x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Rearview Mirror: De Tomaso's dashing legacy survives his death

When Ford was rebuffed by the quintessentially Italian luxury marque Ferrari, it set its sights on the De Tomaso brand and gained its own faux-Ferrari with the menacingly styled Pantera.

The late 1960s saw one of the great "what if?" moments in motoring history. Jealous of the glamour and glory of Ferrari and its success in their own, home-baked American backyard, Ford made envious overtures to Enzo Ferrari. But their audacious bid was rebuffed, Ferrari remained an Italian icon and the mad merger of the millennium was never to be. Instead, Ford acquired the US rights to a lesser known Italian sports car brand, De Tomaso, and in place of a prancing pony brought a prowling panther into its stable.

In the Pantera, Ford had acquired an exotic hybrid with a distinctively international flavour. Conceived by an Argentine, designed by an American and manufactured in Italy, it was a beguiling variation on a theme of balance and beauty. Styling reminiscent of Italian rivals from Ferrari and Lamborghini were given some American - or should that be Argentinean - beef, courtesy of flared arches and wide wheels, giving the panther a hint of the butch braggadocio of a GT40.

But De Tomaso was far more than a mere styling house; indeed, such was the marque's pedigree that they raced in Williams livery in the 1970 Formula One season. Ford had acted with a Latin impulsiveness that its new licensee would have been proud of, but sales would ultimately determine whether De Tomaso would prove a perfect partner or a brief, bitter rebound romance.

The Pantera was the third production model of sports car enthusiast and the Modena-based Argentine cattle baron Alessandro De Tomaso. Having fled his native Argentina after being labelled a dissident, he followed his dream of designing and driving a race winner. Settling in Italy in the early 1960s, he quickly gained a reputation for innovation and ingenuity. A flat-eight engine and a magnesium monocoque chassis were among his inventions. Initially, his models were compact two-seat sports cars, similar in size to a Lotus or Lancia, but by the end of the decade his designs were on a much grander scale. After the success of his "Mongoose", the striking Mangusta, he unveiled the more menacingly styled Pantera, and Ford had themselves their faux-Ferrari.

The Pantera boasted sleek lines reminiscent of Lamborghini's fighting bull, the Muira, and was certainly a head turner. Thanks to the visceral grunt of a 330hp Ford V8, it was also one of the fastest cars on the road. In 1970 the ability to go from 0-to-100kph in five and a half seconds was generally a sensation limited to those lucky few in overalls and a helmet. Ford had itself a model in that new racing category - formula forecourt.

Retailing at about US$12,000 through its Mercury showrooms, 5,500 Panteras were sold between 1971 and 1975. An eyebrow-raising price tag and question marks over reliability limited the volume of sales. Indeed, one owner, a certain Elvis Presley, was so exasperated with the failure of his Pantera to start that he shot it. Not for the first time - and certainly not for the last - an Italian car struggled to match style with substance.

In 1975, Ford withdrew from the partnership and the sales focus of the Pantera switched to Europe. Meanwhile, De Tomaso ceased production of his luxury coupe, the Longchamp, when he acquired Maserati in 1976. The company also subsumed the micro-hatch Innocenti brand and the motorcycle manufacturer Moto Guzzi.

While De Tomaso was never the sort to keep all his eggs in one basket, the Pantera remained the company's flagship model and it continued in production, on an almost bespoke scale, into the 1990s. So graceful and modern was the original design, by the American Tom Tjaarda, that the only updates deemed necessary were larger wheels, running boards and a Lamborghini Countach-style fin.

At the time of his death, Alessandro De Tomaso with characteristically entrepreneurial energy was preparing to launch new models and take the company in new directions. But without his guile, the company went into liquidation the following year. However, he would be very happy to learn that, in 2011, his name once again adorns the bonnet grille, as a "haute couture" brand of the Pininfarina group. The latest De Tomaso is an aggressive looking luxury MPV, an Italian rival to BMW's X6.

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