This De Tomaso Pantera Group 4 Tribute Car Is A Restoration With Motorsport Flair
Story by Alexander Byles
Photography by Marco Annunziata
At the end of the 1960s, Ford wanted to exploit the sporting successes achieved by the GT40 while also combating the resounding commercial success of General Motors’ Corvette. Their answer was a mid-engined sports car for the American market, and thus the concept for the Pantera came into being.
Alejandro de Tomaso’s wife, Isabelle Haskell, a rich American heiress who emigrated to Italy (incidentally, to attempt a career as a racing driver), belonged to a family that had a large amount of shares in Ford (and in General Motors) so using some influence the construction of the concept was entrusted to de Tomaso. The prototype was built on the technical scheme of the De Tomaso Mangusta, designed by Gianpaolo Dallara with bodywork by Tom Tjaarda.
Ford wanted to sell the Pantera at a much lower price than the artisanal Ferraris, Maseratis, and Lamborghinis of the day, and needed a higher production rate, so the expensive Mangusta mid-beam chassis was replaced by a less expensive steel monocoque body.
The engine was derived from the Ford 351 Cleveland, a 5.8L V8 fed in its later years by a Holley four-body carburetor and capable of delivering 330hp, and the Pantera followed a typical format for the era’s sporting GTs: rear-wheel drive, suspension with overlapping triangles (both front and rear), self-ventilated disc brakes, ZF five-speed synchronized manual gearbox, and a self-locking differential.
De Tomaso presented the Pantera for the first time in the United States at the 1970 New York Motor Show, where the agreeable combination of Italian style (though it must be said that Tjaarda was born in Detroit) and American power impressed many supercar enthusiasts. Still, as today, some of the snobbier sort turned up their noses. They weren’t enough to dampen the overall reception, though, an in the first four years of sales (with the official support of Ford), of the 7258 units manufactured, 6380 were sold, 80% of which ended up in the USA where the Pantera was sold through Ford’s Mercury dealer network—including a yellow example purchased by Elvis Presley as a gift for his girlfriend Linda.
However, the disastrous impact of the 1973 oil crisis on the car market—especially for models at the thirstier end of the fuel consumption spectrum—resulted in Ford abandoning the Pantera project at the end of that same year. The loss of the sales network in the United States, and the loss of the Vignale factories and Ghia consultancy that had become Ford’s property, caused Pantera production to drop to a few dozen units with a consequent sudden increase in the list price.
In the car’s remaining favor were the stamps of approval it acquired thanks to its racing performance, starting in 1972 in Groups 3, 4, Group 5. The Pantera’s motorsport aptitude led to De Tomaso continuing production for many years. The first series of the Pantera continued all the way until manufacturing came to an end for good in the early 1990s.
Unlike the majority that made the voyage Stateside, the example in these photos has never left Europe. It came out of the factory in 1976 as a Pantera L with the Ford V8 engine and the same light blue factory color, but without the pearlescent finish that’s been applied in the time since.
When Cristiano, the owner of this car, was a boy, his father traded cars. Of everything that passed through, it was the Pantera that took the strongest hold his attention. It was his dream car from that time on, but a standard Pantera wouldn’t cut it. Years later in his adulthood, upon finding an advertisement for a Pantera for sale in Germany—albeit one requiring a lot of work—he didn’t think twice. He bought the car, and with the help of a group of trusted mechanics and bodywork specialists, Cristiano set about making his Group 4 tribute car.
When the Group 4 Panteras began their racing career in 1972, developed by one of Britain’s greatest racer-engineers, Mike Parkes, and powered by engines built by Bud Moore, it managed to set Le Mans’ fastest lap for a car of its class during practice, although the race itself wasn’t a success. Similar experiences demonstrated that the Pantera was more at home in events requiring less endurance, so its attention was shifted to the European GT Championship.
By 1973, its engines were now being produced in Modena rather than just installed there. While the original 5763cc capacity of the 351 Cleveland V8 was retained, tuning increased the compression ratio to 12.0:1, with output consequently increased to 490hp at 7000rpm. Further modifications that helped to achieve the additional power included four Weber 48 IDA twin-piston carbs, plus a new exhaust set up—a new five-speed ZF gearbox also had to be added to handle the dramatic increase in power.
The results were certainly effective, and the Group 4 cars won EGTC rounds in Italy, Belgium, and Germany with Mike Parkes and the Swiss talent Clay Regazzoni driving, though the Pantera GT4’s greatest success came at the 1973 Giro d’Italia. The first iteration of the event in its modern history, it encompassed circuit racing, time trials, and hill climbs, where the Pantera of Casoni and Minganti defeated the biggest marques of the moment across three arduous days of racing.
The power of the Ford V8 originally mounted in Cristiano’s Pantera was sufficient in comparison to sports cars of the time, but the character was certainly not aggressive enough to emulate the Group 4 cars he idolized as a kid. Instead, a Cleveland 351 of the time was chosen—according to Christian’s mechanic this was because of their stability compared to the later variants—and then it was modified to produce a similar output to the original racing engines.
To reach the character of the Group 4 setup, additions to Cristiano’s motor included a balanced, forged steel crankshaft, forged H-beam connecting rods, and forged pistons. Meanwhile, the cylinder heads were made from aluminum with a CNC machined combustion chamber and hand-finished ducts. Weber double-barrel IDF carburetors and TIG-welded stainless steel exhaust manifolds are also tributes to the original.
The result is a far more aggressive character with the increased torque most evident around the 3000-3500rpm range, while the engine is able to spin onwards to 7000rpm, where Cristiano’s mechanic believes it has an advantage over the original which he says would have started to lag after 6000rpm. To handle the power, the clutch has been adapted but the original ZF gearbox, also used on the Ford GT40 and BMW M1, remains in place.
The aesthetic choice was also intended to respect the style of the time, and 15″ wheels feature as per the original, but with handcrafted channels sized accordingly. Meanwhile, self-ventilated front discs instead of the solid originals are still compatible with the original Ford production hubs. For improved safety, a new brake pump and brake booster with aeronautical piping have been added.
The bodywork has been modified by widening the arches as per the original Group 4 cars, and after sandblasting and restoration the body received the slightly pearlescent finish in the light blue of the Argentine flag, in honor of Alejandro de Tomaso’s heritage. Rather than outfitted like the racing specification of the era, the interior has been restored to its original condition along with some period-correct-style sport seats.
This restoration, restomod, whatever you want to call it, is an interesting take on a tribute. It wasn’t built to cash in on any trends or for a quick sale, but is instead the result of a childhood dream coming to something like fruition. It’s not identical to the Group 4 racing cars Cristiano fell in love with, but it also goes further than simply alluding to their spirit. The result in somewhere in the middle, which if children’s tales have taught us anything, can sometimes mean it’s just right.