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MAY 22, 2003

Alejandro de Tomaso 1928-2003

Alejandro de Tomaso, an Argentine car racer who founded the de Tomaso car company, has died at the age of 76.

De Tomaso was the son of Antonio de Tomaso, a leading independent politician in the 1920s, who became the Minister of Agriculture. Alejandro's mother was heiress to one of the country's biggest agricultural fortunes and he grew up in privileged circumstances although his father died at the age of only 38. In the early 1950s he became, at the same time, a leading racing driver in the country and also a political opponent to President Juan Peron and an outspoken critic of the dictator in the Clarion newspaper.

In 1955 he was involved in an attempt to overthrow Peron and fled the country, flying his own plane to Uruguay. Unable to return home he headed for Europe where he wanted to pursue his racing career.

He raced Maseratis and OSCAs with some success. At the same time he met and married Isabelle Haskell, an American heiress who had herself raced. In 1959 they decided to go into business against Ferrari and Maserati and established De Tomaso Automobili in Modena. The company built a Formula 2 car with a Conrero Alfa Romeo engine and it was driven by Roberto Businello. It reappeared in 1961 and was raced by Businello to fifth place at the 1961 Naples GP. By then De Tomaso had a F1 design up and running. This car was entered for a variety of drivers with a variety of engines but never achieved much. In 1962 the company produced a new F1 chassis - designated 801 - which had been designed by former Maserati engineer Alberto Massimino. The company also produced Formula Junior cars which were marketed under the Isis name. This design was later upgraded to F3 specification in 1964 with some success, Mario Casoni winning at Caserta. By then de Tomaso had begun building road cars, starting out with the Ford-engined Vallelunga model. This was followed by the Giugiaro-designed Mangusta in 1966. Two years later De Tomaso bought the Ghia styling company and its chief stylist Tom Tjaarda and hired Giampaolo Dallara away from Lamborghini. He also concluded a deal with Ford's Lee Iacocca for Ford to sell his cars in the United States. Ford took a stake in the company and the first car produced was the Pantera.

To support his racing program de Tomaso planned a return to racing in 1969 and Dallara created a new Formula 2 car designated the 103. This first appeared in the hands of Jonathan Williams in the Monza Lotteria. It was also raced by Jacky Ickx and Piers Courage (who finished third in a heat at Vallelunga). It was promising enough performance to convince Frank Williams to do a deal for De Tomaso to build him F1 cars for the 1970 season.The Cosworth-engined chassis was debuted at the South African GP with Courage driving and the car was even tried by Jackie Stewart during the International Trophy meeting where Courage finished third. At the Dutch GP in June, however, Courage crashed and was killed in a fiery accident.

The team reappeared at the British GP a month later with Brian Redman driving but after he failed to qualify twice it was handed over to Tim Schenken who finished off the season without any real results.

De Tomaso went back to building road cars. The Ford alliance broke up after the oil crisis of 1973 but De Tomaso bounced back by buying Maserati in 1975 and Innocenti the following year. He also bought the Moto Guzzi and Benelli motorcycle companies.

The Pantera, Longchamp and Deauville models took the De Tomaso company through the 1970s while Alejandro tried to revive the Maserati name with the Quattroporte and Biturbo models. De Tomaso racing cars appeared in sportscar racing in the mid-1970s and a factory Maserati Biturbo team was entered in the abortive World Touring Car Championship of 1987 but in 1989 he sold Innocenti to Fiat and Maserati followed in 1993.

De Tomaso went back to running his own firm but suffered a stroke in the early 1990s and was forced to retire, leaving the company in the hands of his wife and son Santiago.