Car profiles

Among the fire-breathing Panteras produced by DeTomaso, this one may Tope them all

by Paul Stenquist
4 October 2023 7 min read
Among the fire-breathing Panteras produced by DeTomaso, this one may Tope them all
David Nikolas at the wheel of his Tope Pantera on the M1 Concourse Tarmac. (Images: Paul Stenquist)

Half a century ago, a Michigan racer remanufactured at least four very special DeTomaso Panteras. This one has survived virtually untouched.

As Panteras tend to do, when it rumbled into the parking lot of Pasteiner’s AutoZone hobbies on a Saturday morning in August 2023, the car drew a crowd. But this Pantera sports car, a mid-engine mid-century classic, was far from an ordinary example of the breed, as it had the flared wide body of the marque’s GT race cars, along with their loping idle and throaty exhaust note. At the wheel was David Nikolas, of Nikolas Motorsport, in Pontiac, Michigan. David is an automotive technician, businessman, and race car driver. He has achieved much in motorsports, including a 1998 Thundersports Cup series championship at the wheel of an ex-Paul Newman March 817.

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Before he had wormed his way out of the low-slung sports car’s tight cockpit, Nikolas was barraged with questions like, what the heck is that? “A long-ago abandoned Tope Pantera that I dragged out of a storage shed,” was his answer.

Warren Tope was a Michigan car guy and the son of a senior Ford powertrain executive. A Ford fanatic by birthright, Tope had a five-year fling with auto racing, from 1970 to 1975, competing mostly in SCCA Trans Am with Mustangs and Panteras while dabbling in IMSA GT and even NASCAR Winston cup. His successes were few but significant, with Trans Am wins at Sanair and Road America in ’72. Both came at the wheel of his Trans Am Mustang. Although Mustangs seem to have been Tope’s main crush, Ford’s purchase of DeTomaso and its Pantera sports car in 1971 gave him another racing brand to play with. Sadly, Tope was killed on 5 July, 1975, when the McLaren Can Am car he was driving went under the Armco at speed in the run-what-ya-brung Wide Trak II road race in Pontiac.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera front three quarter
Michigan racer Warren Tope essentially remanufactured four – or maybe five – De Tomaso Panteras half a century ago. This Tope Pantera survived virtually untouched with 4400 miles on the odometer.

Tope’s competition record isn’t the only thing for which he’s remembered. The extensively modified Panteras that he remanufactured and sold in the mid ’70s are among those automotive curiosities that pique the interest of enthusiasts intrigued by unique, limited-run remakes of production automobiles. While Tope raced a GT4 Pantera several times, he didn’t see much success with it, but he apparently decided there was money to be made upgrading standard Panteras to near-GT specs. Tope is said to have purchased five ’73 and ’74 Panteras at the $11,000 (£5,000) sticker price, with a plan to upgrade them significantly and sell them for $18,000 (£8,200) each. Because Ford was winding down racing activity at the time, his father’s connections enabled him to secure Ford performance parts at reasonable cost while drawing on the expertise of the Ford racing community.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera front

Tom Hill, who worked for Tope at the time and bought the third of the four Tope Panteras that are known to have been sold, said that the cars were very much like the GT version but with slightly detuned engines. His recollection of the days in Tope’s shop isn’t perfect, but he believes that the first car they completed went to a doctor in Los Angeles, the second went to a man called Don Funk of Funk Seeds, the third became his, and the fourth went to Sonny Tindall of Detroit. As far as Hill can recall, the fifth car was never completed, because production was halted after Tope’s death.

According to Hill, the Tope Pantera body was mocked up in clay by a skilled Detroit modeler prior to production, then built in Tope’s shop. Modifications to the original Ghia-styled sheet metal included six-inch fender flares on the rear quarters and four-inch extensions up front. They were made of fibreglass and riveted to the body, then molded in. All cars were fitted with custom-built silver-soldered double crossflow radiators, Schaefer aluminium flywheels, Weber pressure plates, custom clutch discs, Koni shocks, revised springs, new rear control arms, a Recaro driver’s seat, a Momo steering wheel, and a variety of other add-on goodies.

The engines were built on Ford Cleveland 5.8-litre blocks, sourced from Australia. Cleveland engine production had been discontinued in the US in 1974, but they were still being produced down under. Hill said that Tope became the sole US distributor for the desirable four-bolt-main block and derived substantial income from sales of the bare blocks.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera engine

The Tope Pantera engines feature Ford pistons and Ford racing heads that combine for a 13:1 compression ratio, a General Kinetics solid lifter cam, Crane roller rocker arms, a valve-train stud girdle, ported steel cylinder heads, Manley stainless steel valves, and Ford racing valve springs. A double-pumper Holley 850 cfm four-barrel sits atop a hi-rise Edelbrock intake manifold. Stainless steel exhaust headers direct gases to a pair of dual pipes. Hill recalls that dyno tests pegged rear-wheel horsepower at well over 400.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera engine transmission
A ZF five-speed transmission delivers power directly to the differential gears and rear axles.
David Nikolas Tope Pantera underside
The Pantera’s monocoque steel chassis includes parallel square steel tubes in the center of the car. The suspension mounts to that structural unit, which in turn is tied to the perimeter of the chassis with more stout tubing.

Hill purchased 15-inch Stirling racing wheels from a Brazilian manufacturer for his Tope Pantera. They appear to be identical to those used on Greenwood Corvettes. The rears are 13 inches wide, and the fronts measure 10 inches across. He drove the car exclusively on the street, running it on aviation gas or high-octane racing gas. Hill put only 4,400 miles on the car before he became absorbed in motorcycles, lost interest in the Pantera, and put it in a storage shed where it remained for 40 years.

Nikolas first laid eyes on the Tope Pantera in that storage shed. “It was filthy dirty and covered with surface rust but seemingly well stored and up on jack stands. After dragging it out of there and trailering it back to my place, I power washed it three or four times, scrubbed it with a wash mitt, clay barred it, and rubbed it out with an orbital polisher.”

Accompanying the car were a trailer full of spare parts and some of the original equipment that was removed when the car was modified. That sweetened the deal. Nikolas also recalls that when he first inspected the car and peered through a dusty window, he thought the odometer read 44,000. When he later discovered that it read 4,400, the buy became better yet.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera shop
David Nikolas’ Tope Pantera on an alignment rack at Nikolas Motorsport on Woodward Avenue in Pontiac, Michigan.

After the car was cleaned, Nikolas tried to fire it up, only to discover that it would only run on four cylinders – one bank of the V8 engine. That pointed to an exhaust obstruction. Further detective work discovered a family of mice and their nest clogging one exhaust pipe.

But the makings of a very interesting and powerful automobile were all there, and Nikolas and the crew at his Nikolas Motorsport auto repair business soon had it sorted out.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera rear three quarter
Four pipes, a flared body, and fat rubber suggest this Pantera means business.

“At first I thought I would just buy a Roush crate engine to drop in there, bolt on some 17-inch wheels and a few other new components,” said Nikolas, “but then I realized that this car is a survivor, a fine example of a custom-built sports car and in very good condition under all the grime and dirt. I’m not changing a thing.”

And he hasn’t changed a thing. The gleaming silver paint and black pinstripes are original, as is every inch of the interior, including a factory “radio delete” block-off plate, the mid ’70s Recaro driver’s seat, and a full complement of gauges.

David Nikolas Tope Pantera interior
The Tope Pantera’s passenger seat is DeTomaso standard-issue, while the driver’s seat is a mid ’70s Recaro.

Original as well are the Pirelli P7 tyres – 345/35 VR 15s in the rear and 285/40 VR 15s up front. Of course, the half-century-old tyres will have to go, but to be honest they look brand new, and Nikolas has put a few miles on them. Determined to keep the car original, Nikolas wants to replace the tires with a faithful match. Unfortunately, Pirelli halted production of that tyre in the correct size for the rear some time ago. But Nikolas said that some Lamborghinis require the same size tyre and Pirelli has indicated that it will resume production.

Nikolas was more than happy to let me take the Tope Pantera for a spin on Woodward, where his shop is located. I was a little leery of driving a valuable machine on those tyres but was willing to give it a go. A septuagenarian with arthritis in every joint and two artificial knees, I’m far from nimble but can still hit the apex once situated comfortably behind the wheel. But in this case getting situated was a problem. The seat is far below the sill, so upon entering backside first, I had to sort of drop into the seat, which led to me banging my head hard on the door frame. “I’ve done worse,” I thought as I attempted to swing my left leg into the car. “Let’s do this.” But given the limited flexibility of my titanium knee joint, I couldn’t quite bend my leg enough to get it through the door opening, which was narrow even with the seat as far back as it could go. With those tyres on my mind, I aborted the effort.

Of course, Nikolas is a much more astute evaluator of hot sports cars than I, and he said the car drives as nice as his 2004 Ferrari 360. It’s smooth, powerful, and very neutral when driven briskly but cautiously. Analysis of how it performs at the limit will have to come after the car has been reshod with new rubber.

Nikolas’ assessment differs from Car & Driver‘s road test of a Pantera in 1971. The C&D boys found their test car had a bad habit of oversteering abruptly when lifting off the throttle. That tail wagging was made all the more dangerous due to the car’s normal understeer. Nikolas, in his limited time behind the wheel, has experienced no such behavior. That can probably be attributed to the revised rear control arms and greatly improved damping. The front suspension geometry may have been revised as well. With new rubber under the car, Nikolas will undoubtedly beat it into some corners on the test track at M1 Concourse, which is conveniently right across Woodward from his shop. We will be there to watch.

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