The cars we loved.
Anger can be a powerful motivating force. It’s what fueled Henry Ford II’s drive to develop the GT40. As Ford’s first supercar, it went on to several victories over Ferrari at Le Mans from 1966 to 1969. In some most of those years it finished in the first three
spots! As nice as the original GT40 was, few street versions were ever built.
Like a rock star at his peak, Ford bowed out of the GT40 racing program after getting vindication and respect in the international racing community. The victory must have felt hollow once company execs realized there was nothing in Ford showrooms that remotely resembled the GT40 or even approached it’s level of performance aside from a few Shelby prepped cars. There were some NASCAR inspired Galaxies at Ford and Cyclones at Mercury dealerships, but nothing to connect to well-heeled fans of European styled performance aside from the occasional Capri. That car was still considered by big block proponents as a secretary or girly man’s car.
Whatever buzz the GT40 created in Ford’s racing circles must have been short circuited by showrooms full of bloated Thunderbirds and pedestrian Mustangs. Shelby products wouldn’t do because they looked too much like regular Fords. The Blue Oval needed something more and soon. Once again, its new chairman at the time, Lee Iacocca would lean on the company’s global resources, this time going back to Italy, not far from where Henry Ford II’s takeover bid was so famously rejected by Enzo Ferrari.
Despite Ferrari and later Lancia’s rejection, Ford still had plenty of friends in Italy outside of Maranello. It would own up to 80% of the styling house Ghia and it’s fabrication partner Vignale. Iacocca’s solution was to use this connection to build a sports car that would be in the same league as anything coming from Ferrari, but cost only slightly more than a Corvette.
After making the rounds at the Modena and New York auto shows in 1970, development on the Pantera started in Turin Italy. Styled by Tom Tjaarda, an American working at Ghia, the Pantera would combine a new steel unibody chassis design with Ford’s big 351 Cleveland V8. Plucked from the Ohio factory, the engines were shipped to Modena where they would be fitted midship to a chassis and stamped by Vignale.
In theory the Pantera would combine the best of Italian design and 330 hp of American muscle to create the first affordable supercar. This concept of undercutting more expensive sports cars in Europe was in play for a few years now with select Jensen, Bristols and De Tomaso’s own Mangusta. The Pantera was truly affordable at $10,000 but still looked out of place being sold next to Comets, Cyclones and Capris at Lincoln-Mercury dealerships.
Even then Ford recognized the value of “European style and performance” and sought to distinguish its Mercury division from the rest of Ford and Lincoln by virtue of sophisticated European inspired (performance) offerings. In reality only the Capri represented the best of what Europe had to offer in its segment, but in later years Mercury would roll out cars like the Mekur and Scorpio to establish a short lived niche.
In its quest to be accessible, the Pantera would create a new segment of the affordable supercar, just as the word supercar was being transformed from what we now call muscle cars to a new breed of European car that was as fast as it was exotic like the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Daytona. The Pantera fit into this company by virtue of its power and sleek futuristic wedge like design.
The Pantera’s dual citizenship meant that it would be scorned by the elitist sports car enthusiast due to it’s conflicted pedigree. It didn’t help matters that production cars rolled off the assembly line with problems that suggested a lack of quality control and testing.
Poor build quality was not unusual for any car during the 1970’s, especially those built in Italy. The kind of problems the Pantera developed a reputation for were not the kind of things that wealthy playboys would want to bother with like overheated engines, air conditioner failure and scraping gears through the difficult to shift 5 speed manual. The ZF transmission was similar to the one used in the Mangusta and many other cars of the period, but somehow was problematic in the Pantera.
You might blame it on the gated aluminum plated shifter that recalled the best tradition of Ferrari. Also like Ferrari, the Pantera was loaded with electric windows, four wheel disc brakes and a cassette player in its vertically mounted stereo. The high quality bits were sometimes betrayed by Ford’s parts bin elements like the steering wheel. It was said that the Pantera also sourced parts from suppliers for Ferrari, like the comfortable and supportive seats.
The Pantera’s humble origins would not be all bad. As a Ford product, it could be serviced as cheaply as a Mustang at dealerships across the country. This was one of the Pantera’s biggest selling points beyond its price and impressive overall performance. Then again, a 0 to 60 time in the mid 5 second range and a top speed of 159 mph was supercar territory, but no Ferrari could be serviced at your neighborhood Ford dealer.
I wonder if most buyers had the confidence to drive the Pantera close to its limits. The powerful torque happy engine was easy to drive in city traffic because it required less shifting than high strung rev happy European exotics. This was in contrast to many European sports cars that were making due with smaller displacements tuned for long bouts of high speed driving. This made the Pantera well suited for the American driver.
Despite the mid-engine setup, the 41/59 rear weight balance of the Pantera meant that despite its wide 15 in wheels, it could still lose control in spirited maneuvers at the hands of most motorist – especially on wet roads. I suspect most drivers bought the car for it’s stunning if not slightly unrefined looks.
Aside from running changes under the skin, the overall design changed little in the four or five years that the car was officially available. To Ford’s credit, dealers offered fixes to problems, making it possible to have a relatively reliable car if all service bulletins were adhered to. Still, production problems lead to a slow trickle during the first year with only 130 cars being sold in 1971.
Sales never reached the 2,000 unit goal. 1972 was the year the L model (luxury or Lusso) was released and was also the best sales year at 1552 units. Early cars without spoilers, wings and aggressive wheel/tire combos looked the most elegant. As time went on the Pantera became the victim of some of the ’70s worst customization trends. It’s at this point that they seemed to lose some of their Italian grace and take on the persona of a brash American muscle car on steriods.
Between 1971 to 1975 only 5,500 cars were sold in the US (it’s primary market). There was a version of the Pantera developed for sale in Europe, but for De Tomaso Ford’s dealership network opened up tremendous potential for one of Italy’s lesser players in the sports car market.
These early cars must have been some of the worst quality offenders prompting Road and Track in its August 1971 edition called the Pantera “Just another high priced kit car”. At $10,000 it cost more than any Corvette, but far less than the cheapest Ferrari and could keep up with just about anything short of an all-out race car. The quality improved, but the damage had already been done. Ford would address many of the issues, but the Pantera’s general appearance remained that of a squat scruffy Italian.
The fuel crisis and the sharp rise in inflation meant that it was no longer a profitable to build a trans-Atlantic car. That coupled with a sea of new safety regulations that would have made the existing car impossible to sale in America forced the end of production. With sales falling and the car’s (undeserved) reputation as troublesome persisting, De Tomaso himself (known to be an impatient man Diva) eventually decided to walk away from the arrangement with Ford. Makes you wonder if Ford wanted to build a new generation of Pantera without De Tomaso’s help.
Once production ceased, a few Lincoln Mercury dealerships still had cars to sell by 1975. That wasn’t the end of Pantera of course, just Ford’s participation. Still the Pantera was a car would not die quietly. With no Cleveland V8 available, it reappeared this time with Australian sourced V8 power in 1980 as the De Tomaso Pantera GT5.
By then attempts at modernizing the original car had yielded a besploilered and big winged car in the vein of the later Countaches. Many of the car’s original problems had been solved, but it’s cockpit was still a tight place for anyone taller than 5’9 and it’s pedals were still oddly placed. In all the Pantera lived on until 1992 with over 7,000 sold from it’s humble beginnings at the Lincoln-Mercury dealership to the Marcello Gandini cars of the ‘90s.
The longevity of the Pantera in some form or another is testament to it’s growing popularity, yet it is still under apprecheated by sports car purists. That said, the Pantera might one day shed it reputation as the Rodney Dangerfield of sports cars. As time passes, interest in the Pantera is likely to grow for the same reasons it was compelling when new. It offers exotic car looks, serviceable mechanicals and a quazi Italian pedigree at an affordable price. Many owners lucky enough to find original cars have modified them tastefully with thigs like 17 in wheels and updated components (related to cooling mostly).
As for looks,the Pantera screams ‘70s exotica, even if it has a slight kit car appearance with some of it’s design elements not fully resolved. It was that look of brute (un)refinement, combined with its wide muscular stance and V8 muscle that made the Pantera uniquely American, despite any connection to Italy. As America’s first modern roadgoing supercar, it deserves to be on any serious collector’s list.