The Pantera was the third sportscar produced by De Tomaso Automobili, LTD., an Italian car manufacturer based in Moderna, Italy. The first being the Vallelunga in 1963 and then the Mangusta in 1966. It was marketed as an Italian exotic car with an American heart, combining bold Italian styling with a powerful, reliable Detroit V8.
First Generation 1971-1979
Alejandro de Tomaso was an Argentine-born racing driver and businessman, who competed in only two Formula One World Championship races in his career, driving for Moderna-based privateer racing team Scuderia Centro Sud. He then turned his attention to building racing cars, including one for Frank Williams’ Formula One team in 1970. In the meantime he began producing street-legal sports cars beginning with the Vallelunga 1500, named after the Autodromo di Vallelunga racing circuit near Rome; and then the Mangusta (Mongoose), which originated out of a failed development deal with Carroll Shelby, leaving De Tomaso with an incomplete chassis. Both of these cars used an aluminum backbone chassis. A common theme was the use of Ford engines, first a 1.5-liter inline four in the Vallelunga and then a 289 (later a 302) V8 in the Mangusta. A total of 401 Mangustas would be produced, receiving moderate praise and establishing De Tomaso as a name in the sports car world even though it was not a wildly successful design.
The Pantera (Panther) was their most popular model, having a twenty-year run. The Ferrari-challenging body was designed by Italian coachmaker Ghia‘s American-born designer Tom Tjaarda and hand-built by another Italian coachmaker, Carrzzeria Vignale. In the years to come, De Tomaso would also gain control of Ghia as well as Maserati. It was unveiled in Moderna in March of 1970 and presented at the New York Motor Show a few weeks later. Compared to other 1970s exotics like the Lamborghini Countach, which cost north of $50,000, the Pantera was a steal at under 10 grand. De Tomaso also had its sights set on the Corvette and Ferrari Dino, which only offered a V6. The car used a steel monocoque chassis like a race car that was engineered by race car builder Gian Paulo Dallara, unlike the aluminum backbone chassis of the Vallelunga and Mangusta. De Tomaso was able to leverage his history of purchasing Ford engines for his cars to work out a deal with Lee Iacocca to sell the cars in Lincoln-Mercury dealers in the US, with three-quarters of the limited production being sold through those dealerships. Ford was eager to offer Italian mid-engine performance to the American masses, but customers coming in to look at a Lincoln Continental or the Mercury Marquis, or even a Cougar, were certainly a bit puzzled to see an Italian exotic sitting in the showroom next to Lincoln-Mercury’s more standard sedans and coupes. De Tomaso retained the right to market the Pantera in Europe.
De Tomaso continued the tradition of using Ford engines in his cars for the Pantera, choosing the higher-revving 330 HP 351 Cleveland V8 mounted behind the driver for the task, mated to a ZF transaxle that was also used in the Mangusta. Car and Driver magazine noted in 1971 that this engine and transaxle combination allowed the Pantera to reach 60 MPH in a mere 5.5 seconds with a top speed of a lofty 159 MPH. This engine placement was not without its problems, however. Early Panteras had very little in the way of heat shielding, resulting in excessive cockpit heat. The engine cooling system was also under-engineered, and as a result the engine was extremely prone to overheating. The electrical system was essentially custom-built for each car in early Panteras, making it difficult for Ford mechanics to troubleshoot the numerous electrical glitches.
The car came with electric windows and air conditioning, which seemed a bit exotic for European buyers but not so for Americans who were more accustomed to such conveniences. It also ticked off every box of a ‘70s wedge-shaped exotic speed machine; low and wide with a nose that curves towards the ground in a graceful arc from a heavily slanted windshield and a roofline that pushes the rear end out in a way that screams mid-engine performance. Body-hugging black leather sport seats, power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes, unequal-length A-arm suspension, stabilizer bars, rack and pinion steering and staggered Campagnolo wheels were also standard. Borrani wire wheels were an option. The speedometer and tachometer were housed in their own separate pods on the dash, with three other ancillary gauges in the center console along with climate controls, a vertically-mounted radio and a host of toggle switches, as ‘70s Italian sports cars tended to have. Chrome “bumperettes” graced the front of early models, while cars after 1972 had black bumper inserts. As with most ’70s Italian exotics it had very little headroom; six-footers would feel quite cramped even though there was adequate legroom. Two cargo compartments, one front and one rear, offered ample space as sportscars go. The first 75 of these to reach the US had push-button door handles and hand-built bodies but fit and finish was poor, with large amounts of body solder used to cover up flaws in the body panels and minimal rustproofing on the bodies. Later, Ford increased their involvement in the production, introducing precision stampings for the body panels that improved overall quality.
The car was modified for 1972, with a new four-bolt main block and the compression ratio on the 351 Cleveland being reduced to 8.6:1 from 11:1 to meet new US emissions standards and run on lower octane regular fuel. A dual point distributor and camshaft from Ford’s 428 Cobra Jet engine were installed to reclaim some of the horsepower lost to the lower compression ratio, but the car still only managed 310 HP even with the addition of factory exhaust headers. European models retained the higher-compression engine. Fortunately the overheating issues and electrical system faults had been ironed out by the time these modifications came out.
The more refined Lusso (luxury) Pantera L was also introduced midway through 1972. It had large black single front and rear bumpers, made to now-stricter US safety standards and rather ugly, with an airfoil in front to reduce high-speed front end lift and a version of the 351 Cleveland without the 428 Cobra Jet cam. This reduced the available HP to 264, quite the drop from the original 330. The L had factory upgrades that fixed many of the fit and finish and other issues of the original, so much so that Road Test Magazine declared it their Import Car of the Year, beating out offerings from Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and Porsche. An upgraded A/C system was also installed. The 1973 model also did away with the separate binnacles for speedometer and tachometer, combining them both into one unit with the gauges angled towards the driver.
A GTS model with more performance was offered in Europe in 1972, developed for Group 3 racing and sporting a 345 HP version of the 351 Cleveland with larger Holley carbs, a forged aluminum intake manifold and freer-flowing exhaust headers. Wider wheels, a more aggressive steering rack, ventilated disc brakes, adjusted spring rates and gear ratios and very conspicuous matte black body elements rounded out the package. Several of these European models were imported to the US via the gray market, but none were officially sold in the US until the first half of 1974. The first 40 of these were only available in California and featured a special steering wheel and electric clock, but did not have the higher-compression engine and other performance modifications of the European model and only managed 266 HP. Even so, it could still reach 60 MPH in 6 seconds.
The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo took its toll on the high-performance car market, as did new US emissions and safety standards, and the demand for fuel-hungry high-performance cars dried up. In 1975 Ford stopped importing the Pantera to the US and stopped selling them in their Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, effectively closing the Pantera out of the US market after selling about 5,500 of them here. Also as a result of the oil crisis Ford stopped producing the high-performance 351 Cleveland in Detroit in 1974, but Ford of Australia produced them until 1982 and De Tomaso was able to source the engine from them until 1988, sending them to Switzerland to be tuned. The Swiss tuning gave the engine an additional 10 HP.
De Tomaso could have pulled the plug due to the oil crisis and lack of demand for such a car, but he persevered and continued to sell Panteras in the rest of the world for almost two decades afterwards. Gray-market importers Panteramerica and AmeriSport continued to import Panteras to the US in the 1980s.
Second Generation 1980-1989
The Pantera chassis was completely revised for 1980, starting with chassis number 9000. The race-derived and more aerodynamic GT5 was introduced, which had bonded and riveted-on fiberglass wheel arch extensions to accommodate larger tires and a wider body than the older Pantera, clearly influenced by Italian rivals like the Lamborghini Countach. A fiberglass body kit with an air dam and side skirts, better brakes, a more luxurious interior, much larger wheels and tires and a massive rear wing rounded out the new model, of which fewer than 197 hand-built examples were made compared to the thousands of original Panteras that were built when they had access to the US market and the Lincoln-Mercury dealer network. The older, narrow-bodied GTS model continued production until 1985, then on a very limited custom-order basis until the late 1980s.
In November of 1984 the GT5-S was unveiled. This model had single-piece flared steel fenders rather then the GT5‘s bolted-on fiberglass ones, and as such the “S” stood not for “Sport” but “steel” to differentiate it from the GT5. Other than the steel fenders, updated front end and new side air intakes the GT5-S was identical to the GT5 it replaced. When the supply of Australian-built 351 Cleveland V8s was exhausted in 1988, De Tomaso installed the lower-horsepower 351 Windsor instead. Fewer than 183 GT5-S models were thought to have been produced.
Third Generation (90 Si) 1990-1993
In 1990 the Pantera received an all-new, more modern body penned by Bertone designer Marcello Gandini along with a partial chassis re-design. Gandini had also designed the famed Lamborghini Miura and Diablo. Switching from the monocoque chassis of the old Pantera to a tubular chassis saved weight and added structural rigidity. The 351 Windsor engine of the GT5-S was replaced by the 5-liter 302 Windsor V8 as found in the Mustang GT, featuring modern electronic fuel injection. The cylinder heads, intake manifolds, camshafts, valves and pistons were also modified in the new 90 Si, bumping the output to 300 HP from the Mustang GT‘s 255 and propelling the 3,159 pound car from 0-60 in 6.4 seconds with a theoretical top speed of 144 MPH. Better braking was achieved by adding four-wheel ventilated and drilled disc brakes with Brembo calipers that were shared with the Ferrari F40 and a rear wing reminiscent of that same car.
Only 41 90 Si models were made. Two were used for crash testing and one was reserved for the De Tomaso Museum, leaving 38 to be sold to the public and making the 90 Si the rarest Pantera of all. Four of these were converted to Targa models by Pavesi. The model was phased out to make way for the new, more radically styled Guara.
The company began to flounder in the late 1990s, and in 2003 Alejandro de Tomaso died, leaving De Tomaso Automobili without its founder and driving force. The company was liquidated the following year with the name and factory changing hands multiple times before being bought by Chinese investment company Consolidated Ideal TeamVentures for a scant 1.05 million euros.
In 1971 one of the engineers my Dad worked with on the Apollo Project bought one of the original Panteras from a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. He brought it over to our house a couple of times for some of my parents’ legendary parties, and I got to salivate over it. I had never seen such a car in my life, and it sparked the fascination that I have for exotic Italian sports cars to this day. ✪