Ford Throwback Thursday

The De Tomaso Pantera: Ford’s Italian Halo Car

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In a world of front wheel drive crossovers, the art of driving seems to be lost. Would you enjoy driving an Italian exotic? What if it was powered by a big block Ford V8? What if that fire breathing V8 was sitting right behind you?

Mr. Shelby once said, “Horsepower sells cars, torque wins races.” This fact has been used to justify every insane engine swap in history. Zero-to-60 times are a great measure of a car’s performance, but there is a problem. Most cars have to shift to 2nd gear before they reach 60 mph, and the gear change will add at least a half second to the time. If you have enough torque (think large V8), and the right transmission, you can stay in 1st gear until 60mph arrives. That is where the Pantera rises above the rest. Designed from the beginning to use a Ford V8 and the bulletproof ZF transaxle, you can wind out 1st gear past 60 mph before swapping cogs.

Readers born after 1986 should experience riding on 235/70/15 tires; you won’t believe it.

Halo cars serve a vital role in our industry. Nothing draws potential buyers to a dealership like a supercar in the showroom. The year was 1969, and Lee Iacocca was in charge. Shelby’s Cobra roadster production was over by ’67, leaving a big hole in the product lineup. Meanwhile, Chevrolet and their dealers were having a field day installing the monster 427 big block in everything from Corvettes to Novas. Iacocca had hoped that the street-legal version of the GT40 would take over as Ford’s supercar, but converting a LeMans racer into a grocery getter proved to be too costly.

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American V8s found homes in many different exotics and sports cars of the 60’s. DeTomaso’s Mangusta, or Mongoose, was the predecessor to the Pantera, and was powered by the venerable small block Windsor V8. Working directly with Ford, Alejandro de Tomaso knew the next generation V8 would be physically larger & heavier, but would produce much more power. From the beginning, the De Tomaso Pantera was designed with the bigger Cleveland V8 in mind. The rear-mid engine placement just ahead of the rear axles kept the tires planted on pavement and the center of gravity very low. Curb weight was near 3100 lbs, and weight bias was 42% front / 58% rear. You might think this would make the car very tail-happy around corners, but unequal length control arms and beefy front & rear sway bars made for confidence on the track. The bulbous 60 series tires on 15” wheels (considered sporty at the time) had tall sidewalls that would howl & scream as they approached their limits. Readers born after 1986 should experience riding on 235/70/15 tires; you won’t believe it.

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Pantera rolled into Ford showrooms for the 1971 model year. Executives were hoping to sell 5000 cars annually, but the assembly lines in Turin’s Vignale Coachworks and at De Tomaso headquarters in Modena were not ready. In a bit of old world craftsmanship, the first production models were assembled by hand, with each artisan pushing the car to its next station.

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For our millennial readers, 5.8 liters of displacement doesn’t sound like a large power plant. In an all confusing manner, Ford had two V8 engines of this size which shared nothing in common. Enthusiasts and racers nicknamed both series by where they were produced. The 5.8L, or 351ci, Windsor was the traditional small block used in everything from the Falcon to the F100 truck. As you may have guessed, they were assembled at the Windsor, Ontario plant. In response to Chevy’s big block, Ford developed an all-new V8 of the same displacement. Confused yet? This new performance oriented engine was built at the Cleveland assembly plant. Clevelands have race inspired features like a dry intake manifold, meaning no coolant passages, and canted valves for high rpm breathing.  All early Panteras had a single four barrel Holley carburetors, and large diameter exhaust headers.

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Ford had a hit on their hands. Sales were as expected, but by 1974 the oil embargo and ever tightening emissions regulations made Big Block V8 cars disappear from showrooms faster than the Tea Party’s 501(C)(3) status. That was an IRS joke, by IRS I mean Independent Rear Suspension, which only the Pantera, Corvette, and handful of other cars had in the 70’s. Since engine performance took a nosedive, DT decided to make handling and suspension the priority. As the car evolved, non-US buyers could choose from a race-ready Group 3 or Group 4 GT spec suspension, or the ultra luxurious GT5-S touring model. The resemblance to the Maserati Bora is not coincidental; DeTomaso owned Maserati until selling to Fiat in 1993.

Ford ended production of the Cleveland V8 in 1984, and De Tomaso stockpiled what remaining engines they could find. Computer controlled fuel injection allowed the smaller Windsor V8 to replace its big carbureted brother in ‘86, and probably doubled the fuel mileage at the same time. The final Pantera rolled out in late 1993, ending one of the most iconic Italian cars of all time.

That’s why we are excited to announce the return of the brand. The same company that owns Apollo has purchased the rights, and their intention is to build a new supercar. We can’t give you the details yet, but it is being engineered by the same people that built the Apollo IE. Stay with us, because it is bound to be a wild ride!

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