To become a legend, a car needs striking looks, matching power, and a cool name to wrap it all up, so it’s no wonder the De Tomaso Pantera is such an iconic piece of automotive history. Beyond its predatory feline name and impossibly cool Italian panache, what made the Pantera iconic was the fact that it was a fabulous sports car born and raised in the most unfavorable times for performance.
Just as the car itself, the De Tomaso Pantera story is complex, wild, and laced with questionable decisions and a dash of controversy. Still, cars with a strong backstory always have memorable characters, giving us even more reasons to adore them. So, without further ado, let’s see how the supercar was born and why it’s one of the highest cherished classic cars today.
Decades before Horacio Pagani departed from Lamborghini and established his own brand in northern Italy, another Argentinian maverick based his automotive business in the region known for passionate cars. His name was Alejandro De Tomaso; a racing driver turned car constructor. He established his own firm in Modena in 1959 after fleeing Argentina and Juan Perón’s regime.
In Italy, De Tomaso met Isabelle Haskell, a New Jersey native and fellow racer with which he soon married and founded a company.
At first, De Tomaso Automobili made their name as a race car builder, venturing into the road car business in 1963 with the Vallelunga, a mid-engined sports coupé powered by a modest 1.5-liter Ford inline-four. The Vallelunga was built on a backbone tube chassis with bodywork designed by Carrozzeria Fissore, and the majority of production completed by Ghia, a coachbuilder De Tomaso acquired in 1967.
The next De Tomaso road car was more ambitious, race-bred, and it even had a connection to Carroll Shelby himself. This car’s roost was from the De Tomaso P70 Can-Am project The car never raced due to Shelby American’s involvement in the GT40, resulting in a falling out between Alejandro De Tomaso and Shelby.
Left with a chassis capable of bearing Ford V8 power, De Tomaso employed Ghia to create a dramatic wedge-shaped body, introducing the Mangusta. Fittingly, the car was named after a mongoose, an animal known for hunting cobras.
Development and Production
With the Mangusta, Alejandro De Tomaso opened the doors to a deeper connection with Ford of America. However, the exotic company constructed only 400 examples and was still not considered a car suitable to conquer the wider market. But, De Tomaso soon exploited the fact that Shelby parted ways with Ford, partnering with the Detroit manufacturer.
Of course, the mastermind behind this move was Lee Iacocca, who managed not only to fill in a performance void in Ford Motor Corporation by bringing in an exotic Italian car with a well-proven American power but also to steal GM’s and AMC’s thunder by introducing a mid-engined sports car to the market first.
Unsurprisingly, Ghia was responsible for the design, but under the skin, the Argentinian had bigger plans. What the upcoming car needed was a modern chassis better suited for mass-performance, and De Tomaso settled for the best, enlisting Gian Paolo Dallara for the project.
The power was to remain American; the best Ford could offer at that point. The final design was penned by Ghia’s Tom Tjaarda, a versatile US-born designer who spent most of his career working in Europe.
The development of the Italian supercar took only nine months, in large part fueled by concerns that Chevrolet would unveil a mid-engined Corvette and AMC would continue with the Bizzarrini-developed AMX/3. While that didn’t happen, the Pantera (Italian for panther) was first shown in Modena, followed by a stateside presentation at the 1970 New York Motor Show.
While the whole production process took place in Modena at the De Tomaso factory, the Pantera was primarily built for North America. As a premium exotic, the Pantera was offered in FoMoCo’s selected Lincoln-Mercury dealerships. Being the only mid-engined American sports car, it was also uniquely positioned in the US market.
With a price of $10,000, Pantera was closer to an Italian exotic than an American sports car, with its most direct domestic competitor being the $4,000 Corvette. Next in line were bona fide Italian exotics, albeit at a significantly higher sticker price of around $20,000.
The Pantera sold reasonably well, with around 3,000 out of 7,200 cars sold by the end of 1972, but fell victim to the 1973 oil crisis, which effectively ended muscle cars and halted American performance for the next two decades.
De Tomaso’s partnership with Ford lasted until 1975, when the oil crisis almost completely killed off such a car’s need to exist. Still, De Tomaso bought back his company’s rights and kept the vehicle in production for the European market, where the GTS variant predominantly battled against Lamborghini.
Fortunately, the 351 was discontinued only in America. At the same time, the Australian Ford could still provide a steady supply of 351 Cleveland V8s, at least until a point when De Tomaso had to switch to 351 Windsor V8. What also kept the Pantera alive for so long was that De Tomaso switched to low volume made-to-order production.
The car’s look was radically refreshed for the 1980 Pantera GT5 and 1984 GT5-S versions, but it was nothing compared to the complete overhaul in 1990. Marcello Gandini thoroughly redesigned the final De Tomaso Pantera 90 Si. It had its chassis revised and was fitted with a smaller 4.9-liter Ford 302 V8.
The 90 Si marked the end for the Pantera as it remained in production until 1993, giving way to the Guara after just 40 examples were produced.
Whereas the Pantera had a similar wedge shape to its predecessor, it was an all-new beast under the skin. It utilized a Tipo 874 chassis- a Dallara-designed steel monocoque with a tubular engine and transmission subframe, giving the car more rigidity than the Mangusta’s central spine structure could provide while also lowering production costs.
For the 1990 De Tomaso Pantera Si, the chassis was revised and modernized into a tubular steel structure designed to save weight and offer better rigidity than the aged monocoque.
Engine and Transmission
The initial engine Pantera received was a bump over its predecessor, the Mangusta. It was the 5.7-liter 351 Cleveland Ford V8 engine- Ford’s newly introduced advanced performance powerhouse. Bearing close relations with Ford, De Tomaso followed Ford’s year-to-year engine revisions, meaning that the Pantera was affected by all US-based regulation changes as well.
Initially, the Pantera was fitted with M-code 351 Cleveland V8 with an 11.0:1, tuned to produce 330 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque, just like the one-year Mustang Boss 351.
In preparations for the 1972 model, De Tomaso started installing the Q-code 351 V8. The compression ratio dropped to 8.6:1 and to make up for that, the V8 got a Cobra Jet camshaft and intake manifolds, 4-bolt main caps, and Autolite 4300D carb. Despite these changes, the Q-code 351 witnessed a drop to 296 net horsepower and 301 lb-ft of torque. Still, the Pantera provided exceptional power with a 0-60 sprint taking around 5.5 seconds and a top speed of 150 MPH.
In 1971 De Tomaso introduced the Pantera GTS, with a high-compression 330-horsepower engine, featuring a forged aluminum inlet manifold and special low restriction exhaust. This specification was almost exclusively sold in Europe, although a handful of them reached American soil. In the US, on the other hand, the Pantera was yet again detuned to 266 horsepower.
After discontinuation from the North American market, De Tomaso GT5 and GT5-S had a 351 V8 pushing out 350 horsepower and 333lb-ft of torque.
When the 351 Cleveland V8 supply depleted, De Tomaso turned to 351 Windsor V8, offering it in two trims: standard 300-horsepower and 350-horsepower Grand Sport with hydraulic lifters, large port heads, 4-barrel Holley carburetor, upgraded camshafts, and unique exhaust manifolds.
For the final run, the 1990-1993 Pantera Si got a 4.9-liter Ford 302 V8, a direct descendant of the Mangusta’s original engine. In the Si, this unit was equipped with a modern ECU, direct port fuel injection. The idea behind the Pantera Si was for De Tomaso to return to the American soil, so it received a fully catalyzed exhaust compliant with US regulations. Still, in the end, no cars were originally exported stateside.
All engines were mated to purpose-built ZF 5DS-25/1 5-speed manual transaxles sending the power to the rear wheels via a limited-slip differential. Due to the gearbox rotation, the engine placement had to be higher than on the Mangusta.
Body and Interior
The basic body shape endured numerous slight revisions one model year after another and with that in mind, only the 1971 and 1972 early Pantera models had split chrome bumpers in the form of discrete strips of chrome below the pop-up headlights and rear lights.
The 1972-1973 De Tomaso Pantera L model year got beefy matte black full-width federal bumpers and many other smaller revisions. Still, most importantly, it was built under stricter quality control, eliminating many teething problems the earliest cars had. One of those problems with bad electrical wiring even infuriated Elvis Presley so much that he shot his Pantera when it refused to start.
The Pantera GTS could be identified by black interior trim, prominent GTS badging, and riveted wheel arch extensions in the later variants.
In 1980, when De Tomaso introduced the racing GT5 version, the Pantera’s wedge-shaped body was further radicalized. The GT5 had a prominent front air dam, rear aerodynamic wing, and huge flared fenders. This race-bred restyle initially featured fiberglass components, but the 1984 GT5-S had similar modifications in steel.
The Pantera saw its final redesign in 1990 as the 90 Si. Marcello Gandini gave this car a more modern appearance with a new aerodynamic kit, a unique spoiler at the base of the windshield, and redesigned rear end with a unique aerodynamic spoiler.
As a fun fact, the Pantera used Alfa Romeo rear lights throughout its production span, starting with the 1750 and 2000 Berlina models, while the final Pantera Si shared its rear light clusters with the 33.
The Pantera interior blended Italian styling exotic cues with American amenities, meaning that it had a gated shifter, rich instrumentation, and acres of leather. However, it also features standard A/C, doors that buzzed when open, and fully opening electric windows.
Inside, the Pantera also changed throughout the years, but more importantly, these alterations were mostly related to the car’s unfavorable ergonomics in the earliest models. The first Panteras infamously had awkwardly slat-backed seats resulting in poor support, yet those seats were soon changed to sportier and more supportive buckets.
Given that the other iterations of the Pantera were made to order, some examples from the GT5 and GT5-S era received richer wood trim, plushier seats, Alcantara trim, and more.
Suspension and Steering
As an exotic sports car it was, the Pantera had an all-independent unequal length A-arm suspension with coil springs, telescopic dampers, and stabilizer bars.
The basic suspension layout remained the same, although it was revised multiple times, especially during the GT5 and GT5-S era, when the Pantera got a lower stance and more firm springs and dampers.
The Pantera utilized completely unassisted rack-and-pinion steering, meaning it was heavy and challenging to operate under normal driving conditions but precise and rewarding when needed the most.
Brakes, Wheels and Tires
Completing the car’s exotic Italian flair, there were cast magnesium Campagnolo pentagonal wheels designed especially for the Pantera, although De Tomaso offered a rare option of Borrani wire wheels.
The unique Campagnolo wheels measured 15×7 inches front, and 15×8 inches rear, all wrapped in beefy Goodyear Arriva tires. Behind them, there were servo-assisted solid disc brakes with UK-sourced Girling calipers.
As a performance-oriented version, Pantera GTS sported larger 15×8-inch front and 15-x10-inch rear Campagnolo wheels and ventilated front disc brakes for more effective cooling under constant use.
The radical GT5 and GT5-S had enormous 15×10-inch front and 15×13-inch Group 4-inspired deep-dish wheels with Pirelli P7 tires and larger ventilated front disc brakes.
Pantera Si had 17-inch cast aluminum alloys with Michelin rubber and four-wheel drilled and ventilated disc brakes with Brembo calipers.
De Tomaso Pantera in Racing
The first racing effort Pantera took was in Group 3, where the car was subtly modified as per the group’s regulations. It featured adjustable Koni shocks, wider tires along with engine and gearbox revisions. The Group 3 Pantera was offered from 1972 to 1984, was based on the GTS model and it proved competitive in the hands of private teams.
The more ambitious Group 4 Pantera was developed by British engineer Mike Parks and featured more substantial changes throughout, including increased track, new aluminum panels, and fiberglass wide body kit.
The 351 V8 engine was developed by Bud Moore and had close to 500 horsepower. The Group 4-spec Pantera entered the 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans with modest success, but various cars built under these regulations continued to race throughout the world.
Pantera competed in Group 5 as well from 1976 to 1981, in the form of privately converted Group 3 and Group 4 cars, but with very limited success.
For a long time, the De Tomaso Pantera was an ugly duckling of Italian exotic cars, due to the fact that it had to battle Ferrari, Lamborghini and even Maserati, a company which De Tomaso owned from 1975 to 1993.
But, as this sleek wedge-shaped beauty offers a strong Italian spirit with a oh-so-American V8 grunt, driving it is an utterly rewarding sensation and that’s what drew many enthusiasts towards it.
Due to its American powertrain, this De Tomaso might not be an Italian exotic in the purest sense of the word, but on the bright side, it is attainable and way easier to maintain than the majority of its contemporaries. Virtually all mechanical parts are widely available and affordable, which also means that a number of Panteras were at one point modified, either subtly or thoroughly.
For all its qualities, De Tomaso Pantera has matured as a collector car in recent years, and as a result, it has gained a wider recognition it always deserved. As it is still somewhat in the shadows, the Pantera is still an affordable exotic with a strong base of die-hard aficionados always ready to welcome a new member into its ranks.
That being said, the following few years might be the perfect time to catch the last Pantera train and see why it is the perfect Italian underdog.