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CCotW: De Tomaso P70, part two

08 June 2018 | by Karl Smith

Last week we followed the story of Carroll Shelby and his desire to create a new generation of Cobra cars for the forthcoming Can-Am series. He employed Corvette Stingray designer Pete Brock to design the new racer, and Alejandro De Tomaso to build the car. But the project foundered, and we join De Tomaso as he attempts to pick up the pieces of Shelby’s abandoned project…

After Peter Brock’s abrupt departure, Alejandro de Tomaso found himself left with a partially-built P70 race car, a companion chassis, a couple of incomplete and untested engines, and a truckload of wounded pride.

In many ways, the P70 drama was just another day at the office. Alejandro DeTomaso lived an operatic life, with much adventure, drama and tears. Raised in Argentina, he was forced to run the family business after his father’s tragic early death. He was a championship racer, and loved the fast life that accompanied it.

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Alejandro De Tomaso and Elizabeth Haskell on their wedding day

A political naïf, he was connected to an underground newspaper that opposed the Perón regime and was forced to leave the country, rebuilding his life as a political refugee in Italy. He married a wealthy American heiress, a fellow racer whose family resources would finance the De Tomaso automobile business.

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The P70 debuted as the Ghia De Tomaso at the 1965 Turin Motor Show

De Tomaso had a remarkable ability to move on, to reinvent and rebuild. Now he was eager to snatch victory from the jaws of humiliating defeat. De Tomaso turned to Ghia, which had been building the mid-engined De Tomaso Vallelunga. Ghia agreed to finish the P70, at least enough to display the car at the forthcoming Turin Motor Show. Sure enough, the P70, now called the Ghia De Tomaso, made its debut at the Turin show in November 1965.

The car caused a sensation, a brilliant red racer with a companion chassis structure sitting next to it on the stand. The design was the subject of many a discussion both in racing and car design circles, but the big question on everyone’s mind was: how would the car perform on the track?

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The second P70 chassis became the Sport 5000, built for European racing

The P70 had been designed for the forthcoming Can-Am series, which in its infancy was a wide-open affair, with few rules. To race in Europe, however, De Tomaso would have to raise the windscreen, among other design and engine modifications.

The second chassis was fitted with a slightly modified body and windscreen to meet European racing specifications. The wheel skirts were eliminated and it had a modified Ford 289 engine, different from Shelby’s original design. It was named the De Tomaso Sport 5000.

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The futuristic wheel skirts on the P70 were not a part of the Sport 5000

The Sport 5000 was entered in three races, but only made it to one, the 1966 Mugello 500km. It was an ignominious debut, however, with the car forced to withdraw without even completing the first lap.

The Sport 5000 was retired almost as soon as its racing career began. Now what?

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R&T featured the P70 on the cover of its March '66 issue. Peter Brock was listed as the designer of the ‘Ghia Tomaso’

Meanwhile, upon returning to the States, Pete Brock decided he’d had enough of being a bit player in the Carroll Shelby show. He missed racing, engineering, and thrill of track days – all the reasons he had left GM years before. He founded Brock Racing Enterprises (BRE) and began casting about for work. He had repaired his relationship with De Tomaso enough for the two to discuss a partnership to distribute the street version of the Ghia De Tomaso. He would also design legendary racers for Datsun, Hino and others.

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Peter Brock’s Hino Samurai drew on the P70 and earlier Cobra designs

Then, in the 1970s, he would abruptly abandon racing and pivot to hang gliding, while also designing experimental engines. Recently, he has been involved in the design of a replica Daytona coupé built in South Africa, and an aerodynamic hauler for that favourite sports car or hot rod. Still working at 83, he is still a presence at concours and road races around the US.

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Peter Brock, his hot rod and his Aerovault trailer

Brock looks back with fondness at the P70 project, recalling, “…it expressed the freedom to innovate that was so typical of the Can-Am rules… there were none! Also, it was the first time I got to complete the adjustable rear wing concept, which I had planned for the Daytona Coupe. When I went to Italy to build the P70, there was no one to counter my wishes and the car got built exactly like I wanted. It’s still one of the last great pieces of hand-built Modenese automotive art.

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Dodge Viper RT/10 CS – a Cobra-esque collaboration with Shelby

Carroll Shelby later found great success with Ford, and went on to do projects for Chrysler in the 1980s (following his friend Lee Iacocca), as well as other racing and sports car projects. He would re-unite with Ford for a last Cobra project in 2004. For a man with a bad heart, he lived an outsized life, and finally succumbed to his handicap in 2012, aged 89.

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De Tomaso’s P70 would rise again, in a new Giugiaro-designed form

As for Alejandro de Tomaso, he eventually patched up his friendship with Carroll Shelby. He thus worked ever more closely with Ford, culminating in the dramatic Ford/De Tomaso Pantera of 1971-1992. The Ford relationship, like the Shelby relationship, was troubled, for a number of reasons, and ended in the mid-1970s.

For the moment, however, there was still the immediate problem of what to do with the sad remnants of the P70/Sport 5000 project. The conversion to a European-spec racing car had not been successful. The car was supposed to have been the new Cobra – what would it be now?

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The svelte De Tomaso Vallelunga – beautiful but weak

De Tomaso decided to adapt the P70 backbone-type chassis and engine to his new sports car, the replacement for the svelte but underpowered Vallelunga. A sleek Giugiaro design, which had been rejected for an Iso sports car, shaped the body of the new grand tourer, which represented a new era in De Tomaso history.

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The dramatic successor to the P70 and Vallelunga. The name? See below...

It needed a name though – something strong, something aggressive. De Tomaso would settle on the name of a vicious little mammal, the Mangusta – Mongoose in English. The mongoose is well-known for being immune to snake bites, and is thus a mortal enemy of snakes, and in particular, the cobra.

An appropriate name indeed, aimed right at the heart of the Cobra man himself: Carroll Shelby.

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