Words Stuart Grant and images Henri Snyman
Mongoose, a snake-eating mammal that derives its title from the Marathi word mungūs. In Italian it reads ‘mangusta’, a perfect name for the car built to take on the AC Cobra. Here is the only De Tomaso Mangusta on the African continent.
The story goes that in 1965 Alejandro de Tomaso joined forces with AC Cobra creator Carol Shelby to shake the criticism that the 4-cylinder De Tomaso Vallelunga was under-powered, and produce a successor to the Cobra for motorsport competition. Shelby sourced a 289 Ford V8 engine, Peter Brock was roped in to design an open cockpit aluminium body and the clever Vallelunga central backbone chassis was subtly modified to take the extra power. The Italian workforce started assembling the car, known as the Sport 5000, but Shelby was not convinced of the body design so sent Brock across to work alongside Medardo Fantuzzi. Strides were taken and the resulting car, which featured a moveable rear wing and full doors and was christened as the De Tomaso 70P or De Tomaso P70, looked set to take off. It didn’t though, as Shelby left the project before the end of ’65 to focus his attention on the then struggling Ford GT40 effort. A second car, slightly modified and called the Sport 5000 was built to go racing in Europe. A few attempts on track were made but ultimately the car ended up being mothballed at the De Tomaso factory, only resurfacing in 2004 when Alejandro passed away and the car was sold.
Perhaps feeling a bit snubbed by Shelby, De Tomasso took a 5000 chassis, clothed it as a road car, and christened it ‘Mangusta – the only animal quick enough to take on the Cobra’. Carozzeria Ghia’s master-stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro was called on for lines, and it proved a sensation at the 1965 Turin Motor Show. Lamborghini was at the same show, displaying its mid-engined Miura underpinnings. Whether or not the success of the De Tomaso show car had any influence on how fast the Miura went into production or not is open for debate but Lambo did pull the production punch that bit faster, launching the first production mid-engined supercar in 1966, a year or so prior to the production Mangustas hitting the streets.
When this eventually happened, the Mangusta hit hard with the first 120 Mangustas in ‘European specification’ cars featuring Ford’s 4.7-litre (289ci) V8 engine. Of these units it is speculated that just a handful of the very earliest cars had the Shelby-spec/HiPo engine modifications, raising power from 270 to 306 horsepower. Later cars, set to sell in the lucrative American market, were fitted with Ford’s 5-litre (302ci) engines that, although down on power at 230bhp, still returned impressive performance with the 100km/h sprint being completed in under 7 seconds.
Like the Le Mans-winning GT40, power on all versions was sent to the rear wheels via a ZF 5-speed transaxle that incorporated a limited-slip differential. The chassis is a sheet-steel central square-section backbone type that fans out either side of the cockpit to accommodate the attachment of the drivetrain and running gear, not unlike a Formula One car of the era. Suspension at all four corners is fully independent and true to its motorsport pedigree is fully adjustable with well-considered geometry.
The achingly beautiful steel and aluminium body, which is characterised by its gullwing-like rear engine covers, stands at just 1 100mm or 43 inches from the ground with the whole package weighing-in at just over 1 300kgs. No wonder it pulls so strongly.
Once accustomed to the offset pedal position and low roofline, the cabin is a magical place. With the V8 thumping out its guttural tune behind you, the chink of the gear lever hitting the metallic H-gate surround as you work the cogs, and brisk acceleration pushing you back into the supportive leather-clad bucket seats as the nose lifts, this is what a supercar should feel like. It’s the ultimate combination of performance and luxury – the padded leather centre console, electric windows and chrome ashtray would look the part in any luxury chauffeur-driven machine, while the plethora of simple gauges and 3-spoke aluminium steering wheel would look at home belting down the Mulsanne straight on the way to a 24 Hour race win.
Despite some questionable reviews over the years, the fact is this car works well on the road. Given the type of cross-ply 1950s tyres fitted, the overall grip is good, and as you approach the limit of adhesion the car rotates easily around its central-axis – as mid-engined machines were designed to do with their low polar moment of inertia. A bit of opposite-lock keeps it all in check, as much as it isn’t for the faint-of-heart without any modern electronics at work.
Straight line performance is where it really shines, and the current owner says it easily out-accelerates the Ferrari Daytona or Porsche 911 2.7 Carrera (both sub-6 second cars to 100km/h) it shared a garage with for many years. The gearing is long (6000rpm in top would equate to 250km/h), and the shift action through the metal gate is slow by modern standards yet satisfyingly positive. Stopping power from the Girling calipers and all-round large diameter solid discs are excellent, although probably not up to repeated abuse.
Where it is compromised is in the packaging concept. This car makes few concessions to creature comforts. The windscreen meets the top of your head (unless you are a short Italian playboy) and your legs are offset toward the centreline to clear the front wheel-arch, but it’s all part of the plan in a car intended to push design limits to the very edge before the days of safety legislation.
Overall, one has to question the myths that surround the Mangusta. Perhaps cars were fitted with the incorrect tyres, or performance-tested with the US-spec engines. Certainly this one feels like it has every bit the measure of its rivals from that era. As a classic car today, it has even more appeal, relatively speaking. An easy-to-maintain Ford V8, wrapped in one of the most alluring shapes from the pen of the world’s most famed car designer, at a fraction of the cost of a DB5, Miura or Daytona. Not surprising then that values continue to rise rapidly.
Total Mangusta production rounded up at just 401 units and of those the general consensus is that just 250 survive today. As mentioned, the pictured car is the only one to have ever made it to the African continent and it remains here today. Wearing chassis number 8MA520, it is the 10th car manufactured (they only used even chassis numbers) and was imported to South Africa around 1970 by 6-times World Motorcycle Champion Jim Redman.
Redman imported the car from Switzerland, basically because his brother Peter had an import permit and they saw the opportunity to make some money out of the arrangement. They bought this particular make and model simply because it was available at the time. Needless to say Redman Machine Tools were the second owners and both Jim and Peter drove the car on and off for about two years before selling it to Gordon Henderson – a well-known race driver. In 1980 the car was sold on to the current family, who, following 15 years of storage, started the restoration process in 2004.
In order to return the Mangusta to its former glory a ground-up nut-and-bolt rebuild was the only way. Most of the work was done by Steve Desilla, although several specialists were called upon to ensure every effort was made to preserve the car in its original form, right down to the last detail. One deviation was the choice of colour though – with the owner opting to move from the original red to a period correct and Mangusta-supplied metallic dark blue.
Engine work was entrusted to Peter Frost and during the strip-down it was revealed to be a 289ci with the so-called HiPo features as well as the period Shelby ST350-spec upgrades, giving credibility to the claimed official original output and 250km/h top speed.
For good measure, the cylinder heads were gas-flowed by Van der Linde Developments, the sump was baffled and the volume increased, and a new Holley 650CFM double-pump carburettor was fitted in place of Autolite original. It was then dyno-tested at a healthy 321bhp@6000rpm and 435Nm of torque at 4500rpm – around 15bhp more than the claimed figure back in the day.
Dunlop M-section racing tyres were imported as per the original Turin Motor Show car to provide the correct wheel-arch fill, ride height, and front-to-rear grip ratio. The restoration was completed in 2009.
Although said to have been aimed squarely at the AC Cobra, the Mangusta is a totally different animal altogether, that along with the Lamborghini Miura ushered in the luxury mid-engined supercars and established a new genre of motoring. Production lasted until 1971 when economies of scale and a change in technology saw the arrival of the De Tomaso Pantera. While sticking to the tried and tested American V8 power plant at its heart, the monocoque Pantera was significantly cheaper to build and made more financial sense. With 7 000 units manufactured over a twenty-year period, the Pantera soon became the car we associate with De Tomaso and all too easily forget the Mangusta, one of the founders in the in the supercar game.