Revealing what it's really like to drive a De Tomaso Pantera

Photography by Zachary Mayne

"I had no idea what it was, but I was mesmerized,” recalls Jim Demick of the first time he laid eyes on a De Tomaso Pantera. The young car enthusiast in the making, who was 12 years old at the time, was on a car shopping trip at the local Lincoln-Mercury dealer with his parents. 

While his mother and father were focused on the family-oriented conveyances lined up inside the showroom, Demick was spellbound by an exotically proportioned sports car parked by the doors. It was low and wide, with a sharklike nose, an impossibly wedgy profile and aggressively fat tires wrapped around wide alloy wheels.

It was like nothing I had ever seen before and absolutely like nothing I saw on a daily basis on the streets of Albuquerque,” he recalls. “I was in awe, especially as I got to the back of the car and saw four massive tailpipes menacingly hung between the taillights.” 

Plenty has been written about the Pantera, whose stunning body was designed at Ghia by a team headed up by talented American designer Tom Tjaarda. De Tomaso was founded by Argentinian ex-pat and race car driver Alejandro de Tomaso, who aimed to take on the established sports car makers. He started with the small, Ford Cortina-powered Vallelunga in 1964 before working on the Mangusta in 1966; both cars used a mid-engine layout.

While de Tomaso’s first two attempts at a production car were middling at best, the new-for-1971 Pantera was a far more resolved car, with striking styling that was as attractive as anything coming out of Modena or Sant’Agata Bolognese at the time. The performance of the 310-horsepower Ford Cleveland  V8 engine and cutting-edge ZF five-speed were certainly on par as well, as was the monocoque chassis designed by Italian engineer Gian Paolo Dallara. 

Unfortunately, the Italian American hybrid was plagued with a variety of ailments when it was new, a byproduct of the Pantera’s woefully inadequate preproduction development. The Pantera was initially made under joint ownership of Ford, but when the wheels came off the program around 1974, Ford decided it’d had enough and cut its ties with the brand. Incoming emissions and safety regulations didn’t help, either. 

Despite that, the Pantera ended up being produced until 1992, culminating in the Pantera Si, of which only 41 were supposedly built. Over its production run, more than 7000 cars left the factory in Italy, with the bulk of them–about 5000–coming to North America.

In a somewhat confusing decision, when the Pantera first came out, Ford decided to market and sell it through Lincoln-Mercury dealers in North America. “I knew right then and there that some way, somehow,” Demick recalls, “I would one day own a Pantera.” 

[De Tomaso Pantera | Tech tips from an expert]

Fourteen years later, in 1986, Demick made good on his vow. “I had read so much about Panteras as a kid, I ended up knowing more about them than the people selling them,” he recalls. “I had been through scads of ads in Hemmings Motor News and responded to a lot of them, but nothing seemed to fall into place until one particular ad stood out.” It took a couple of years of searching, but finally he and his wife, Cynthia, took delivery of a 1971 example that he found at House of Corvettes and Classics in Woodland Hills, California.

In what he refers to as a “bout of insanity,” Demick sold that first Pantera in 1990, due in part to the fact that it spent most of its time in his garage. One thing he’d always told himself was that if he owned a Pantera, he was going to drive it. And for whatever reason, what was admittedly a pristine car was spending more time sitting idle rather than rumbling down the road. 

It was a decision he immediately regretted. “I never thought I would be able to get another one,” Demick admits. But he happened to have a friend, Rocky Drebber, who owned another 1971 Pantera. Drebber was getting older, and a stint in the hospital for knee surgery meant he didn’t really drive his Italian exotic very much.

One day, the Demicks were at a car show with their 16,000-mile 1972 Mustang Sprint, another rare car. Drebber was there and asked if they wanted to trade.

I was absolutely floored,” Demick recalls. “Right then and there, we traded keys.” He was back in the Pantera game. 

Demick has since transformed the Pantera into a machine that’s not only far faster than it was originally, but more reliable, too.

Over the years it has had a few engine rebuilds, but it’s currently powered by a 408-cubic-inch Cleveland fitted with a Scat forged crankshaft, H-beam connecting rods and a custom camshaft from Comp Cams. The shaker air cleaner comes from a 1970 Mustang Mach 1. When this engine was dyno tested, the setup pumped out 600 horsepower along with 565 lb.-ft. of torque. 

Panteras are known for their cooling issues, so Demick fitted a Ron Davis two-row radiator coupled with a pair of Spal electric fans from Pantera Performance.

As originally equipped, the Pantera wore staggered 15-inch Campagnolo wheels. It now runs 17-inch wheels from PI Motorsports. They resemble the originals, but the larger sizes allow for a wide selection of today’s performance tires–in this case, the proven Michelin Pilot Sport.

Since Demick acquired the Pantera, it’s been through a few color changes, from a respray in yellow to its current bright red. He’s also subtly altered the exterior: Smaller, fiberglass bumperettes are now installed at the front and back of the car, while the front turn signals have been relocated behind the grille for a cleaner look. 

The Pantera is the ultimate road trip exotic car,” Demick reports. “It has so much usable storage space for luggage if you like to travel.” 

The rear trunk storage area consists of a deep, removable tray that covers the drivetrain. Plus, there’s a front trunk. “If you stay away from hard-sided luggage and use duffle bags instead, you can haul a ton.

It’s been driven to and from Nevada to run the Silver State Classic Challenge open road race. It’s seen every kind of weather, from snow in Vermont to blazing desert heat,” he continues. “On one occasion, my son–who was 3 years old at the time–and I left our home at 4 a.m. and arrived in Boise, Idaho, 1011 miles later at 7 p.m. that same day. That’s our record for one day of driving and it was done using secondary roads.”

During a trip to Monterey, Demick even got to meet the car’s designer, Tom Tjaarda. “Tom was such an approachable guy, so easygoing and so easy to talk to. He had no huge ego,” Demick reports. “I told him as far as I was concerned, when he designed the Pantera, he was thinking of me.”

The Pantera’s comfortable aftermarket sport seats require a short drop into the cockpit, at which point I’m ensconced in an interior that’s roomier than I assumed. It’s more like a Ferrari Daytona and less cramped than, say, a Dino or a 308. Otherwise, though, the cabin is standard fare for a vintage Italian exotic. 

The driver-side wheel well forces my feet toward the center of the car, the pedals are close together, and the top of the steering wheel is angled away from me. A stubby shift level pokes up from the evocative gated shifter.

I fire up the engine, and the 600-horsepower V8 rumbles behind me before settling down to a cammy idle, the Pantera’s body and chassis rocking a little as the engine churns away. 

As I pull away from a stop and pour on some revs, the car jumps to attention, prompting me to upshift immediately into second. When I shift into third, the mountain of instantly accessible torque sends the car lunging forward. Straight-line acceleration is forceful, the low-end torque pinning me back in the seat, accompanied by a hard-edged and deep-sounding bellow from the exhaust. The ZF five-speed is a joy to operate, clicking slickly up and down through the gates.

The ideal car for a rally or tour? Despite the performance, the Pantera is surprisingly comfortable behind the wheel. The shifter, especially, perfectly suits the car’s intentions.

The Pantera’s road holding is impressive, with a more rigid and planted feel than I was expecting. Overall, the chassis doesn’t feel taxed at all, even with the pumped-up powerplant flinging it down the road. Around corners, handling is very flat, with almost no body roll. 

The modern Michelin tires and upgraded QA1 dampers pay big dividends in predictability as well, with the fat rear tires digging confidently into the pavement as the car slingshots out of corners. Steering feedback is pretty good, while the feel, especially in a straight line, is excellent, though it is quite heavy until you get up to speed. My one complaint here is that the steering actually gets heavier the more lock you apply, which can be a hindrance in very tight corners. 

When new, Panteras were criticized for a bad case of trailing-throttle oversteer. I’m not interested in pushing the outer limits of grip, but at higher cornering speeds, the car remains planted and confidence-inspiring. Again, the lower ride height and modern wheel-and-tire package are definitely helping here. 

Overall, though, this is not a car for the timid. Its sheer physicality is an inherent part of the experience. Would the Pantera be as memorable and distinctive if it were easy to drive? It most certainly wouldn’t be. 

One thing owner Jim Demick has made sure of is that the Pantera gets used as often as possible. “We’re coming up on 180,000 miles on the odometer,” he says, “and I hope to be the first to hit a million miles in a Pantera.” He admits he may not reach that milestone, but he’ll definitely have fun trying. “It thrills me today as much as the day we first got it,” he says. “After more than 30 years of ownership, what more could you ask?”

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Trent PowerDork
6/13/23 11:39 a.m.

There is a critical piece of information missing in this article.


How tall is the owner?

I find that most people over 5'6" are pretty uncomfortable in them.  At 6', I can barely drive an unmodified one.



Tberg New Reader
6/13/23 7:56 p.m.

On a Pantera owner's drive a year or two ago, I met Jim Demmick and his extraordinary car, and it is certainly a thing of beauty.  My '72 which looks much the same has had many of the same upgrades done to it as well.  For 18 years, as Jim said, it spent more time in the shop than I ever drove it, and in 2013 when I bought my Jag XKR, I just gave up drving the Pantera altogether.  After a couple of years of just looking at it in my driveway, I knew I had to make a decision to either get rid of it as Jim did with his first one, or make it a car I could actually drive wherever and whenever I wanted to without worry and in a comfortable, luxurious manner.  Four years of modification and restoration gave me the car it should always have been, and I now drive it every weekend and sometimes more.  The one good thing about owning it for so long is that I hit my 70th birthday this year, I realized I had shrunk about 3-4" in height from my previous nearly 6'-3" so I actually fit pretty comfortably in it now, something that never happened when I was a younger owner.  Now if only I could shrink my big feet so that I could drive the car with shoes on for the first time, that would be somethin'!

iansane Dork
6/14/23 10:59 a.m.
Trent said:

I find that most people over 5'6" are pretty uncomfortable in them.  At 6', I can barely drive an unmodified one.

Don't say that. The Pantera is my ultimate dream car. I'd trade my whole fleet for one. That'd suck if I couldn't drive it.

Trent PowerDork
6/15/23 12:57 p.m.

In reply to iansane :

Pantera Parts Connection will sell you a set of dropped floor pans so you can cut and weld a solution. You can also relocate the pedals forward.

PeteLoBianco New Reader
9/3/23 1:15 p.m.

My dad had one of these new from the local Lincoln Mercury dealer.  Although a beast in a straight line, it always felt like the CG was too high, perhaps from the big V8.  We also had a Dino 206GT at the time and felt the Dino far outhandled the Pantera.  Ultimate insult when I got an 84 TBird Turbo Coupe, and we both agreed that it handled better and was more fun than the Pantera on a curvy back road.  Sounds like the current owners may have addressed some of the those issues.  Beautiful cars, enjoy!

wspohn SuperDork
9/3/23 3:12 p.m.

Only driven one once but agree with the caution that it has limited space - the front firewall is a hard limit and with the seat all the way back it was a pretty tight fit for me (5'10")

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