As a teenager obsessed with music and cars, Paul Bulger was mesmerised by the De Tomaso Pantera’s vertically housed stereo. Will a first-person reprise put it at the top of his classic chart? Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Dean Smith.
The List – Your dream drive made real
We put reader Paul Bulger in a rolling Marshall amp-stack of a car – the De Tomaso Pantera ‘That exhaust is your PA system…’
The List – Will a drive in an early De Tomaso Pantera thrill a Seventies glam-rock fan?
The climb up Little Mount Sion is considerable. I’m huffing and puffing, but Classic Cars reader Paul Bulger is taking it in his stride while explaining why the Pantera is on his wishlist. ‘There was no internet when I was young,’ he says. ‘I’d never seen a De Tomaso before, so I attended a supercar day and it’s the stereo I remember. In every other car they were horizontal, but when I saw the Pantera’s I thought, “That’s so cool.”’
‘I love the gearchange; open-gated with a long throw. No quick changes here, but it’s very satisfying’
Just off the fashionable High Street in Royal Tunbridge Wells may seem a strange place for a classic car specialist, but then Justin Banks’ premises is more boutique, modern art gallery than traditional garage. As we finally reach it and peer in the vast glass frontage, the Pantera is the only car inside – framed perfectly, like a poster on a teenager’s bedroom wall. ‘That’s just beautiful,’ says Paul. ‘You know I never ever thought I’d drive one.’
‘Compared to my Porsche, which is engineered to the Nth degree, this feels very primitive’
Once inside we spend 15 minutes taking in its discreet lines penned by Tom Tjaarda, then of Ghia. ‘When I was younger I’d have gone for a later GT5 or GTS, with their body kits, huge wings and crazy wide rubber, but now I like this earlier example’s simplicity. It’s wonderfully discreet – well, except for those,’ he says, pointing at four immense exhaust tips. ‘They’re your heavy metal gig’s PA system, that say, ‘I’m going to make a lot of noise.’ ‘It’s definitely more Ford than Ferrari in here,’ he says, stroking the plastic centre column once inside. ‘And there it is – the stereo.’ He reaches into his pocket and passes me a tape. ‘I was born in 1974, the car is from 1974, so we have to pretend we’ve just picked it up new.’ I slot it home, and the distinctive elevating guitar riff of David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel floods the cabin. ‘I still can’t believe I’m going to be one of the few people in the UK to drive one.’
Paul turns the key and the music is instantly obliterated by a heavy-duty, four-gun salute to raw American iron, which cannonades wildly off the walls, seemingly expelling all air from the building, only for Bowie to return as the 5763cc V8 settles into its deep resonate tick-over. He slots the dogleg gearbox into first and we inch our way slowly back the way we just walked in.
There’s some kangarooing as he manoeuvres the Pantera past double-parked delivery lorries and vans. ‘The throttle is very on/ off,’ he explains. Crawling south through the town traffic is fairly slow going, the majority first and second gear work. ‘The clutch is very good with a nice amount of feel, and not as heavy as I thought it would be. I love the gearchange; it’s open-gated with a long throw and it slots in nicely with a great noise. You have to set it up, though. No quick changes here, but almost a count of three from one cog to another – it’s very satisfying. The footwell is a bit of a challenge though, everything’s heavily offset to the centre, the throttle is very close to the brake and my right foot is against the console.’
We pass through Eridge and I sense Paul enviously eyeing the opposite side of the A26, which has now split into two lanes. He doesn’t have long to wait, with the lane ratio soon in his favour. Nailing the loud pedal, the 325lb-per-foot-punch to the base of our spines is instant; a surge of continuous thunder accompanying us, as the rear end hunkers down and we devour inner lane traffic at will. ‘Throttle response is instant, and the power available at any revs and in any gear is superb. I love the outlook of American engineers. “How can we make it faster? Shall we get an aerodynamicist in? No, we were lazy enough when we built it, let’s bore it out and increase capacity by a litre.” Compared to my Porsche, which is engineered to the nth degree, this feels very primitive. It’s that classic under-promised, and over-delivered experience.’
Indeed, this example feels properly sorted and is delivering its considerable wares with assurance. We pass through Crowborough, its inhabitants aware well in advance of the De Tomaso’s booming arrival, and are quickly swallowed up by the ancient Ashdown Forest and its multitude of tight and twisting heathland roads. A bear isn’t its star today; move over, there’s an Italian panther down in the woods today.
Aye, so technically it’s an Italo-Argentine-US panther, but on his first couple of corners Paul’s heavy on the anchors, scrubbing off speed and then coasting round until the road straightens before bringing on the power again. ‘I had prepared myself for early Seventies braking distances, but they’re really good – confidence-inspiring and, unlike the accelerator, progressive. It feels good to feather the throttle round the corner and then bury it, just to feel the speed and enjoy that noise. I’m being quite gentle though. I think when this car bites, it won’t tell you anything is going to happen and will bite you. With an Esprit it’s all about going round corners; with this it’s just get round the corner.’
After half an hour’s play, we come to a stop in a deserted car park with stunning views and pop the boot, removing the engine bay tray to get a look at the longitudinal engine and gearbox layout – it’s like the Russian doll V8 big brother to the Lotus Europa. ‘As a non-engineer it makes sense, the engine is right in the middle of the car and therefore the weight well-balanced. To be honest, when I first fell in love with the Pantera I didn’t even know what engine was in it – that knowledge came later.’
Paul reaches into his bag and brings out a photo album; it’s marked De Tomaso Supercar Day. We spend time flicking through pictures of a cornucopia of Italian exotics, each with a written caption from the hand of his teenage self. Once done, he pulls out another album, this time with a Prancing Horse on the front. ‘I have an admission to make – the Pantera isn’t my first choice. When I was 15 my friend arranged a visit to Maranello Sales, and I was allowed to start up a 328. The Pantera would be in my top five cars to own, but for me the Ferrari is top.’
Fair enough, that’s the deal with The List, it’s a top 10. Just as we’re about to get back in, an elderly couple walk past and I swear I hear the gentleman state, ‘that’s a Pantera.’ There’s a brief pause, before he walks across to us. ‘I used to own one,’ he explains.
‘I was in the motor trade and bought it from a Bentley dealer about 30 years ago – it was a white, L-registration – I didn’t keep it long though, the engine was knackered. It’s lovely to have seen this today, though.’ And before we’ve even had a chance to ask his name, they continue on.
‘I’ve never even seen one on the road,’ says an incredulous Paul. ‘And here we are in the middle of nowhere, and we meet a guy that used to have one – what are the chances? It’s like going on holiday to a remote location and seeing an old school classmate.’ Talking of educational establishments, as we climb back in, a large coach pulls up beside us, depositing numerous college-age girls excitedly in conversation.
As the V8 detonates into life their chatter stops instantaneously, their collective look – meerkats suddenly on high alert for predators – is priceless. ‘You’d never get bored of that,’ he says, pulling back onto the Queen’s highway. ‘Let’s give those corners another try.’
The more Paul drives the Pantera, the more confident he becomes. His earlier ‘just get round the corner’ ethos is slowly evolving. ‘The mass is quite well-balanced. I track my Boxster, so I’m used to finding a car’s limits,’ he says, pushing harder into the next bend. ‘Obviously I’m nowhere near the limit because I’m on the road, but there I can feel the nose just wanting to continue. It feels light at the front, but you can corner hard in it – the chassis is actually very good; it’s just a case of setting the car up, feel it understeer and then hold on. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to do it in the wet, and hats off to the people that raced these.’
For our return route, we head north out of the Forest on the A22. East of Godstone, the arrival of dual carriageway heralds another taster of foot-down action, as Paul briefly unleashes all the Cleveland’s ponies.
‘This car is an event,’ says Paul. ‘It reminds me of my old TVR. It’s not about being seen, or overtaking, or cornering… it’s just an event. Every element, from key turn to putting a tape on the stereo.’ By the way, we’re on Jet from Wings’ Band on the Run album.
‘I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but I’m also going to contrast it with my Suzuki Swift Sport runabout. You see, it’s like a go-kart, and with low-profile tyres it’s harsh, but so direct. I really love it. With this, I was expecting to be pushed around by potholes in the road, and while you can feel them the ride is actually quite nice. I love this era of car, the smell of sun, plastic and petrol – you really can’t beat it.
‘It does come with compromises, though; throttle response is all-or-nothing, heavy low-speed controls, a tight footwell. You have to think about every element of driving it; it doesn’t respond well to quick direction changes, and it wouldn’t get past a track day’s noise limit… but then they’re things you’d miss if they weren’t there. With my TVR I never knew if it’d start or break down, but it features in almost all my top 10 drives. Also, I used to drive a Triumph Spitfire that used to earth itself going round corners and the horn would go off. We just used to wave to people when it happened, and they waved back. I miss that.’
Paul’s self-analysis has continued and it’s lent me a valuable insight into his thinking. And it’s taking a very distinct direction. ‘You know logistically I could have one as a day-to-day car. I can cycle to work, and take the train for meetings in London – there’s real man maths going on in my head, I could do this.’
We’ve taken the scenic route back to showroom, but on a this beautiful day it’d have been rude not to. Back on the High Street, it’s time to harry and harass the town’s residents with music. Doing anything quiet in a Pantera is impossible, and this car’s discreet early looks lend it an extra element of surprise – it took later variations to ensure its looks evolved to match how it sounded. As we park up, it’s time for Paul’s final thoughts. ‘What an experience! Would I buy one, yes. It’s exclusive, different but with great looks and performance. I’d love to spend 18 months finding the right one, because I have a feeling they will all be slightly different. Imagine if I had a Ferrari and a friend came round, I’d show him it and that’d be the end of the conversation, but with this ‘what’s a De Tomaso?’ would merely be the beginning. ‘Earlier I said a Ferrari 328 would be the one to buy, but that’s like going to see Coldplay at Wembley with 80,000 other people. This on the other hand is watching Mansun at a local venue with 300 others – a proper sweaty gig and an extraordinary experience. I have always preferred the smaller venues…’
Thanks to Justin Banks (justinbanks.com, 01892 536813), who currently has this Pantera for sale, and the De Tomaso Drivers Club (detomasodc.co.uk)
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1974 De Tomaso Pantera
Engine All-iron 5763cc, ohv V8, with single four-barrel Autolite carburettor
Max Power 310bhp @ 5400rpm;
Max Torque 325lb ft @ 3600rpm
Transmission Five-speed ZF manual, rear-wheel drive
Brakes dual circuit ventilated discs
Suspension Front and rear: independent by unequal-length wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bars
Steering Rack and pinion
Weight 1426kg (3145lb)
Performance 0-60mph: 5.8sec;
Top speed: 139mph
Fuel consumption 17mpg
Cost new £6578
Asking price £59,995
The twitchy throttle initially troubles Paul but he lauds the gearchange. Paul’s Pantera fascination was sparked by the vertical stereo. Paul prefers the pure pre-1980 shape. Tom Tjaarda of Ghia penned the Pantera’s lines. A whopping 5.7-litre, all-iron US V8 supplies the power.
‘Now that’s a proper gearchange.’ Paul tries the long-throw lever. Designer Tom Tjaarda created a shape that accentuated where the power came from. Paul finishes one of his dream drives and starts plotting how he can justify buying one as his daily driver.
PAUL’S DREAM DRIVE LIST
‘Sat in a 328GTS at Maranello Sales in Egham when I was 14 and started it – wanted to drive one since, but never have.’
‘Like my 280i – amazing and scary, but turned up to 11.’
Porsche 911 3.2 Carrera
‘Late-Eighties car with G50 ’box, please.’
‘The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only have a lot to answer for.’
De Tomaso Pantera
‘Italian styling and US muscle, why would you not want to own one?’
Porsche 944 Turbo
‘Owned a 924S, but would like more power with that chassis.’
‘Beautiful – perfect for a spring day with nowhere in particular to be.’
‘The most beautiful car in the world? Has to be on my list.’ Aston Martin V8 Vantage ‘B-reg, if possible with optional rocket launchers though preferably not driving in the snow.’
‘Amazing chase with one in the Highlands in my Boxster – one of my top 10 drives.’
PAUL’S CAR CV
A love of drop-tops plus the odd coupé
TRIUMPH HERALD 13/60 CONVERTIBLE
‘Paid £1500 and made a true profit on it. When my daughters were young we used to sing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when out for a drive.’
‘I bought it for under £1k for a Top Gear-style challenge. Drove to Germany, raced the ‘Ring, met friends, drove back and sold it for a profit!’
‘Every drive was a real hairs-standing-up-on-my-arms moment. One of the best drives I had was in a TVR convoy to the Big Bad Wedge Fest.’
PORSCHE BOXSTER (986) 2.7
‘This car had one owner, 55,000 miles and lots of service history – all for just £5k! It hasn’t missed a beat and has been very cheap to run.’
MAZDA MX-5 MkI
‘It had the best gear change and was always fun without the need for stupid speeds. Bought with my Deal or No Deal TV show winnings.’