The De Tomaso Pantera was built to a budget with available Ford parts – and not well. After three years Ford gave up, and problems took years to fix. Though many cars are sorted, “boy-racer” add-ons (wings, body kits, garish paint and wheels) still hurt the image.
The Pantera was launched at the May 1970 Geneva Salon, with a pressed steel chassis, unlike its predecessor’s, the Mangusta (‘mongoose’ in Italian), tube frame. The Mangusta’s rounded edges were replaced by crisp lines, and the mid-engine Ford 302-cid V-8 by a 351-cid, 330 bhp V-8. It was launched stateside in 1971 and its $9,800 sticker was a bargain.
Its story begins earlier, however, when Enzo Ferrari rebuffed Henry Ford II’s attempt to buy the Prancing Horse in the early 1960s. Ford resolved to beat Ferrari on the track, where Enzo would feel it most. Ford spent three years (and a fortune) turning Eric Broadley’s flawed Lola GT into the Ford GT 40. It won Le Mans four times, in 1966-69, but proved unsuitable as a street car.
American designer Tom Tjaarda was working at Ghia in Turin when Alejandro de Tomaso took over in 1967 and clashed with designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who quit. At the time, de Tomaso was negotiating with Ford, and when Lee Iacocca, then Ford’s Executive Vice-President, came to Turin he green-lighted Tjaarda’s replacement for their current offering. It would be sold in Lincoln-Mercury dealerships alongside Continentals and Cougars.
The car befuddled traditional Lincoln customers.
Ford’s poor distribution choice relegated the Pantera to orphan status and it was only a bit more practical than the GT40. Road & Track called it “a high-priced kit car” complaining about the assembly quality, air-conditioning, brakes, engine cooling and electrical systems. The ZF five-speed transaxle was reportedly noisier than the engine. Race shop owner Bill Stroppe was paid $2,000 per car to fix the worst faults. Still, the base price gave the Pantera an edge, IF it could be fixed.
The first 75 Panteras were European models, with push-button door handles and Vignale bodies, and an estimated 1,007 were sold in 1971. When the Pantera L (for Lusso, or luxury) arrived in late 1972 some problems were solved, though emissions regulations cut power to 250 bhp.
The engine’s compression ratio was reduced from 11:1 to 8.6:1 but a Cobra Jet camshaft and factory headers offset the compression decrease. Pointed black safety bumpers were attractive (for the era), and Ford improved body panel stampings. About 150 GTS models were imported, with aggressive fender flares and flat black accents. In all, 5,674 Panteras were sold by the end of 1974, when crash tests convinced Ford the car could not pass 1975 standards.
In 1975 the Pantera slipped into the grey market, with about 75 built annually in Europe for 18 years. Variations included the GT5 from 1980 with riveted wheel arches, and from 1984, the GT5S with blended “wide-body” arches, air dam and side skirts. The GT5-S was built from 1985, with single-piece wide steel fenders. In 1990, Marcel Gandini redesigned the Pantera as the 90 Si, and 38 were sold by 1993. In all, about 7,200 Panteras were built.
The Pantera was notorious for inciting owners to violence, or killing them. Elvis shot his with a .38 when it failed to start, Vince Neil of Motley Crue killed his passenger in a 1984 crash, hockey player/donut magnate Tim Horton died in a Toronto accident, and Top Gear stuffed one during a test.
Additionally, rust can render Panteras irreparable. The intricate unibody was formed from stressed, lightweight panels – a frightening combination with 150 mph performance. In addition, cracked rubber undercoating trapped water where it attacked critical structures.
Corrosion afflicted the electrical system, and numerous ground wires and contacts were hard to reach. Solutions were complicated by constant changes to the harness; there were four different ones from 1971-74. Overheating issues were eventually resolved, but low-mileage cars may still need cooling system upgrades.
Pantera prices have advanced modestly but nowhere near the rate of Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati supercars. American V-8s are cheap to maintain and perform well, but their rumble might be considered inappropriate in a mid-engine supercar.
The best Panteras just exceed $100,000, but these are correct cars with faultless provenance, or overdone resto-mods at high-profile auctions. Average cars bring $40,000-$65,000; anything less should be examined with vigilance.
The best prospective purchase is probably a non-gray market car with long-term ownership, complete records, and permanent residence in California or the Southwest. A Mangusta may draw crowds at Concorso Italiano, but an unmodified Pantera is rarer.