Alejandro DeTomaso is most commonly known for his early '70s collaboration with Ford, resulting in the Pantera, and his roles as chief of Maserati, Ghia and other concerns over the years. A few will also be familiar with an earlier Guigiaro-designed effort, the Mangusta, and real history buffs will recall that the expatriate Argentine did a fair bit of sports car racing in the mid and late 50s. While he certainly did not overshadow Fangio or Moss, DeTomaso notched some impressive track victories with Maserati and OSCA.
In 1959, Mr. DeTomaso, and his American-born, race-driving wife Isabelle Haskell DeTomaso, began constructing their own cars, mostly Formula 2s and Juniors, and even qualified a few cars on Formula One grids in the early 60s. DeTomaso would not be the first to venture into street going production in order to amortize the costs of a racing effort. In 1963 he introduced the prototype of what would become DeTomaso's first road car, the Vallelunga.
This little known, and often mispronounced, DeTomaso (say Vaul-lay-lunga) was named after an Italian racing circuit where DeTomaso had enjoyed some racing success. Those prototypes and later production Vallelungas couldn't have been more different. The very first was an alloy-bodied roadster that bares a more-than-passing resemblance to the Porsche Boxster, but had little in common with the final shape of the production coupe. At least two and perhaps three alloy-bodied coupes came shortly thereafter, also styled and built by Fissore. They were very much cast in the shape of the production car, though the entire rear section was hinged, and opened clamshell style, like a Lamborghini Miura.
When it finally came time to built street versions, the coachwork chores were handed over to Ghia, a company that DeTomaso would ultimately acquire, only to later sell it off to Ford. Instead of alloy, the bodies were rendered in fiberglass, and the prototype's one-piece hinged rear section gave way to a large glass hatchback, which provided access to the engine bay. The tidy-yet-curvaceous shape smacked of Ferrari's 250 LM, with a little 275 GTB and Dino thrown in for good measure.
If there's anything that set the Vallelunga apart, especially at the time, was the use of a "central spine" chassis design. Pioneered by DeTomaso and Colin Chapman (arguments persist as to who really thought of it first, though most money is on Chapman), the layout uses a large, square-oval shaped tube running right up the middle of the car as its main chassis member. There is no monocoque, ladder frame pieces or amalgam of tubing to be found. Front and rear subframes are attached at either end of the spine, to which suspension members are attached. The mid-mounted engine becomes a stressed member of the chassis, not an uncommon racing practice then or now.
Although DeTomaso's array of prior racers and prototypes used a variety of powerplants, a Ford engine was called upon to power this first (and all future) production model. Though not exactly exotic when compared to alloy, twin-cam four-cylinder units from OSCA or Coventry Climax, the 1500cc ohv Kent engine was inexpensive, stout, and easy to modify. Weber carbs and a smartly cast valve cover were the only upgrades for this installation, and the engine was backed up by what was basically a Volkswagen transaxle carrying Hewland gearsets. Other track-inspired componentry included rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and beautifully cast magnesium wheels by Campagnolo. The waist-high coupe weighed in at a mere 1,600 lb, its body panels stretched over a 91-in. wheelbase.
Build quality of the fiberglass body was actually quite good, but the same cannot not be said for the interior. It has that "Italian Home Made" look, but all the correct gauges are present and easy to read. The small, drilled aluminum steering wheel and gated shifter came straight out of the DeTomaso Formula 2 parts bin. The Vallelunga is a cozy fit for most drivers; the overall feel once inside might bring to mind a Lotus Europa.
The adjective that perhaps best describes the driving experience is "direct." The little Kent barks to life, with a rather short exhaust system doing little to muffle the noise emanating from just over your right shoulder. As the drivetrain is a stressed member, some of its vibration is also telegraphed to the chassis. The steering is light, yet very well connected to the road; a muscle spasm could easily result in a lane change. The unassisted four-wheel disc brakes provide firm stopping power, with ride and handling qualities being what you expect from a short wheelbase mid-engine car with racing-derived suspension: stiff, a little jouncy, but flat as pool table. The engine belies its Ford Cortina origin, producing a fairly wide torque band (for a four), revving quite willingly to 6000 rpm and beyond...makes you at least ask if we really need so many valves and cams nowadays. The requisite Webers aid the crisp response, but the V-Dub derived transaxle is a bit graunchy when cold. To pick on things like ergonomics and materials quality would be to miss the entire point; its a cut-and-thrust canyon runner of the '60s, and mundane commuter chores would be a misuse.
The proverbial "how many built" question yields a plethora of answers. Ghia records indicate that 50 fiberglass Vallelungas were produced during 1965/66. Then add the alloy spyder and two to three alloy coupe prototypes. But Santiago DeTomaso (eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. D.) himself told me he felt the number was more like 58 total. Who knows, but in any case, it ain't many. The New York Museum of Modern Art paid the car a nice compliment by placing it in an exhibit as "an example of technological progress and outstanding design." DeTomaso later developed a prototype off the same chassis called the Pampero, looking not unlike a larger Fiat 850 Spider. By this time however, DeTomaso was off to bigger projects, such as the V8 engined Mangusta and assembling a new Formula One team. The Vallelunga lived a rather short life, and the Pampero remained a one-off.
It is thought that only a few dozen Vallelungas survive today, their ownership being a worldwide but tight cadre of enthusiasts. Spiritual successors are not hard to find: One of DeTomaso's more recent production models, the Guara, still employed an updated central spine chassis design. Its clearly a concept that Mr. DeTomaso embraced. There was a Mazda MX-3-based fastback coupe design study several years back that resembled a Vallelunga, right down to the round taillights. Little wonder: Tom Matano, former vice president of Mazda R&D in Southern California, owns one.
Our feature car belonged to Mike and Rosy King of Costa Mesa, Calif. The Kings are avid DeTomaso enthusiasts, also owning a Pantera and a lovely Fly Yellow Mangusta. And cumulatively, they may command perhaps 4% of the world's Vallelunga market, as a red one sat beside this white '65, awaiting restoration. I was given the opportunity to purchase the red car some years ago, before prices went ballistic, and of course, I passed. Yet another monumental error in judgment, but that's another story altogether.
This Vallelunga is sort of the opposite of the light-beer concept: Everything you want in a regular Vallelunga, but more. Its flared, bulged and all pumped up, at least looking like its ready for the track. But the story is a bit fuzzy. When I first came in contact with it, it was owned by Joseph Alphabet, a rabid collector and dealer in all manner of exotic machines, especially Italian ones. Alphabet acquired it from Denver, Colo., in one of those famous multi-car swap deals emblematic of the classic car market of the late 1980s.
The story went that the car was bult by DeTomaso with the larger fenders and flares in place. The alloy modular wheels are aftermarket pieces and much larger than stock. Note the race-style fuel filler, which pokes up thorugh the front hood. The car carried Spanish license plates, as it was supposedldy raced in Spain. The factory has no record of building such a car, though its record keeping in the 1960s was a bit spotty.
Though received in good condition, Alphabet performed additional restoration work, and enjoyed the distinction of displaying the first DeTomaso ever accepted at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, where it placed third in class in 1990. Just as it came to town, it left and now resides in Japan. --GR