The De Tomaso Pantera

This time on Crown Classic Cars we are going to look at another one of our favorite cars. So sit back and enoy the ride as we look back to the 1970's at the Pantera.

Italian sports car manufacturer De Tomaso has a wide variety of models to its name, but when it comes to commercial success and brand association, there’s one that clearly stands above the rest – the Pantera. With a production life spanning two decades, the Pantera (Italian for panther) managed to transform De Tomaso from an eccentric, niche make, to a full-fledged high-volume supercar producer. But the Pantera was more than a vitally important model for De Tomaso. Its introduction in the early ‘70s challenged conventions by offering striking aesthetics and an exotic mid-engine layout, plus American-bred V-8 performance and a relatively affordable price tag.

These days, the cult of Pantera is as strong as ever, and well-maintained examples are known for hitting the auction block for 10 times the original MSRP. But the Pantera’s popularity isn’t derived from anything objective – it doesn’t come with a purebred lineage, or groundbreaking technology, or unicorn-like rarity. Rather, it’s the kind of car that speaks to an enthusiast’s emotions, and if you need someone to explain it to you, you probably wouldn’t get it anyway.

The Pantera story begins with Alejandro de Tomaso, an Argentine-born racing driver and industrialist. After a brief stint in Formula 1 (de Tomaso saw two Grand Prix entries, one in 1957, and another in 1959, neither of which netted any championship points), de Tomaso turned his attention to car building, founding the company that bears his name in 1959. Headquartered in Modena, Italy, De Tomaso Automobili built a variety of prototypes, race cars, and road cars, even venturing into F1 in 1970 with a competition car for the Frank Williams team. Between 1976 and 1993, De Tomaso also held Maserati as a fully owned subsidiary.

The Pantera was the result of a collaboration between Ford Motor and fiery, erratic, modestly successful sports car builder and former auto racer Alejandro DeTomaso. He had moved to Italy from Argentina with his wealthy American wife, Isabelle Haskell, who backed his business ventures. DeTomaso convinced top Ford Motor executive Lee Iacocca to have Ford back and sell the Pantera in America, with DeTomaso handling distribution elsewhere. The Ford-powered Cobra sports car was gone, and Ford Motor wanted a sports car such as the Pantera to maintain its high-performance image in the early 1970s. Such a car also would be a sexy addition to Ford Motor's staid Lincoln-Mercury division car line. And chairman Henry Ford II had wanted a sexy Italian auto to go with his new Italian wife since Ford Motor failed to buy the Ferrari auto company in 1963. The Pantera was based on DeTomaso's sleek but notoriously unreliable 1967-71 low-volume Ford-engine Mangusta sports car, which should have served as a warning to Iacocca that the Pantera might be troublesome. With Ford's major support, the Pantera's final assembly was done at the DeTomaso factory in Modena, Italy. Ford made sure the Pantera had better detail engineering than the Mangusta and installed air conditioning, which was unusual in an Italian exotic.

However, the company began to flounder in the late ‘90s, and in 2003, Alejandro de Tomaso died, leaving his company to be liquidated in 2004. The De Tomaso factory and trademark exchanged hands multiple times in the following decade, and is currently owned by the Chinese investment company Consolidated Ideal TeamVentures, which purchased the brand for a scant 1.05 million euros in April, 2015.

But let’s get back to the Pantera. In the late ‘60s, Ford was looking for a high-performance GT car to replace the Shelby Cobra and rival the Chevrolet Corvette and Ferrari Dino, eventually turning to De Tomaso for an answer. The marriage made sense – Ford was already providing the Italian automaker with engines, and De Tomaso had the exotic chops to boost the Blue Oval’s image. A deal was struck wherein De Tomaso would produce a mid-engine, Ford-powered coupe, which Ford would then bring to the U.S. for sale in its Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. Thus, the Pantera was born.

Slated as a successor to the Mangusta, the Pantera debuted in Modena in 1970, later crossing the Atlantic for a spot at the New York Auto Show. Production began in earnest, and in late 1971, the first U.S.-spec Panteras arrived stateside.

Over 1,000 Panteras were sold in the first year, but Ford had concerns over quality control. The first round of imports showed minimal rustproofing, lackluster fit and finish, and copious solder to cover up flaws in the body. Ford eventually got involved in production, introducing precision stamping for the body panels and significantly boosting quality in the process.

In late 1972, De Tomaso introduced the Pantera Lusso (or “luxury”) model, which incorporated a new bumper (finished in black), improved aerodynamics, a unified gauge pod, and a new, 266-horsepower Cleveland engine. In addition, many of the Pantera’s quality issues were addressed.

In 1974, De Tomaso began building the Pantera GTS, which gained flared fenders and black trim. Unfortunately, the U.S. GTS couldn’t quite compete with its European equivalent, as the Euro-spec vehicle got a high-compression engine, bigger wheels, and other performance enhancers never destined for American shores.

By the end of 1974, Ford and De Tomaso ended their business agreement, and the Pantera was no longer officially imported to the U.S. Total sales for the period came to roughly 5,500 cars. However, Mr. de Tomaso himself took over the project, and the Pantera soldiered on in Europe. Consequently, certain “grey market” importers continued to bring over Euro-spec models well into the following decade.

In 1980, De Tomaso released the Pantera GT5, which gained better brakes, more interior luxury, bigger wheels, and a flared, fiberglass body with significant aero changes. The Pantera GT5-S followed four years later, offering blended, steel fenders, a steel front airdam, and a widebody stance. These models were produced on a customized, limited basis, with roughly 250 GT5 and 180 GT5-S models produced.

The final Pantera model was the 90 Si, introduced in 1990. The 90 Si was significantly updated over the GT5 and GT5-S, with a new exterior design, engine, suspension, and chassis, but only 40 were ever created.

In total, roughly 7,260 Panteras were produced over the model’s 20-year lifespan.

From the Outside:

In order to stand up to the established European exotics of its day, the Pantera had to look the part. Capturing just the right high-performance shape was absolutely critical to the car’s success, and thankfully, the Pantera didn’t disappoint.

The famous Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Ghia is credited for penning the original Pantera’s look, which at the time was headed by American-born car designer Tom Tjaarda. The resulting aesthetic ticked every box when it came to ‘70s-era, wedge-shaped four-wheeled speed machines.

The stance is low and wide, with a nose that curves towards the ground in a graceful arc from a heavily slanted windshield. The roofline pushes the rear end out with forceful proportions that scream mid-engine performance. Viewed from the rear, the wide tires and quad exhaust back this assertion, complemented by a flattened tail that closely parallels the ground.

Notable differences between the individual model years saw chromed “bumperettes” for 1971 and 1972, while later models gained black inserts and larger aero. Euro-spec cars got smaller taillights and no corner markers.

Eventually, the Pantera gained hugely flared wheel arches and oversized spoilers, which were applied with the addition of the GT5 nameplate. The move was meant to rival the Lamborghini Countach, which also had hyper-aggressive aerodynamic elements. These features were enhanced even further in 1990 with the Pantera 90 Si, which was designed by Marcello Gandini.

Step Inside the Pantera:

Step into an early model year Pantera, and you might feel the squeeze. The cabin is known for offering decent legroom, but very little headroom, and individuals over six feet will definitely feel cramped.

Still, there are a nice variety of features on hand that go towards making up the difference. Air conditioning and electric windows were both standard, and