Road test

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De Tomaso Pantera GTSS

“Whottleshedo, Mister?”

The De Tomaso Pantera GT5S is a star. I’ve never driven a car which has such an extraordinary effect on people. As you burble by, parents tear their children from toyshop windows to point the car out, motorists wind down their windows to shout compliments, schoolboys hoot with delight, van drivers come up with a snappy (and standard) comment: “Swap you, mate”, and you never have to remember precisely where you put it in a car park, you simply look for the inevitable crowd. I came out to it one morning to find “We love your car” written in the dew on the rear wing.

It is a star but when you deal with stars you often have to put up with an unusual temperament and numerous little ways. It’s part of dealing with stars. It is also an ageing star, for the basic concept has been with us for around 15 years,’ but has recently received a face-lift which will prolong its active life for a few years more. Like some film stars, the presence is all and you do not look too closely at the wrinkles.’

At various times during the Sixties, Ford tried to buy Ferrari, but settled for an agreement with Alessandro De Tomaso and bought the company which bears his name and Ghia.

De Tomaso built a Ford VS-engined, spaceframed, semi-exotic car called the Mangusta. Under new ownership this” was re-engineered with all-steel integral con­struction and became the Pantera. Production rose sharply and Ford, touting it as an Italian supercar, shifted them at an impressive rate. In less than three years around 6,000 were sold, mainly in the States and through Lincoln dealers.

By 1974, Ford had regretted the move. The cars suffered from rust and reliability problems and the trouble was exasperated by the fact that Ford was often selling to a new type of customer, one who was not necessarily the natural customer for this type of car. One needs a fairly high level of tolerance to own most exotic cars and this was perhaps lacking in many who walked into a showroom with a Lincoln in mina and drove out in a Pantera. Finally there was the 1974 Oil Crisis which dealt a body-blow to gas guzzlers. Ford sold the company back to De Tomaso.

The development programme which Ford had been pursuing was scrapped before the sale so interesting engine variants, among other things, were lost. De Tomaso decided instead to concentrate on building quality into the car with the intention of offering Ferrari Boxer or Lamborghini Countach performance and style but at a considerably lower price. The days of near-mass production are long gone, fewer than 200 cars a year are currently made.

The basic Pantera shape has remained as the base for the range. The GT5, with much wider wheels front and rear has additional wheel arch flares which has the look of a bolt-on body kit which, in a sense, it is, while the “S” model, which I recently drove for around 1,200 miles, has the arches integrated into the body to produce a flowing and sensuous shape.

One’s first impression is of solidness. The large doors are heavy and close with a satisfying clunk. The next impression is one of quality for the whole of the interior is beautifully finished in soft leather and while I have a few reservations about some of the interior styling these are swamped by an overwhelming sense of craftsmanship.

What this car’s designer knows about ergonomics, however, could be written on the back of a postage stamp – in block capitals. The tops of both the tach and speedo are obscured by the steering wheel, two banks of four warning lights on the dashboard are invisible with one’s hands on the wheel and, for some reason, the speedo is calibrated in kph with the mph increments writ small. Earlier rhd Panteras had their speedos calibrated in mph so I don’t understand the problem.

Apart from a single stalk which operates main beam, horn and indicators, the other functions are operated by rocker switches which, along with auxiliary dials, are arranged on a central console in no particular order. You have to take your eyes from the road to read the dials. The designer’s masterpiece is a digital clock in front of the passenger so it cannot be read by the driver. There is no glove compartment, while the door pockets will take little more than 20 cigarettes.

As one of average height, I found it possible to get a relatively comfortable driving position but I feel sorry for a six footer. Although there is a great deal of space in the footwell, the pedals are placed ridiculously far back when it would be quite easy to have adjustable pedals. It is not possible to heel and toe and nor is it possible to place one’s foot square on the brake pedal which, given the amount of pressure it needs, is a disadvantage.

The windscreen wipers are too short and I doubt if more than 60% of the screen is swept, while the washers are nowhere near powerful enough for a car of the Pantera’s performance. The shame is that all these faults are both obvious and simple to rectify.

Prices of the Pantera range begin at £25,691 but “my” car with its leather trim, air conditioning, big tyres, tuned engine and optional rear wing cost £38,250 which is pretty reasonable as far as supercars go. Servicing and maintenance costs should be significantly lower than many of the Pantera’s rivals though fuel consumption worked out at an average 13.27 mpg excluding performance testing.

Luggage space is fairly generous ‘for a mid-engined car, there is a fibreglass luggage container in the rear which can be easily removed for access to the engine and transmission while, at the front, there is a compartment which just takes a space-saver spare tyre. I would have liked to have seen sound proofing in the engine bay for there is a lot of noise in the car and a span of ear­tingling resonance at around 2,000 rpm.

Ford’s 5,763 cc VS “Cleveland” engine is mounted amidships and drives through a 5- speed ZF transaxle with · limited slip differential. The engine in “my car” was in Group 3 tune with a four barrel Holley carb, special cams, stronger valve springs and some work on the head. This gives a claimed 350 bhp at 6,000 rpm with a mighty 333 lb ft torque at 3,800 rpm. With muscle like that, the car will actually take off in top gear. 0-160 mph in fifth! The Pantera can back up its good looks.

Driving on public roads, I came nowhere near exploring the limits of the car but felt that they are very high indeed. You have to work very hard to spin the wheels, for example, for the traction is superb. Only occasionally did I feel the rear end begin to break away, but we are talking of fractions here. One would need to be a driver of professional racing standards to take the Pantera to its limits but we lesser beings enjoy extraordinary performance in the knowledge that one is doing so with a huge margin of safety.

On paper, the engine sounds fiercesome but it is not. Awesome, yes, but not fiercesome. On the open road, it’s a bit like having the biggest, and toughest, kid in the playground as your devoted pal. Nothing else you are liable to meet need worry you. Around town, however, my experience was less pleasureable for one of the plug leads was playing up and the points had seen better days. Driving out of London in very heavy traffic was frankly unpleasant for the plugs kept fouling and the engine would pop and bang on getaway. The clutch action is very heavy and constant start-stop driving became extremely tiring. I also found that the plush-looking seats were uncomfortable in the lumbar region (all my passengers felt the same) and, in fact, do not provide very much support .

Once clear of town things should have been different but the optional rear wing so restricts rear vision that a police car can approach to within 30 yards without you being able to see any more than its bonnet. Unless you have a passenger keeping watch you will not be aware of a patrol car coming out of a slip road. With the car attracting so much attention, one is well advised to obey all speed limits.

When you do find conditions which allow a little freedom, the car comes into its own. The power goes onto the road entirely without fuss through the rear 13J wheels with Pirelli P7 345/40 VR 15 tyres and there is massive torque for overtaking. The Pantera understeers but is very responsive to throttle adjustment and is utter bliss on sweeping curves.

The car’s ride is comfortable and the whole machine feels very taut and solid. Care must be taken, however, on country roads if one is to avoid bottoming. Steering is very precise but the action is heavy (10J rims with 285/40 VR 15 Pirellis are fitted to the front) and I would have welcomed power-assisted steering, while the car’s stability is very impressive indeed, even at 150 mph in a strong cross-wind. The gear change, however, is imprecise and you have to feel your way through the chromed gate with little assistance from the mechanism itself.

When we came to do our performance figures we hit a snag for one of the valves had started to play up. Gary Evans, the F3 driver, sportingly volunteered to lend his car (a GT5 to identical mechanical specification, the test car is the only “S” model in, the country) and I operated the test equipment while Gary pushed the pedals.

Gary was unwilling to subject his car to the rigours of a really rapid 0-60 mph time but I’m happy to accept the claimed time of 5.5 seconds. We achieved 10-30 mph in just 1.5 seconds. 30-50 mph came up in 2.3 seconds while 50-70 and 70-90 mph figures were 3.0 seconds and 3.8 seconds respectively.

On the two mile straight at Bruntingthorpe we recorded a best one way speed of 160 mph, with more to come. Our mean for two runs was 156 mph and that on a wet surface with a strong cross-wind. As we’ve said before, what can be achieved in two miles is a fair indication of what is reasonably possible in real driving conditions. A (mean) speed of 156 mph in two miles is extraordinary performance.

As I said at the start, the Pantera is a star. It has its shortcomings but the overall effect is stunning. To own one, you have to take the attitude of a woman who wears an evening gown which makes her look, and feel, a million dollars and who is therefore prepared to put up with the fact that it’s too tight to be comfortable. – M.L.

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