Welcome, one and all, to the Grand Finale of this edition of Italian Deadly Sins. And I’m not using the term lightly. This is truly going to be a fireworks display of Deadly Sinnitude in all its Italicisation. Well, with quite a lot of non-Italian contributions along the way, too.
The casting for this De Tomaso story is exceptional. British Leyland, Chrysler, Citroën, Daihatsu, Fiat, Ford, Ghia, Innocenti, Maserati, MG and Vignale all played a role, from cameo to co-star, in the De Tomaso saga. The leading role was played by Alejandro de Tomaso, a man whose empire was built on sand and swamps. The more he built it up, the quicker it sank.
Our leading man, Alejandro de Tomaso, was born in Buenos Aires in 1928. His early fascination with racecars was complicated by his opposition to the Perónist régime, which led to his abrupt departure for in Italy, his father’s country of birth, in 1954 – leaving behind his wife and three children. De Tomaso settled in Modena, working as a mechanic at Maserati. He was itching to get in the driver’s seat, which he did with OSCA in the late ‘50s. Remarried in 1957 to American heiress (and complete petrolhead) Isabelle Haskell, Alejandro de Tomaso founded his own company, De Tomaso Automobili, in 1959. The De Tomasos usually Italianized their first names, going as Isabella and Alessandro.
Though focused on racecars in these early years, De Tomaso’s works on the outskirts Modena also prepared the firm’s first road car, the Vallelunga, which was displayed in 1963. Alejandro de Tomaso was more interested in selling the design than to produce the car under his own name, but no offers were received. The Vallelunga was mid-engined, using a 1.5 litre Ford Cortina mill and a modified VW Beetle transmission. It was a worthy first effort, clad with style (in GRP) by Fissore, though the pressed steel chassis was apparently rather less than well made.Aside from the coupé, a few roadsters were made, as well as an interesting Ghia convertible (below).
Only 50 Vallelungas were made in five years — a modest first draft. De Tomaso had a brainwave, due in no small part to the contemporary creations of ASA, Lamborghini and Rivolta’s new Iso, one assumes: the way to go was up. ASA weren’t selling many of their little 1-litre gems, whereas Lamborghini and Iso were already making money in the big leagues. Iso used Chevrolet V8s and others were using Chrysler, but De Tomaso had built a relationship with Ford. The Italo-American affair became torrid by 1966, with the launch of the Mangusta, available with either the 289 (in Europe) or the 302 (in America).
The Giugiaro-penned mid-engined coupé’s body was made by Ghia – the design had been originally offered to Iso, who weren’t interested. The first Mangustas were apparently sold under the Ghia marque, which the Turinese coachbuilder did a number of times in ‘60s. It seems Alejandro de Tomaso’s strong suit was sales. The Mangusta, though it was quite crude, looked like a million bucks and cost a smaller fraction of that sum than many of its competitors.
Hedging his bets, Alejandro de Tomaso also looked into EVs. De Tomaso teamed up with Rowan Industries, an American firm led by his wife’s brother and her brother-in-law, launching the Ghia-made De Tomaso Rowan electric city car in 1967. It’s unclear how many were made (we’re talking handfuls at most). But De Tomaso and Rowan Industries were setting up the basis of Alejandro de Tomaso’s meteoric rise through the acquisition, also in 1967, of Carrozzeria Ghia.
Alejandro de Tomaso toured the US and, thanks to his well-connected spouse, came back to Italy claiming he had received something like 300 orders for the Mangusta – no mean feat, and not that different from the production numbers over at Iso or Bristol. Perhaps now was the time to try a more European-sized car?
The 1969 De Tomaso Mustela, with its 3-litre front-mounted Ford V6, was an attempt at a slightly smaller car. It was also another dead end – except for its chassis, which previewed a new breed of De Tomaso cars. In his continuing discussions with his favourite engine supplier, Alejandro de Tomaso shifted his entire focus to the all-important Amercian market. Even as Mangusta production began, De Tomaso began developing a completely new mid-engined model with the US in mind. Staying with the animal theme, it was called the Pantera (one of the best car names ever devised, in my personal opinion). Ford were keen on the idea, signing a service agreement with De Tomaso in September 1969. Things accelerated very quickly after that: in November 1969, De Tomaso bought Vignale, one of the largest Turinese coachbuilders, which would provide the production volume needed for the marque to really take off.
The all-new Pantera barely had time to finish testing before its March 1970 premiere; Ghia started small-scale body production immediately, even as late changes were being made. It sported a monocoque design, making for a much lighter and stronger car than its predecessors. Panteras used the Ford “Cleveland” 351 V8, providing 310 hp (gross). The 351 was still mounted behind the driver and mated to a 5-speed ZF gearbox. Panteras also came standard with A/C and electric windows, unlike most European sports cars of the era.
Also in March 1970, De Tomaso’s family-owned operation was changed forever by the death of Rowan Industies’ two leading executives (and Alejandro de Tomaso’s erstwhile in-laws) in a plane crash. In June, Ford took control of Rowan Industries, turning Dearborn into De Tomaso’s “partner.” By early 1971, the company was restructured as De Tomaso Inc., with Ford owning 80% of shares and the De Tomaso family owning the rest.
De Tomaso became Ford’s first Italian footprint, after having tried in vain to buy out Ferrari in the early ‘60s. Fiat had managed to keep Ford out of Italy for decades, but Agnelli was completely blindsighted by this move. Production was reorganized in a new factory, built by Ford in Modena; body production was switched to Vignale, who introduced a few modifications and better build quality. The old De Tomaso factory also produced Panteras, in parallel and in much smaller numbers, for the European and Middle-Eastern market.
From 1971 until 1974, the exotic Pantera sat in selected Lincoln-Mercury dealerships, next to the Comet and the Marquis. That must have been a rather interesting sight. Of course, at US$10,000 a pop, the Pantera was not expected to sell in very high numbers — though the planned 5000 units per year were wildly optimistic, this was serious business now.
In this time of unprecedented expansion, Alejandro de Tomaso thought about widening his firm’s range. In 1971, the Deauville was unveiled. Perhaps inevitably, the De Tomaso luxury saloon was a far more traditional affair – Cleveland V8 in the front, rear wheel drive, all-independent suspension. This was almost immediately followed by a first attempt at a front-engined coupé (below), but Alejandro de Tomaso thought the result too Italian.
For his new front-engined range, Alejandro De Tomaso felt that the cars to emulate should be British and/or German. The Deauville had clearly been made under the influence of the Jaguar XJ6, but the 1972 Longchamp’s inspiration was (also clearly) the new Mercedes SL (W107). Going for more “traditional” super-luxury, as opposed to sports cars, was a step in a different path – albeit a well-trodden one.
As we have seen in prior episodes of this series, gigantic V8 saloons were starting to become a thing by the late ‘60s. The Facel-Vega Excellence had sort of shown the way, back in the late ‘50s. Then, the Maserati Quattroporte was launched in 1963 – and made quite an impact. The floodgates opened, and minute quantities of enormous European cars started to appear, many with American power plants and competing with the old guard (Rolls, Benz, et al). This peaked in the mid-‘70s, as we can see below.
Of course, this table is just a bit of fun. I haven’t included pricing, as there is no market in the world that would have included all of these at the same time. The most “off the peg” (and affordable, and produced) car here was the Jaguar: the only 12-cyl. car was also the most common. Others were genuine unicorns – less than 20 of the SM Opéra, Maserati QP2, Monica 560 and V8 Lagonda saloons were ever put together. Production numbers for the big Isos, De Tomasos and Monteverdis barely cracked the three-digit mark over their entire run. The old-guard Eurobarges by Daimler, Mercedes and R-R were surely part of the cross-shopping for the lucky lottery winner / rock star / Greek shipping magnate who could afford all these.
The year 1974 also brought another round of huge changes at De Tomaso. Ford were fretting over the fact that US regulators were stifling their bigger engines. This, coupled with the switch from gross to net HP figures, made the Pantera’s 266 HP look pretty lame. The car’s many issues (shoddy electrics, rust, tendency to overheat, etc.) were also a heavy burden to bear – though they were to be expected in Italian exotics. The Oil shock and the 5-mph bumper regualtions did the rest. Ford sold their share of the business back to De Tomaso, though the relationship remained close and Ford continued to provide their V8s.
Now fully in charge of a successful automotive empire, Alejandro de Tomaso started to amass even more power. Citroën, themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, were desperate to sell Maserati, which they had acquired in 1968. De Tomaso bought the legendary marque for peanuts in the closing weeks of 1974. This was a huge moment for the ex-Maserati mechanic.
De Tomaso Industries Inc. had bought out three Italian motorcycle makers (Benelli, MotoBi and Moto Guzzi) in the early ‘70s, which were also under Alejandro de Tomaso’s control by 1974. The Vignale operation, given that Pantera sales were likely to shrink down to a fraction of the Ford years, was purely and simply shut down. Ghia was sold back to Ford in 1975, just before De Tomaso acquired another automaker in distress.
It was great to have Maserati and Moto Guzzi, but to become a true volume-production manufacturer, De Tomaso needed a small car. It so happened that British Leyland had acquired the entirety of their Milanese partner Innocenti in 1972. The company’s initial involvement in the automotive sector dates back to 1947, when they started making Lambretta scooters under license. Car production started in 1960 with the Austin A40, soon followed by the Mini and the 1100, which was mildly restyled and dubbed Innocenti IM3.
Innocenti eventually produced their own designs, such as the handsome 950 Spyder and C coupé, based on the Austin-Healey Sprite. And we’ve already discussed the aborted 186 GT in yesterday’s chapter. Sales started to slide in the ‘70s, as the cars were getting stale (both in Italy and in the UK), but work started on a Bertone-designed Mini that seemed promising. When it came out in 1974, Innocenti’s “Nuova Mini” promised to be a real hit. On the other hand, the unfortunate Innocenti Regent (a.k.a Austin Allegro, one of the Deadliest Sins BL ever made) was an unmitigated flop, putting the entire operation in the red.
BL’s new State-appointed directors were eager to rid themselves of several loss-making foreign branches, including the Italian Mini maker. In February 1976, De Tomaso (with the assistance of the Italian government) took over Innocenti, thus becoming the second largest Italian automotive group, well behind Fiat and neck-and-neck with (State-owned) Alfa Romeo.
Innocenti’s only car after the takeover was the Bertone-styled Mini, using its BL cousin’s well-proven underpinnings. Now that Innocenti belonged to De Tomaso, an interesting phenomenon started to appear. A super-spicy fully-optioned Mini was launched as the Innocenti De Tomaso Turbo in late 1976, ushering a new era, in which De Tomaso started playing fast and loose with the marques he controlled.
Over the next ten years or so, the Pantera, Deauville and Longchamp were still produced (in homeopathic quantities), but De Tomaso did not introduce new models as such. The name De Tomaso just got plastered on other cars, starting with Innocenti. Alejandro de Tomaso had kept very good contacts with Lee Iacocca in the Ford days, so when Iacocca became CEO of Chrysler in 1978, the inevitable happened.
The 1980 Dodge Omni De Tomaso was a shocking debasement of the De Tomaso name. A Mini-based Bertone-designed Innocenti was one thing to hook your marque to, but a Dodge Omni? De Tomaso’s sales in the US, which had been dormant for years, were hardly stirred. The plan had misfired, but this was just the start of a collection of Deadly Sins that precipitated the mighty De Tomaso group into oblivion.
Sometimes, words fail me. This is the 1985 Daihatsu Charade De Tomaso Turbo. Charade indeed…
But far more serious crimes of lèse-majesté were committed over at Maserati. The years following the takeover from Citroën had been tough. The SM-based QP2 never made it to the market (it was never even homologized); only a dozen or so were made. In 1976, De Tomaso unveiled two new Maseratis, the Kyalami and the Quattroporte III (QP3), which were quite… peculiar. The former, hastily restyled by Pietro Frua, could not hide its Longchamp genes. For that is essentially what it was, albeit with a Maserati V8. Other than the engine, the Kyalami was 100% De Tomaso.
At least, the QP3 looked quite different from the Deauville it was based on — and had a 4.9 litre Maserati V8. First unveiled in 1976, the Giugiaro-styled saloon only really started its production run in 1978, due to persistent production and management issues at Maserati. In spite of this, it was decided that Maserati would “graduate” to series production with an all-new medium-sized car.
The reorganization of the Maserati branch took a while, but Alejandro de Tomaso’s vision was as ambitious as before. He set the Trident up against rather formidable rivals – the likes of Alfa Romeo, BMW, Lancia and Mercedes-Benz – in yet another race to a lower common denominator. Rushed to production, the Maserati Biturbo, launched in December 1981, was the first affordable car the marque had ever attempted.
Maserati’s sales shot up like a rocket. The Biturbo’s quad-cam V6, inherited from the Merak / QP2 / Citroën SM, was modified, turbo-fied and now available in 2.0, 2.5 and 2.8 litre versions. The Bitrubo 2-door saloon was soon joined by the Zagato-made Spyder. In 1983, a 4-door saloon was added to the range, followed in 1988 by the Karif, a 2-seater coupé. Maserati even adopted a three-digit nomenclature to ape BMW and Mercedes.
Developed in a hurry and on a shoestring, and built down to a price, the Biturbo was far from perfect. The rather lax quality control (most came out of the Innocenti factory), coupled with the car’s temperamental engine and limited parts availability were uncovered soon enough, and sales started going south by 1985. Maserati went on to issue ever more gauche-looking Biturbo variants, including the V8 Shamal coupé (1990), the Ghibli II (1992), a meaner-looking 430 saloon and the Quattroporte VI (delayed until 1995), squeezing every last drop of a decade-old design. But let’s not rush too far ahead. The ’80s aren’t over yet.
In the nick of time, along came the Chrysler TC to put off every sentient automobile enthusiast in America from the name Maserati. Built in Italy yet designed in Detroit, expensive yet pointless, the Chrysler TC was yet another self-own by De Tomaso and Iacocca, for it was an unmitigated disaster. The glossy mags of 1985 announced it as a 1987 model, but actual deliveries only took place in 1989. By this time, what little sense the car made had completely vanished, along with many people’s respect for Maserati.
De Tomaso-branded cars were also doing rather poorly. The Deauville and Longchamp, now sourcing their V8s from Ford Australia, were zombies from a bygone age. Production probably stopped in 1985, though the final cars were sold in 1988-89. The Deauville was made in 244 units and its coupé variant (also sold as a drop-top) managed a grand total of 410 sales.
Only the Pantera soldiered on. The car’s (relative) affordability and reliability ensured that a couple hundred or so cars could be sold every year. The only issue was how to hide the age of the design. A Countach-like solution, consisting in a prolonged uglification process by means of bulging wing flares and various aerodynamic gadgetry, did the trick for about 20 years. In 1990, a bit of below-the-beltline plastic surgery and a new front suspension were introduced on the ageing supercar, but only 38 cheques were cashed in four years.
The De Tomaso group was entering the endgame. Maserati sales became insignificant, as De Tomaso cars had been for a long time. The Daihatsu-engined Innocenti was the only car keeping the lights on, but it wasn’t getting any younger either. Alejandro de Tomaso was cornered, which inevitably led him to deal with Fiat. In 1990, Innocenti were taken over by Turin and turned to producing Fiat designs, before disappearing altogether in 1997, not long after Autobianchi. Having failed to re-launch the marque after the Biturbo flash-in-the-pan, De Tomaso finally sold his controlling share of Maserati to Fiat in 1993.
Later that year, Alejandro de Tomaso suffered a stroke and was forced to take a step back, letting his wife Isabelle and his son Santiago take the wheel of De Tomaso Industries. The last Panteras were being put together at the old Modena factory, but a new model was launched in late 1994 to replace it: the Guará. Still amidships, the V8 was now provided by BMW, at least initially.
The few remaining De Tomaso fans must have been elated to see a completely new car on the marque’s stand at the 1996 Geneva Motor Show. I distinctly remember seeing it myself at the event and thinking: “What? De Tomaso still exists?” The new Biguá was a strange return to the front-engined layout, more or less inspired by the success of TVR, but wearing a bizarre Gandini-designed body and packing a Ford Mustang V8. Putting the Biguá into production was beyond De Tomaso’s means, so the eyes turned west yet again, this time to Californian importer Kjell Qvale.
Relations between De Tomaso and Qvale soon soured, and this time, De Tomaso lost. The Biguá was renamed Qvale Mangusta in 1999 and sold, mostly Stateside, in small quantities until 2002. De Tomaso, as a carmaker, were no more. But the Biguá / Qvale chassis still had value, and somehow ended up in England, after Qvale had attempted a deal with MG-Rover. For some reason, the Brits figured they could try to market the V8 monster with an updated body, preferably something really ugly. The 2002-04 MG XPower SV was the final avatar of the De Tomaso bloodline – still with a Ford V8 and all, but in terms of style…
For their part, De Tomaso continued making a few Guarás into the new century, but production had stopped by 2003, the year Alejandro de Tomaso died. The marque’s assets went to several investors, one after the other. In 2011, a “De Tomaso Deauville” SUV was displayed at the Geneva Motor Show, but actual production has never resumed. Now in Chinese hands, the remains of De Tomaso are probably gone the way of Borgward.
It’s mighty hard to pick one Deadly Sin out of the entire saga. The Vallelunga and the Mangusta were downright dangerous. The Deauville and the Longchamp were wallflowers. The Guará and Biguá were pipe dreams (or nightmares?). The Ford tie-up was a dead end. The Innocenti tie-up ended in defeat. The Maserati tie-up ended in tears. And those co-branded abominations, debasing both De Tomaso and Maserati to a trim option or coachbuilder… There were many missteps, a few duds, several flops and the Pantera. That was the only De Tomaso that wasn’t a Deadly Sin – the only one that sold in respectable numbers. OK, I’ll throw in the QP3, which did look great, and the competent Innocenti Mini. Neither of those are De Tomasos, though.
The dissolution of De Tomaso’s Italo-American dream not only caused the eponymous marque’s disappearance. It also caused the takeover of Ghia by Ford, the collapse of Innocenti and the loss of Vignale. This last one is particularly tragic: Alfredo Vignale died in a traffic accident only a few days after having sold off his flourishing business to De Tomaso. And that business designed and produced some of the greatest Italian contributions to the automotive world. And I didn’t even mention De Tomaso’s attempts at Formula 1 racing, which also ended very badly – especially for driver Piers Courage. By some miracle, Maserati and Moto Guzzi (now owned by Piaggio) both survived their brush with De Tomaso, but the collateral damage was still pretty severe. I mean, Ghia became a Ford trim level, for crying out loud.
That’s it for the Italian Deadly Sins . I have a strange feeling that the next trip will take us back over the Alps to France. Hope to see you there…
Curbside Classic: Innocenti Turbo De Tomaso – The Anglo-Italo-Japanese Mini, by David Saunders
Affordable Classic: 1984 Innocenti Minitre SE – Reboot with a Smaller Size, by David Saunders
Car Show Classic: 1990-96 Maserati Shamal – The Wildest Biturbo, by William Stopford
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European Deadly Sins series