The Mongoose & The Panther – Misunderstood mid-engined pioneers. True pioneers of Italy’s emerging supercar scene, this pair of mid-engined De Tomaso V8s are, by reputation, absolute animals to drive. We find out – and ask if they’re merely misunderstood. Story by Chris Rees. Photography by Michael Ward.
DE TOMASO MANGUSTA & PANTERA: FORGOTTEN SUPERCARS
Think ‘Italian supercar’ and the badge you’ll conjure up in your mind will surely have a prancing horse or raging bull on it – possibly even a Trident. It’s highly unlikely to have a ‘T’ overlaying the blue-and-white flag of Argentina. But the De Tomaso marque – whose founder Alejandro de Tomaso was Argentinean – arguably has a back catalogue that’s worthy of supercar royalty. After all, De Tomaso was almost – after Matra – the very first company in the world to launch a mid-engined road car, with the 1964 Vallelunga. It was also first to market with an American V8-powered mid-engined road car, the 1966 Mangusta. Meanwhile, the Pantera remains one of the most iconic Italian supercars of all time, and probably the longest-lived, surviving for 23 years from 1970 until 1993.
It’s De Tomaso’s Mangusta and Pantera that we’re focusing on here: two Ford V8-powered legends that are pioneering, iconic and delectable, but sadly misunderstood. Iconic? Truly so – and from many standpoints, not the least their outstanding design boldness. Both cars came out of the Ghia studio (in which Alejandro De Tomaso had acquired a majority stake in 1963). The first, the Mangusta, was Giorgetto Giugiaro’s first ever design for Ghia, and his first ever mid-engined car, reputedly done on his kitchen table at home. The Mangusta was launched at the November 1966 Turin Motor Show. Priced at a competitive $10,950 in the USA, it attracted around 400 customers in a production life that spanned 1967 to 1970.
The Mangusta set things up perfectly for its successor, the Pantera, which arrived in a blaze of glory in March 1970. Here was another design masterpiece, this time from the hand of Tom Tjaarda. Having Ford sell the car through its dealers in the US led to the Pantera becoming a best-seller in America, despite similar criticisms being levelled at it as the Mangusta – namely that it was hastily conceived and underdeveloped.
But what are our pair of Modena-made icons like to own, and to drive? Let’s find out.
It feels like man the wonderfully affable John Braithwaite was destined to own a Mangusta. “I saw one at the 1968 Racing Car Show in London and got the brochure. I even arranged a test drive, but subsequently cancelled it. In 1985, I saw this Mangusta advertised in Motor Sport magazine. It was with De Tomaso in Modena and I flew out with the chairman of the club to see it. We briefly met Isabelle de Tomaso (who later became a friend). Eventually the car was driven back to the UK.”
That explains why it’s a left-hand drive car, but that’s no bad thing, says John. “Only eight Mangustas were made with right-hand drive, but according to the British De Tomaso importer, Mario Condivi, the Mangusta didn’t convert well to right-hand drive.”
John is no stranger to Italian supercars. “I owned a Lamborghini Miura for 20 years but to be honest, it’s the De Tomaso that I preferred to drive. I’ve been everywhere in it. It’s so much easier to drive than the Miura, and less fragile. The Mangusta is much rarer, too – there are maybe 10 in the UK.”
De Tomaso fitted the Mangusta with a Ford small-block 5.0-litre V8. Says John: “It’s a myth that the Mangusta had the 289 cubic inch (4727cc) engine. Apparently they were all 302ci (5.0-litre) V8s – apart from one single Chevrolet-engined example built for Bill Mitchell.”
We ask to inspect the engine, highlighting one of the most dramatic design features of any car. Twin split rear doors lift up, gullwing-style, from a central hinge bar. Jaw-dropping it may look, but it seriously obstructs your view out of the back, inspiring John to fit a tiny camera above the rear number plate to act as a reversing aid!
The engine bay should have an aluminium cover panel over it, plus a spare wheel, but John has left them off to give a wonderfully exposed engine look. It also happens to highlight just how little metalwork there is aft of the cabin.
Around four years ago, while driving in France, John noticed the oil temperature gauge rising and the car conked out at a péage. It turned out that a stone had holed the radiator, cooking the engine. The powerplant was completely rebuilt by Johnny Woods, who took the opportunity to increase the capacity from 302ci (5.0 litres) to 347ci (5.7 litres) using a stroker kit. Every single part of the engine was replaced, except for the somewhat restrictive intake and exhaust manifolds (retained to make it look original). The old iron heads were replaced with aftermarket aluminium Edelbrock replacement, which are much lighter and produce more power – a conservative estimate would be around 300hp. It runs beautifully, with a deepthroated, sonorous burble, endless torque and an effortless ability to surge you forwards, even if it gets pretty loud at full pelt.
This is an impressive-looking machine indeed. Says John: “When l bought the car it was repainted with a VW colour very similar to the original. I did a lot of research to find the actual original metallic blue paint colour, which turned out to be a Fiat 1970 colour.” Open the door by pressing the round door button and you’re presented with your first challenge: getting in. The Mangusta is very low (just 1100mm off the ground) and while the cabin is wide, it’s also short and low. Tall people simply don’t fit. Luckily I’m a shortarse, so I squeeze in just fine.
The bucket seats are more comfortable than those of most early supercars, even if your knees have to splay themselves slightly around the steering wheel (which is fabulous, by the way: highly unusual stainless steel spokes with a wood-and-leather rim). The dashboard is resolutely plank-flat but perfectly functional. Ahead of you sit no fewer than eight Veglia gauges and seven organ-style toggle switches.
The car’s very name (Mangusta translates as ‘mongoose’) hints at its purpose: the mongoose eats snakes, for De Tomaso had in his direct line of sight the Ac Cobra. The Mangusta is that rare thing: a road car designed around a racing car chassis – that of the De Tomaso P70, a stillborn racer from 1964 designed in collaboration with Carroll Shelby. The backbone chassis houses a longitudinal mid-mounted engine with a ZF five-speed transaxle (the same one as in the Ford GT40) behind. Among the race-themed elements are rose-jointed suspension and hollow aluminium rear uprights, both in contrast to the later Pantera’s more conventional set-up.
So to the central theme that any review of the Mangusta must address: its reputation for poor handling. John is quick to point out that road testers in period found the car would snap oversteer and most cited chassis flex as the reason. This is in fact incorrect. The reason they snapped into oversteer was because the rear suspension bumps into toe-out – a very undesirable thing. This can be completely eliminated by a modifying the top-link and re-aligning the rear suspension so that it bumps neutral, or bumps into toe-in. John insists that his (now correctly set-up) Mangusta drives very well indeed.
Certainly I noticed no evilness in the handling department during my short test drive. The steering is quite low-geared but not too heavy once the car’s in motion, partly due to a favourable front/rear weight distribution of 44%/56%. Speaking of weight, the Mangusta does feel light on its feet – and it is, at only 1185kg with no fluids. As for the ride quality, it’s amazingly comfortable for such a low-slung car.
John has had only two real ‘moments’ with his car. “I was coming up to the Swiss border doing 90mph through a tunnel and came across the customs post right by the tunnel exit. The car did a smoke-filled pirouette in front of the gendarmes – but they let me off! Another incident was in the wet at a roundabout, causing the steering arm to break.”
Although at first glance the wheels look authentic, they are in fact much bigger than the originals; they’re exacting replicas of the prototype’s wheels made by Jonathan Sage of Group 4 Wheels. De Tomaso originally fitted seven-inch wide front wheels and eight-inch rears; the current ones are eight and ten inches wide respectively. The Goodrich tyres are only 10mm wider than the originals, though (225/60 R15 up front and 275/60 R15 rear).
The front brakes are basically shared with the AC Cobra 427 and work very effectively. The meaty ZF gearbox is a joy to use, too, its exposed metal gate hinting at Ferrari sensibilities – even if the Mangusta ultimately feels more ‘Dark Horse’ than ‘Prancing Horse’.
Most supercars struggle to escape the era in which they were conceived. Almost all have a fussiness of detail that nails their design to a certain period. That’s not the case with the De Tomaso Pantera. Its shape is genuinely timeless, largely because it almost completely lacks frills of any kind; it’s one of the cleanest supercar shapes ever created. We have the late, and very great, Tom Tjaarda to thank for that.
His work while at Ghia was the stuff of legend. Looking at it in the glorious autumn sunshine of our photo shoot, it just looks right. Possibly the only ‘frill’ is the grilles just aft of the side windows, which are non-operational, but otherwise it’s as pure as they come.
Alejandro De Tomaso struck a deal with Ford in the US to sell his new Ford-powered supercar through Ford dealers in the ‘States. Some 4000 Panteras were shipped to the US before Ford shut the door on imports in 1974. It hadn’t all been plain sailing, though, as dealers were beleaguered by complaints about build quality, rust and overheating. Indeed, the Pantera’s most celebrated owner, Elvis Presley, famously shot his with a gun.
In the UK, perhaps the most celebrated Pantera owner is Johnny Woods, who it would be entirely fair to describe as ‘Mr Pantera’. He’s an encyclopaedia of knowledge, as well as the owner of the stunning example you see here, which is a 1973 GTS that Johnny bought in 1994 at the remarkably young age of 22. “It was very rusty but it cost me only £15,000. I then spent seven years restoring it, teaching myself things like upholstery as I went along.”
It’s in absolutely amazing condition. Its lustrous paint is truly amazing, if non-original, being an American hot rod colour called Brandywine, made by House Of Kolor.
“Everyone said it wouldn’t suit the car, but it does,” says Johnny. Many Panteras Stateside are modified in extreme ways – and it says a lot for Tom Tjaarda’s original design that it can take such modernisation – but apart from the paint, Johnny has resisted the temptation to take things too far.
Open the bonnet and you get a glorious eyeful of V8, complete with De Tomaso-branded cam covers. A large tray can be fitted over the engine to squeeze some luggage in, but Johnny keeps it out of the car as it tends to rub the paintwork.
It’s time to climb aboard the as-new cabin, which was restored by Johnny to original spec, using Connolly leather. It can be tricky getting in if you’re tall (“Jeremy Clarkson simply can’t fit in,” says Johnny) but again I feel very comfortable myself. Typically of 1970s Italian supercars, the driving position is offset, with your feet someway over to the left of the steering wheel. The seats are comfortable, if not overly supportive in the thigh area. The air conditioning system has been removed, so on a hot day things can get pretty stuffy; one mod Johnny has done is to fit lightweight window winders (borrowed from a Honda).
Another is the battery kill switch (“a good idea considering the 1970s Italian electrics!” smiles Johnny), while yet another is the hydraulic handbrake.
Fire the V8 up – it’s a 351 cubic inch (5673cc) V8 with iron heads – and you’re greeted with a gruff, purposeful throb, all very muscle car. The exhaust exits via four chromed pipes, as per original spec, and the sound emerging from them is just perfect.
The gearbox is a ZF unit but it’s inverted to gain ground clearance, and is just lovely to use. Engage first by moving the aluminium knob over and down to the left, dogleg style. You instantly feel the 350hp at your disposal. For the early 1970s, this was huge power, and it still feels quick today, helped by the Pantera’s low kerb weight (Johnny’s car actually tips the scales at 1300kg with half a tank of fuel – around 100kg lighter than a standard Pantera).
As with the Mangusta, you approach driving the Pantera with respect. In my head is a fervent wish to avoid the ignominy suffered by Quentin Willson, who managed to crash a Pantera GT5 at Silverstone while filming an episode of Top Gear. Like the Mangusta, the Pantera has much larger wheels than the 10×15 items originally fitted. They’re Campagnolo alloys all round: the fronts are 16-inchers, the rears 11×17, fitted with 245/45 ZR16 front and Ferrari F40-sized 335/35 ZR17 rear rubber.
It feels very surefooted at the sort of pace I’m taking the car – unsurprising given that the chassis was engineered by the legendary racing car designer Gian Paolo Dallara. The rack-and-pinion steering is communicative, with no kickback to mention. The brakes have been upgraded from the original Girling set-up – which Johnny describes as “appalling” – to Wilwood six-piston callipers and they feel very strong.
Given the reputations that precede the Mangusta and Pantera – namely that they were rushed to market without proper development – it’s fascinating to discover that, in fact, these early Italian supercars are so impressive. No, they may not be the last word in finesse and refinement, but they are both truly lovely things to drive: genuinely quick, effortless V8 torque, lovely gearchanges and, after a few tweaks, effective around corners.
Also in their arsenal of appeal lie crisp design and extreme rarity. Very few Ferraris or Lamborghinis are as esoteric as these De Tomasos. Misunderstood? I think so. The Mangusta and Pantera genuinely deserve a place in the same supercar pantheon as the Dino, Urraco and Bora.
Both Pantera and Mangusta feel genuinely quick. Both also look amazing today and are an ultra-rare sight.
“It says a lot for Tjaarda’s original design that it can take modernisation but Johnny has resisted the temptation ”
“Road testers in period cited chassis flex as the reason for the Mangusta’s snap oversteer. This is in fact incorrect ”
MANGUSTA / PANTERA GTS
ENGINE: Ford 4950cc V8 Ford 5673cc V8
MAX POWER: 305bhp @ 6200rpm / 350bhp @ 5400rpm
MAX TORQUE: 411lb ft @ 3500rpm / 345lb ft @ 4000rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual transaxle / 5-speed manual transaxle,
SUSPENSION: Front wishbones, rear lower wishbones with Double wishbones, coil springs, top links & radius arms. Coil springs, telescopic dampers & anti-roll bars all round telescopic dampers & anti-roll bars all round
BRAKES: Discs all round / Ventilated discs all round
DIMENSIONS: 4275mm (L), 1830mm (W), 1100mm (H) / 4270mm (L), 1830mm (W), 1100mm (H)
WEIGHT: 1185kg / 1383kg
MAX SPEED: 155mph / 170mph
0-62MPH: 5.9sec / 5.7sec