He was a useful sports car driver he became a manufacturer starting in 1959 with racing cars and adding road cars in 1965.
De Tomaso was born in Buenos Aires on July 10 1928. His father was the Italian-born politician Antonio de Tomaso and his mother was from one of the prominent ranching families in Argentina.
He left school at 15 to run the family ranches when his father died.
He was a useful sports car driver in his native Argentina, first with a Maserati T200S and then the little OSCA, de Tomaso made his GP debut in an old Ferrari in his home event in 1957.
He fled Argentina after backing an underground newspaper that was opposed to the then president, Juan Peron. He and his first wife Lola then settled in Modena in Italy, and the rest as they say, is history.
He drove the small-capacity OSCA, winning the Index of Performance at Le Mans in 1958. After racing his Cooper-OSCA hybrid at Sebring in 1959, he retired from racing and based himself in Modena. He helped to develop the ISIS-Fiat Formula Junior car in 1960 and subsequently went on to build an unsuccessful Formula 1 car on two occasions (1962 and 1970).
His first involvement with cars was as an owner-driver racing Maseratis and OSCAs (designed and built by the Maserati brothers) from 1955-59. He met his second wife Elizabeth Haskell, an American heiress, who was also a racing driver, at this time.
In 1959 he built the first De Tomaso racing car - a 750cc - which he sold to predominantly US-based wealthy amateur racing drivers. In 1962 the company designed a flat-8 engine for a Formula 1 car which was raced at the Italian Grand Prix that year.
The company developed 5 Formula 1 cars (the 505) between 1962 and 1970. Designed by Gian-Paolo Dallara (ex Lamborghini) and equipped with Cosworth engines, the cars competed in Frank Williams' racing team. The cars were well built and ran well but unfortunately driver Piers Courage (of the Courage brewing family) crashed the car and died at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix in Zandvoort and De Tomaso's involvement in Formula 1 came to an end.
The first De Tomaso road-going car was the 1965 Vallelunga coupe - about 50 of these were produced with a Ford Cortina 1500cc engine mid-mounted. In 1967 he bought the Ghia coachbuilding company and around this time began working closely with Ford in the US developing the Ford V8 powered Mangusta in 1969 to competed with the AC Cobra (Mangusta is 'mongoose' in Italian + snakes are part of their diet). Later Ford sold the successor to the Mangusta - the Tjaarda-designed Pantera - through its Lincoln-Mercury dealerships in the US. Ford also subsequently bought Ghia (and Vignale) from de Tomaso making the Italian-based businessman a lot of money.
Shortly thereafter de Tomaso bought and sold a number of companies - acquiring Benelli motorcycles in 1971 (with Italian government assistance) then Moto Guzzi in 1972 and Innocenti in 1975. Perhaps his biggest coup was acquiring Maserati from Citroen in 1975 for 210,000 lire (cA$160) with Citroen writing off Maserati's A$8.75M debt. De Tomaso ran Maserati until 1990 when he sold the company at a profit to Fiat Group - along the way striking a deal with Lee Iacocca at Ford which produced the Chrysler-Maserati TC.
De Tomaso was a charismatic and innovative figure who retained his powerful intellect despite his illness in later life. His somewhat hard-edged approach to business did not always win him friends but he remained respected by his workforce for saving their jobs and his company has emerged in 2003 as the only major independent Italian car company with Alfa/Ferrari/Lancia/Maserati all part of Fiat and Lamborghini now owned by Audi.