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.
The Ford V-8’s 310 lb-ft of torque, however, effortlessly moves this flyweight two-seater (which tips the scales at 3000 pounds, give or take). Tucker happily demonstrates on the quiet country roads around his Michigan home, running the Mangusta up to an indicated 100 mph or better several times, as our photographer and his assistant struggle to catch up.
Then it’s my turn. The driver’s seat offers little adjustment, so either you fit or you don’t. Luckily, I do. The turning circle is wide, and there’s essentially no visibility out the back. I roll onto the throttle and the car powers ahead, quickly blurring the trees, barns, and mailboxes. The clutch is stiff, but the shifter moves easily through its chromed gate – but the fact is, you hardly need to use it, given the V-8’s torque and the close spacing of the gearbox’s five ratios.
Tucker warns me that the car’s handling is tricky: it pushes at first, then the back can snap out suddenly and is somewhat hard to catch because of the slow-geared steering. I don’t have a chance to confirm his assessment, since the roads are mostly arrow-straight. But I certainly can hear the suspension working – the control-arm layout uses no rubber parts – and the ride is fairly decent. The spotty autumn sunshine begins to bake us under the huge, nearly horizontal windshield, so Tucker switches on the air-conditioning (which was standard equipment). This really is a comfortable highway cruiser, and Tucker has driven it to racetracks as far as Watkins Glen in New York and Road America in Wisconsin.
“People go crazy when they see it,” he says, which is understandable, given the car’s style and its rarity. Only 401 were built, and it’s estimated that about half survive. U.S. importation ended in 1971, when De Tomaso’s federal-standards exemption expired. De Tomaso followed with the Pantera, which was sold by Lincoln-Mercury dealers, but that car doesn’t have quite the design purity of the Mangusta. It’s true that De Tomaso was a small operation and the cars were not the most thoroughly engineered. But the Ford V-8 is certainly robust, and Tucker claims that his Mangusta has been reliable. Really, though, if you want reliable, get a Toyota Camry. The Mangusta is something else entirely. It’s a macho vision of the future from an era when designers were still unconstrained, and it’s every bit as striking today as when it was introduced.
Engine: 5.0L OHV V-8, 230 hp, 310 lb-ft
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Suspension, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
Suspension, REAR: Multilink, coil springs
Weight: 3000 lb (est.)
Knockout looks from the pen of the master, Giorgetto Giugiaro, at the height of his design powers.
For someone who wants a late-’60s Italian GT, the Mangusta is an out-of-the-mainstream choice. It’s a mid-engine exotic without the sky-high tune-up bills or the need of an old-world mechanic to keep it running, thanks to its dead-simple American V-8. That said, however, much of this car is mechanically fragile, chiefly the transaxle. Prices had been a veritable bargain compared with the Mangusta’s contemporaries but recently have become less so.
If you own a Mangusta, the folks at Mangusta International would like you to register your car with them HERE.
They’re always searching for remaining Mangustas, and they estimate that there are only about 200 of the cars left in existence worldwide.