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Alejandro De Tomaso - An Italian Original

by Bob Hagin

April 30, 2001

Ask average Americans to name as many "exotic" Italian cars as possible and most will surely top their list with the name Ferrari. That romantic name conjures up visions of crimson-hewed rides down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hill sans top with balmy breezes blowing gently through long blonde hair.

Less likely to be on the list would be Lamborghini, a not-as well- known name that has made sporadic bit-part appearances in several contemporary American movies such as the 1999 film "The First Wives Club."

Also on the list might be Maserati, a brand that may soon reappear in the U.S. and Iso, maker of an American-engined two-seater whose only claim to fame is its ancient lineage that goes back to the Isetta "bubble car" of the '50s.

But 30 years ago, Town Car shoppers who walked into most Lincoln- Mercury dealerships might have been surprised (and maybe shocked) at the sight of a four-foot tall, cramped, two-placed coupe that shared the showroom floor with Mercury Cougars and Lincoln Continentals. The car had an almost Asian-looking stylized "L" logo on its nose and hubcaps, and the name "detomaso" spelled out as one word in lower-case metal script. The car was the De Tomaso Pantera, a rear-engined Exotic, a generic name for high-end sports cars that look like they're going at least 200 mph, even when they're standing still.

The reason these incongruous machines were allowed space in typical American dealerships and not in specialty stores was due to the powerplant that reposed under the car's engine cover. Rather than a complex twin-cam V12 of European origin, a typical American V8 lay buttoned up to a German-built Z-F (Zahnradfrabrik Friedichshafen) five- speed manual gearbox. To be specific, it was a 351 cubic-inch (American engines had yet to be measured in liters) Ford "Cleveland" engine that put out 310 horses and enough Yankee torque to spin the back wheels of the 3200-pound car at almost any speed.

The genesis of the car stems from a most unusual auto maker who still operates in Italy, a land known for eccentric builders of fancy, impractical cars. Alejandro De Tomaso was born in Argentina in 1928 to politically and socially well-placed parents. The "L" logo is the one used to brand cattle on the family estate, although this colorful explanation hasn't been verified.

De Tomaso immigrated to Italy at age 27, just in time to fall into the burgeoning European interest in auto racing. It was a time when "privateers" and small constructors could fill up starting grids and earn enough prize money to get by until the next event. De Tomaso drove a Maserati for a while, then later an Osca for the Maserati brothers when they formed Officinia Specializzata Construzione Automobili after selling their original company and their name.

In '59, De Tomaso entered into the auto making world by constructing a variety of race cars ranging from Formula Junior open-wheelers powered by small sedan engines to Formula One machines. But over the years, he came to the conclusion that road-going sportsters for well-to-do Europeans was an easier path to riches than fighting it out with other competitors on continental race tracks.

The incongruous affiliation of a De Tomaso road car that sported a Ford V8 engine came about when Henry Ford II, grandson of the original Henry Ford, was thwarted in his attempts to buy into the "establishment" by purchasing Ferrari. His original concept for "his" De Tomaso was a car that could be sold through an existing American dealer network and serviced by American mechanics who would be comfortable with a big domestic V8 engine. As an aside, it was for Ford to be one-up on the rumored rear-engined Corvette that never materialized.

The Pantera was a somewhat-less-than successful vehicle due to a number of factors that included a lack of quality control in their construction, the fact that America was in the throws of safety hysteria (speed was a dirty word to many) and gasoline shortages that weren't kind to fuel-thirsty V8 engines. Regardless, over 2500 Panteras were supplied to Americans.

The reason I'm so well-educated on De Tomaso and his Panteras is that I recently returned from San Antonio, TX, where my son-in-law proudly demonstrated his recently acquired '72 Pantera to me. Unfortunately, while I was there he learned that one of the Achilles Heels of the Pantera was its proclivity to shear off a tiny drive pin that operates the aftermarket distributor that's standard stuff for American owners. The car was ignominiously returned to his home on a car carrier and I departed for California. He is currently sorting out the problem with the internet help of fellow owners.

Ford and the irascible De Tomaso (he's reported to be "difficult" to work with) parted company in '73, although Ford-powered De Tomaso cars in various versions are still being made for European consumption. The current high-end American Qvale Mangusta is a De Tomaso design and is sold in Europe under the De Tomaso name, again using Ford hardware.

Over the years, Alejandro De Tomaso has worn lots of hats: he owned Maserati for a while, as well as several motorcycle and motorscooter manufacturers. He bought and sold design studios and custom body works. He's a grand holdover from the days when a brash outsider could muscle his way into the stratified world of exotic cars.