By Wallace Wyss
Meanwhile what to do with the Mangustas? After Ford turned thumbs down on the ‘Goose, DeTomaso connected with Kjell Qvale (pronounced SHELL QUE-VOLLEY) a successful car importer in downtown San Francisco.
Qvale had turned down a chance to buy the Mangusta after looking at it in pictures but was in Italy talking on a payphone when he saw the prototype roar by, probably with Jonathan Williams at the wheel. (Who knows if DeTomaso wasn’t stalking Qvale and waiting for an opportunity to roar past?)
Qvale took out his next coin and called DeTomaso up and said he’d take it. He eventually sold over 280 of them but found out later that the Mangusta, as a piece of rolling sculpture, was beautiful. But as a piece of engineering, it was, uh, flawed. (Qvale went on to make his version of the Mangusta much later on Qvale’s Mangusta.
First of all, the engine and heads and intake manifold of the Ford 302 were all cast iron, the stuff of boat anchors. That made the car tail-happy. Secondly his beloved spine chassis, which had worked more or less in the four cylinder Vallelunga, was not torsionally stiff enough for the much more heavy (over 400 lbs.) V8 so the car would spin out once it reached a certain speed in what engineers call “steady state” cornering. And it was discovered the Renault-sourced steering rack was way too slow.
Sports Car Graphic took on the car on as a cause and diagnosed it. Their motor drive shots show the car’s squirrely behavior in a hard corner. It becomes clear the car flexes at a certain point around a corner and when it binds up and subsequently unflexes, it throws the car off line. The result is a violent shift from under-steer to over-steer, and even a skilled driver couldn’t catch it because of the slow steering. Williams probably caught it, but then he was a Grand Prix driver. The publisher of Sports Car Graphic was an extremely eccentric man named TC Browne who loved to tweak the nose of everybody in the business including automakers. He “borrowed” one of the first Mangustas and handed it over to Paul Van Vaulkenburgh, who was hired on their staff after being a test engineer at GM where he tested the rival GT40. So Van Vaulkenburgh was intent on showing how competent he was when he dissected the Mangusta in a three part series for the magazine.
A surprise to many is that the exotic looking Mangusta came to America underpowered. Factory specs listed the output of the standard 302 4V as 235 bhp @4800, and Gross Torque, 318@3200Ft-Lbs. SCG quoted 221 hp for the test car. The 302 engine had been sent to Italy as a sort of ecomony (to use SCG’s description) engine. So though it was durable, it had no revving capability beyond about 5100 rpm. The 302 wasn’t a bad engine but in the Mangusta it was choked up with smog pumps, poor exhaust design and weak cam. SCG added another 125 hp to their engine which then provided improved performance without twisting the frame.
The high performance 289 used in the Mustang, rated over there at 271 hp, would have been better suited in America but only went in Euro-market Gooses. Over here, the engine was hard to get, mostly slotted for high performance Mustangs, Falcon Sprints, Comet Calientes, etc . Readers report that several of the first Mangustas came over with high performance 289s, but the factory started to produce the 302 in place of the 289 right about that time. DeTomaso was too cheap to cast an alloy block 289 (though one was made experimentally and Ford was horrified that when they dropped one, it broke into a 1000 pieces). It would have helped to have aluminum heads or even an aluminum intake manifold. But DeTomaso was following an ancient dictum of automakers: put the money on the outside. (See Note 1)
Only one fix for the rear weight bias was tried—aluminum gullwing lids instead of steel on the engine compartment.
Another episode in this tale of Lust in Lombardy was when Bill Mitchell, VP of GM in charge of styling, fell in love with the car. He ordered one, albeit with a Chevy 327. He angrily rejected the car when he found his rotund form wouldn’t fit in the car, which is ideal for someone about 5’6” tops and of slim build (like, DeTomaso or Williams not too coincidentally). He banished the car from his presence, feeling DeTomaso had deliberately created a car too small for him. (Mitchell told this to me when I’d have lunch with him at the Tech Center in the 1970s. Dick Ruzzin, the GM designer who ended up with the car, still owns the Mangusta Vette today.)
And the car had another flaw—it was too low, possibly below the legal ground clearance limit of 5 inches. Any Mangusta driver will turn white at the sight of a speed bump. Hit one at 50 mph and you crack an almost irreplaceable transaxle case. The reason this didn’t happen in the Pantera was that they wisely flipped the gearbox upside down which gave the car more clearance, though of course it inhibited the Pantera’s cornering power.
The Mangusta was only “The Car to Own” in Hollywood for about 15 minutes and then the buyers went back to Maseratis and Ferraris. One of the most famous buyers by the way, which this writer met in a car body shop standing next to his smashed ‘Goose, was Dean Paul Martin, a pro tennis player, and movie star, son of Dean Martin. Martin had the dubious distinction of crashing two DeTomaso mid-engined cars, a Vallelunga just purchased for his younger brother Ricci, which he flipped, and a Mangusta which he wiped out almost to the windshield. He survived only to crash something too big to survive—a jet fighter while in the Air National Guard. (See Note 2)
All this being said, and despite all the brickbats you can throw at it, you can’t take away the fact that the Mangusta is a great Sunday morning ride to take to an event like a Cars n’ Coffee provided it is not too hot (the air conditioning was marginal) and the road’s not too wet and there’s no potholes or speed bumps on the way. Think of it as a self-propelled piece of sculpture. And one of Giugiaro’s greatest designs, equivalent to, say, his Maserati Ghibli coupe.
There was but one spyder, made for an auto show. It was found by an American. According to Mangusta enthusiast R. Terry Basey, the owner who had it restored at a cost of over $100,000 had turned down something closer to $200,000 some time before it was placed in an auction at no reserve. A hand-built Giugiaro design, mid-engined, and a one off should be a million dollars but again, it’s that low-born engine that works against it being considered by the High and the Mighty.
The value of your standard Mangusta coupe? Well, it’s hard to say. There are very clean ones in the six digits and very rough ones for about $50,000. What holds them back from a stratospheric price rise is the mundane ordinariness of the 302 engine, with its low redline of 5500 rpm and motorboat sound compared to the shriek of a Ferrari V12 or other “purebred” car engines where the engine is made by the same folks who make the car.
A strange phenomenon in the Mangusta world is that sometimes a new owner will buy one and spend an ungodly amount of money on it (one California buyer spent almost $200,000 at a Ferrari shop to restore his); way more than you could ever justify in the hopes of appreciation. Why? Because a disease that infects Mangusta owners is that they want to “make it right” which means doing the engineering that DeTomaso skipped over, ever so lightly, oh so long ago.
According to one of our readers, DeTomaso got the best engine available at the time. “Don Coleman was in charge of the small-block Windsor engine program at that time (among other things, he was in charge of the GT40 small block development program for the ‘68-69 Gulf cars, and the 351 in the Gulf Mirage), and DeTomaso asked him for Cobra-spec 289s. However these were discontinued by the time the Mangusta came into play, so Don offered up the next best thing he had.”
Singer Dean Martin had two sons by his second marriage. Son Ricci was given a Vallelunga coupe for his sixteenth birthday which was almost immediately destroyed in an accident by his older broth Dean Paul. Ricci was given another new red Vallelunga, three weeks later. In 1969 Ricci bought a DeTomaso Mangusta.