After early forays into building single-seater for Formula Junior and Formula 2, Alejandro de Tomaso joined the ranks of Italian sports car builders back in 1963. The first offering was the mid-engined Vallelunga which used a backbone chassis to which was bolted a 1600 cc Ford Cortina engine; this took all the rear suspension loads via arms on the transaxle bell housing. The theme was extended at the 1965 Turin Show with a sports racing car using a bigger backbone which carried a 271 bhp Ford Mustang engine; never raced, this formed the basis of the Mangusta using body styling by Giugiaro while he was working at Ghia.

Production started in 1967, the year that de Tomaso acquired Ghia – Ghia built the bodies in Turin and de Tomaso fitted the power train in Modena. The same year saw Ghia in production with the Giugiaro designed Maserati Ghibli. Meanwhile, Ford of America, having tried to buy Ferrari in the early ‘sixties, were still on the look-out for an Italian supercar to add to the Lincoln range.

They liked the Ghibli and came to look at Mangusta in 1969, at which time Tom Tjaada had just completed a scale model of a new Ford-powered sports car. Ford didn’t like the Mangusta, largely because it wouldn’t pass the forthcoming stricter American safety first standards, but they saw a better future for the Tjaada car and signed an agreement in September 1969 for technical corporation between Ford of America, Ghia and de Tomaso who would build concept cars and niche vehicles for Ford. The first of these would be the Pantera, to be built at the rate of 100,000 a year with de Tomaso retaining the right to non-American sales.

Dallara came from Lamborghini to redesign the chassis which followed contemporary racing practice with a sheet steel monocoque centre section with strong sills; Ford’s latest 351 (5752 cc) V8 was attatched to the rear and mated to a ZF transaxle. Ghia didn’t have enough space to assemble the cars in the required quantity so de Tomaso acquired the Vignale factory in late 1969. Less than a year later, Ford had acquired 84% of de Tomaso’s Ghia/ Vignale/ Pantera operation.

Nearly 300 Panteras were sold in Europe in 1970, but American approval didn’t come until 1971 after a certain amount of Ford ‘productionisation’. US sales were slower than anticipated, with 1550 in 1972 and 2030 in 1973; and then came the energy crisis. This coupled with even stricter emission laws coming for 1975, forced Ford to stop importing the Pantera and close the Vignale plant in the late 1974, by which time they had taken over de Tomaso’s minority shareholding and had become owners of Ghia and Vignale. De Tomaso continued to build the Pantera in Modena and has continued to update it ever since with more power, wider wheels and aerodynamics appendages.

Where the original 300 bhp Pantera would reach nearly 150 mph on the right gearing, the 1985 GT5-S clocked 160 mph. In 1990, the bodywork was restyled by Gandini and the engine had changed to the Ford 302 V8 using fuel injection to give 305 bhp. You can still buy one on this form, or as the Pantera 200 with twin turbos and 530 bhp; the 200 denotes 200 mph, but no one has yet put to the test.

Meanwhile de Tomaso launched the Guara in 1993, now available in open, coupe or Targa forms. Once again, it has backbone chassis but this time in aluminium honeycomb and composites; 304 bhp comes from a 4.0 liter BMW V8, which should give it a maximum speed around 160 mph. Throughout its long career, the Pantera displayed the virtues of Italian flair with old-fashioned, but economical, American muscle. It was fast, stylish, easy to maintain and established the de Tomaso name in the sports-car world. With the company now being run by the founder’s son, Santiago, the Guara should keep the flag flying.