The Rock ‘N’ Roll Pantera

By Andrew Court

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

It’s hard to deny that Italians make the best looking cars and arguably, the best looking women. But like Italian women, the internals of their cars are a bit precarious. Exotic but over complicated, they’ll go haywire faster than an actress who’s been told she’s too fat. 

Enter Detroit and the iconic rumble of the all American Ford V8. Anywhere in the world, from the Haute Corniche outside Monaco to the hills of California, its sound is instantly recognizable. This marvel of American engineering is rock solid, a power train that’ll stand the test of time. 

What happens when the two get together, when Sophia Loren and Joe Namath have a love child? You get the De Tomaso Pantera, the perfect cocktail of American muscle and Italian style.

This unlikely car came from an unlikely partnership between designer Alejandro De Tomaso and famed Ford executive Lee Iacocca. De Tomaso had been trying to build a sports car since 1963, but his initial plans fell through when his co-designer Carrol Shelby moved on to the Ford GT40 project (see Ford Vs. Ferrari for that story). Iacocca, after his huge success creating the Mustang, set his sights on the sports car market. He wanted a brand-leading sex machine that could destroy the Corvette.

The Pantera was the result, and in 1971 it was available for sale at your local Lincoln Mercury dealer. The mid-engined Ford V8 land rocket featured a steel unibody monocoque that was designed by a guy with Lamoborghini on his resume. 

The car started mostly as a product of the De Tomaso Company, but because of quality control Ford had to step in. Rust and low rent finishings were common for Italian cars of the era, even expensive ones. It became clear that refinement was needed, and over successive models that’s exactly what the Pantera got. 

In 1973 they launched the Lusso Pantera, which served as a luxury version for the American market. This car included options novel for European consumers like air conditioning. Mechanizing much of the production process increased reliability and decreased rust.

The best one was the last with the Ford Cleveland 351-cubic-inch engine, the GT5-S.  Fewer than 200 were built  for the 1974 model year and it was only officially available in Europe. While there were upgrades to the suspension and brakes, a lower stance and aggressive body kit were the main changes.  The car goes from zero to sixty in around five and a half seconds.

It’s also adorned with a giant wing to let valet parking attendants know you mean business. 

Taking a look at the Pantera is it any wonder the most successful distributor was in Miami, a city known for illicit imports? Many owners, afraid of the gray market, purchased modifications to get their cars up to the faster non U.S. emissions spec vehicles. 

In 1975 the partnership broke up when Ford stopped building the 351 Cleveland engines.  Post oil crisis emissions rules were primarily to blame.  De Tomaso, however, kept the show going until 1990 with ever more luxurious versions powered by Ford engines built in Australia. Sadly, none of these officially came to the United States.

Today these cars aren’t bad value, with base models going for a hundred to two hundred grand. A somewhat keen observer of the classic car market might think the GT5-s has a million dollar valuation, but they are in fact available for the relatively reasonable price of around three hundred thousand dollars. It’s not nothing, but a far cry from the multimillion dollar classic Ferrari ecosystem. 

I’ve previously written about the totally irrational impulse to purchase a used sports car.  No doubt a Ferrari is cool, but I argue that what you really want is a Pantera. The American engine gives it a more Van Halen sound than the Ferrari’s Verdi.

 It’s also rarer and you get to explain the De Tomaso story to all the bros at cars and coffee. You can’t put a price on cool.

From the FE Films Archive

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