Born into a politically prominent family in Argentina, Alejandro de Tomaso fled to Italy in 1955 after being implicated in a plot to overthrow the Argentinian president, Juan Perón. Settling in Modena, De Tomaso began his career in the auto industry as a factory driver for Maserati, where he would go on to compete in four Formula One Grand Prix races.
Having not scored a single championship point among those events, Alejandro hung up his racing helmet and founded the De Tomaso car company in 1959 with the initial intention of building racecars, but it wasn’t long before Alejandro’s focus shifted to high-performance road-going vehicles.
This would first result in the Vallelunga in 1964, a mid-engined rear wheel drive sports car that was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Carrozzeria Fissore and motivated by the 1.5-liter straight-four Kent engine from the Ford Cortina.
Those efforts would produce the Mangusta, an Italian sports car produced by De Tomaso from 1967 to 1971 which boasted mid-ship Ford V8 power.
While the Vallelunga was a promising debut for the company, the 104-horsepower powerplant left something to be desired. Mid-’60s enthusiasts were accustomed to big horsepower, so Alejandro went back to the drawing board. Engineers would substantially tweak the Vallelunga chassis to allow it to accept a small-block Ford V8, while Giugiaro – who would later design automotive icons like the Volkswagen Golf and the DeLorean DMC-12 – gave the car entirely new bodywork.
Those efforts would produce the Mangusta, an Italian sports car produced by De Tomaso from 1967 to 1971 which boasted mid-ship Ford V8 power. Though somewhat flawed, the Mangusta was an undeniably compelling machine that would establish the trademark ingredients of De Tomaso sports cars for decades to come.
Italian Design Meets American Muscle
The Italian word for mongoose (an animal with a reputation for killing cobra snakes), the Mangusta is rumored to have received its name after a falling out between De Tomaso and Caroll Shelby. He opted to design his own car (the GT40) rather than use De Tomaso’s design for his new closed-roof prototype racer.
Low slung and featuring a more broad-shouldered, aggressive look than the Vallelunga, the Mangusta’s 43-inch-high body was truly a sight to behold. Its rear gull-wing doors revealed both the car’s engine bay and storage areas were just icing on the cake.
The Mangusta was either on par or ahead of the game versus other supercar designs of the day in terms of components and amenities.
De Tomaso now also had the hardware to match up with the Mangusta’s muscular look with Ford’s high-output, 306 horsepower 289ci V8 and the same ZF five-speed manual gearbox Shelby was using in the GT40. Later cars would get a bump in displacement when De Tomaso switched over to Ford’s 302ci V8, but the original 289 mills have proven to be more sought after for their more performance-focused original configuration in comparison to the low-revving 5.0-liter.
Outfitted with disc brakes at all four corners, fully independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, air conditioning, and power accessories, the Mangusta was either on par or ahead of the game versus other supercar designs of the day in terms of components and amenities. Weighing in at just over 2,600 pounds, the Mangusta recorded a sprint to 60 mph from rest in 6.3 seconds on its way to a claimed top speed of 155 mph, so the car was no slouch in a straight line either.
However, with a 32/68 rear-bias weight distribution in a chassis that was already prone to flex before it was retrofitted with a Ford small-block, the Mangusta’s handling characteristics proved to be a handful, and the car was known for understeering and subsequently oversteering in hard corners as the chassis binds up and then unflexes, making the car’s at-limit handling behavior difficult to predict, even for skilled wheelmen.
Weighing in at just over 2,600 pounds, the Mangusta recorded a sprint to 60 mph from rest in 6.3 seconds on its way to a claimed top speed of 155 mph, so the car was no slouch in a straight line either.
Just 401 Mangustas would be built during its five-year production run, which ended in 1971 when De Tomaso introduced the Pantera to the world. Sporting a steel unibody design that remedied much of the handling issues found in the Mangusta and 351-cubic inch Ford V8 power, the Pantera went on to become De Tomaso’s signature vehicle, with the company selling more than 7,000 of the mid-engined sports car over a production period that spanned more than two decades.
Among the 401 Mangustas constructed, 50 US-bound machines would receive pop-up headlights in 1970, while a single, special-order Mangusta was outfitted with a Chevrolet 327ci mill (Boo! – Ed.) by special request by none other than General Motors-Vice President, Bill Mitchell.
In the early 2000s an attempt was made to revive the Mangusta name by Italian carmaker Qvale. Working in partnership with De Tomaso, early cars were badged as De Tomaso Mangustas before De Tomaso became disassociated from the project, leading the subsequent cars to be badged as the Qvale Mangusta. Like its namesake, the Qvale Mangusta was motivated by a small-block Ford V8 power, though this time around the engine was a DOHC 4.6-liter mod motor sourced from the SVT Mustang Cobra installed up front, which was paired up with a Tremec T-45 or Ford’s four-speed automatic transmission. Assembled in Modena, the Qvale’s three-year production run would yield a car even more rare than the original, with only 284 cars produced in total.