Battle of the V8 middies – De Tomaso Pantera vs Maserati Bora

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Motoring watersheds don’t come much grander than the mid-engined road car revolution. De Tomaso has form, of course, the Vallelunga kick-starting the goldrush in 1963 and the Mangusta later bringing the power to complement the looks and the potential. By the late 1960s and dawn of the ’70s, though, Lamborghini had stolen De Tomaso’s thunder – and its sales – with the Miura. The word ‘supercar’ had been coined and the new genre already had its pin-up. It was time for Alejandro – and everyone else – to fight back. Even Ferrari, which still talked a good fight with the Daytona, knew the end was nigh for long-bonneted brute force having already  filtered the V6 mid-engined Dino into the fold.

Of course, few apart from Lamborghini were insane enough at the outset to lob a transversely mounted V12 in the spot where you would traditionally have your umbrella lolling around, but V8s were a natural fit for a new type of motor. Most of the new breed came without quite the outright top speed to catapult the cars into the lofty strata of Top Trumps champions (the Miura’s claimed 180mph still ruled there). These cars compromised those headline-grabbing figures in return for usability and handling, a formula that considered a mere 160-170mph as plenty, and that drivers should be able to speak to their passengers without using headphones. 

The glut of new cars usually flaunted their exoticism with vowel-laden Italian names, the two most intriguing and most akin to each other being the De Tomaso Pantera and the Maserati Bora. One an out-and-out hybrid, the other a virtual hybrid (by way of Citroën takeover), this pairing shares layout, V8 usage, ZF transaxle, Campagnolo alloys, market values today (roughly) and, stationary at least, demeanour. Coming from completely different angles, but offering extremely similar performance figures, these were two very serious and genuine rivals to Lamborghini’s hegemony, but at much more tempting prices. In the UK in 1973, a Pantera GTS like this could be yours for £7875 and a Bora would set you back £9831, while even in the previous year the outgoing Miura was a heady £10,250. And in ’73 it would be followed by the Countach at an eye-watering £16,314.

Argentinian Alejandro De Tomaso had originally developed his Mangusta to gorge itself on Cobras, the Vallelunga’s baby Ferrari curves replaced with a new menacing shape from Giugiaro. But the Ford V8 was too much for what was essentially the old Vallelunga backbone chassis (which originally carried a Ford Cortina unit) and the whole Mangusta experience was cramped and usually terrifying. That changed with De Tomaso’s next offering. Although superficially similar to the Mangusta, the Pantera was a very different beast with a very different beast in its sights. The Dallara-designed monocoque had all-independent suspension and was dressed in a body by Ghia’s Tom Tjaarda. It shared its aggressive stance with its predecessor, but little else. At 5763cc, the 351cu in Cleveland V8 pushing out up to 350bhp in GTS form (from 1973) was a whole litre bigger than the Mangusta unit and found a much happier home in the Pantera. 

The car may still have come from a boutique manufacturer, but its two-decade longevity (Panteras only went out of production in 1991) ensured that the Italian company finally got a taste of the big league by initially selling 1000 cars a year. This was greatly aided by De Tomaso’s masterstroke of flogging Ghia to Ford and thereby gaining access to Lincoln-Mercury dealerships in the States. 

Maserati’s first mid-engined road car was a rather better resourced pot-shot at the Miura, clothed in a sensational skin styled by Giugiaro and with the engineering masterminded by the long-serving genius Giulio Alfieri. It was the hyper-competitive Alfieri who was the driving force behind the Bora and who pushed it through despite internal resistance, not least from Ghibli-adoring chief tester Guerrino Bertocchi. Launched in 1971 after a difficult gestation that included the Citroën buyout of Maserati in 1968 – and meaning that it only shared a year in production with the Miura it was built to best – the Bora survived for seven years, shifting fewer than 100 cars in each of them. It was designed around the Modenese marque’s fabulous 4.7-litre (4.9 from ’76) quad-cam V8 that had been in service since the 450S sports-racer, with a quartet of twin-choke 42DCNF Webers atop the vee.

The detailing of the car is some of the most beautiful ever, those dished hubcaps on the alloys, the chromed moustache in the air intake, that sensational satin-finish steel roof panel and A-pillars, even the rear windows that actually transform rearward visibility. The Bora really is a mesmerising shape outside and in. Even looking at those seats snaking from engine cover to floor like a falling blind, you know that this car is not a case of style over substance. 

It is an enormously roomy cockpit for what is a relatively slender car. From the driver’s seat, everything is angled at you, including 200mph speedo and 8000rpm rev counter (redline kicking off at 5500rpm). Everything is adjustable: why have a seat on runners when you could wire it into the hydraulic braking system, add a switch and move the pedals to the driver instead of vice versa? The seat height is similarly adjustable, and the combinations you can play on the steering column to get the wheel just where you want it are mind-boggling. It is a very comfortable and beautiful place to be and those are undoubtedly the best-looking seats ever installed in a car.

Turn the key and, surprisingly, those levels of comfort are left intact. The V8 is audible through the double-glazed rear window, but not intrusive, its sophisticated, complicated patter of pulses emitting a gentleman fighter’s tune from the exhausts, the downdraught Webers feeding it in genteel sips rather than great gulps. On the move, it is similarly unruffled. The transaxle takes some getting used to – it is easy to rush and miss changes at first – but it is so torquey and third so tall that you could probably do all your day-to-day driving in that gear. The steering may be a bit too heavy at walking pace, but is perfectly weighted on the move and the ride and handling are sensational, one of the finest ever combinations of sporting responses and cabin comfort. Such is the grip that it is hard to believe that it is riding on relatively skinny 215/70 VR15 tyres. Yet the fact that they are the same front and back definitely adds to the car’s excellent cornering poise, allowing you to just guide the Bora through switchbacks with deft flicks of the steering wheel and not a hint of drama. 

Then there are the brakes, the high-pressure Citroën hydraulic system that is so efficient that it takes time for the driver to fully adjust to it, or to trust it. But it is excellent, even if the rock-solid pedal means you are unlikely to ever be able to heel-and-toe a Bora. Then again, that rarely feels as if it would be necessary. Owner Tony Bernstein has had this example for 15 years – barring three months when he sold it and promptly bought it back – and enjoys lots of track days and long-distance tours in it. It is easy to see the appeal: this Maserati is an incredibly good car, especially rare for its day and type in being one that is always travelling a great deal faster than it feels to its occupants.

The same can not be said of the De Tomaso Pantera in which any rolling speed feels as if it could cause your vision to streak. This rare right-hand-drive GTS was recently sold by Anthony Godin who, by his own admission, is becoming a Pantera specialist purely by chance. Many of the recently sold UK cars have passed through his hands. He says that this original and unmolested example could be the ’73 Earls Court Motor Show car, and it is certainly a low-mileage and well cared for motor. Resprayed a decade or so back, it is in very tidy condition, but not so immaculate that you wouldn’t want to drive it. Thankfully. It also illustrates how much more pretty – dainty even – the Pantera was before it acquired all those ugly piercings. Tjaarda’s lines are supremely eloquent, the profile purposeful yet delicate, the nose designed for splicing air, the tail squared off in perfectly period fashion.

From the moment you step into the De Tomaso it is clear how far and how quickly the company progressed when it started to sell proper numbers of cars. Except for the horribly out of place and too small plastic steering wheel (Ford Capri?), it doesn’t have any of the rickety feel of a hybrid, though admittedly it also doesn’t have quite the aura of the Bora. The interior is plush and spacious, a suede dash-top the first sign of quality, the seats comfortable and cosseting, the way the tunnel guides your feet to the slightly offset pedals not as intrusive as it should be. In front of the driver are two big dials (200mph speedo and 8000rpm rev counter with redline starting at 5900), while most of the furniture is neatly placed in the centre console. It’s not exactly poverty spec, but between the two you can start to see some of the price differential. 

The Pantera doesn’t so much start-up as erupt. If you are going to have a hybrid, it’s not a bad start to fit it with a multi-Le Mans-winning engine and transmission, especially one you could buy crated. And that snarling, shatteringly brutal racing engine is the heart and soul of this car. It is gloriously unsophisticated, the single massive four-barrel Holley carb on this car letting the engine chug fuel like a teenager at their first keg party, but it is so winningly straightforward that you can’t help but love it. 

The Ferrari-esque open gate on the gearchange initially seems baulky, but actually serves a purpose. By enforcing slower, more determined changes it means that you are never rushing the transaxle and the change is far easier and smoother than in the Bora. From the dog-leg first, guide it upwards and the length of the gears astounds, the legal limit flashing up mid-way through second, third stretching just as far. Who knows where you would be by the time you topped out in fifth? Airborne probably. 

But these are considerations you don’t have time to contend with because you need to focus to drive the Pantera. Unlike the Bora, which allows the driver to indulge themselves in some relaxed high-speed cruising, the De Tomaso demands total concentration 100% of the time. It is twitchy and skittish as it puts down its power, the steering is a little too light and prone to bumpsteer, that cheapo wheel jittering all the time in your hands. The back end is forever reminding you how easily it could switch to autopilot and take the control of the car out of your hands. It lacks the quiet smoothness that the Maserati’s innovative rubber-mounted rear subframe affords the transmission. On far fatter tyres – with lower-profile 225s on the front and 275s on the back, even the steering tyres are bulkier than the Bora’s rears – it doesn’t have the grip or the balance of the Maserati. Though you can never relax in the Pantera – its ride is a good deal harsher, too – it doesn’t make this bucking bronco any less enjoyable. It is one long dangerous adrenalin rush, like a filthy alleyway quickie with a stranger, while the Bora is Tantric sex with your soul-mate. That the Maserati has the same performance, but goes about it with such unflustered, inscrutable civility is astonishing.

In fact, for cars that have so much in common – not least their Lambo-lambasting raison d’être – the characters of this pair are so different that comparison almost seems pointless. A waste of time then? Not at all. We had to do the article to discover that fact and we learned a lot more besides. Namely that, for seat-of-the-pants driving and raw thrills – and bizarrely also for trickling along in traffic jams – you need a Pantera. Nothing comes close for that sort of money. Yet for continental touring with genuine pace and refined GT comfort and capability, the Bora is equally essential. Again, you would have to spend twice as much to find something that would make you feel better as the lines of poplars flash past on a deserted French blue route, or to get you across the Alps as quickly and comfortably. 

The Bora has always been near the summit of the ‘must-have’ list and it still is, but has been joined by the Pantera. If you were thinking of buying either of these cars, the good news is that neither will disappoint, the bad news is that you really need both... and a bigger garage.

FACTFILES

Maserati Bora

Sold/number built 1971-’78/571 Construction steel platform chassis with separate rubber-insulated subframes and steel body Engine mid-mounted, all-alloy 4719/4930cc qohc V8 fed by four 42DCNF downdraught Weber carburettors Max power 310bhp @ 6000rpm Max torque 325lb ft @ 4200rpm Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, driving rear wheels Suspension independent all round by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Anti-roll bars front and rear Steering rack and pinion Brakes powered Girling discs all round Length 14ft 3in (4343mm) Width  5ft 10in (1784mm) Height 3ft 11in (1200mm) Weight 3416lb (1549kg) Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2590mm) 0-60mph 6.4 secs Top speed 160mph Mpg 14 Price new £9831 (1973)  

De Tomaso Pantera

Sold/number built 1973-’92/7165 (to 1990) Construction unitary steel Engine mid-mounted, all-iron 5763cc ohv pushrod V8 fed by a single four-barrel Autolite carburettor Max power 350bhp @ 5400rpm Max torque 345lb ft @ 4000rpm Transmission five-speed manual transaxle, driving rear wheels Suspension independent all round by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Anti-roll bars front and rear  Steering rack and pinion Brakes vented discs all round with servo assistance Length 13ft 11in (4241mm) Width 5ft 11in (1803mm) Height 3ft 71/2in (1092mm) Weight 3050lb (1383kg) Wheelbase 8ft 3in (2514mm) 0-60mph 5.5 secs Top speed 170mph Mpg 17 Price new £7875 (1973)  

This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: James Elliott; pictures: Tony Baker

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