Alessandro de Tomaso: genius, dreamer, plotter and schemer

Alessandro de Tomaso leapt from small-scale racing car builder to the big time with multiple marques in his portfolio. We recall the fiery entrepreneur

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He wasn’t someone who went along to get along. Saint or sinner, Alessandro de Tomaso was variously a genius, a dreamer, a plotter and a schemer. The Argentinian-born motor mogul was a big-picture man with a short attention span. Yet, despite his capricious tendencies, and his habit of offloading unworkable ideas on frightened factotums, he often got things right.

One person who knew him better than most was the late, great Tom Tjaarda, the Detroit-born designer who replaced a disgruntled Giorgetto Giugiaro at the de Tomaso-owned Ghia styling studio in 1968. ‘You know he gets bad mouthed, even now,’ Tjaarda recalled in 2012. ‘People say that he was dishonest and so on, but when I first started working with him he was still trying to make a name for himself.

‘He was smart, and I’d rather work with an intelligent delinquent than a nice, stupid guy. People were petrified of him, but it was just an act. These Americans would come along, bending over backwards to be deferential, and he’d completely destroy them. He loved the infamy.’

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Born Alejandro de Tomaso in Buenos Aires in July 1928, the future car builder’s early life was one of privilege – but it wasn’t without a few bumps in the road. His mother was a member of one of the country’s most prominent land-owning families, while his father had been a former cabinet minister under President Agustin Justo.

However, de Tomaso Sr died in 1933 when Alejandro was just five years old, and by the time the boy had outrun his teens he had developed a rebellious streak a mile wide. De Tomaso repeatedly spoke out against the Perón regime, and this prompted a moonlight flit to Italy in 1955 as life became a little too precarious.

Having already competed at a reasonably high level in Argentina, de Tomaso raced various OSCAs in his adopted homeland. The highlight of a largely so-so driving career was victory in the Index of Performance contest run concurrently with the 1958 Le Mans 24-hours.

A year earlier, he had left his first wife Lola to marry moneyed American socialite Elizabeth Haskell. The two subsequently adopted Italianised names – Alessandro and Isabelle – and even raced alongside each other on occasion.

At the dawn of the 1960s, de Tomaso began to construct racing cars under his own name. These included all manner of single-seaters, up to and including a Formula 1 car with an own-brand flat-eight engine. None met with success.

From 1963, greater emphasis was placed on road cars beginning with the achingly pretty Vallelunga, which was one of the first-ever mid-engined production cars (‘production’ being a relative term). This Ford-engined, four-cylinder device was in turn followed by V8-engined Mangusta that, while devilishly attractive, soon developed a reputation for being over powered and underdeveloped.

And then there was the Pantera, a car that was not only Ford powered, but Ford sponsored. Powered by a 351ci V8, and styled by Tjaarda (de Tomaso having acquired the Ghia styling house in 1968, Vignale a year later), it looked sensational.

There was, however, a snag; it wasn’t fully finished by the time it broke cover at the 1970 New York Auto Show. Sold in the USA via selected Lincoln-Mercury dealers, the model’s warranty claims soon began to mount up to the point that the Blue Oval ended its involvement in 1972. Unbowed, de Tomaso continued to sell variations of the Pantera theme in Europe as late as ’93.

Not that de Tomaso was above ‘borrowing’ designs from other manufacturers; the Deauville, for example, owed its styling cues to the Jaguar XJ6, while the Longchamp bore more than a passing resemblance to the Mercedes-Benz 450SL. But whereas both of these Italo-American hybrids had enough crucial differences to fend off accusations of copyright infringement – if only in a court of law – de Tomaso outdid himself with the 1600 that pre-dated the Fiat X1/9.

‘Now there was a story,’ Tjaarda recalled with a sigh. ‘I remember being in my office one day when de Tomaso came on the telephone and told me “to get over here” without even telling me where “here” was. Anyway, I ended up at this bodyshop we sometimes used, and he pointed to the corner and said: “Copy that car.” I asked: “What, the Pantera?” He replied: “No, the car next to it.” It was a body buck for what eventually became the X1/9.

‘Of course, I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the idea, but I did some drawings and then a colour sketch. It stayed on the wall for about a month before de Tomaso told me to go full scale. He had a nice chassis made with a 1.6-litre Ford engine [a Cosworth BDA “four”] and we showed the car at the Turin Salon in 1971.

‘I was a little worried about this because it was widely known that the X1/9 was on its way. I wasn’t on the Ghia stand when Nuccio Bertone visited, but apparently he went scarlet and looked like he was about to drop his pants. Then the blood gradually started to drain from his face and he turned white…’

Predictably, there were repercussions. ‘[CAR magazine’s founding editor] Doug Blain wrote something very derogatory about de Tomaso. Word eventually reached Lee Iacocca, the big boss at Ford, and he was not at all happy. In fact, he absolutely carpeted de Tomaso.

‘The next thing I know, Alessandro is on the phone telling me to go home: he fired me! The next day, he calls and asks me why I’m not at work. That was typical. You got used to it. He had scooped Bertone, and to him that was all that mattered.

‘Alesandro was always looking towards the next project, the next deal, so he just forgot about it and moved on. He would have ten ideas on the go at any one time, and of those maybe one would become reality. There was a V12 racing motorcycle for Giacomo Agostini, a Can-Am car, and so on.’

One of de Tomaso’s biggest coups was the acquisition of the ailing grandee of supercar manufacturers, Maserati. The Orsi family that controlled the marque from 1937 had sold out to Citroën in 1968, but it too was hurting by the mid ’70s. It merely surrendered its Modena subsidiary to bankruptcy.

Into the breach stepped de Tomaso, who was already embroiled in a shopping spree that encompassed motorcycle firms Benelli and Moto Guzzi. The wily industrialist acquired Maserati in 1975, having been beaten to the punch by Citroën seven years earlier.

Not only that, he plundered his personal fortune to the sum of a whopping $70, with the rest of the finance required for the purchase originating from GEPI (a state body for the protection of jobs). A bubbling cauldron of emotions at the best of times, one of de Tomaso’s first acts as new principal was to fire the firm’s chief engineer, the hugely respected Giulio Alfieri. The brains trust behind some of the marque’s landmark road and racing cars had voiced concerns about de Tomaso when the Orsis were looking for a buyer the previous decade – and De Tomaso wasn’t one to forget.

Under de Tomaso, Maserati would chase volume with the BiTurbo family. For the most part, construction was entrusted to Innocenti, which by then formed part of his portfolio. Unfortunately, the marque’s reputation took a tumble during the 1980s, and by the end of the decade de Tomaso’s empire was haemorrhaging.

Fiat acquired a 49 percent stake in Maserati in 1988 and bought the remaining shares in ’93. The marque that bore de Tomaso’s name, meanwhile, limped along to the end of the ’90s – the Biguá model attracting the attention of Kjell Qvale, who wanted to rework it for the US market. A new factory was erected, only for the two silverbacks of the motor industry to fall out. Shock.

De Tomaso died in May 2003, having never fully recovered from a stroke ten years earlier. He may have sailed close to the wind on more than one occasion, but you could never accuse him of lacking ambition.

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