Exploring some less well known de Tomaso models.
Technically, it should be impossible to go beyond Pantera as the name derives from the ancient Greek word ‘Panthera’ meaning ‘all beasts’, both real and mythological. Still, Argentinian ex-racing driver Alejandro de Tomaso was involved in the creation of more vehicles than just the one with which he is most readily associated, and some of the others involved partnerships with some unlikely players in the automotive firmament.
De Tomaso founded his eponymous car company in 1959. In the 1970s, the Argentinian-born automotive executive went on a shopping spree to expand his business empire beyond his own brand: two Italian carrozzerias, Vignale and Ghia, as well as Maserati and Innocenti, were added to the stable(1).
Loss-making Innocenti had been eagerly sold off to de Tomaso by British Leyland’s new state-appointed directors and the company was renamed Nuova Innocenti. The recently introduced Bertone-styled Innocenti Mini 90 and 120 he inherited were based on the mechanical package of the original BMC Mini but were clothed in a much more modern but, to these eyes at least, equally characterful body.
After a slowish start in terms of sales performance, the Innocenti Mini quickly found its feet and sold quite well. Within a year of the change of ownership, de Tomaso brought a sporty version of the model to market, unsurprisingly christened ‘Innocenti de Tomaso’, it was one of the early iterations of the so-called ‘hot hatch’ wave. It may have had just 71bhp at its disposal from its BL-sourced 1,275cc four-cylinder engine, but it tipped the scales at a little over 700kg so was definitely a lively car by the standards of the day.
De Tomaso’s license agreement with British Leyland expired in 1982 and BL expressed no interest in renewing the deal: Alejandro de Tomaso’s Argentinian roots in combination with the ongoing Falkland Islands conflict are sometimes cited as a possible factor, but it is more likely that BL simply did no longer want to provide engines and other technology to a company that competed with it in the same market segment in many countries.
A serious and pressing problem now presented itself. Developing a new engine in-house would be too expensive and, in any case, take too long. However, de Tomaso found the solution in a deal with Japanese small car specialist Daihatsu. For both companies, the cooperation provided important benefits; engines for Innocenti, of course, as well as access to the Japanese carmaker’s extensive experience in modern small vehicle development, and for Daihatsu, which was not well known outside Japan at the time, improved access to the European market(2).
The post-BL Innocenti Mini looked very much the same as before, but was subject to extensive modifications under the skin: not only were they now powered by 993cc Daihatsu three-cylinder powerplants, the rubber suspension inherited from the Mini was replaced by MacPherson struts up front and independent rear suspension using wishbones and a transversely mounted leaf spring that also functioned as a stabilizer.
For the new sporty variant introduced in January 1984, de Tomaso mounted an IHI turbocharger onto the Daihatsu engine, which resulted in a maximum power output of 72bhp, virtually the same as the normally aspirated 1,275cc BL four-cylinder unit it replaced, but with the benefit of substantially increased torque. This engine was codenamed CB22D or also CBDT (the D and T obviously standing for de Tomaso).
Towards the end of 1984, the CBDT engine was replaced by a turbocharged 993cc three-pot entirely developed by Daihatsu, codenamed CB60. It developed the same horsepower as the CBDT, but offered a further increase in torque. The CB60 powerplant would also be used by Daihatsu itself, but more on that shortly. At around this time, Innocenti embarked on a short-lived and ill-fated effort to sell its little cars in Canada, but there were few takers. After the venture had folded, the leftover cars were rebadged ‘America’ and sold in Europe.
Daihatsu also produced a ‘de Tomaso-ized’ version of its G11 Charade model. Introduced in 1983, one year after the bread-and-butter versions of the Charade had been launched, the Charade de Tomaso Turbo was powered by the turbocharged CB60 engine that put out usefully more horsepower in the JDM(3) version than the one destined for export, 80bhp instead of 68bhp. Its suspension was retuned to be firmer than that of the standard set-up, and the car received a cosmetic makeover similar to the Innocenti de Tomaso, with Campagnolo light alloy wheels, a Momo steering wheel, Pirelli P8 tires and sundry decals and spoilers.
A related but quite a bit more extreme variant of the Charade de Tomaso Turbo was the 926R, first displayed at the 1985 Tokyo Motor Show. Both in terms of visuals and mechanical configuration, it more or less followed the recipe used to create the mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo a few years previously, but in reduced form in all dimensions. It was conceived to compete in Group B rallying. The 926R engine’s displacement was reduced from 993cc (hence the name) in order to be allowed to compete in the sub-1600cc class. Fitting a turbocharger meant that the displacement had to be multiplied by a factor of 1.7 which resulted in a nominal capacity of 1,574cc. This was comfortably below the threshold set by the FIA. Unfortunately, the Group B series was cancelled in 1986 after a few too many gruesome accidents, leaving the 926R unable ever to prove its mettle on the world rally stage.
Some years later in 1993, Daihatsu would call on de Tomaso’s services once more to create another Charade de Tomaso. Sold only in Japan under this name and simply as the Charade GTi elsewhere, the G200 Charade de Tomaso’s engine was no longer turbocharged. Its 1.6-litre 16-valve four-cylinder engine was fitted with a special performance camshaft for the JDM version, resulting in a maximum power output of 124bhp. Outside Japan, and without that camshaft, maximum power was reduced to a lukewarm 105bhp. Visually, the traditional recipe was applied, with sporty bodykit, Pirelli tires, Recaro seats, a Nardi steering wheel and de Tomaso badging- although in a much more sedate style when compared to the first Charade de Tomaso.
For our last de Tomaso badged car, the Dodge Omni 024 de Tomaso, we have to wind back the clock to 1980. The Omni combined a German powerplant (a 1.7-litre Volkswagen engine), French platform (originating from Simca) and American design and production. Newly arrived Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca decided to add some Latin American spice into the mix by introducing the de Tomaso package option to the model.
The two men were, of course, no strangers to each other since they had together been responsible for the introduction of the fearsome Pantera to the American market. However, despite enjoying the cachet of carrying the de Tomaso name, the makeover was almost exclusively a cosmetic exercise resulting in, to use an Indian curry analogy, something more akin to a korma (if even that) than a vindaloo.
The Omni 024 de Tomaso was fitted with the sports suspension that was optional on regular Omni models, a four-speed manual gearbox with a sprightlier axle ratio but, with the Volkswagen engine remaining untouched and delivering a measly 65bhp, owners were wise to avoid stoplight challenges from just about any other car. Better to just act cool and look handsome, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that. In an early eighties context, the car doesn’t look too bad to your author’s eyes. Bright red and yellow were the only colours available initially(4), large and loud de Tomaso graphics abounded, there were light alloy wheels, a brushed aluminium targa band connecting the C-pillars, generous flat-black painted areas, black louvres hiding the rear side windows, bucket seats and spoilers front and rear.
The de Tomaso option added about 30% to the base price of an Omni 024, which represented quite a premium for a car that offered almost no performance gain compared to the standard item. Buyers responded accordingly and just 1,333 Omni de Tomaso buyers signed on the dotted line in the 1980 model year. For 1981, a Chrysler-built 2.2-litre four replaced the VW engine but it still did not clear the 100bhp mark, so a korma the car remained and sales dropped to a measly 619, after which the de Tomaso option was mercifully discontinued.
Starting in 1983, Shelby-engineered versions of the Omni would eventually offer performance that was more in accordance with what their appearance suggested. Lee Iacocca and Alejandro de Tomaso would cooperate again later in the decade in another joint-venture that would make the Omni de Tomaso appear like a minor faux pas in terms of costs and embarrassment, but that is a story for another day.
(1) The Italian motorcycle companies Benelli and Moto Guzzi were also acquired by De Tomaso in those years.
(2) At the time, Toyota was a shareholder in Daihatsu but the automotive giant would not gain a controlling interest until 1998.
(3) Japanese Domestic Market.
(4) Silver metallic would replace yellow in 1981.