Last week, I visited the Newport Car Museum (https://newportcarmuseum.org/). Located in a former missile factory, there are over 75 vehicles on display from one impressive, well-rounded private collection. Whether your interests lie with American style or European performance, classic or modern, there’s something on display that will catch your eye.
I spent three hours in the museum on a quiet Tuesday, reading about every vehicle on display, watching the short films playing in some exhibits, and snapping pictures with my camera. However when I visited, there was a display of 1960s American Muscle cars that was under renovation. Once it reopens, I will gladly return to check it out! Most typical visitors would probably need one or two hours to fully explore the museum to their satisfaction.
I am quite open about my status as certifiably car-obsessed. But my trip to the Newport Car Museum still managed to open my eyes to two new things. Read on!
The DeTomaso Pantera
With cars, I’m typically more interested in the humble and practical rather than the expensive and exotic. Cars like the DeTomaso Pantera haven’t always been on my radar, especially those from before my lifetime. So, I never learned about the car’s American connections before my trip to the museum.
The Pantera was assembled in Italy, but the powerplant was all American. It used a version of Ford’s Cleveland 5.8L V-8 engine, similar to what you would find in many domestic market Ford models during the same time period. DeTomaso convinced Lee Iacocca to import the Pantera, to be sold through Lincoln Mercury dealerships. It must have looked wild sharing showroom square footage with the colossal Lincoln Continental of the early 1970s. It didn’t make much sense and not surprisingly, the Pantera was not an American sales success. The Pantera was imported to the United States from 1971 to 1975, and around 5,600 cars were sold during that time.
Precursor to the Merkur
The limited success of the Pantera didn’t stop Ford from trying something very similar a decade later. But this time, the cars were less exotic. In the 1980s, Ford rebadged the European Ford Sierra and Scorpio and launched the Merkur brand, again to be marketed through Lincoln Mercury showrooms. While the Pantera’s shortcomings stemmed from quality issues inherent in hand-built 1970s Italian cars, unfavorable exchange rates doomed the two Merkur models. They were too expensive for what they were.
While they failed for two different reasons, I was unaware of Ford’s ill-fated back-to-back attempts to spice up Lincoln Mercury showrooms in the 1970s and 1980s. Eventually, Ford terminated the Mercury brand after the 2011 model year. Perhaps some of the issues that ultimately led to the brand’s cancellation were already present some 40 years earlier. It was just a slow, drawn-out death.
The Carroll Shelby exhibit at the Newport Car Museum
There is an exhibit at the Newport Car Museum dedicated to Carroll Shelby, which focuses on his relationship with Ford. Shelby first had success with the Cobra, where he mated the lightweight AC Ace chassis with a powerful Ford V-8. Shelby also created high performance versions of the Mustang from 1965 until 1970 at the request of Ford’s Lee Iacocca. When Iacocca was later the Chairman of Chrysler, Shelby worked his magic on several 1980s Dodges, including the Omni hatchback. Shelby’s name would again appear on special editions of Ford vehicles starting in the mid-2000s.
The Shelby Series 1 had some GM roots
Shelby spent a large part of his career re-engineering cars produced by other manufacturers. But in the late 1990s, he tried his hand at his own clean-sheet design: the Shelby Series 1.
I was aware of the Series 1, but never paid it much attention. Seeing it in person at the museum was when I first learned of its ties to General Motors. It used an Oldsmobile V-8, and looking at the side profile of the car, there are hints of Corvette and Camaro in the styling and proportions of the Series 1.
Peeking at the interior, it was truly disappointing. It featured a radio from the Buick Park Avenue, and light gray climate control knobs straight from a low-rent Pontiac. The interior door handles and power controls were straight from a late-90s Chevy Malibu. Overall, the interior plastics were a quality as poor as what you found in a Cavalier from this era. As underwhelmed as I may have been seeing the Series 1 in the metal, its performance figures were impressive for the time. But it’s a shame that bankruptcy meant that Shelby wouldn’t get another crack at engineering a clean-sheet design.
While I was familiar with Shelby’s work with both Ford and Chrysler, I was surprised to learn that his loyalties were not limited to those two automakers. Perhaps those two relationships speak more to a loyalty toward Lee Iacocca than to the companies themselves. Regardless, his affiliation with General Motors, and thus each of the Big 3 American automakers, cement Carroll Shelby as an all-around American automotive icon.
If I may get introspective for just a moment…
While I’ve only been blogging for a short time, I’ve been able to deepen my own understanding of my lifelong love of cars in ways that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise, from an earlier post where I isolated the root cause of my obsession, to this post which helped me to realize why cars continue to capture my attention to this day.
I’ve become far more interested in history as I’ve gotten older. Of course, this extends to automotive history in a big way, even where (like in the case of the DeTomaso Pantera and Shelby Series 1), the inner workings of the automotive industry are more fascinating to me than the cars themselves.
There are so many facets to the car business. Beyond the cars, between the huge sales success stories and even bigger flops, the relationships between different manufacturers, and the strange business decisions, the opportunity to uncover new tidbits about this industry are endless. Even after obsessively consuming as much car-related content as humanly possible over the past 30+ years, I’m appreciative of places like the Newport Car Museum that open my eyes to something new and continually deepen my car obsession.