As an automotive work of art, the Pantera had few equals, and as an agile high-performance car, it was among the best. On price alone, it should have been one of the most successful sports machines ever created.
The Pantera didn’t exactly turn out that way, but this mid-engine marvel still turns heads today just as it did when it first hit the streets back in 1970.
The idea behind the Pantera was straightforward. Ford would import its Italian-crafted sports car to North America and offer it to the public for less than half the price of any other competitor.
That was what Lee Iacocca, at the time president of the Ford Motor Company, had envisioned in 1969 when he convinced his boss, Henry Ford II, to purchase controlling interest in Alejandro De Tomaso’s specialty car company. What originally caught Iacocca’s eye was the Mangusta, the company’s initial luxury two-seater, which had been penned by the De Tomaso-owned Ghia studio. Being more of a businessman than a car builder, De Tomaso had not only farmed out the body work but had installed a virtually stock Ford 302-cubic-inch V-8 directly behind the passenger compartment.
The Mangusta was a modest and less-than-perfect success. The 400 buyers of the handmade machine that was built between 1967 and ’71 salivated over its sensuous lines and burbling exhaust note but cursed the terrible build quality and quirky handling.
The Mangusta was merely a warmup for De Tomaso’s next project: the Pantera (Panther), a car already at the mockup stage when Ford entered the picture. This time, the plan called for a run of 2,500 copies in the first 12 months and between 12,000 and 15,000 examples in total.
Although similar in size to the Mangusta, the Pantera’s all-steel unitized bodywork was developed by American Tom Tjaarda who worked at Ghia.
Ford supplied its high-compression 351-cubic-inch “Cleveland” V-8, which made 330 horsepower for the European market, but, with added pollution controls, generated a more modest 310 horses in North America. Compared to the 351 “Windsor” engine, the Cleveland’s cylinder heads had enormous valves and large intake ports.
Connected to the powerplant was a five-speed manual transmission, a superb piece of engineering that was worth two times the engine’s cost.
Initial tests confirmed the drivetrain’s potency. Zero-to-60 mph was acheived in 5.5 seconds, and the quarter-mile was reached in 14 seconds at 100 mph. The 1,400-kilogram Pantera topped out at 150 mph.
The result was unveiled at the 1970 New York Auto Show. Priced at $10,000, it cost twice as much as a Corvette, $4,000 more than an E-Type Jaguar and $3,000 more than a Porsche 911. However, if a genuine Italian-made supercars were your passion, their $20,000 price tags made the Pantera look like a bargain.
Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury division dealers were charged with selling Panteras, and the first of the 1971 cars, most featuring optional air conditioning and gorgeous magnesium wheels, began arriving shortly after the official launch.
Despite Ford’s best efforts, Iacocca’s imported star immediately developed teething problems. Engine noise and heat made the poorly ventilated cockpit uncomfortable. The awkward driving position — a hard-to-reach and strangely angled steering wheel that blocked the view of the gauges plus foot pedals that were positioned toward the middle of the floor — were less than driver-friendly. Other areas indicating a lack of design diligence included an oil dipstick that could only be pulled after unbolting a mesh grille behind the rear window, and a fuel tank that could only be filled by lifting the engine lid.
On the plus side, entering and exiting the Pantera was easy when compared to most other sports cars, the standard four-wheel power-disc brakes stopped the car with fade-free authority, and the throaty sounding engine performed without flaw.
In 1973, the Pantera was given a rubber nose piece and steel bar that ran along the back to comply with government-mandated bumper regulations. Both power and torque were reduced due to tougher smog-fighting requirements. Fortunately, some of the car’s earlier problems relating to engine overheating and interior ventilation had been improved.
By then, the end was near for Ford’s Italian-American hybrid. Ever-tougher bumper and crash-protection laws were on the books for 1975, regulations the Pantera had no hope of meeting without a complete redesign. Rather than taking that route, Ford bowed out of the exotic-car business at the end of the 1974 model year after constructing close to 6,000 vehicles.
After buying back his company back, De Tomaso continued to market a Pantera in very limited numbers for several more years until finally ending production for good in 1994.
These days, Panteras remain relatively low-cost special-interest collectibles. Considering Lee Iacocca’s original intentions, the car’s current affordability is entirely fitting.