Perhaps it was Henry Ford II's lingering frustration with not completing a deal to buy Ferrari. Certainly it was because of Lee Iacocca's interest in things Italian. But from 1971 through 1974, select Lincoln-Mercury dealerships sold not only Continentals and Cougars but also the exotic De Tomaso Pantera.
A five-paragraph press release from Dearborn in September 1969 announced that Ford Motor Co. had an agreement with the Ghia Studios of Turin, Italy, and with De Tomaso Automobili of Modena, Italy, "for an exchange of technical services" that could include the development of engineering prototypes, show cars and "limited-build specialty vehicles."
Ghia was the famous Italian coach building house and design studio. De Tomaso Automobili was a small, exotic Italian automaker founded in the hometown of Ferrari and Maserati by Alejandro De Tomaso, whose wife, Isabel Haskell, was an accomplished sports car racer and the granddaughter of a founder of General Motors.
A Ford four-cylinder engine powered De Tomaso's first road car, the 1963 Vallelunga. In 1967, De Tomaso took controlling interest in Ghia and had Giorgetto Giugiaro design the Mangusta. The vehicle had a Ford V-8 developed in cooperation with Ford and Carroll Shelby, who had built the Ford-powered Shelby Cobra. Shelby's racing team was involved in helping Ford win world and Le Mans championships in the 1960s.
Iacocca was the key
De Tomaso and Iacocca, executive vice president and soon to be president of Ford Motor, were friends. Iacocca persuaded Henry II not only to import De Tomaso's new Pantera but to enter into a partnership to build and sell that midengine two-seat sports car.
The Pantera certainly had an international pedigree. It was conceived by the Argentine
De Tomaso, engineered by Italian Gianpaolo Dallara, designed by American Tom Tjaarda (whose father, John, had designed the Lincoln Zephyr with Eugene "Bob" Gregorie). It was built in Italy by Vignale and Ghia with German, Italian and American components, including Ford's 351 Cleveland V-8 engine, and it was sold in America by Lincoln-Mercury dealers.
But many Panteras could not be sold until after additional work was done by Bill Stroppe, a longtime West Coast racer who also prepared Ford's Los Angeles-based press car fleet. As the Panteras arrived at the port of Los Angeles, Stroppe's shop repaired dents, installed missing parts and upgraded suspension components and air conditioning hardware.
"Still," AutoWeek reported on the 20th anniversary of the car's American debut, "there was little arguing the Pantera was the sexiest 'American' since Carroll Shelby commissioned Pete Brock to draw a hardtop Cobra. And there were few cars around in 1971 that could produce the number of De Tomaso's latest GT: 310 hp, 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds, a standing quarter-mile in 14 flat, and a top speed of 145 mph."
And this, AutoWeek noted, was a car that sold for $9,995 when Maserati wanted $20,000 for its Ghibli and Ferrari expected $25,000 for the Daytona. But, the magazine added, it also was a time when a Porsche 911 cost $9,700; Jaguar E-Types went for $7,800; and the Chevrolet Corvette was $5,800.
Carroll Shelby with the Ford Mark IV that won at Le Mans in 1967. This car is the mechanical and spiritual ancestor of the upcoming Ford GT.
There were many other complications in what would prove to be a strained marriage. Among those setbacks was a plane crash that took the life of two of De Tomaso's business partners, who also were the brother and brother-in-law of his wife.
Ford and De Tomaso had planned to build 5,000 Panteras a year for four years. But only a few more than 5,300 were produced from 1971 through 1974, when new federal emission and safety regulations would have mandated extensive changes to the vehicles.
Although Ford no longer was involved as a partner, De Tomaso continued to build cars. In the 1980s, an updated Pantera was imported to the United States. It came with an Australian Ford engine and price tag in excess of $50,000.
In 1981, Popular Mechanics staged a 16-car comparison test of exotic cars, which were driven on public roads and a closed racetrack. The Pantera GTS, powered by an Australian Ford V-8, was declared the winner in a field that included the BMW M1, Porsche 928, Lamborghini Countach, three Ferrari models, a Maserati, Lotus, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Mercedes-Benz.
Pantera wasn't alone
The Pantera was neither the first nor the last limited-production vehicle Ford would sell through its dealers.
Carroll Shelby's Ford-powered Cobra sports car and his highly modified Mustangs were sold through select Ford dealers in the 1960s. Ford also sold street-legal versions of its Le Mans-winning GT40 race car in the late 1960s, as well as Lotus-tuned Ford Cortinas, a small but sporty sedan.
Lincoln-Mercury dealers got the Ford of Europe-built Capri, Ford of Germany's turbocharged Merkur XR4Ti and the Ford Australia-produced Capri roadster.
Ford also produced and sold its own version of cult cars, including SVO and SVT models and the Taurus SHO with its Yamaha-tuned V-6 engine.
Currently, in addition to offering its own SVT Mustang, Ford cooperates with seven Mustang tuners - Steve Saleen, Kenny Brown, Jack Roush, Sean Highland, Steeda, Razzi and Classic Design Concepts - whose products are offered at some Ford dealerships.
Soon, Ford begins its second century with an updated - but still GT40-based - Ford GT.