De Tomaso’s Mangusta has a scary reputation, and deservedly so. It’s also uncommonly beautiful. Octane treads carefully on the throttle…
An exotic creature or object doesn’t need to be practically inclined, functional and efficient. Such attributes are mere bonuses in a thing whose reason for existence is sensual, frivolous, extravagant, daring. To own such an object is to brush aside any hint of objective justification, to revel instead in the indulgence of it all. Just as well, really. Otherwise no-one would have bought a De Tomaso Mangusta, whereas 401 flamboyant souls did just that.
Be in no doubt that, by normal notions of hindsight-fuelled automotive goodness, this car is awful. It is approximately made, it contorts your skeleton, it handles horribly and it doesn’t do speed bumps. Yet people will now pay over £200,000 for one, which might be less than they’d pay for a perfect Dino but not by much. Best, then, to think of it not as a car in the normal sense of the concept (ability to get from point A to point B, causing its driver to enjoy the process without obliging him or her to reach for bed or bottle on arrival) but as, perhaps, an artwork.
That the artwork can be kinetic is a welcome bonus, to be enjoyed for the intense battle with physics that kinesis involves on every level in this car. Since being built in 1969, this Mangusta has transported two brave, challenge-seeking, lightly masochistic owners more than 96,000 miles, so well done them. The first owned it into the ’80s and 80,000s, and kept an extraordinarily detailed book of all that was done to it, down to the slightest lube. It’s an alphabetic address book, so there’s nothing under Q or X but lots under I (for Ignition), S (Service), V (Valves, various types) and, oddly, J (Jackshaft, clearly troublesome).
Both owners benefited from the fact that the US authorities, well mired in automotive regulation by 1969, were prepared to make a regulatory exception for something so visually arresting. They allowed the Mangusta not to conform to lots of regulations for its first year of sale, provided fewer than 500 examples were sold. They need not have worried.
What, then, is this work of art? It’s a Giugiaro-drawn, mid-engined supercar from the latter half of the 1960s, which immediately gives it great potential to be an object of desire. The great Giorgetto, then working for Ghia, drew the shape as a proposal for a possible Bizzarrini that never happened, Bizzarrini being in considerable financial soup at the time.
Meanwhile, Argentinian auto entrepreneur Alejandro de Tomaso saw a gap in the market. He envisaged an exotic machine in the Miura mould, or inspired by racing machines such as Ferrari’s 250LM or Ford’s GT40, but powered not by an expensive, high-maintenance Italian V12 but by a lazy-yet-muscular American V8. This, he reasoned, would appeal especially strongly to American buyers because the engine would be understood by local mechanics and reliability would be assured.
So there was that available body design, and De Tomaso had already produced the Vallelunga, a smaller mid-engined car powered by a Cortina GT engine. Its chassis had formed the basis of an open-top, Ford V8-powered, one-off sports racer (designated P70 internally, De Tomaso Sport 5000 for the outside world), so all the ingredients were there for a Ghia-built concept car, which duly appeared at the 1966 Turin show. That 1965 sports racer was interesting in itself, clad by American Pete Brock in aluminium bodywork with a movable rear wing, and powered by a Carroll Shelby-sourced Ford 289 V8 with a reputed 475bhp.
De Tomaso had hoped to produce more of these cars in collaboration with Shelby, but the American pulled out of the project to answer the call from Ford to help hone the GT40 into something useful. The P70 eventually raced in 1966, retiring on the opening lap of its sole event at Mugello, having been withdrawn from Sebring and failing to be accepted at Le Mans. That rankled with De Tomaso, which is why he named his 1966 concept car Mangusta after the animal – mongoose in English – noted for its ability to kill cobras.
The Mangusta appeared again at Turin in 1967, backed by a financial tie-up between Ghia and De Tomaso brought about by the fact that the latter’s American wife’s brother was a director of American company Rowan Controls. Said brother bought a share of De Tomaso’s company and all of Ghia, and set about marketing the Mangusta idea in his homeland. Orders soon came in and De Tomaso built a new factory in Modena to meet the anticipated demand.
The factory got going in late 1968, and was well into its stride when our car’s first owner took delivery in Glendale, California, on 22 May 1969. Inevitably he had the standard US-spec version with power variously cited, depending on whom you believe, at 221, 230 or 265bhp from 302ci (4949cc) via its single four-choke Holley carburettor. A few cars used the smaller but feistier 289ci/4727cc unit, tuned by De Tomaso to give 305bhp thanks to higher compression, racier valve timing, bigger valves and gas-flowed ports. Whatever the output, it was channelled to the fat rear wheels via a ZF five-speed transaxle, standard fare of the day for powerful cars with a longitudinal, mid-mounted engine, be they for road or race.
Which leads to an interesting point, made by Mike Twite in his 1969 report for Car magazine. While such a configuration was by then almost the norm for racing cars, it was untried for very powerful road cars. The Lotus Europa and Matra’s Djet and 530 were longitudinally mid-engined, as was the Vallelunga, but the bigger boys – Miura and, less potently, Ferrari’s Dino – had compactly packaged transverse engines. The Mangusta was the first road car to mimic a full-on contemporary Le Mans front-runner’s mechanical disposition. Which should make it pretty damned wonderful, right?
Not quite. A Ferrari LM, P3 or P4 has a multi-tubular frame. A GT40 has a steel monococque with deep, wide sills. The Mangusta has a development of the Vallelunga’s backbone chassis, a configuration not very rigid (think of the suspension leverage on that slender spine) unless aided by a stiff body on top of it. This one isn’t. Compounding this floppiness are a weight distribution that sees the rear wheels carry 68% of the total mass, and steering so slow that you need to twirl the wheel 4½ times between stops. I expect you’re scared already. I am.
For now, I’ll lock my fear into a box inside my head as we consider the Mangusta as the artwork it undoubtedly is. Perhaps its most striking feature is the mode of access to the engine. As seen from the back, especially on a black-detailed red car like ours, the Mangusta looks like a ladybird about to take flight. Between the cockpit and the tail panel, all the bodywork down to sill and valance level opens up in two mirror-image sections hinged along a central spine, like that ladybird’s wing cases: rear side windows, triple air-slots, wheelarches, everything. Opening the other movable panels reveals a deep boot beneath the front lid (aluminium, like the insect-wing-cases), and low sills beneath the doors to allow for surprisingly easy ingress.
With all panels closed, you can see what a great-looking car this is. Those angled-from-vertical ranks of air-slots were an Italian carrozzerie motif at the time, favoured by Pininfarina and Bertone as well as Ghia and, later, Giugiaro’s own studio, and the mix of sharp edges and taut yet curvaceous elevations practically defined the genre of the late-60s and early-70s Italian supercar.
The Mangusta looks fantastic side-on, almost ageless in its muscular, toned form. It’s a design rooted in my head as modern, forward-looking, exciting, bursting with boundless optimism. But that rooting took place 45 years ago – nearly half a century, can you believe it? – and sometimes shibboleths get shattered. It happened to me when I realised just how far the wheels tuck under their arches, and would do so even more were the tyres of original 80-profile and not the squatter, wider, brand-new 70-profiles of this car (by BF Goodrich, appropriately American). Suddenly I see the Mangusta in the new light of today’s context, and I feel rather old.
None of this stops the Mangusta still being a madly handsome machine. That low four-headlamp front (later US cars had pop-up lights to meet height regulations), the chiselled tail, the sharp-angled glass areas, the midriff dihedral, the lack of bumpers, all make a crisply drawn picture. Then there are the details, not all good. The doorframes are fused into a single piece of bright metal, quarter-light bar included, and the small, round, push-button door releases are very neat. But the fit of the black plastic door mirrors, and of the tail-lights into their apertures, is poor, the wipers – surely incorrect – are comically small and the quad tailpipes are just for show. They terminate a pair of exhaust systems, one per bank, which goes four-into-two-into-one-into-two.
Their manifolds emerge from cylinder heads topped with cast, polished-aluminium rocker covers bearing the legend ‘5.0 LITRE\Mangusta’. More polished aluminium forms the casing of the transaxle, while thin, square-section steel tubes abound in their role of supporting the bodywork. The fully adjustable suspension arms have solid, rubberless joints, with a rear layout akin to a 1960s Formula 1 car’s, and the splined, Hooke-jointed driveshafts are very thick. The weight distribution is not helped by placing the vital air-con radiator right in the tail and the battery in the rearmost right-hand corner; I can feel the key starting to turn in my brain’s locked box. Look underneath, and you’ll see less than three inches of daylight between the bellhousing and the road.
Time to clamber inside. It’s all black, with a great flat slab of a dashboard splattered with instruments, a central row of toggle switches, some aircraft-like knurled rheostats and a couple of glimmers of recognition. A Sunbeam Rapier wiper switch? A British Ford indicator stalk? The air-con vents and controls hang below, and very welcome they are.
What’s missing is any evidence of a real, live human having been used to define the driving position. Call me pernickety, but ultimately it is important that people should be able to drive a car. The steering wheel is small, with a well-worn rim of wood and leather, set low, far away and well to the right of my body’s centreline. The pedals are similarly offset and the accelerator is far below the brake, to the detriment of heeling-and-toeing and the consequent deprivation of the complete control I suspect I’ll be craving as the brain-box key unlocks a little further.
Now I’ve banged my head on the windscreen header rail, and have to swivel my neck to see the rear-view mirror and its vista of square tubes, grille mesh and the rear windows’ dividing spine. And that’s with an enforced reclining driving position, and the seat won’t go far forward enough for a 50th-centile European human like me.
I open the driver’s window, to discover it won’t retract fully because its steep tumblehome causes internal contact with the lower door skin. Never mind; it’s open far enough to admit the V8’s sonic waves. A beating, blattering V8 is not what you expect from a car styled like this one, but it’s central to the Mangusta’s Italo-American genes and promises mucho macho drama. Into gear – a stiff, springy action as the lever navigates the open-slotted, Ferrari-esque gate – and off with the Ford-like, under-dash handbrake. There’s no room for a conventional one on, or by, the backbone-covering central tunnel. And, sitting mere inches from ground level but having the strong feeling of being in a light aircraft, we’re off. The artwork has gone kinetic.
Make that a speedboat. I squeeze the accelerator, the tail squats and the steering suddenly lightens. Everything is happening at the back as I manhandle the gearlever and blatter upwards through the five closely spaced ratios, the lightly laden front wheels seemingly contributing little to the control options. I ease off a bit and some steering bite returns, but the response is slow around the centre thanks to that low gearing. Self-centring is minimal, too, as if there’s hardly any castor rather than the 5º it purportedly has. Even so, the steering is surprisingly accurate, no doubt helped by the lack of rubber in the suspension.
The solid joints used instead have been creaking and squeaking gaily over low-speed bumps, or it might be the structure itself. It’s hard to tell. And now I have to brake quite hard, and the front tyres squeal worryingly easily as the brakes nibble the edge of lock-up. That’ll be the tyres’ unscrubbed-in newness, I hope, but the brain-box key has now turned and the door is ajar.
Another accelerative thrust up through the gears, culminating in the sprint-geared fifth with just 22mph per 1000rpm, and I’m warming to this treacherous beast. It doesn’t feel as fast as you would hope, the US-spec version recorded back in the day at seven seconds to 60mph and a feeble 118mph all out, but there’s a lovely torquey thrust to this engine, whose power peaks at a lazy 4800rpm (hence the low top speed). The Euro-Mangusta, by contrast, was a 150mph, five-second car.
Eventually I pluck up the courage to try some quick cornering, even though the lack of a build-up in steering weight as cornering speeds rise is disconcerting. It’s hard to tell what, if anything, is happening under the front tyres, but what is happening is that they are pushed wide if I turn too much, too soon, as you’d expect.
So I steer a little less and accelerate a little more on this damp corner. Instantly the tail steps out a little, but nothing in the steering has reported the fact. Next time, it steps out more, it’s clear that a spin would be extremely easy if not nipped in the bud, and the brain-box door is wide open with fear spilling forth because I don’t believe I could counter-steer quickly enough to catch it. A friendly companion the Mangusta is not. Its scary reputation is deserved.
Lubrication of this car’s sticky throttle and stiff gearchange would improve it greatly, making it closer to the cars reported on back when it was new, although there is hidden eloquence between the reports’ lines. But in the end the Mangusta – especially a US one – is better appreciated as a visual and aural spectacle, and as a piece of car art, than as a top-drawer driving machine. De Tomaso knew that too, which is why the Pantera replacement of 1971 was much stiffer and much better. It didn’t have a ladybird-wingcase engine cover, though.
Thanks to Historics at Brooklands, which consigned the Mangusta for auction, and to its vendor, Classic Automobiles of Wandsworth.
1969 De Tomaso Mangusta
Engine 4949cc V8, OHV, four-choke Holley carburettor
Power 230bhp @ 4800rpm
Torque 310lb ft @ 2800rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual ZF transaxle
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: upper and lower links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar
Steering Rack and pinion
Performance Top speed: 118mph, 0-60mph: 7.0sec
Words: John Simister // Photography: James Lipman