Alejandro De Tomaso: Three iconic sports cars

Every car builder in Italy wanted to be the next Ferrari. Alejandro De Tomaso created a wonderful marriage between sleek Italian design and American horsepower

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Alejandro De Tomaso poses with his 351 ci-powered Pantera in front of Ford HQ in Dearborn, Michigan | De Tomaso

Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, a breed of independent Italian car maker, all of whom wanting to become the next Ferrari, created limited-production sports and grand touring cars. Not having the full resources from which to construct their cars from the ground up, they were able to take advantage of several resources available at the time.  

First were Italian design houses and coachbuilders who could supply designs and construct full bodies for their models. Second, the availability of OEM and aftermarket components that could be adapted for their use. And third, lightweight, powerful American V8 engines that cost less, were simpler to maintain and produced greater power to weight than many of the more complicated bespoke Italian designs.  

Introducing Alejandro De Tomaso 

One of the most successful of the Italian car builders who turned to US-made V8 power was Alejandro De Tomaso. It’s difficult to find a more interesting character in the history of motoring than De Tomaso. Charming and sophisticated, he was Argentine born with Italian lineage, and grew up in Buenos Aries among a wealthy and politically influential family. His full name was Alejandro de Tomaso y Ceballos, two powerful family names in that South American country. 

Perhaps due to his upbringing and parentage, De Tomaso was headstrong, arrogant, and unforgiving; characteristics he displayed throughout his life. 

For much of De Tomaso’s early career, there is little fact and much conjecture as to what happened and when. This may have been intentional on his part to create a little intrigue for his backstory. We do know that he moved to Italy in 1955 to pursue a racing career in Europe. We also know he was working for the Maserati brothers as a mechanic at their OSCA firm, and was likely an occasional test driver. Some claim he left Argentina a political refugee (one source suggests he surreptitiously flew his private plane out of the country!) however he returned to his homeland to race in 1956 and 1957, rendering that story slightly suspect.  

Marcello Gandini, designer of the Lamborghini Miura and Countach, relates this story about De Tomaso: “He came to Italy and wanted to make his debut but he was nobody. So, he asked ‘which hotel in Modena was the most prestigious?’ And they told him the Canalgrande. So he went there. After a month, they gave him the check that he, obviously, could not pay so they kicked him out. The first thing he did when he made his money was to buy the hotel. Think about it — it’s incredible!”  

Like much of the lore surrounding De Tomaso, this first-person recollection isn’t entirely accurate. De Tomaso arrived in Bologna, Italy in 1955 and didn’t move to Modena until 1959.  

De Tomaso had some success as a driver, winning the small-bore class at  the Le Mans 24 in 1958. During this time, he met and married the  American heiress and accomplished racer Elizabeth Haskell. Haskell’s  father and grandfather were both Vice Presidents at General Motors, but  it wasn’t cars that occupied their interests.  
Elizabeth and Alejandro | De Tomaso Automobili photo

The Haskell family has long been benefactors of thoroughbred horse racing and Monmouth Park, the track her grandfather helped found, continues to run the million-dollar Haskell Invitational. The couple were married at her father’s estate in Palm Beach, where the family would “winter”. Perhaps this is a link to their frequent appearances at Sebring, 110 miles away. 

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Elizabeth maintained the family’s interest in horse racing throughout her life but in the 1950s, she was most passionate about competing in sports cars. A keen competitor, she insisted on racing against men and not in the “ladies’ groups” which were common in the SCCA at the time. As an example, she drove an OSCA to finish second in class in the 1959 Sebring 12 Hours along with her new husband, future Grand Prix race winner Pedro Rodriguez and racer/author Denise McCluggage. 

Together the couple would venture into race car construction in 1959, forming De Tomaso Modena SpA. The new venture began building Formula Junior and Formula 3 cars for customer sale and even dabbling in Formula 1.  

American designer Tom Tijaarda at the drawing board | De Tomaso Automobili photo

A continuing problem for De Tomaso was staying focused on a project and not being distracted by the next one to come along. For example, he constructed a Formula 2 race car and entered it in a support race at the 1959 US Grand Prix at Sebring. While the car DNF’d, he received 15 orders for copies, though none were delivered as he’d moved on to his next project. According to American designer Tom Tjaarda, “‘Alesandro was always looking towards the next project, the next deal, so he just forgot about it and moved on. He would have ten ideas on the go at any one time, and of those maybe one would become reality. 

De Tomaso Valleunga 

The De Tomaso Vallelunga | Bonhams photo

The couple’s attentions soon turned to high performance road going cars, first with the two-seat Vallelunga which was basically a De Tomaso Formula 3 car on a backbone chassis covered with a full body. The Vallelunga, powered by a tuned English Ford four-cylinder engine, debuted in 1963 at the Turin Motor Show. 58 samples were constructed by Ghia, 50 in fiberglass for general sale, the others clad in aluminum were primarily for racing.  

Th Vallelunga’s 1.6 L (1,593 cc) Ford Straight-4 powerplant | Bonhams photo

De Tomaso needed cash to expand his business. The source was Elizabeth’s (now calling herself Isabelle, the Italian translation of her first name) brother, Amory Haskell, vice president of an electronics manufacturer. With his American family’s money, De Tomaso went on a buying spree, purchasing among others styling house Ghia, coachbuilder Vignale, then later motorcycle manufacturer Moto Guzzi, Italian Mini license holder Innocenti, and the entire Maserati organization, saving the later from certain oblivion. 

De Tomaso Mangusta 

De Tomaso Mangusta | De Tomaso Automobili photo

The De Tomaso Mangusta was a major step up for De Tomaso. He needed a car with a broader appeal than the little Vallelunga. The Mangusta was a stunning, Ferrari-sized two-seat grand tourer propelled at first by a Ford 289, and later a 302, V8 engine.  

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The Mangusta’s roots go back to a failed collaboration with Carroll Shelby to develop a high-powered, mid-engine car to race in the US. The deal fell apart, both sides angry. There’s conjecture that the Mangusta name (Italian for mongoose) was a deliberate dig at Shelby. Called the P70 by De Tomaso and the King Cobra by Shelby, the P70 featured a larger and stronger version of the Vallelunga’s backbone chassis.  

The modified P70 chassis was then adapted for the Mangusta and enveloped in an aggressive wedge-shaped body by Giorgetto Giugiaro who was with Ghia at the time. In fact, Giugariaro already had the design in his pocket, having pitched it to a rival carmaker who then decided they didn’t want to build a mid-engine car. One of the most recognized elements of his design are the rear deck covers with centrally-hinged “gull-wings” that provided access to the engine and rear storage compartment. 

De Tomaso inspects the Mangusta | De Tomaso Automobili photo

Unfortunately, a backbone chassis, barely sufficient in a small car like the Vallelunga or Chapman’s Lotus Elan, Espirit and Europe, wasn’t rigid enough for the larger car, resulting in unpredictable handling and complaints from customers. Ford looked at the Mangusta and took a pass, which kicked the development of the Pantera into gear. 

A total of 401 Mangustas were produced, and if you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino, you might recognize one of them as Bill’s ride in Kill Bill: Volume 2

De Tomaso Pantera 

1973 De Tomaso Pantera | Sotheby’s photo

The Mangusta had earlier caught the eye of Ford VP Lee Iacocca, who according to then Ford styling chief Gene Bordinat “was crazy about anything Italian.” A deal was finalized in September, 1969, with Ford taking a 30% ownership stake in De Tomaso’s company. Iacocca chose the Lincoln-Mercury division to market the Pantera, the goal being to offer a “halo car” that exceeded the C3 Corvette in design and performance. 

 An unfortunate accident allowed Ford to take a greater control of the Pantera program. In June of 1970, Ford purchased the 50% share of the company held by Amory Haskell, who perished in a small plane crash in March of 1970, just weeks before an engine-less Pantera debuted at the New York Auto Show. This gave Ford a controlling interest in all the De Tomaso-owned companies. 

Acknowledging the shortcomings of the central backbone chassis, Ford assisted in the development of a conventional tubular frame with welded steel panels, forming a stronger monocoque structure which better met the requirements of the US market.  

The Pantera was again styled by Ghia, but now the pen was in the hands of Tjaarda, Giugiaro having left Ghia after a not-too-surprising clash with De Tomaso. Tjaarda seemed to have better luck working with the headstrong Argentinian: “‘He was smart, and I’d rather work with an intelligent delinquent than a nice, stupid guy. People were petrified of him, but it was just an act. These Americans would come along, bending over backwards to be deferential, and he’d completely destroy them. He loved the infamy.’ 

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Pantera | Sotheby’s photo

Engineering was by Giampaola Dallara (yes, that Dallara). Motive power came from various versions of the 351 Cleveland V8, which was installed through 1989.  A ZF DS-25/2 five-speed transaxle was utilized, which had also been fitted to the Mangusta and earlier to the Le Mans winning Ford GT40 Mk. II.  

The original Pantera had an exceedingly long life, first available in the 1971 model year with the last car rolling off the line in July of 1990, though a substantially reworked Nuova Pantera was sold in small quantities through 1996. A total of 6,380 Panteras were constructed during the Ford years of 1971 through 1974, with around 5,262 sold in the US, according to US DOT data.  Production figures after that period are sketchy at best. The Pantera historian George Pence stated that: “The DeTomaso web site claims there were a total of 7260 Panteras manufactured. My figures total 7082.”  

The Rest of The Story 

A series of unfortunate events led to De Tomaso never again seeing the success he had with the Pantera. Many sources claim Ford cancelled the agreement in 1974 due to lower than projected sales, which were projected by Ford to range from 2500 in the first year and 12,000 to 15,000 in subsequent years. In an article on the Pantera in the August 1971 issue of Car and Driver magazine it was stated that US-bound production would cease in 1974.  

Some sources claim that the limited production of the ZF transaxle caused the lower-than-anticipated construction and sales, though with Ford’s global manufacturing resources along with the fact that it had created its own in-house transaxle for the Ford Mk IV, that if the Dearborn-based company had the motivation to increase supply it certainly could have. Perhaps there was a bit of ‘wait and see’ going on. 

Ford then sold its shares back to De Tomaso, sans Ghia and Vignale. After Ford’s pull-out and the resultant loss of the Vignale and Ghia resources, the few Panteras that followed had bodies created by smaller carrozzerias and hand-assembled at De Tomaso’s Modena facility.   

De Tomaso also produced luxury cars, though in more limited quantities. Only 244 of the Deauville four-door saloon and 409 Longchamp two-door grand tourer models were produced. These were named after the French Deauville-La Touques and Longchamp horse racing tracks respectively, names suggested by Elizabeth. He went on to manufactured just 50 of the Guarà sports car before his crippling stroke in 1993. At that point he sold Innocenti and Maserati to Fiat.  

De Tomaso died in Modena on May 21, 2003, having left an enduring mark on the Italian motor industry not just through the cars that bear his name, but also through his rescue and resuscitation of the now successful Maserati brand. 

Art has been a fixture in the automotive industry his entire career, starting out as an editor for On Track and Sports Car Graphics magazines. He then moved to the corporate side, finding the money better. He was employed in marketing roles at Firestone, Bridgestone and Yokohama tire companies, as well as ran client services for a boutique aftermarket agency serving Toyota Racing Development, Flowmaster exhaust, and Brembo brakes. There was even a stint at eBay Motors. Most recently, Art served as Director of Marketing and Communications at Laguna Seca Raceway. As a writer, his works have appeared in print and online publications in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and Italy.

1 COMMENT

  1. One of the best deals I never made, was NOT buying a Pantera in the late 70´s. All muscle cars were a bargain at that time, you could pick a DTP up for around 75000 SEK – about 7500 $ in todays exchange rate. Of course a 55 Chevy Coupe was even cheaper, you would get at least 3 of those for the same money, or 4 of the 1 st gen Camaro. Let´s see what happens when we are all electrified. Maybe we are all given a second chance to score the cars of our dreams.

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