The De Tomaso Pantera was a mercurial machine - and it raised the ire of none other than Elvis Presley. Matt Stone takes the music icon's old car out for a spin
Pantera was fit for 'The King' Elvis Presley
The De Tomaso Pantera was the fast and handsome result of the short, oft-rocky marriage in the 1970s between the Ford Motor Company and De Tomaso Automobili, based in Modena, Italy. Perhaps then, it was appropriate that a car with a colourful history was once owned by Elvis Presley, himself no stranger to controversy. This piece of automotive and musical history is still roadworthy - just. The Pantera was the idea of an Argentinian racing driver, the fiery Alejandro de Tomaso. He settled in Modena, Italy, in the 1950s, with American wife Isabelle Haskell, also a racing driver, to form their race-car-building concern in 1959.
De Tomaso produced a string of sports racers and F2 cars, and then they dipped their toes into production-car waters, using primarily Ford engines. Their first model was the central spine-chassised Vallelunga, then the Giugiaro-designed Mangusta, which the mid-engine Pantera superceded in 1971. Designed by Tom Tjaarda, engineered by Gianpaolo Dallara and powered by Ford's 351 Cleveland V8, a relative of the Mustang Boss 302, the Pantera was imported into the United States from 1971 until 1974 and sold at Lincoln dealerships. It was called by one magazine an "exciting, but an unfinished product".
Meanwhile, Elvis Presley was busy getting to know the young, statuesque Southern beauty queen Linda Thompson in Memphis soon after his separation from wife Priscilla. According to an interview with ElvisPresleyNews.com, Thompson said they hit it off immediately, had a similar sense of humour and shared religious beliefs. Presley, who demonstrated more of a penchant for Lincolns and Cadillacs than Italian sports cars, paid $2,500 for a used Pantera, serial number 1954, in 1974. Panteras today regularly sell for around $50,000 (Dh183,660)
It was some time shortly after that the car incurred the wrath of Presley's legendary temper. Early Panteras were known for overheating, occasional vapour lock, and spotty wiring. The story goes that The King jumped in the Pantera and it wouldn't start. He often carried a small-calibre revolver in an ankle holster so he fired upon the hapless machine. One slug hit the steering wheel and exited out the front of the cabin, shattering the windscreen. He also blew out a tyre with his pistol. There was a bullet hole in the driver's door, which was repaired and is no longer visible.
Presley sold the car in 1976, the year before he died, and it went through a number of owners before being acquired by the Motor Trend and Hot Rod founder Robert E Petersen in the late 1990s. In the early 1980s, when real estate financing was hard to come by, property investors often offered "precious gems" as partial consideration for real estate. In a much-ballyhooed 1981 transaction, two individuals traded a supposed $2 million worth of "precious gems" for their chance to drive like Elvis.
Margie and Robert Petersen had long collected famous film and television cars, and they still own Steve McQueen's Jaguar XK-SS featured in the last issue of Motor Trend Classic, plus one of two Ghia-bodied 1953 Cadillacs formerly owned by Rita Hayworth. The Presley Pantera now resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles and is often displayed in its Cars of the Stars exhibits (www.petersen.org).
Many Panteras are heavily modified for increased performance as the car responds to that treatment, if done well. Elvis and Thompson's old ride is refreshingly original, although hardly concours level. It wears an incorrect set of rearview mirrors, mounted on the front fenders instead of the doors. The car has been inexpensively repainted, in a slightly too-green shade of its original Yellow Gold.
Fortunately, the bullet-grazed steering wheel remains. The fibreglass, removable engine compartment trunk bucket is missing. The car wears old, flat-spotted wrong-brand replacements for the original Pirelli CN73 tyres, yet still on the stock, Campagnolo cast magnesium wheels. Presley's ownership is well documented. The engine is said to have been freshened along the way - it feels tight, and doesn't smoke - and the ZF five-speed transaxle is intact.
For me, having owned a yellow Pantera for 17 years, sliding into this car's slim, less-than-supportive vinyl bucket seat is like slipping on a comfortable pair of old, well-worn jeans. The view and sensations are all familiar as is the racy, chrome five-speed gated shifter. When I turn the key, the torquey, long-stroke V8 gurgles to life easily, rumbling deeply through its factory ANSA exhaust system.
The car has suffered from a little abuse and from a lazy life of inactivity. The Petersen's collection managers are gradually massaging it back to health, having replaced the carb and fuel tank. Once warmed, the engine proves smooth and willing; the ZF tranasxle's ratios are perfect for its power curve. The clutch releases near the top of its pedal travel; the disc is probably worn, and the clutch system's hydraulic slave cylinder would benefit from freshening. The gear lever slips easily between gears, although is a bit reluctant to find reverse, a common Pantera trait, unless the linkage is adjusted just so and the trans fluid is warmed up. The steering would liven up given a fresh set of modern radials. All in, the experience puts me right back to when I drove my own Pantera home in February 1981.
I take the car to several of Hollywood's rock-related haunts; there's no evidence Elvis ever visited any of them, so stalked was he late in his life by the growing ranks of paparazzi. Sunset Boulevard car gawkers are as jaded as any in the world - there's always at least one example of the latest Ferrari, Lambo, Bugatti, or Bentley trolling the street. The Pantera draws smiles, thumbs up, and many mobile phone photos along the way. Few onlookers can know of this Pantera's past ownership history, as there are no outward indicators. And this driver no longer wears oversized sunglasses or mutton-chop sideburns.
As I trundle Presley's Italian stallion through Hollywood, I see how it would've appealed to him. A fiercely proud American, he would have loved the Ford engine and the fact that it was designed by an American, as well as its performance and dazzling looks, of course. I'm also reminded of something I knew in 1971: how advanced and capable a car the Pantera was, and remains, with mid-engine layout, control-arm suspension front and rear, five-speed transaxle with limited-slip diff, coil-over shocks.
As with many low-volume exotics, the current owners are charged with finishing up much of the sorting and quality control work that the factory didn't, but this is a car that could, and can, really get down the road, if in good fettle, wearing the right tyres and shocks. If the stars are ever aligned again in just the right way, there's room in my metaphoric garage for this one.