Alejandro de Tomaso dreamed of emulating fellow Modenese supercar makers. Today, this dilapidated warehouse is all that’s left
It is said that almost 90% of all known ancient arts are to be found in Italy. This, added to the blasé mindset of many Italians, sometimes leads to a lack of concern about something that, if it was located elsewhere in the world, would drive the national preservation ministry crazy.
A recent example is the condition of the building that, not so many years ago, was the headquarters of De Tomaso Automobili in Modena. The photographs here show what is left of the company founded in 1959 by Argentinian racer Alejandro de Tomaso.
De Tomaso started his business manufacturing a very limited number of racing cars or prototypes, a venture that continued into the 1970s and included the car that the Williams team used for the 1970 Formula 1 season.
In the early 1960s De Tomaso progressed to normal production sports models, launching the four-cylinder, Ford-powered Vallelunga in 1964. It was the world’s second mid-engined production car, having been narrowly beaten by the Matra Djet. The Mangusta followed the Vallelunga in 1966, built in co-operation with Ford and equipped with the American V8 engine that would become a signature De Tomaso feature.
After building around 400 Mangustas, in 1970 De Tomaso launched the Pantera. This car, manufactured in a closer partnership with Ford, became the best-known symbol of the De Tomaso company, with more than 6100 built up to the end of 1973. That’s when Ford, under pressure from the fuel crisis, ended the partnership. De Tomaso continued with production alone and the Pantera carried on, in much reduced numbers, until 1993 – the year Alejandro de Tomaso suffered his stroke. Other models joined the range in an attempt to counteract the falling sales of De Tomaso’s most glamorous product, but the golden era of Ford support was over.
The company lasted ten more years after the Pantera’s demise, fighting for survival every day along the way. The final Bigua model never reached production under that name but it did get a brief second life as the Qvale Mangusta (and a third life, with a new body, as the MG XPower SV). Founding father Alejandro’s health worsened, and after his death in 2003 his family sold what remained of the company to ruthless investors.
All that’s left today is a very dilapidated building that still belongs to the remnants of the original company. We were allowed to see inside, passing through holes in the fence and broken doors in the company of two people who were part of the De Tomaso company in its heyday. These were employees who loved the company so much that they stayed on even when salaries might not have been paid at the end of the month.
Sergio Seghedoni is one of them. He joined De Tomaso in January 1971, aged 30, to work in the warehouse. His former ‘office’ is pictured here, and for him to see it as it is now is a sad and shocking moment. ‘The company was always very well cared for,’ he says in a voice trembling with rage, ‘and offices, production lines and warehouses were always immaculate, to fulfil the boss’s request. Something not even close to this massacre wouldn’t have been tolerated in any way.’
Sergio came from Stanguellini, where he had worked since 1957 as a mechanic and warehouse worker. ‘Mrs de Tomaso herself asked me, through the De Tomaso purchase department, to join the company. She knew me because she came to collect from our warehouse the ancillaries they were also using on their early cars. It was 1971 and I arrived just in time to see the Mangusta line stopped and the start of Pantera manufacture.
‘The first 150 units were really handbuilt, a sort of production prototype, and they all went to the USA, from where many shortly afterwards came back to have a multitude of issues sorted out. There were quality problems but the car was a good one. We were, in the production area, about 180 people, many coming from the other automobile companies of the area, and we were mostly assembling pieces brought in from somewhere else. The engine came from the USA, the transmission from Germany, the body – already finished – from Turin, and we had to put them together and finish the cars.
‘Then I became responsible for the parts warehouse, which went on to include parts for motorcycle manufacturing, too, when De Tomaso bought the Benelli Company followed by practically all of the Italian brands. It was a messy task and not an easy one, given that I had to make the production line able to manufacture from six or seven cars a day up to the 16-a-day of the best period.
‘My biggest problem was the ordering, because De Tomaso had the reputation of being terrible when it was time to pay the bills. In the end he always fulfilled his duties, but he usually paid much later than he should have done, which drove suppliers, especially foreign ones, totally crazy. As a result I always had a very short reserve of parts, almost never more than an extra engine and transmission and a little more from the English suppliers, such as Girling and Lucas, because they were more accepting of the crazy payments.’
Sergio’s role at De Tomaso developed in a very unexpected way over the years. After the stroke that hit Alejandro de Tomaso in 1993, he took care of his boss on a daily basis, driving him around for meetings and treatments. ‘Our relationship went back to the very early period, when I was new in the job but already aware of the fight I had to have for every order and for receiving the parts we needed. One day, I saw in my warehouse the purchase manager and Mr De Tomaso. I said to the manager, of course in not too serious a way, that if he didn’t provide the requested material in the right time, I would beat him. De Tomaso looked at me and said: “In that case, after you have beaten him you should beat me too, because I am the boss.” I looked at him and said: “If you insist,” and we all exploded laughing. From that day he always had a soft spot for me. In public he looked strong and confident, but with his workers and among friends he was almost shy.’
After Ford’s departure the company started to reduce its employee numbers. It went down to 40 people, no longer with a production line and building the few cars almost by hand. Sergio decided to stay even though he received other offers outside the car industry.
‘I love cars, and that was my place. I always did my best and I knew the boss knew it. When he got sick, I, along with only two or three other people, was able to understand him. His brain was perfect, but the stroke hit his ability to talk and move. We spent days together, with me driving him to the rehabilitation centre. He hated not being independent any more.
‘Until January 1995, when I retired, I was getting my salary from the company. After that I received it directly from the family. I still remember my last days as a De Tomaso employee, which I spent re-organising my warehouse, but the situation was already so bad that very few still had hopes of the company’s survival.’
Walter Ghidoni, now 69 years old, joined De Tomaso in 1994. He had been at Maserati for 13 years but quit while designing the Ferrari-engined Lancia Thema 8.32. ‘It was impossible to create something good with them,’ he says, referring to the Fiat management. Walter became the technical director and then, from 2001 to 2004, the general manager. He arrived as the Guarà was in the making, and he had the tough job of trying to run a company hopelessly short of money. But his relationship with the surly Alejandro de Tomaso was so strong that the old man nicknamed him figlio mio, or ‘my son’.
‘I arrived with the Guarà and had the opportunity to partner with Scalabroni. He was the father of the Guarà and a great person to work with. Times were hard, and the shortage of resources had impact everywhere. Sometimes I saw Mr Alejandro use some of his personal money to finance a new project or a development, and it is a miracle that with the money we had we were able to build an average of 30-35 cars a year. We had quality problems because of the small size of our company; we did almost everything by hand, and we were too small to have any power with suppliers. Our needs were met by suppliers most of the time squeezed between production for Maserati and Lamborghini.
‘The Chubasco [a 1990 concept car styled by Marcello Gandini and created by De Tomaso for Maserati, the underpinnings of which morphed into the Maserati Barchetta one-make race cars] was the closest we got to something special. It was conceived as a secret project and, when we revealed it, I looked at De Tomaso and told him that we would never get it into production because it was too good. It would have stolen sales from Ferrari, something Fiat would never have allowed. We were weak, without political power with suppliers or any sort of economic strength, and we were expendable.
‘Despite all that, De Tomaso Automobili in Modena was a great place to work. In all my years there, I never heard Mr Alejandro identifying an employee by a number or a function. It was always with his name. The last time I saw him before his stroke, we were in Milan at the Innocenti company headquarters. He arrived after long meetings with the unions, two nights without sleep. In the evening we had a meeting. He declared he had reached the agreement to shut down the Innocenti Company, and we noticed he was unsteady.
‘During dinner he had the stroke. We all knew it was the end, because for the last few years we had not made any money and without his protection we would soon be gone. Knowing the man, after the loss of his independence, it must have been a relief for him when he passed away. I remember Mrs Isabel, his wife, saying she would take care of the company, but the family was not of this opinion.
‘The last car we made was assembled using leftover parts, and was the Guarà Targa, a car that today is in Austria. After that I took the books to court for the shutting-down process. In the inventory there was everything, including the master of the Guarà, parts for its production, two skins of the new Pantera and the dies for shaping its body. We were missing chassis and engines, because they needed to be paid for in advance, but we had the cars in the museum: a Pantera, a Pantera 90, a Pantera 3 Sport with a Maserati Merak six-cylinder engine, a Mustang, a Vallelunga and the chassis of an electric vehicle. They all disappeared a few days later and their whereabouts are still unknown.
‘I was surprised when the notary of the family told me I was named in Mr Alejandro’s will. I was still more surprised when the family sued me together with Dr Berti, the CEO, for €6.5 million, claiming for damages to the company. It took ten years for the court to establish that nothing in my behaviour could have been considered less than absolutely correct. It ordered the family to pay all the legal expenses and the De Tomaso company to pay me the last salary cheque and my retirement settlement.
‘When today I walk in front of the old building, and I see it in this condition, my heart sinks. Between those walls I spent some memorable years and I did my best, as every other employee did, to keep the company going. It has been a great lost opportunity for the whole of the Modenese “motor valley”, because De Tomaso could have been saved without too much effort. For my part, I’ll always be grateful to Mr Alejandro because he allowed me to feel pleasure when working. That’s the greatest gift that could be given to man.’
Some cultures believe that, when somebody is lost forever, he or she will remain alive until the memories of him or her are no longer remembered by who is left. Maybe that applies to a building, too, even a derelict one, so the De Tomaso company stays alive as long as the building stands. One day it will probably be torn down to make space for another department store, and De Tomaso will dissipate into the ether. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen just yet.
Words: Massimo Delbò // Photography: Roberto Brancolini