Friday, February 21, 2020
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De Tomaso Longchamp GTS vs Maserati Kyalami

Brilliant Bastards

Calling the Maserati Kyalami and De Tomaso Longchamp identical is both true and false. They share many similarities as a result of close family ties, but there are vast technical and cultural differences as well. Especially the engines relate to each other like a Whopper from Burger King and a spaghetti Bolognese from a village restaurant in Emilia-Romagna. Under the bonnet of the Longchamp is a big American V8 with a 3-speed automatic, while the Maserati has a smaller, home-made V8 with a manual 5-speed.

Pantera

After making name with the mid-engined Vallelunga and Mangusta sports cars in the sixties, Argentinean Alejandro de Tomaso launched the Pantera supercar in 1971. At the 1970 Turin Motor Show however, the Modenese company had already shown a luxury 4-door called Deauville to compete with brands like Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz. This exclusive hand-build sedan was powered by the same 351 Ford Cleveland V8 used in the Pantera, but after production started in 1971, sales was unexpectedly slow. At the 1972 Turin Motor Show, De Tomaso exhibited the Longchamp as a two-door 2+2 coupé based on the Deauville platform, sharing the same engine, transmission and suspension.

In 1975, instead of taking it easy, Alejandro de Tomaso bought Maserati from Citroën

The design of this Longchamp also came from the creative brain of Tom Tjaarda, an American from Dutch parents who lived and worked in Italy and died in June 2017. Besides the 5.8 litre V8 from Ford, there were less important yet more visible parts from other manufacturers, like the headlights from the Ford Granada and the tail lights from the Alfa Romeo 1750/2000 Berlina. Building sports cars and luxury cars was not the only thing de Tomaso was involved in, since the former racing driver and industrial tycoon expended his imperium rapidly with names like Ghia, Vignale, Moto Guzzi and Benelli and in 1975, instead of taking it easy after taking over Innocenti as well, de Tomaso went one up and bought Maserati from Citroën.

Biturbo

Maserati was in a state of bankruptcy at the time, so to not loose any (potential) customers, de Tomaso made haste releasing a new model. With the release of the Kyalami in 1976, Maserati went through a few significant changes. In all fairness, the company was saved, but the good old days of racing victories and elegant designs made way for cutbacks and moderation. Today, after four decades, not even Maserati denies the fact any longer that the Kyalami was a rapidly refurbished Longchamp. It was developed under supervision of designer Pietro Frua with neither budget nor time. A veteran in the form of the 4.2 V8 with 255 PS was mated to a ZF 5-speed transmission to give the Kyalami at least a whiff of Maserati DNA. The body was virtually identical to the Longchamp, with only the round headlights and tail lights – from the Citroën SM – making a difference. With this new 2+2 coupé, Maserati entered the era of boxy, square designs that would lead to the Biturbo in 1983.

American atmosphere

Getting the chance to drive these cars back-to-back is an opportunity that does not present itself very often, so when Gallery Aaldering gave us a call, we raced to their showroom in the Dutch village of Brummen. Ogling the voluptuous shape of the Longchamp with the GTS outfit that was introduced in 1980, I was drawn into the De Tomaso. The soft leather upholstery and mushy seat cushions add to the overall American experience. The starter motor needs a few seconds to wake up the big V8, but then it erupts into a rather loud burble. Putting the selector in D sends a shiver through the car and loads of torque push against the depressed brake calipers. The American atmosphere intensifies when I turn the Longchamp on a dual carriageway and gently press the throttle. The four barrel carburetted V8 hardly needs any revs to move over 1,800 kilos and after two very unsophisticated gear changes I’m comfortably at cruising speed, feeling like I could keep going like this many for hours.

Not interested in doodling along, I turn onto a twisty forest road and floor the accelerator. It takes a second for the 3-speed transmission to understand my intensions, but then the lazy V8 burble changes to a Nascar-like bellow and a proper push in the back sharpens my senses. The Longchamp comes of gentle under normal circumstances, but when provoked it gets frisky and sounds like it enjoys every moment of it. It does not take long however, to understand that vast open roads with long sweeping corners are the preferred habitat. With the drivetrain reacting rather sluggish and the suspension tuned for comfort, the Longchamp – even with the upgraded suspension that was part of the GTS package – is more of a sports tourer than a sports car.

More rewarding

Swapping the Longchamp for the Kyalami after about an hour brings quite a surprise. A firmer seat is the first noticeable difference, but the car is more involving as well. Handling, body control and ride quality are slightly better but not that much different, yet the responses from the Italian V8 are sharper and the fact that I am responsible for the gear changes brings me closer to the excitement. The Longchamp does not oppose quick cornering and aggressive braking and acceleration, but clearly prefers fast cruising with not too much centrifugal forces. The Maserati seems to be on the other end of the GT scale, where comfortable traveling is an option, but spirited driving is preferred. Driving these two siblings clearly shows how satisfying it is to operate three pedals and a gear lever. The Maserati clearly is more rewarding to drive, with an engine that likes to rev and needs to rev to offer its full potential. That does not make it a sports car either, but the Italian character makes it a proper GT with some very engaging features that are missing in its role model with American genes.

As an investor, looking for a thoroughbred classic, neither of these two sport coupés would be a very good choice. One is a shortened 2-door based on an unsuccessful sedan and the other is a bastard based on it. With only 200 examples built of the Maserati and 412 of the De Tomaso though, both cars are by any means exotics that can be very enjoyable if you like the qualities they have to offer. And regardless of their differences, they have one very important thing in common: they both represent an era of the automotive industry that is unique and very attractive and they do it in a brilliant way.

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