World’s “rustiest Pantera” is worth every penny to owner’s family
In a world where the best examples of collectible cars bring six figures or more at auction and pristine automobiles are admired at concours, Jeff Krekeler’s barn-find Pantera is the worst of its kind—a distinction that he wholeheartedly embraces.
“It’s the world’s rustiest Pantera,” Krekeler says of the 1972 De Tomaso that he nicknamed the Patina Pantera. “I’d be amazed if there’s another one out there that’s rustier.”
So why did he pay $33,333 in April 2022 for the dilapidated, non-running exotic offered on bringatrailer.com?
“I’ve always loved them, always wanted one, and finding a good one that’s affordable is almost impossible these days,” he says. “People think I’m wealthy, but I’m just wildly irresponsible. The Pantera is the perfect example of that.”
Introduced to the world at the 1970 New York Auto Show, the mid-engine Pantera was Ford’s entry into the exotic car market. Under the deal with the Italian automaker, the Blue Oval would import 10,000 De Tomasos to the U.S. and sell the cars through Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. Early production issues plagued the Pantera, with fit and finish leaving much to be desired. After three years, fewer than 6000 had been sold—at a base price of about $10,000 ($73,000 today). Ford pulled the plug. De Tomaso continued to sell the cars in Europe through 1992.
Krekeler isn’t alone in his infatuation for the low-slung Pantera. In August 1971, Car and Driver opined: “As you skim over the pavement in the Pantera you can’t help feeling smug. You hear the engine rumbling along from its station back by your shoulder blades—a mechanical arrangement even novitiate automotive visionaries will recognize as a little piece of tomorrow today. And the looks. Oh, wow.”
Krekeler, a third-generation jeweler from Farmington, Missouri, says his love of automobiles came naturally. “Dad liked cars—he bought a new one every two years. Whenever something new and shiny came along, he bought it. When I was 10 or 11, I bought my first car magazine. I don’t remember the magazine, but to this day I remember every single car in it.” (No, it wasn’t the Car and Driver mentioned above; Krekeler would have been only five when that issue was published.)
The first car that Krekeler owned was a 1947 Chevrolet Fleetmaster Deluxe that his grandfather drove into the late 1960s. “It sat out in the barn, and I’d sneak in there and pretend I was driving it. When my grandfather passed away in the late 1970s, my parents arranged for me to get that car.”
Krekeler learned how to drive in the Fleetmaster, but it wasn’t practical to drive it to high school every day, so he bought a 1973 AMC Hornet, which he hot-rodded. “I didn’t appreciate it at the time—straight six, metallic blue, hatchback—but in hindsight it was such a cool car. I get nostalgic about it once a year and think I should look for another one, then I remember all the other stuff I’m not working on.”
Among the cars he owned back then were a 1980 Ford Mustang Turbo, a full-size Bronco, and a new 1987 Pontiac Grand Am. “I have a short attention span, plus I’m easily amused.”
Krekeler has a few partners in crime that encourage his behavior. He and his wife, Sheila, have two sons, Gray (22) and Henry (19), “plus we took in a stray—Zack [AuBuchon, 20], who’s our bonus kid,” Jeff jokes. “All three boys are car guys.”
Krekeler specifically blames his eldest son for the purchase of the Pantera, although he didn’t exactly need a ton of encouragement to buy it. “The Pantera is a car that has always been in the back of my mind,” Jeff says. “The looks, the gated shifter, the Ford engine [330-horsepower V-8] and drivetrain. There was a time when you could buy a decent example in the $35,000–$40,000 range. I missed that window.”
15 months ago, the window opened a crack, revealing a less-than-perfect 1972 Pantera on Bring A Trailer.
“A colleague of mine sent me a link to a Porsche bus he was bidding on and, of course, they tracked me and started sending things to my feed,” Krekeler says. “Low and behold, there was the rustiest Pantera I’d ever seen.”
Krekeler says that with only three hours left in the auction, bidding sat in teens, so he sent the link to Gray. “It was a Saturday morning, he was at college, and I didn’t think he’d be awake. I mean, 51 of 52 Saturday mornings a year, he would have still been sleeping. But that morning he replied immediately with one word: ‘DUDE!’”
Jeff called his son. They discussed what they’d do if they owned the Pantera. “You can’t restore it—the cost would be way too much. So what in the world would you do with it? Then Gray says, ‘I’d take it to the most high-end car show and put it next to all the nice cars and watch people walk past the million-dollar cars to see the rusty Pantera.’”
Krekeler loved the idea. Since he had some money set aside “for something entirely different,” he convinced himself to place a single bid “and let the universe decide.” That bid didn’t remain on top for long.
Father and son reconvened. Jeff took matters into his own hands by placing “a second, ill-advised bid.” It turned out to be just enough.
“I couldn’t believe I got it,” Krekeler says of the car, which Hagerty UK featured shortly after the auction closed. “Then I had to tell my wife that I did something incredibly stupid. Not only that, [the car] was in Georgia, north of Atlanta, and we’re in southeast Missouri, so I had to figure out how to get it here. So all of us went, put it on a trailer, and brought it home.”
Although Jeff jokes about having to break the news of the purchase to Sheila, he says his wife has been “incredibly supportive” of the project. “None of this happens without her encouragement. We’ve been invited to show the car at the BaT Alumni event at Laguna Seca during the Rolex Monterey Reunion in August, and when I told her she immediately said, ‘You’ve gotta do it.’ That’s pretty awesome. Not everyone gets that kind of support.”
He would need it. Once the Pantera arrived in Missouri, reality set in. “It sat in a barn for a very long time—like 20 years—much of that time under a roof that leaked, so obviously it isn’t in the best shape. All of the wiring was chewed up by rodents, and massive amounts of that unibody are missing.”
In addition, Krekeler says, “It’s not an easy car to get in and out of, or to steer. The idea of taking it to a car show and then putting it back onto a trailer at the end of the day seemed a little arduous.”
So the De Tomaso sat on the back burner for months. Then Krekeler saw a photo of a GT40 on a custom trailer, being towed behind an older Ford station wagon, and he was inspired. He bought a 1971 Ford F250—“a nice, two-tone blue truck but with some rust and bruises, and cheap”—and converted an old boat trailer into a car hauler. In June 2023, “Blue Lou” towed the Patina Pantera to its first show, a cruise-in at Griffin Automotive Design in Bonne Terre, Missouri, and Gray Krekeler’s initial prediction proved to be true: The car was a huge hit.
“We enjoyed our fair share of attention,” Jeff admits. “It may be the saddest, rustiest Pantera alive, but everybody loves it.”
There’s plenty of work yet to be done. First, the truck broke down on the way home from a second show appearance, so Blue Lou will need to be made roadworthy again. And Gray Krekeler has been diligently working to get the Pantera running before he adds some subtle upgrades. Part of that pursuit was accomplished earlier this week, when he sorted out the most pressing of the engine’s issues and proudly drove the Pantera up and down the family’s long driveway … without brakes.
“That was pretty exciting to see,” Jeff says. “People want to know if it runs; they want us to start it so they can hear the engine, so it’s cool that we’ll now be able to do that.”
Although everyone in the family has contributed sweat equity to the Pantera project, Gray has taken the leading role in resurrecting it—and he’s definitely qualified. He already has an automotive degree in high-performance vehicles from State Technical College of Missouri, and he’s currently studying engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Gray’s pretty focused, so I’m sure he’ll have the brakes sorted out before too long,” Jeff says. “For every step forward there’s six steps back, but the kid has no quit in him. When he runs out of ideas he calls his buddies, or his mentors, or searches the internet until he finds the answer. Last night he worked on getting the wheels off, but galvanic corrosion [where two metals fuse together] made that a really tough job.
“He really wants to be the guy who brings it back to life, and he’s taking his time to do it right. The plan is to gift this to him when he graduates, so who knows what he’ll eventually do with it, but for now we’ll tow it around behind Blue Lou and let people enjoy it.”
Among the planned upgrades are new tires and, of course, those new brakes, but additional repairs, like dropping the floor pan and repairing some gaping holes, will need to be made if the car is expected to ever make a safe return to the road.
“The trick,” Krekeler says, “is to do the work without enhancing the aesthetics.”
That’s right, he said without enhancing the aesthetics. Not only does Krekeler love the car’s patina, but he also knows there will come a point when “good enough” is plenty for the Pantera. He credits MotorTrend Roadkill’s David Freiburger and Mike Finnegan for changing his attitude in that area.
“When those two idiots—and I say that with the utmost love and respect—started their YouTube show with the goal to ‘just get it running,’ it changed people’s perspective. Cars and trucks don’t have to be perfect; they can be enjoyed as-is. When you allow yourself to think that way, it takes away a lot of the stress.
“Life is short, you know? I could throw clichés at you all day long, but the old saying that ‘you’ll regret the choices you don’t make more than the ones you do’ really rings true. You just have to be fully committed to it. I’ve lost the fear of ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ Now I think, ‘What’s the best thing that could happen?’”
Krekeler already knows the answer when it comes to the Pantera. “This thing has cost us less than the price of a new minivan. It’s just about the most fun-per-dollar you can ever have,” he says. “We’re taking our time, and we really enjoy doing the work together. That, to me, means everything. I’m excited that I’ve been able to pass on my passion for this stuff to my boys. It keeps us connected. It’s pretty special.”
It’s no wonder Krekeler thinks the world’s rustiest Pantera is worth every penny.