While “Modified Mustangs” feature prominently in the title and pages of this publication, other modified Fords are obviously also part of the equation. In the traditional sense, most individuals will naturally equate anything labeled as a Ford to mean domestically produced automobiles. While that holds true in most instances, there have been Ford branded automobiles over the years sold in the U.S. that originated elsewhere. The curvaceous Italian import you see on these pages is owned by Floridian Joe Curley. It’s a “slightly warmed over” ’74 De Tomaso Pantera GTS. While the sleek and seductive lines are decidedly European, make no mistake; the heart is an old-school Ford 351 Cleveland mill.
Not convinced it’s a Ford? Consider this: The Pantera was born out of a collaborative effort between the Ford Motor Company and Alejandro De Tomaso, and his Modena-based car company in the late ’60’s. The agreement had De Tomaso’s company building the Ghia-designed cars in Italy, and Ford promoting, selling, and servicing them through its US Lincoln-Mercury dealer network. Since Ford management, at the time, was eager to have a sports car to fill a void in its model line-up, this was the company’s opportunity to get one without the expensive development costs. The Pantera was essentially a handbuilt car with classic Italian styling, and the reliability and horsepower of an affordable Ford 351 Cleveland engine mated to a 5-speed ZF transaxle.
The first batches of cars under this agreement were delivered to select dealers in 1971. With a price tag nearly double of its only domestic competitor, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Pantera became a tough sell for Ford. A combination of poor marketing, dismal quality control, an elevated sticker price, the 1973 oil crisis, and the newly government-mandated (at the time) crash-proof bumper requirements all contributed to an unceremonious end of the partnership by the end of 1974.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the mid ’60s, exotic cars like the Pantera weren’t quite on Joe’s radar screen, but drag racing and the occasional “secret street challenge” were very much part of his routine. His best friend and roommate, Jim McCulloch (a Chevy guy), was also heavily involved in the car scene. Looking back Joe points out, “We were both car-crazy guys. We helped each other modify our rides for faster starts, better shifting, and any other drag racing element we thought could help.” Joe also had the opportunity to be a crewmember on the Chicago-based Rich Clement’s Speed Shop racing team. This further fueled his passion, and also allowed him to have regular weekend blasts down the quarter-mile as the driver of their sponsored drag car.
In ’71 Joe headed south to sunny Florida. He recalls, “My racing experience lasted several years, but I then realized I needed to get a real job. Many years later, when I was established with my own public relations and communications agency, the automotive passion that stays forever in a guy’s blood emerged again. I took an interest in buying, restoring, and showing classic muscle cars, all Fords, of course.” He had also stayed in contact with Jim, who was still living in the Chicago area. Jim was also still tinkering with cars, and he had purchased the ’74 Pantera GTS in 1980.
His goal was to create a one-of-a-kind, twin-turbo beast that could also hold its own as a show car. The aggressive project started with acid dipping the body, followed by a full rotisserie restoration and re-spray of the Pantera Yellow hue. The engine and chassis were also completely repainted, polished, or chromed. The modifications also took into account the addition of the twin-turbos and the increased need for cooling.
The project was ambitious on a number of levels. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the engineering of the twin-turbo setup as a means of forced induction on a domestic engine in the mid-80s. Twin side-mounted AiResearch turbos sit on a custom hand-made manifold. The design allows the turbos to pull additional air through the carburetor throttle plates rather than blow under pressure through the carb top. A modified Holley 780 feeds the intake system and has vacuum secondaries to mirror the turbo boost curve and prevent turbo lag. The turbos have Turbonetics Delta adjustable wastegates with the controller mounted on the driver’s shift console. A “dial-the-boost” knob allows the driver to increase the boost to a maximum of 14 pounds at the flick of a finger. Jim progressed with the project at a steady pace for a number of years.
Joe eventually convinced Jim to cut the GTS loose. “In 1985, when the Pantera project was about 80-percent complete, he sold the car to me,” he recalls. “I had it shipped to Florida and finished the restoration/updates in 1986. Of course, a car like this is never really finished, and I continued to add to and modify it over the years, and did a complete ‘refresh’ in the summer of 2011.”
That refresh had him pulling the 351 and treating it to a complete rebuild. It was bored 0.030 over and new TRW pistons were installed, along with a Competition Cams bumpstick, Rhoads lifters, Melling oil pump, and 10-quart chrome oil pan. The open-chamber heads were also ported and polished and the entire assembly balanced and blueprinted. Along with the engine refresh, another issue he addressed was the problem with keeping the turbos cool.
While the Chicago climate wasn’t as much of an issue, Florida weather over the years, presented him with a different set of challenges. This was remedied with the installation of an MSD ignition advance/retard system that is adjustable on the driver’s shift console; it allows Joe to react to changing driving conditions. A three-inch aluminum radiator with two electric pull-fans and one push-fan further keep the engine cool. The side quarter-windows were also removed and one-off custom vents fabricated to draw air in and further keep the heat in check. Stainless baffles were also fabricated to protect the carb from turbo heat. The ZF 4.09:1 transaxle has been blueprinted and internally safety wired, and the hydraulic clutch setup is a Centerforce unit with an aluminum flywheel. Heavy-duty chromed U-joints and shafts drive the rear Pirelli P-7 V-rated tires. Wheels are modular two-piece units with knock-offs custom fabricated by Hall Pantera in Paramount, California.
Running at 12-pounds of boost, the engine kicked out 680 horsepower on the engine dyno. Ever the drag racer, Joe made a few cautious dragstrip runs after the car was completed, which resulted in an average elapsed time of 10.75 at 138 mph on street tires. With that out of the way, Joe retired the Pantera to show car status and now displays it at local and regional events. In subsequent years, Joe has added to his stable of desirable Fords. He purchased a ’73 Pantera, along with an ’08 Cobra Jet Mustang (#27 of 50), an ’05 Ford GT, a ’66 continuation AC Shelby Cobra, and a ’64 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt. As for his old friend Jim, he now lives a few minutes from Joe and regularly attends local shows with him.
Joe Curley’s ’74 De Tomaso Pantera GTS
’74 Ford 351 Cleveland blueprinted and bored 0.030 over
Stock crankshaft, polished, dynamically balanced, and tuftrided
TRW forged pistons
8.5:1 compression ratio
’74 Ford 351 Cleveland open chamber cylinder heads, ported and polished
Comp Cams camshaft, Rhoads lifters, dual valvesprings and dampeners
Custom handmade intake manifold
Twin AiResearch turbochargers
Turbonetics Delta adjustable wastegates
Holley 780 carburetor with special air cleaner and heat deflectors
Gilmer beltdrive for water pump, A/C, Alternator
Carter 7.5-pound electric fuel pump
Carter mechanical fuel pump
Ford electronic Duraspark ignition
Melling high-volume oil pump with chromed 10-quart oil pan
Remote twin oil filters
Phoenix high-volume crossflow radiator
680 hp at 12 pounds of boost
’74 5-speed ZF transaxle, blueprinted and internally safety wired
Centerforce pressure plate and twin clutch
4:09 final drive ratio
Hand-fabricated exhaust manifolds
Custom 3-inch exhaust, two 4-inch resonators with four 3-inch exhaust pipes
Exhaust system silver ceramic coated
Front: Stock-type Pantera independent suspension with coilover shocks
Air pump activated shock system to raise and lower front air dam
Rear: Stock-type Pantera independent suspension with coilover shocks
Adjustable rear springs
Front: Heavy duty 12-inch JFZ brake system with polished calipers
Rear: Heavy duty 10-inch JFZ brake system with polished calipers
Front: Hall Pantera of California custom fabricated two-piece wheels, 15x8
Rear: Hall Pantera of California custom fabricated two-piece wheels, 15x10
Front: Pirelli Cinturato P7, P255/55VR15
Rear: Pirelli Cinturato P7, P275/55VR15
Custom Connolly leather seats, 3-inch dropped floorpans, matching door and console upholstery, original dash and console gauges, dual turbo boost gauges, Lexan engine cover bubble, special GTS steering wheel, advance/retard control for ignition, adjustable turbo boost controls, Halon fire extinguisher
Acid-dipped body, reinforced and rewelded; repainted in Pantera Yellow; fender flares hand-fabricated and blended into body; custom-made side air scoops that replace side quarter-windows; front and rear spoilers; European taillights and front parking lights; fiberglass front bumper with molded in radio antenna