By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Say Pantera — and many people think ’70s. Maybe ’80s.
But that was in fact the final year you could buy a brand-new Pantera (the very limited-run Pantera SI; of which only about 40 examples ever saw the light of day).
The car conceived by Argentinian race car driver turned exotic car maker Alessandro de Tomaso had survived almost long enough to see the repeal of the hated 55 MPH speed limit it was born to violate. Twenty-three years is a long production run for any car, but for an exotic car, it’s almost unheard of. Mostly because in order to remain exotic — and justify its exotic price — an exotic car must be frequently updated to take account of what’s catching up in the rear-view.
What was eyeball-flattening, magazine centerfold fast yesterday can very quickly become ho-hum by tomorrow.
Arguably, the Pantera survived as long as it did not merely because it was fast — but because of two other factors:
As much as speed mattered, it was the Pantera’s shock value — and accessibility — that enabled it to win hearts and minds for two decades-plus. Few things on four wheels have ever approached the louche stage presence of a Pantera: sexy styling with the brutal heart of a Holley-fed Ford 351 V-8 howling less than six inches behind the driver’s head. Even today — more than 20 years after the last one left the line, there are not many cars capable of inducing the drool reflex in teenage boys — and the fervent wish to be a teenage boy again — as effectively as a blood red or fly yellow Pantera.
But unlike poster-on-the-wall exotics — Ferraris and Lambos — the Pantera was a car a teenage boy (a middle class teenage boy) could realistically aspire to actually possess one day. Because unlike the purebreds, this mixed-breed wonder was not priced like Ferraris and Lambos . . . .
The first year, of course, was 1971.
Conceived as the replacement for the De Tomaso Mangusta, the Pantera was similar in layout but based on a steel monocoque design laid down by Tom Tjaarda — with the early bodies all hand-built by Italian coachbuilder Carrozzeria Vignale.
Like its predecessor, the Pantera was a mid-engined car, with the engine being a Ford small block. But the Pantera would receive a less-small block than the Mangusta — which used the 289/302 V-8, tuned to 306 hp. To up the performance ante — very necessary in 1971, when 306 hp was not that much to write home about — a larger, stronger 351 Ford V-8 was fitted. Featuring 11:1 compression and a high-performance camshaft, this engine was factory rated at 330 hp — enough scoot to deliver not just muscle car-quick acceleration (0-60 in 5.5 seconds; a high 13 second quarter mile) but also a genuinely exotic 159 mph top end. In 1971, that was big speed. And would remain so for at least another ten years. In fact, as the performance capability of the average car began to droop beginning around 1972 — flat-lining by ’75, when the first catalytic converters came online and not to rebound until well into the 1980s — exotics like the Pantera seemed all the more exotic.
However — and very much unlike other exotics of its era — the Pantera was not exotically priced. Well, not impossibly priced. The ’71 carried an MSRP of $9,800. Not cheap, certainly — but still within the reach of a determined middle-class working stiff.
For some perspective, a run-of-the-mill ’71 Corvette coupe stickered for $5,496.
A Ferrari 365 GTB cost $23,000 … to start.
And the Pantera — sold at first through Lincoln-Mercury dealers — had a Ford drivetrain. That meant it was affordable to keep. Routine service such as tune-ups and fluid/filter changes cost about the same as they would for a Mustang or Maverick. Even major engine work was blue collar-priced. And not only that, blue collar-doable. Very much unlike a Ferrari or Lamborghini — or even a Porsche. With them, you not only had to be in a position to afford the car, you had to be in a position to afford the mechanic.
And the parts.
This is why even used Ferraris are hard bargains — while a Pantera with a tired engine can be brought back to life by almost anyone who has the scratch (and the skill) to resuscitate a worn-out Mustang.
The Pantera was also luxurious — at a time when most exotics were anything but. For example, air conditioning — and power windows — were standard equipment. AC was merely offered in the Ferrari 365 — but would cost you another grand, bringing its MSRP to nearly $25k in early ’70s FRNs — or more than twice as much as the cost of a new Pantera with AC.
A radio, however, was not included — though there was a slot for one and the car had the necessary pre-wiring. According to legend, Alessandro De Tomaso felt that most owners would rather hear the 351 sing than Janis Joplin.
Probably, he was right!
And unlike other exotics then — and now — the Pantera was a very everyday drivable car, chiefly because of its big Ford V-8. Because unlike a Ferrari twelve, it made lots of torque as well as horsepower — and made it at low RPMs. It was not necessary to wind the engine to 4,000 RPM and feather the clutch to avoid stalling the car out. The ZF five-speed transaxle (same as the one used in the LeMans-winning Ford GT 40) used a hydraulic-assist clutch, too — something ubiquitous today but very unusual in ’71. It made working the third pedal easy — not like doing 300 pound leg presses at the gym (as was the case with most ’60s-early ’70s-era muscle cars).
And of course, the Ford V-8 was as simple — and inexpensive — to modify for even more power as any Mustang’s. A weekend/$200 cam swap and some carb jetting/ignition tuning could — and did — get 400-plus hp out of the Bluto Blutarsky 351 without requiring the bank account of a mogul — or the technical skills of a Ferrari mechanic.
Some derided the car for just that reason — mocking the Pantera as the bastardized offspring of a union between the High — and the Low. But this only made the car more appealing to those who owned one. It was fun to mess with Ferraris — as Carroll Shelby (and Ford) did a few years previously with the AC Cobra. To rub the noses of the cognoscenti in the fact that a cast iron, two-valve, single cam, pushrod, single four barrel V-8 engine was not only a match for an overhead cam aluminum V-12, but in many ways, superior to it. Short of deliberate abuse, it is very hard to hurt a 351 — and if not abused, they’ll go for 100,000 miles without major work. Ferrari V-12s are beautiful things, but 100k and largely fuss-free things?
Not so much.
In its second year of production, the Pantera lost its high compression 351 — but gained a more aggressive camshaft to make up for it — fitted to a heavier-duty version of the 351. This was the 351 Cleveland — a four-bolt main version of the 351 more or less the same as the one used in the same year Mustang Mach 1. It had 9.0:1 compression and — in the Mustang — was rated at 275 hp. That may seem a precipitous drop, but one must keep in mind that 1972 was also the year the industry switched from reporting engine output in terms of SAE gross hp to SAE net — which is the way it’s done to this day. SAE gross hp was measured with the engine on a test stand — not in the car — and typically done without a production exhaust system and with a “power tune” to extract the highest-possible number. SAE gross typically over-stated the output of the engine in production tune, installed in the car, by anywhere from 20-30 percent. So, the ’72′s 275 SAE net was still in the range of 310 SAE gross hp — and very solid by any measure.
And: The fat Holley 750 still sucked air right behind the driver’s head; the .50 cal quad exhaust still spewed rearward via a set of factory tube headers and no interference from catalytic converters.
De-tuned or not, a Pantera was something special.
Though its straight-line performance was about the same as the Mangusta’s, the Pantera was a much better balanced car — literally. Its weight split (front to rear) was 40.9 percent/59.1 percent vs. the Mangusta’s rear-biased 32/68 percent split. The nose light, ass-heavy Mangusta was an easier car to get into trouble in. Real trouble — not just the legal kind. The Pantera might get you to the top of the local cop shop’s Enemies List — but it was less likely to get your name into the obituary pages.
The car’s main defects were atrocious rearward visibility (but then, what is behind you does not matter — as per Ferrucio Lamborghini) often-iffy electrics and a tendency to rust if allowed to get wet.
Ford bowed out of official involvement with the car after the 1975 model year — by which time about 5,500 Panteras had been sold through Lincoln-Mercury stores. But Alessandro De Tomaso refused to let the car die on the vine and continued to build them — in reduced numbers but ever-increasing audacity — all the way into the early 1990s. Upgrades included massive pontoon fenders and airfoils on the outside — and ever more opulence inside in the form of Lusso and GTS versions with sumptuous, hand-fitted leather door panels, dashes and seat covers.
The last of the line Panteras — formally, Pantera SIs — returned to the smaller Ford 5 liter (302) V-8, but power was up to 500 hp — more than sufficient to keep up with 1990s-era supercars such as the Ferrari Testarossa — which was only slightly quicker than the original 1971 Pantera (0-60 in 5.4 seconds vs. 5.5) and just 11 MPH faster on top (170 MPH vs. 159).
That’s pretty solid for a car born during the early Nixon years.
And although today’s supercars may be quicker — and faster — none of them can touch the experience of letting loose an air bag-free, traction-uncontrolled Pantera 351.
Just you and it — and nothing and no one getting in the way.