Amazing… the exotic and beautiful DeTomaso Pantera is now thirty-five years old. Yes, the very first of these great cars were shipped to Lincoln-Mercury showrooms thirty-five years ago as 1971 models.
The DeTomaso Pantera was a new sort of vehicle for its time; an exotic car for the “common man.” Before the Pantera, if you wanted to go fast, say, above 140 mph, you either had a raw-boned Detroit muscle car, like a 427 Corvette or a Hemi Cuda, or you had a full-on exotic, like a Ferrari with a V12 or a Maserati Bora with its quad-cam V8. There were sporadic attempts at other Anglo-American hybrids, most notably the Apollo and later, the Iso Grifos and Bizzarrinis, but their production was disappointingly small, and they barely achieved U.S. distribution before they disappeared off the car map.
Origins of the Pantera
The Pantera came about in a convoluted way. The Ford Motor Company had as its chairman Henry Ford II, who while not a car enthusiast per se, knew that racing put a company on the map. He backed Ford in endurance racing by funding the creation of the iconic Ford GT40, the car that won LeMans four times running. There was a brief attempt to make a road version but the racecar just wasn’t that amenable to attempts at civilizing.
In 1969, the same year that a Ford GT40 won its last victory at LeMans for the Ford marque, Alejandro DeTomaso, an Argentine race driver building cars in Italy, was selling his svelte mid-engined classic, the Mangusta, in America through British Motor Car Distributors. The Mangusta had styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro, who had been the head designer at Ghia for a short period, and even today turns heads, some 40 years after it was unveiled. This was DeTomaso’s second production mid-engine car; his first one being the Vallelunga, a small fiberglass bodied coupe with a spine frame and a Ford four-cylinder engine.
Ford’s design chief fell in love with the Mangusta and bought one, and Henry Ford II briefly entertained the thought of having Ford import it, now that the Shelby Cobras had ceased to be the star of Ford showrooms. But after sending a team of evaluators to Ghia, the coachbuilders building the Mangustas, they decided not to import it because of the old-fashioned manufacturing methods.
However, DeTomaso was still eager to work with Ford, and before the Ford minions could leave Italy, he unveiled plans for another car—one that could be built by an assembly line rather than by hand, as was the Mangusta. It was first known as the “DeTomaso 351”. The car was designed by an American designer, Tom Tjaarda, who had taken over the Ghia design studio when Giugiaro left to start his own firm (the celebrated Italdesign). Tjaarda’s original design for the DeTomaso 351 was a bold, original statement: a needle-nosed body, with hidden headlamps that had a strong beveled-edge character line on the side, and a “tunnel back” rear window, flanked by very thick-looking tapered sail panels. The design met with preliminary approval and the car went from 1/5th scale models to a full-size clay model and then into production within a few months. Fast turn-around, especially considering the period.
The engine chosen for the DeTomaso car was an off-the-shelf 351C Ford; the high-revving free-breathing small block that Ford sold in performance Mustangs. Somewhere along the way, DeTomaso’s creation was renamed the “Pantera”, Italian for panther. When put into the more aerodynamic low-slung Pantera, the engine achieved a lot more than it had when housed in a Mustang; even a bone-stock Pantera could do 145 mph. With a few changes in the intake manifold, carburetor and exhausts, the Pantera can reach 175 mph, while specially tuned ones have broken 200 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Ford Motor Company not only made a deal with DeTomaso to import the Pantera, which they sold through their Lincoln Mercury Division, they also made a deal to buy Ghia Carrozzeria, the coachbuilder which DeTomaso owned. Although Ford put the Ghia badge on the side of the Pantera, to indicate the car was designed at Ghia, it was actually built at Vignale, a more obscure coachbuilder.
The most significant mechanical part of the Pantera was the ZF transaxle, made in Germany. This was a near descendant of the transaxle used in the Ford GT40 (the Mangusta’s ZF was turned upside down).
The Pantera had a unitized body shell that was much more rigid than the Mangusta’s spine frame. All of the body panels were steel, which made the cars a tad heavier than equivalent Ferraris of the day; but, on the other hand, the bodywork is less easily dented than if they were aluminum.
Real Race Cars
DeTomaso Automobili was an unusual automaker in that not only was Alejandro DeTomaso, the founder of the firm, a racer, but so was his wife, the American born Isabelle Haskell. Both had raced at LeMans. For a time, the two were virtually OSCA test drivers in Modena, working for the firm started by the Maserati brothers.
The Mangusta was never a racecar, at least according to the factory. However, when the Pantera was in production, some small budget was devoted to making a Gruppe 4 version and it is believed that 16 were built. Fettling the cars was a British engineer named Michael Parkes, who had been a factory Formula One racer before a big crash ended his Formula driving career. After he developed the Group 4, he competed in it in several events.
Alas, just as American mechanics are sometimes befuddled by European-made exotic engines, the 351C was a strange beast in Europe and during the short competition career of the DeTomaso Panteras, no European mechanic was able to build a reliable engine to take the strain of a demanding event like the 24 Hours of LeMans. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that Pantera teams were out there trying, several years in a row. So, unlike most of the Italian-American hybrids (like the Intermeccanica Italias or Monteverdis), the Panteras were “bloodied in combat” and there were genuine factory race cars, documented right down to the inspector’s stamps from the racetracks that they raced at. This “competition heritage” gives the Pantera owners something to be proud of, even if major victories at events like LeMans or Daytona always eluded them.
Ford and DeTomaso Part Ways
The Ford-DeTomaso association did not last long, it was just too good to last. Soon Ford no longer had any association with the firm, ending importation of the Pantera with the 1974 model year. Due to a (cleverly inserted) clause in the contract, DeTomaso was allowed to continue making Panteras and sell them to the rest of the world, even after Ford decamped, and would periodically introduce a new variation. Other models that followed the U.S. spec Pantera included the GT-5 that had bolted-on fiberglass fender flares, wider wheels and tires, a wing on the back, plus a wood-clad dashboard and supple “pre-wrinkled” leather interior. Following the GT-5 was the more svelte GT5-S. This variation featured the rear fender flares incorporated into the full body shape as well as generously arched front fenders; and, again, the wing on the rear deck.
Very late in the Pantera’s history, Marcello Gandini (credited with designing the Lamborghni Miura and Countach) did a “warm-over” of the basic Pantera, adding a different nose, a different tail, a vented hood and a rather odd spoiler below the windscreen as well as an F40 “basket handle” type spoiler at the rear. Only a few dozen of these were made. The rarest Pantera of them all is the Targa model, which was factory authorized though converted at Pavesi, an Italian firm known for making limited editions of special cars. At least twenty have been made, offering open air motoring in a mid-engined V8 powered car.
The Pantera has persisted in popularity for over 35 years, unlike a lot of other exotic cars that have a brief moment in the sun and then just fade away. This popularity can be attributed to a number of reasons. One is the Pantera’s ease of maintenance and readily available parts. Unlike a lot of exotics, the parts are plentiful for the engine, because Ford built hundreds of thousands of 351C engines. And, the enthusiasts’ clubs, such as Pantera International, have provided an immense amount of support in keeping these vehicles on the road.
Another reason why Panteras continue to be popular is that they are a true “Everyman’s Development Vehicle”. Ferrari fans would faint dead away if they encountered a customized Ferrari Daytona, but in the DeTomaso world, it is not uncommon to find a Pantera owner who has added another 100 horsepower to his engine, replaced the stock wheels with taller/wider ones, changed the wheel-well flaring and so on. Pantera owners know that it is not a “cardinal sin” to modify and create their own dream car. Part of this attractive ability to modify is the fact that Pantera engines can be modified to your heart’s content; but don’t try that on your 2005 Ford GT, or the Smog Police will be at your door!
And yet another reason is the superior driving dynamics that are available at a relatively low price. What other exotic car can you take to the racetrack and run against Ferraris and Porsches costing three to four times more than the Pantera and be very competitive? Upgraded Panteras can be competitive with cars made decades later, as witnessed by their showing at open road race events, such as Silver State (where more than ten Panteras entered, and ran hard, leaving in their dust newer cars beset with electronic and computer problems caused by the increasing complexity of modern cars).
The Pantera As a Survivor
The Pantera, alas, has now joined that legion of cars that have out-lived the firm that built them. DeTomaso Modena declared bankruptcy in 2004 as a result of entering into an ill-fated development project to build SUVs for Russia. The Pantera had been discontinued a few years earlier, but the firm was doing well with production of a modern up-to-date mid-engined car dubbed the “Guara”. Just a few years prior, they had built the new front-engined “Mangusta” for Kjell Qvale’s British Motor Car importers. That car was not a success perhaps, in part, because it deviated from the DeTomaso staple of mid-engined sportscars.
So the DeTomaso company is now shuttered, leaving all DeTomaso fans a little bit saddened. The founder, Alejandro, died in 2003, as a result of various illnesses, but was a strong force at his company until the very last.
How Rare is Rare?
Incredibly, the Pantera owners have no idea exactly how many Panteras were made. By the end of 1973, the factory says 6,128 Panteras were sold. Even after Ford left the operation, DeTomaso continued to make between 50 and 100 a year, so it is estimated that there could be between 8,000 and 10,000 produced. Is this too many for it to be truly “rare”? Well, when compared against the less than 1200 unit production of Ferrari Daytonas, it seems like it wouldn’t fall into that “rare exotic sportscar” category; but it is still comparatively rare when you consider, for instance, that Porsche has sold over 50,000 Boxsters.
And, they have the added patina of age. Many Concours d’Elegance events do not permit cars that are from the 1980’s and newer, but the Pantera is eligible at many because it is “old”. Ironically, because of the penchant of Pantera owners to modify their cars, there are only a handful of 100% original cars, so they form a sort of club within a club of those whose intent is to preserve the original concept.
After 35 years, the Pantera world has become a wide one, encompassing many categories of owners: the engineer-tinkerer, the body customizer, the Silver State racer, the Concours d’Elegance entrant; and, finally, the average guy, who just wants to drive it daily, taking it to work and on vacations, caravanning in the company of other owners. There are Pantera clubs in Switzerland, Sweden, Great Britain, Brazil, and several other countries where the owners enjoy weekend trips in the company of their fellow enthusiasts in their mighty American-engined beasts.