The cars we loved.
It seemed that every auto producer big or small wanted to get in on either racing or sports car production. Of the smaller European producers, De Tomaso was no different. Although company founder Alejandro DeTomaso was born in Argentina, he had established himself firmly in the Italian automotive industry. Always working a deal (or was it to impress his wealthy parents back home?), De Tomaso had established a network of business partners for his flourishing business. One such contact, the legendary Caroll Shelby, was hoped to be instrumental in product development for future De Tomaso cars, possibly one for Ford. What was originally conceived as a deal to construct a race car for Shelby fell through after Caroll and company decided to perused ongoing Ford GT40 development instead.
Two Orphans Find A Home
An opportunity arrived in the form of Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose rejected design for ISO became a body without a soul. The answers to both men’s prayers would come with the marrying of de Tomaso’s racing car chassis to Giugiaro’s new sports car design. Fortunately and most conveniently, De Tomaso owned the coach builder Ghia who would build the new cross-bred supercar. The resulting creation called the De Tomasso Mangusta would be for all practical purposes a racing car for the street. In hopes of being Ford’s replacement for the now out of production Shelby Cobra, the name Mangusta was chosen (means Mongoose in Italian), an animal that can kill Cobras. It would De Tomaso’s second mid-engine car, the first being the odd looking Vallelunga.
American Muscle From Ford
Being that Carol Shelby and De Tomaso were still friends (somehow), a deal was worked out with Ford’s American wing to supply the De Tomaso with V8 engines. The early cars were said to come with massaged 289’s producing 304hp. Most American bound cars would end up with a less potent 302 with 220 hp. One was even built with a Corvette L-79 engine, likely made for then GM vice president Bill Mitchell. The Mangusta had a low sleek body that would have been difficult for all but the most compact people to get into. Once inside the tight cabin had very few creature comforts save for rocker switches electric windows. Most cars were equipped with air conditioning and radio (some with 8 track tape players).
The engine, position just behind the passenger compartment was accessible by one of two gull-wing style glass doors. The doors also concealed a small luggage compartment. The Mangusta featured brutal performance to match its exotic mid-engine design. In reality, it was a handful for all but the most skilled driver, putting it in a league beyond the rich playboy who wanted something different. In fact many potential owners changed their minds after discovering how difficult the car was to handle at times.
Caution: Experienced Drivers Only
The tricky handling was due to the unfavorable rear weight bias of 32/68 that made the Mangusta difficult to control at speed. Flaws in the design of the chassis allowed for too much body flex, making the car an extreme sport for those brave enough to drive too fast around any corners. Otherwise the fully independent suspension allowed for a composed ride at parking lot speeds and disc brakes slowed things down quickly. The 15’x7′ wheels looked huge on the big side walled tires, giving the Mangusta a raw race car like appearance. Any one of its primary production engines was mated to a ZF 5-speed manual transmission sending power to the rear wheels (of course!). There were not many changes made the Mangusta in its short three or so year model run. A few did have a revised front end that featured dual pop-up headlights. In total just over 400 Mangustas were built, with 250 of them sent to America via Ford’s dealership network.
In many ways the Mangusta was not as inspired as other products coming from Italian makes like Ferrari or Lamborghini. Many would go so far as to say that the Mangusta was nothing more than a concept car that had too little engineering testing to really be taken seriously. There may be some truth to that notion, because many de Tomaso cars have yet to reach the cachet that Ferrari and Lamborghini enjoy.
The Shape of What Was To Come
The Mangusta also suffered from poor timing. Shortly after being on the market, De Tomaso was already working with Ford on securing engines for the successor to the Magusta, the Pantera. De Tomaso would not repeat many of the mistakes of the Magusta and as a result the Pantera was a much more drivable car. Ford had worked closely with De Tomaso to insure that the Pantera met its specifications. This all happened after Ford realized in the rush to be the first to market a mid-engine car in America, that its GT40 was not too well suited for road use. If only the Mangusta had the development and engineering muscle afforded the Pantera, it may have been a much more enjoyable car to drive and own. Still, the Mangusta had a certain charm that was typical of European sports cars of this era. Many of the eccentricities that made these cars interesting would make them intolerable to the wealthy car shopper of today (or the collector who was not a forgiving enthusiast). Either way the Mangusta will always be known for its Italian style, American muscle and squandered potential.