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He built racing cars, Ford-powered exotics, and helped save Maserati
Pure entrepreneurism doesn’t always make itself evident all at once. Sometimes, a person’s got to get firmly into adulthood before he acquires the proper combination of ambition and nerve. Not this guy. Alejandro de Tomaso, who ran Maserati at the time our 1987 Biturbo feature car on page 28 of this issue was being designed and manufactured, was literally born into a family of great accomplishment. His father was Italian, but his mother was a native Argentinian, hailing from the country where he was born in 1928. His father was hugely famous in Argentina, rising to become the nation’s prime minister before he suddenly died of a heart attack.
The family ran an extensive cattle operation on the Pampas, and following his father’s untimely death at age 38, Alejandro dropped out of school so he could learn to run it. Within five years, he was fully in charge of the numerous de Tomaso ranchos. He was also beginning to dabble in auto racing then, and became involved with a dissident newspaper that called for the overthrow of Argentina’s strongman, Juan Peron. That was a dangerous pastime under Peron’s dictatorship, and de Tomaso was eventually forced to flee to Italy. Undeterred, he became a Maserati mechanic in Modena.
Maserati was aware of his racing experience in South America, and soon chose him as a factory driver. He racked up wins at an international meet in Buenos Aires, took a class victory at Sebring and managed to capture the Index of Performance at Le Mans. His wife and sometime co-driver had some wealthy American relatives. De Tomaso started his own business building lightweight formula cars, and others too numerous to mention. One of them was his first Formula 1 car. Success was moderate but de Tomaso, now calling himself Alessandro, was getting known in the business. In 1965, the Ford Motor Company, rudely rebuffed in its effort to buy Ferrari, came calling and proposed a partnership. Ford began supplying engines for installation in de Tomaso cars, starting with the sporting Vallelunga, the company’s first production car, which used Ford Cortina power.
Meanwhile, de Tomaso used his in-laws’ resources to go on a buying binge, acquiring the custom coachbuilders Ghia and Vignale, along with Benelli and Moto Guzzi, the motorcycle manufacturers, and Innocenti. But his best-known products were the Italian-American hybrid exotics that he produced in partnership with Ford, climaxing with the mid-engine Pantera, of which several thousand were sold stateside through Lincoln- Mercury dealerships. But the deal didn’t work out, in part because of new federal safety and smog laws. By 1974, Ford and de Tomaso dissolved their relationship.
It didn’t mean that de Tomaso was destitute. His car company endured to produce specialty offerings such as the Longchamp, the four-door Deauville luxury sedan and a two-door version of the Deauville. By this time, the Italian government had recruited de Tomaso to rescue Maserati from bankruptcy, and his strategy was to transition it from ultra-exotics to higher-volume cars. The two-door Deauville concept shortly became the basis for the new Maserati Kyalami, with four-cam V8 power and bodywork interpreted by Frua. Ford ultimately bought Ghia from de Tomaso to add an Italian flair to such cars as the Mustang II and Granada. Vignale and Maserati were ultimately sold to Fiat. De Tomaso suffered a stroke in 1993, but managed to contribute engineering upgrades to a performance version of the Daihatsu Charade. He died in 2003.