Classic Ride: 1969 De Tomaso Mangusta
When Carroll Shelby pulled out of his partnership with Alejandro De Tomaso, De Tomaso took it personally. Exactly why their deal to build the P70, an Italian-designed replacement for the Shelby Cobra, went south isn’t exactly clear. Tall tales run the gamut from Shelby’s prior Ford obligations, to mafia ties, to self-enforced exiles to Africa.
What isn’t speculation, however, is that after the deal fell through, De Tomaso named his next production car, which was loosely based on the P70, the Mangusta. In Italian, Mangusta means mongoose, the only predator of the cobra. Seems Taylor Swift wasn’t the originator of subtle public shaming.
The Mangusta’s rarity stems from the fact that only 401 were made. Their less-than-perfect Italian construction and propensity for rust means that of those, only around 250 still exist. Hence us ogling one at last year’s Concorso Italiano during Monterey Car Week. Bud Millard, a retired automotive appraiser from northern California caught us in the act—and then handed us his business card, saying, “If you want to see a really good one, call me.”
It was the second model to come out of De Tomaso’s Modena, Italy-based factory. Wedged between the Vallelunga, with its drivetrain vibration issues, and the Pantera, which was powered by Ford’s 351, the Mangusta isn’t exactly a household name. And don’t mistake the original Italian-American collaboration for the second-go-around, the Qvale Mangusta, an Italian-Mustang convertible mash-up that was produced from 2000-2002.
Millard purchased his car seven years ago. It’s not hard to see why he thought a Mangusta would compliment his rather esoteric collection that already included a Pantera and a stunning green Alfa Romeo Montreal (which we also gawked at during the Concorso).
“The looks, the design, were always impressive to me,” Millard explains. Turns out it was a good choice, as his pristine 1969 Italian has twice won awards at the August Concorso, a supporting event to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s no one cared about these cars. A lot of them were beat up,” Millard says. But he liked the fact that the one he grabbed originally came from San Francisco and spent the past 20 years sitting in a garage in the Bay Area. The car, for now, lives in Millbrae, just south of the San Francisco airport.
Given the Mangusta’s 43-inch height, getting in and out of the sporty car is the equivalent of leg day at the gym. Engage your core, too, or you’re apt to fall into the low channeled-leather seats, which are still supportive enough and have that pleasant old-car-leather smell. With the pedals situated to the right of the foot well, the driver’s feet take on a position not unlike being tucked into a mummy sleeping bag.
Because he’s about to sell this car, Millard insisted on driving. We were disappointed, but understood. We wouldn’t be keen on jeopardizing a more than $ 300,000 transaction either.
Millard turned over the Mangusta’s Ford 302 engine. What starts as a marvelously guttural grumble becomes rolling thunder when Millard hits the throttle. With that mid-engine’s cacophonous force of nature right behind ones head, the sound envelops the cockpit and sends the entire car trembling.
The temperamental shift gate on the five-speed ZF transmission makes finding gears as tough as inserting bread into a toaster in the dark. Some of Millard’s initial attempts needed a firm hand and repetition. This is driving made satisfyingly frustrating in that special, vintage Italian sports car way. Eventually, first gear cooperates and the mongoose stretches its muscles, shuddering and humming as we drive through residential streets.
When pressed about the popular critique of the Mangusta’s poor handling, Millard balks. “People who make that claim beat the hell out of the car and drive it on the wrong tires.” Millard goes on. “Sure, if you get rough with it, it can bite you.” Seems according to Millard, the mongoose was aptly named.
At the forefront of its handling complaints lies the Mangusta’s steel backbone chassis. It was originally conceived for the Vallelunga, which housed a less-robust 1.5-liter Kent engine from the Ford Cortina that only made 104 hp. Even after it was reengineered to accommodate a bigger engine, the chassis still didn’t have enough torsional stiffness and the Mangusta’s V-8 proved too much for the design.
Since the bulk of its mid-mounted 302 is cast iron, the Mangusta suffers from a wonky 32/68-weight distribution, which does nothing for the overall balance or performance of the car. In some period magazine performance tests, the results showed the Mangusta to be a cornering nightmare at speed.
According to Millard, some owners remedied the car’s insane flexion issues by adding a couple of gussets to strengthen the rear transaxle. On our leisurely drive, however, we didn’t experience any of the wild behaviors the Mangusta is notorious for. And we’re grateful Millard doesn’t test the speedometer today beyond 50 mph. Like the old Italian gentleman it is, the Magnusta is well-behaved, but could be dangerous if it wanted to be.
De Tomaso addressed these structural issues with the Pantera by moving to a unibody design that could handle its 351 ci power plant. Ultimately less expensive to build, more powerful and structurally sound, the Pantera went on to become the signature car of the De Tomaso stable.
Giorgetto Giugiaro, the prolific designer of, among other cars, the iconic Volkswagen Golf and the DeLorean DMC-12, created the Mangusta’s design, including the unique gullwing engine covers that make it instantly recognizable. Unfortunately, they do nothing for the rear visibility of the car and Millard asks for help when reversing into his own driveway.
When faced with the decision of letting the car’s increasing patina be or repainting, Millard opted for the latter. Everything else on the car is original. Instead of moving the for-decoration-only rear-view mirrors from the front fenders to the conventional passenger and driver door positions, Millard fixed smaller convex mirrors into them so he can actually see behind him. And under those heavy rear gullwing doors, even the original anti-smog pump still rattles.
“Lots of people take photos of it. Mostly they have no idea what it is and think it’s a Ferrari.” Millard doesn’t care, he’s just glad they think it’s a showstopper. While De Tomaso, Shelby and their prickly personalities are gone, both left behind some unquestionably beautiful cars. Hopefully this Mangusta will be chasing after Cobras for a while.