De Tomaso Mangusta is not the first answer most people give when asked to name a late-1960s Italian GT. But in terms of street presence and raw sex appeal, this lesser-known exotic gives away nothing to its more widely recognized contemporaries from Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Maserati. Seen today, this Giorgetto Giugiaro masterpiece looks like a long-forgotten Hot Wheels car sprung to life. Upon its debut at the Turin auto show in 1966, its impact was even more dramatic.
"I remember the first time I saw one," says Bob Tucker, a now-retired professor of architecture who owned a Mangusta back in the day. "I thought it was the biggest point of departure for automobile design up to that time." Tucker had a keen eye for cars - he owned Alfa Romeos and Ferraris as well. As it turned out, though, the Mangusta, with its mid-mounted Ford V-8 and tricky handling, was too much of a personal departure for Tucker, and he didn't hang onto it for very long before returning to Alfas.
Still, the Mangusta stayed around long enough to make a searing impression on the consciousness of Tucker's elementary-school-aged son, Roman. "I never forgot the looks of that thing," he says. Like his father, the younger Tucker today is deeply into Alfas (he vintage races and restores them) and also likes Ferraris (he has a 512BB and a Testarossa) - but unlike his dad, Roman has kept his Mangusta, a stunning gray example that he purchased in 1996.
As I stand next to it, the car seems impossibly low - it's a scant forty-three inches tall - and the purity of the design is uncompromised. And, in fact, the cars weren't modified to meet U.S. federal safety standards of the day, and a sticker inside the front trunk warns of that fact. Despite the low roof and the severe tumblehome - because of which the door glass can retract only halfway - getting in is fairly easy, mostly because of the narrow doorsills. The Mangusta uses a backbone frame, so, in the cockpit area, its structure is concentrated at the center of the car, where the frame rails reside under the massive console. The longitudinally mounted V-8 engine sits ahead of the rear axle, which means the passenger compartment is located far forward. Driver and passenger must angle their legs toward the center of the car, due to the substantial intrusion of the front wheel wells. And the steeply raked windshield comes all the way up to your forehead, or so it seems. The wide, low cockpit is decked out in padded leather, and the flat dashboard is littered with businesslike, round gauges and a long row of toggle switches.
When Tucker keys the engine to life, however, the sound isn't one of Italian exotica but the rumble of an American muscle car. That's because a humble Ford V-8 powers the Mangusta; the 302-cubic-inch engine, topped with a four-barrel carburetor, may not have a European pedigree, but it's certainly simple and reliable. It's also easy to work on, unless the task is changing the accessory-drive belt - the engine is snug up against the firewall, so it's best to remove the seats and the console to perform that operation.