DeTomaso Pantera lived fast and died young in the U.S.
If Jay Bernstein is ever having a bad day, he knows he has a quick remedy just one turn of the key away.
Doldrums don’t last long behind the wheel of a DeTomaso Pantera, and Bernstein can attest to that first-hand, thanks to his glorious yellow Italian-American supercar.
“It’s got this sound,” says Bernstein, with a touch of amazement. “It’s very visceral. You’ve got this roar right behind you, and it’s a mid-engine car so you’ve got this engine maybe a foot from your head. It’s just such a powerful sound. And it’s a five-speed and it just doesn’t stop pulling. It pulls and pulls. Those cars were capable of 160 mph!”
Bernstein bought his Pantera in 2012 and in the process fulfilled a dream he had been revisiting since the early 1970s. Not everybody remembers when the Panteras were prowling American showrooms more than 45 years ago, but Bernstein does.
“I’ve always wanted one. The first time I saw one was back when I was in med school in Louisville, and I saw one in the window at a Lincoln-Mercury dealership and I went inside and sat in the car and it was just beautiful,” he recalled. “From then on I always wanted one.”
Bernstein says the first shot he really ever had to get one was when he met up with the owner of one at a big car show almost in his backyard in Rockville, Md. “The show is a really big deal here. It’s a big destination show. And when I saw this car I struck up a conversation with the owner, who was also a car enthusiast like me. And I asked him if he was interested in selling it. Well, he has like ADD with cars — he has a car for a few months and then sells and then buys something different and then has that for a while and then sells it. Well, a few months later I was able to buy this car from him and it’s just a great car.”
The previous owner had bought the car on eBay back in 2008, Bernstein learned. Two owners before that, the car belonged to a physician in San Antonio, Texas, who apparently had two Panteras and elected to sell one of them. Before Bernstein bought the car, it had spent some time under the care of Pantera expert Ron McCall, who did some repair work and maintenance on the car. Bernstein has since become a friend and customer of McCall as well.
“They are relatively simple in how they are designed, but not everybody can work on them,” Bernstein noted. “Ron McCall lives about an our from here and he’s kind of the Pantera guru. He’s a wizard and lives and breathes this stuff.
“The odometer is in the [80,000s], and that could be right, I don’t know. The car is definitely not a garage queen, it’s been driven. It’s a very nice driver. I’ve had cars before that were kind of perfectly restored and concourse condition, and I ended up selling them because you were afraid to drive them. This is a beautiful car. It is not perfect, but it’s perfect for me.”
A Semi-Italian Visitor
The 1971-74 DeTomaso Pantera really had two claims to fame that separated it from almost any other car in any corner of the Earth:
— It was an Italian car with good ol’ Uncle Sam V-8 power — a pseudo exotic that wasn’t quite as foreign to American car guys as a Ferrari, Lamborghini or their ilk.
— It was probably the only mid-engine rocket ship that wasn’t priced in the stratosphere. The same guy who was buying a Corvette or Cadillac in the early ’70s could consider a Pantera and not have to sell his house or be threatened with divorce.
The Pantera was born when sports car builder Alejandro DeTomaso, an Italian who migrated to Argentina, convinced Lee Iacocca and the Ford brass to sell his new car in the U.S. The idea appealed to Iacocca and other Ford execs who no longer had the Cobra in Blue Oval stable.
The car would be a spinoff of DeTomaso’s Mangusta model sports car, which had led a checkered existence and was produced in low numbers from 1967-’71. Ghia designed the racy, wedge-shaped body of the car. Gian Paulo Dallara engineered the monocoque chassis and Ford supplied the 310-hp, 351-cid V-8 that would propel the Pantera to ridiculous speeds for the time period. Power was delivered through a five-speed transaxle. The cars were loaded up with power rack-and-pinion steering, independent front suspension, alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes and air-conditioning.
The Pantera debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1970 and the Modena, Italy assembly plant soon began building and sending cars to select Lincoln-Mercury showrooms in the U.S. The price tag of about $10,295 was a big pile of greenbacks for the early ’70s, but a far cry from the Ferrari 365 GTB/4s and Lamborghini Miuras of the world.
The Pantera may have been the hottest thing this side of the Atlantic when it came to pure performance. But as its relatively short life span would suggest, the car had its shortcomings. The Pantera seemed a bit out of place in traditional Lincoln-Mercury showrooms, and were strange foreign beasts to Blue Oval mechanics. Quality control seemed lacking and the car was criticized for a myriad of problems. Magazine scribes loved the car’s performance and excitement factor, but groused about the car’s fit and finish, ergonomics — drivers over 6 feet tall were in for a tight fit — and sauna-like cockpit.
Things got better after a year or so and the car was probably hitting its stride by 1973, but then the gas crisis hit. Fast cars that carried big V-8s were the last thing on many Americans’ shopping lists. There were new emissions standards that neutered such high-flying machines, and new safety standards — namely bumpers — that that the Pantera couldn’t meet without some substantial re-engineering.
Panteras were ultimately discontinued in America after 1974, but continued to soldier on for many years abroad with Ford of Australia supplying the engines. Between 5,600 and 6,091 cars were sold in the U.S., depending on which source you believe. A large number of those cars are far from factory-spec these days.
“Pantera owners are crazy about modifying their cars,” Bernstein pointed out. “A lot of other marque owners pay a premium for originality and untouched and all that. A lot of Pantera people modify them up the kazoo. That seems to be a thing with Panteras — crazy exhaust systems and all kinds of stuff. But [mine] is pretty stock.”
Bernstein says the driving experience of a Pantera is definitely different from most cars. The fun factor is off the charts, but it isn’t an all-day cruiser where the driver can just sit back, relax and chill out.
“You have to be very careful because the car is very low. Other drivers don’t always see it and you have to be careful and look around. The other thing is the car has very bad visibility when driving. You have to be really careful because there is really no rear quarter view from in the car. You can see straight behind you, but that’s it; not to the sides … But it’s like a go cart. Very responsive. You have to hold onto the wheel. It handles great, it’s flat and its mid-engine so the weight distribution is very good. And the sound is just fantastic. If you ever get close to one, have them start it up and rev it up and you’ll know what I mean.”
Bernstein knows he’ll have to keep answering the question “What is that?” for as long as he owns the car, but he’s happy to comply. He gets plenty of puzzled looks when he takes the car out for exercise in and around Rockville, but he gets a lot of grins, too. “Yeah, people don’t know what is — well, some people do, but a lot of them don’t — but you see a lot of people wave and give you a thumbs up,” he says.
“I love the car. It’s definitely one of my favorites. Even my wife [Sandra] likes that car, and she doesn’t like all my cars. So that’s a plus!”
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