De Tomaso

By Jonathan Williams

Alessandro (Alejandro) De Tomaso was born in Buenos Aires into an influential political family. He became a racing driver, but left Argentina in a hurry after being involved in a plot to remove the then president, Juan Peron. He relocated to Modena where he continued racing for Osca, Maserati and Scuderia Centro Sud, before retiring and founding De Tomaso Automobili located on the Via Emilia, with the intention of building racing and road cars.

I was first aware of him in 1964 when I was racing in Formula Three in Italy, and saw his beautifully engineered and unconventional cars driven by Franco Bernabei and Mario Casoni, often with success. He had an unfortunate love of casting things in magnesium which, once on fire burns with terrifying ferocity. He built an Indy car for Texan millionaire John Mecom’s Rosebud racing team which wasn’t a success. It ended up on the patio of the Texas ranch filled with earth with flowers growing in it. Mecom said he had finally found a use for it. In 1967 when I was at Ferrari, I got to know Alessandro well, and we became friends. Several times a week we would eat together at Cantoni’s restaurant, across from the Palace hotel where he lived with his American wife, the heiress Isabelle Haskell. He told me, quite correctly as it turned out, that I had made a big mistake joining Ferrari as the F2 Dino would never match up to the Cosworth powered cars.

De Tomaso

After I won the Monza Lotterie driving Frank Williams’ F2 Brabham my phone started to ring again, and at the end of 1968 Alessandro purchased a Tecno F2 car for me to drive in the Argentinian Temporada series. It was heavily modified but not successfully, so little by little we put it back to being a standard car. I had already raced one for Ron Harris with Pedro Rodriguez as my team mate. It was a very unusual car to drive with the wheel base being so short and the steering incredibly heavy. In reality, it was just a big Go-Cart, and I can't say that I liked it a lot. When I returned from Argentina, work had started on his own F2 car, designed by a very young Gianpaolo Dallara who had come over from Lamborghini. It was immediately clear that he was already an exceptional talent, as history has demonstrated. The car was beautifully made and after a minimal amount of testing, very easy to drive. Its only defect was aerodynamic in so far as it was a few kilometers an hour slower in maximum speed than the Brabhams and Tecnos of the opposition, and in racing that is not a good thing. I raced it several times, at Wunsdorf, Enna, and managed to lead the Monza Lottery until we had a minor engine problem. With “Maestro” Ugolini managing and Gianpaolo working on improvements we ought to have been more successful, but F2 then was very competitive with the best drivers such as Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert to beat.

De Tomaso

During this time I also did test driving on the Mangusta and Pantera cars, both beautiful to look at, but totally impractical as road cars. The Mangusta was designed as a show car by Giugaro and never intended for production. A person of normal height would bang his head on the top of the windscreen on getting in. I remember demonstrating the Pantera at the Turin Motor Show when a potential customer, a wealthy German, jumped out when I stopped at a traffic light and hailed a taxi, as the inside of the car had started to resemble a sauna. Alessandro was an astute businessman and at various times owned Ghia, Innocenti, Maserati, Benelli and Moto Guzzi, selling all of them on for a profit. During the devastating floods in northern Italy, he went in a small boat with the American journalist and photographer, Peter Coltrin, who worked for “Road & Track” magazine, who had settled in Modena with his Italian wife, rowing down the Via Emilia to see what had happened to his factory. As they approached it, they encountered hundreds of bright orange wooden forms, which were used in casting in those days, floating out towards them. He stood up in the boat, raised his arms to the sky and shouted “look at how many things I have done”. Not a man easily discouraged.

He went on to build a Formula One car, again designed by Gianpaolo Dallara and run by Frank Williams. Tragically, my friend Piers Courage lost his life driving it at Zandvoort in 1970. Frank continued with other drivers, but for Alessandro, it was the end of being a constructor of racing cars.

De Tomaso

When I told Alessandro that I had decided to retire from racing he said “why not stay here and fly my airplane?” This was a generous offer as there were many young pilots at that time looking for work. I agreed, and so started my second career. But it didn’t last very long; I was unused to waiting for people, or indeed doing anything except what I wanted to. One day, after waiting at Rome’s minor airport, Urbe, for four days to fly him back to Bologna, I called his secretary in Turin to find out what was going on. Oh, he’s in New York, she replied. When he returned, I thanked him for having given me the opportunity, and quit. I owned my own small airplane, mainly for doing aerobatics to keep my adrenalin at an acceptable level, I had some money left over from the Steve McQueen film at Le Mans, and it seemed the sensible thing to do.