The Mangusta—Originally a De Tomaso…Or an Iso?
This week we are putting our mid-engine supercar historical expedition into neutral to examine a landmark model. What makes de Tomaso’s Mangusta so intriguing is not all of the story’s participants agree with what’s been written about the car’s creation over the ensuing decades.
To properly examine the tale we need to start at the very beginning, for prior to the Mangusta Alessandro De Tomaso was another struggling upstart in Modena, trying to make a name. He and his men had produced a smattering of competition machines, and the lovely but diminutive mid-engine Vallelunga at a factory that was described in period as “an overgrown shed.”
A True Game-Changer
Then along came the Mangusta, and it literally changed the company. De Tomaso built a new factory for its production on the outskirts of Modena. And, rather than using a 1500cc four-cylinder as in the Vallelunga, the Mangusta had Ford’s 289 and 302 V8’s, the former giving the car 150+ mph performance.
Much of the tale about the Mangusta’s origins revolve around Giotto Bizzarrini, the 1960s’ ultimate “gun for hire.” The talented engineer was part of a group that left Ferrari en masse in late 1961, and over the following years, he worked with ATS, Ferruccio Lamborghini, and GT upstart ASA.
Most relevant to the Mangusta story was Bizzarrini’s involvement with Iso, where the engineer was a key player in getting the Chevrolet Corvette-powered Rivolta GT 2+2 designed and developed. For Iso’s next model, the legendary two-seat Grifo GL, Bizzarrini designed, developed and manufactured a more radical variant, the competition-oriented Grifo A3/C, and A3 Stradale.
All Iso models had Bertone coachwork. At the time Nuccio Bertone’s chief stylist was Giorgetto Giugiaro, who would leave the company in the fall of 1965. Within weeks crosstown competitor Ghia had hired him, and in October 1966 Giugiaro and Ghia starred at the Turin Auto Show. There, the carrozzeria unveiled Maserati’s rakish Ghibli, and our subject, the Mangusta.
Back to its Origins
Mangusta production began in the fall of 1968, and in CAR’s May 1969 road test, they touched on the model’s origins, noting its spine chassis was basically an enlarged version of the Vallelunga’s. They also stated the prototype Mangusta’s frame served “as the basis of a mid-engine coupe clothed in a beautiful body which Giorgio Giugiaro had designed to originally fit a longer Bizzarrini chassis.”
This tale was repeated elsewhere over the years, and a more in-depth version ended up in 1981’s enjoyable “De Tomaso Automobiles.” When discussing the Mangusta’s birth author Wally Wyss writes that Iso turned to Ghia for the design of the S4/Fidia, and that “Bizzarrini and Giugiaro then agreed that a ‘modern’ two-seater GT would be a good companion for the Fidia. The problem was that Iso didn’t have a suitable mid-engine chassis but Bizzarrini did…(Iso company president Piero) Rivolta…wasn’t interested…in pursuing the development of a mid-engine car.”
He then notes that De Tomaso, then president of Ghia in addition to his own firm, “had his own ideas of what a mid-engine chassis should be like, and decided to adapt Giugiaro’s sleek sports car body to the backbone frame already developed…”
How Does the Story Hold Up?
As stated earlier, since the late 1960s this has been the accepted narrative on how the Mangusta came to be, but how does the tale hold up under scrutiny? In the 1990s I asked Piero Rivolta about the mid-engine proposition, and his response was simple: “We never considered anything like the Mangusta.” Bizzarrini was more adamant, telling me “I never had anything to do with the Mangusta. Anyone who associates my name with the car is making up history.”
So where did the story come from? Surprisingly, there is indeed an obscure mid-engine connection, for in 1963 Iso’s brain trust was contemplating what would eventually become the Grifo. As Iso’s chief technician Pierluigi Raggi examined concepts with Giotto Bizzarrini, “at first Bizzarrini wanted to do a mid-engine car,” Raggi told me. “The idea was to take an existing (Iso) chassis, and put the engine behind the driver.”
The engineer says it was Raggi who proposed a mid-engine concept, noting, “I felt we should model the car very close to what Iso was producing at the time, (something) with the engine in the front, not the rear.”
For perspective on how radical their thinking was, in 1963 there was only one road-going mid-engine supercar—the ATS 2500 GT, and it wasn’t even in production. Front-line mid-engine endurance racers were also quite rare, as Ferrari had only been using the configuration for two years, and Ford’s GT40 was still a year away from debuting.
But Bizzarrini was an engineer’s engineer, and the mid-engine idea gained enough traction with him and Carrozzeria Bertone that Giugiaro made a number of concept sketches. One was labeled a “Competizione Bizzarrini” and dated 3-X1-64; one on those sketches is shown in this blog entry’s art. All the renderings featured swoopy fenders and a curvaceous and rakish roofline that, needless to say, looked nothing like a Mangusta. (Indeed, the sketches very likely served as the basis for a future Bizzarrini or two, but that’s a story we will address at another time.)
Another Twist in the Story
With a mid-engine thread uncovered, the investigation took an intriguing turn in 2001 when Giugiaro and I were discussing Maserati’s Ghibli and Bora, and De Tomaso. “The Mangusta started as a Ghia showcar with a Bizzarrini chassis and engine,” the great designer said. “After the agreement (when De Tomaso and Rowan Industries bought Ghia), it became a De Tomaso.”
When I noted Bizzarrini said he had nothing to do with the Mangusta, “I saw the drawings of the chassis from Bizzarrini,” Giugiaro replied, “(but) never met him…”
What Giugiaro said next is likely the key to the tale, and how it started: “The problem was this drawing was made while I was at Bertone, and if I continued in this way, I was afraid Bertone would make problems. So I had to break away somehow.”
Soft and Sharp
Which Giugiaro indeed did, pointing out his work at Bertone had soft curves and rounded edges, and the Mangusta featured sharp edges and “the windshield is flat. It is not rounded like you find on the Grifo and (Alfa) Canguro.”
Put all this together, and it’s easy to see how all the names became intertwined. The Bizzarrini Competizione renderings served as the inspirational concept for the Mangusta but as Giugiaro himself notes, that proposal stayed at Bertone.
Thus, De Tomaso’s first true supercar of two years later was an entirely different project—an idea that originally germinated during his “Iso-Bertone years” but became an influential, landmark machine with a different chassis, and a spectacular, cutting edge look all its own.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
(As an aside, there’s one final piece to the puzzle that could have muddied the waters. In 1967 snowmobiling was quite the rage in America, and Iso and Ghia/De Tomaso teamed up to produce and sell 10,000 Sno Ghias in the U.S. It, however, was not a Giugiaro design…☺)