Alejandro de Tomaso

Argentinian who became a captain of the Italian sports-car industry
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The Independent Online

Alejandro de Tomaso, sports-car manufacturer: born Buenos Aires 10 July 1928; married first Lola Guiraldes (three sons; marriage dissolved), second Elizabeth Haskell; died Modena, Italy 21 May 2003.

The Italian car industry has produced many colourful characters, but no one quite like Alejandro de Tomaso. And, even then, he was Argentinian with an American wife. After arriving in Italy in 1955, he spent the next 30 years crossing swords with car designers and executives in his attempts to establish himself, eventually holding up great names like Maserati and Moto Guzzi as his trophies.

His background was privileged: the scion of a family whose father was a socialist politician and landowner, and who also died - mid-canvassing - when Alejandro was five. Spoilt and restless, he didn't relish the tedium of running the family estate, which fell formally to him at 15 when he left school. He had stints as a truck driver and the publisher of an underground anti-Peronist newspaper, and also raced an old Bugatti he had picked up cheaply in 1950. He finished seventh in a Maserati in the 1955 Buenos Aires 1,000km race, but by then had already decided to move to Italy to better his performance.

In 1956 and 1957 he tasted victory, notably winning the Index of Performance at Le Mans driving an Osca and, in 1962, even entered the Italian Grand Prix, although the car failed in practice. Along the way, he married his American racing- driver girlfriend, Elizabeth Haskell, as his second wife and had established his own company in Modena to produce racing cars.

There was ambition aplenty but little success until in 1963 he designed a pretty, Ford-engined sports car for the road called the Vallelunga. Not only was it showcased at New York's Museum of Modern Art but he managed to sell 56 examples. In 1966, he unveiled the Mangusta, a striking two-seater with a Ford V8 engine positioned behind the driver which actually formed a structural part of its "backbone" chassis. At just 43 inches high, it was every red-blooded man's ground-hugging fantasy car, and a massive hit at the 1966 Turin motor show.

Actually to put the Mangusta on sale, de Tomaso persuaded his brother-in-law's New Jersey electronics company to bankroll his purchase of Ghia, a long-established coachbuilder and car-design bureau. De Tomaso was installed as president and Ghia was soon making the bodywork for the De Tomaso Mangusta.

Meanwhile, a final involvement in motor sport ended in tragedy when Piers Courage, heir to the brewing fortune, was killed in a De Tomaso-built car run by Frank Williams (later to found the William F1 team) after it crashed during the 1970 Dutch GP.

As impatient customers began to receive their Mangustas, however, this beautiful car revealed something that became a perennial problem with De Tomaso's products: it wasn't thoroughly developed. A terrible driving position and frightening handling were among its shortcomings.

De Tomaso waved criticism aside, however, because within two years he had managed to get the attention of Henry Ford II. Ford had been snubbed in his deal to buy Ferrari when, at the last moment, Enzo Ferrari reneged. So he created a Ford racing car, the GT40, that beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Now, in De Tomaso, he saw a way for Ford to get its hands on a prestigious, Ferrari-rivalling Italian sports-car company.

By 1971, Ford had acquired an 84 per cent stake in De Tomaso from Rowan (de Tomaso himself held the balance), and the Mangusta had been completely re-designed to become the De Tomaso Pantera. Having caused a sensation at the 1970 New York Auto Show, Ford put the sleek Pantera on sale across the US through Lincoln-Mercury dealers, using Alejandro de Tomaso's suave "Italian" image to promote the car.

Once again, though, the car suffered a litany of problems, including alarming tendencies to rust and overheat. Further problems with keeping the Pantera ahead of US emissions laws added to Ford's growing resentment of de Tomaso and, in 1973, the Pantera was axed by Ford. It parted company with the tricky entrepreneur but kept the Ghia design studio and name, which it has applied to its own cars ever since.

In 1972 de Tomaso acquired Benelli and Moto Guzzi, struggling Italian motorbike makers and, with Italian government backing made them profitable again. Ever the Renaissance man in business, de Tomaso took a new path as tycoon, taking on motor- industry lame ducks at the behest of Gepi, an Italian government agency tasked with saving jobs by turning round bankrupt companies. In 1974 he bought Maserati and, two years later, British Leyland's Italian subsidiary Innocenti.

During this time, De Tomaso cars had continued to be available after Alejandro de Tomaso cannily extracted European rights to the name from the Ford debacle. The Pantera, Longchamp and four-door Deauville were all sold in tiny numbers, including in Britain, where Charles and Maurice Saatchi were among owners.

De Tomaso's main achievement, however, was to relaunch Maserati in 1981 with a car to rival the BMW 3 Series - the Biturbo. This was, initially, a hit in the US but was dogged by build quality problems and de Tomaso's fundamental lack of capital to compete with well-financed rivals.

What de Tomaso appeared to revel in, however, was being a thorn in Fiat's side. At a time, in the early 1980s, when Fiat was part of a concerted anti-Japanese-car campaign to protect European markets, de Tomaso fitted Japanese Daihatsu engines in his Innocenti economy cars. And his late 1980s dalliance with Chrysler seemed calculated to annoy a Turin business community anxious to avoid Italy's famous marques from being swallowed up by huge American corporations.

In the end, however, logic meant de Tomaso could not hold out as Maserati's independent owner for ever. Then, in 1993, he had a stroke that left him wheelchair-bound and, at first, unable to speak. After that, he rapidly sold Maserati to Fiat. It took several years for the Italian giant to sort out the 76-year old Maserati's decrepit Modena operation. Had it not been for de Tomaso, though, there would be no Maserati left to restore to glory.

Giles Chapman