems turned out to be mostly adjustment issues, and proper alignment plus a better way of attaching the shift gate largely took care of the issues.

Racing driver Peter Revson, himself part owner of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership, was responsible for testing a variety of alternatives to the original-equipment radial tires. Revson’s experience led to the selection of the Goodyear Arriva H60V15 bias-plies, which dramatically improved handling.

Vented discs replaced the earlier solid units, and larger rear rotors were specified. These changes helped correct, though not completely solve, the brake problems. Even the dipstick got attention: It was replaced with a long, flexible version that could be accessed without unscrewing any panels.

R&T took notice of the improvements in June 1972, noting “The Pantera shows signs of being perfectible,” and congratulating Ford and De Tomaso on the progress that had been made. And Road Test magazine headlined, “After numerous refinements, this Italo-American creation has become the ideal car for the true enthusiast.” Road Test also presented the Pantera with its 1973 Import Car of the Year Award.

1973 also brought less desirable changes: the bumpers had to be modified to meet new DOT regulations. Although the large rubber front bumpers didn’t hurt the Pantera’s looks too badly, the rear bumpers, which consisted of plastic-covered steel pipe mounted on shock absorbers, weren’t attractive. The bumpers added nine inches and at least 100 pounds to the car. Ford softened the blow by promoting the new model as the Pantera L, as in luxury.

By late 1973, the Ford-De Tomaso relationship was eroding rapidly and cars were beginning to back up in inventory. Rather than invest in a new model for 1974, Ford instead introduced the GTS upgrade package for the 1974 model year. This included bigger tires, pop-riveted fender flares, and splashy rocker panel graphics. Lincoln-Mercury promoted the cars as “Pantera designed by Ghia” in their 1974 brochure; De Tomaso wasn’t even mentioned.

The ploy failed, however, and fewer than 100 of the GTS model (denoted by the letters “GT” in the VIN) were built and sold. The silver car pictured here, owned by Mitch Mentor, is an example of one of these 1974 GTS models.

The package made a car designed for the driver who wanted to be noticed even more obvious in its appearance. Unfortunately, flares and eye-catching graphics did little to address the Pantera’s remaining problems. Car and Driver commented: “While all its beholders were ardently wishing they were in the driver’s seat, the driver was usually wishing with equal fervor that he was not.”

Life After Divorce

Despite the improvements they had made, neither Ford nor De Tomaso was happy with the situation, made worse by the oil crisis and runaway inflation that weakened the dollar, thereby pushing costs up and profits down. In response to the turmoil, De Tomaso, always known for his inability to concentrate on any project for long, walked away from the arrangement.

Blaming Iacocca for the problems, Henry Ford II took a hike in the other direction. By the end of 1974, Ford stopped importing the Pantera, although a few dealers sold cars on hand into 1975.

In total, Lincoln-Mercury claimed to have sold 6091 cars between 1971 and 1974, though industry sources of the time place the number much lower, at 5233. According to these sources, only 130 cars were sold in 1971, 1552 in 1972, 1831 in 1973, 1230 in 1974 and 490 leftovers in 1975.

In the aftermath, it emerged that De Tomaso had only given Ford rights to the name in the U.S., retaining his corporate identity and rights to continue manufacturing the Pantera outside the U.S. A European-specification Pantera GTS was introduced in 1975 using the last of the Ford Cleveland engines. De Tomaso Automobili continued to produce about 20 Panteras a year through 1980, eventually sourcing their engines from Ford of Australia when they could no longer get Cleveland engines.

In 1981, the Pantera made a comeback of sorts in the U.S. through Panteramerica, a small U.S. importer. Production ramped up to 70 to 80 units a year; during that time, a few GT5 models were produced, with race-based modifications, followed by the GT5-S, with an optional rear-mounted wing. (Both variants are highly prized today, though many flaky fakes do exist.) However, even this limited production proved unsupportable. With U.S. sales disappointing, the Panteramerica arrangement ended in 1989, though De Tomaso continued building the car into 1994.

The De Tomaso Automobili company also pursued a variety of other interests during that period, acquiring the Benelli and Moto Guzzi motorcycle companies, and even taking over Maserati at one point before selling it to Fiat.

Though Alejandro died in 2003, the company he founded in Modena still exists today. De Tomaso Modena S.p.A. continues to carry out high-quality restorations on Vallelungas, Mangustas and Panteras, supplies parts to the few thousand Pantera enthusiasts who still maintain the marque, and is even building a car called the Guara.

The De Tomaso plant, with its small museum, is worth a visit in Modena. The visitor may even be offered an espresso from the friendly staff members while they reminisce over those few exciting years in the early 1970s, when the Pantera seemed to signal a new era of mid-engined sports cars for the road.

Owning a Pantera Today

With a maximum of 6091 cars produced during the 1971-’74 time frame, finding a Pantera isn’t easy, but they are available and aren’t all that expensive. Enthusiasts say the search will be worthwhile, because unlike other supercars with similar styling and performance, this Italian steed with its Cleveland heart isn’t expensive to buy or maintain.

Typical prices will range from $25,000 to $40,000, depending on condition and the quality of improvements. The tight-knit owner community has largely solved the variety of problems that beset the breed when it was originally marketed. For example, the addition of larger, wider wheels with lower-profile tires and a decent set of Wilwood or Brembo brakes—as found on the red example owned by Floridian Bill Berman shown in our pictures—dramatically improves handling.

Berman has installed 17-inch wheels on his Pantera, fitted with low-profile Bridgestone Potenza RE71 245/40ZR17 tires in front and impressive 315/35ZR17 tires in the rear. Even with the low-profile tires, he says the ride is comfortable, though he acknowledges that at speeds much over 110 mph (“closed course, professional driver,” of course) with the wide front tires, front-end handling gets a little squirrelly.

Not that the limited top end matters much. Berman reports that in the passing range, from 50 to 90 mph, this car’s combination of high torque and light weight make excursions into the passing lane a matter of pull the trigger and hang on.

Other fixes most owners like Berman have installed on their cars include an aluminum radiator, better hoses and heavy-duty fans. These solve the engine-overheating problem and reduce cockpit heat as well. Working the other half of the problem, installation of a decent rotary compressor improves air-conditioning efficiency, while air outlets installed in the doors provide the flow-through ventilation lacking in the original design.

Berman professes not to notice the slight angle at which the driver is positioned relative to the steering wheel and pedals, something he says one becomes used to in short order, although he did replace the seats with a set he found in a burned-out Ferrari 308. They turned out to be a bolt-in replacement, suggesting that they had originally come from the same supplier.

Interestingly, Berman’s car wasn’t originally sold in the U.S., but is one of the Euro-spec GTS models sold in Europe in 1975. The distinguishing features are, in fact, few, with the interior and powertrain the same as sold in the U.S. in 1974. However, one notable difference in the Euro-spec cars is that the bumpers are the same as those used through 1972 in the U.S., before the Federal safety mandates were issued. Berman acknowledges that one therefore wouldn’t want to leave this car in a parallel-parking place where park-by-Braille drivers could inflict expensive damage in very short order.

When Berman found his car, the owner had disassembled it, then subsequently lost interest or nerve—or both. It took six years for Bill to put it back in running order. He wouldn’t necessarily recommend the experience to others, unless they enjoy the kit-car-with-no-instructions experience. He suggests instead that a prospective buyer look for a good running example.

Buying a Pantera

Pantera owners are different from owners of many other classic cars. Perhaps because continuous upgrades were part of the original four-year base period, modifications are a way of life for these owners. The attitude is that improving the breed is what it’s been all about since the beginning.

A well-modified car—with the improvements needed for reliability, comfort and performance already made—may even fetch a better price than a similar-condition example restored to original specifications.

Because of the limited numbers of these cars produced, it is important that the prospective buyer have a Pantera specialist help with the evaluation. The two Pantera clubs are very active, with chapters all over the U.S. and members are always happy to help a new enthusiast find a good Pantera.

Anyone looking at a Pantera for purchase today should be cautious about the condition of the underlying car. This was, after all, a monocoque car built from Italian steel, which means rust is very probable, and serious rust can undermine the structural integrity of the car.

The ZF transaxle is a particularly critical component. While these are generally bulletproof, they can be challenging to service and expensive to replace.

Once a car has passed the tests of quality of modifications and condition of the underlying body, the buyer should check the title with care. If a car wasn’t one of those sold legally in the United States between 1971 and 1974, it may not meet U.S. DOT and EPA regulations, and its legality might be challenged in some states.

In particular, cars sold during the gray-market period should be considered carefully, depending on the buyer’s home state. The few cars imported by Panteramerica may be legal in many states, as they were originally imported legally into the U.S., but it still may not be possible to register them in states such as California if they can’t meet current emissions standards.

Even with all these caveats, owners such as Bill Berman and Mitch Mentor are more than enthusiastic about their fierce jungle cats. Despite the well-known quirks, their elegant looks, practical engines, fantastic performance even by today’s standards—and the guarantee that similar cars won’t be seen around every corner—make the Pantera a desirable acquisition for the right enthusiast.

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