Do any of you remember the homebuilt "specials" that tore around the tracks during the early days of American road racing? Many times, an inspired mechanic/racer would fashion a race car out of a scrounged-up frame, a salvaged engine and gearbox (too many times from an unfortunate Corvette), and bodywork that was "massaged" to barely fit over everything. And, if he was lucky, that homebuilt "special" would be competitive in the Modified classes that SCCA ran back then, if not running up front and winning.
One legendary Chevy-powered road racer started out like many of those "specials," but by the time the first one rolled out of its creator's garage, it was the '60s-a time when "backdoor" technical assistance was available from Chevrolet Engineering. That car was the Cheetah, created by Bill Thomas, in the wake of the in-house work by Chevrolet Engineering to make a Cobra-killing Vette, namely the Corvette Grand Sport, a factory Vette Rod if ever there was one!
As Don Francisco wrote in the March 1964 issue of our future-brother-in-law-book, Hot Rod magazine, "Cheetah is a combination of proven Chevrolet powertrain components with a special frame, front suspension, and body assembly built in Thomas' shop." That proven powertrain was based on the 327-inch smallblock V8, teamed with a Muncie four-speed." (Sound familiar?) Francisco continued, "Cheetah's design is such that its frame is its load-carrying member. Its body, which for the prototype car is aluminum but for production models will be fiberglass, doesn't add any structural strength of the car." That frame was made of 1 1/8-inch diameter, .063-inch wall thickness, 4130 chromemoly tubing, while the suspension consisted of coil-overs on each corner, with a Corvette-type IRS and differential in back.
All told, once built, the Cheetah weighed in at around 1,500 pounds. That's about three hundred or so pounds lighter than the 1,800-pound weight target Chevy engineers set for the Gran Sport, and about half (if that) what a production Sting Ray coupe weighed back then. Francisco mentioned that Thomas planned a production run to build enough cars (100) to make it Grand Touring-class legal, with prices ranging from $7,500 for a "Street" model, to around $12,500 for a full-on competition version. This was when you could buy two Sting Ray coupes, each optioned with F40, G81, J56, K66, L84, M20, and N11 for that twelve-five, and get almost a grand in change!
Unfortunately, no good deed went unpunished back then. GM's upper management squelched Chevy's back-door tech assistance to Bill Thomas' Cheetah program, and his Anaheim, California, shop suffered a fire, trashing his production tooling after only 21 cars were built. (13 of those are known to have survived.) But those Cheetahs made an impression on anyone who saw them, either from the distance of the printed page, or up close on the track. Especially those who saw it hit 185 mph at Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin-or 215 mph at Daytona!
But that fire wasn't the last chapter in the Cheetah story. Yes, dear friends, there's a Cheetah Continuation Collectible that's not a clone of the original, but a pick-up-from-where-we-left-off continuation of the original line, authorized by Bill Thomas himself. "That's what we do," says Robert Auxier, who's the man responsible for bringing the Cheetah back into production. "Bill Thomas signed 100 letters of authenticity, and we're actually on numbers 31 and 32 in production (as of late October 2009 -Ed.).
It was Robert's search for one of those originals that started the process that resulted in the car you see here. "I tried to buy a real one, and I found out that there's not enough of 'em to go around," he says. "My quest to buy a real one proved to me that was not going to happen." So, in the early '90s, he decided to reproduce the Cheetah. Several years later, his Cheetah-repro endeavor took a turn for the best. "In November of 2001, we signed a contract with Bill Thomas to build a hundred, and he signed on to it," Robert says. "Since he signed on to it, we've been OK."
The good luck didn't stop there. "We'd found a customer in Ohio who let us borrow his original Cheetah that Bill built, and we took all of the tooling off of that car," Robert says of the R&D work needed to make real Cheetahs once again. "I already had the molds for the body, doors and stuff like that. We took a brand new jig off of that original car's chassis, and we took all the molds off of the original interior." Lucky that car-a survivor of the Thomas shop fire, and a barn resident since '66-had its interior intact, as Robert says that it and only three other original Cheetahs still have their original interiors in them.
The continuation Cheetahs not only have original-style interiors in them, every aspect of the car is the same way as on the originals-with some notable exceptions. "We've got better brakes and better tires on the continuation cars," Robert says about the main issues the Cheetah had. He adds, "We built the chassis 33 percent stronger and fixed the few weak points that we knew about, and it's a bulletproof car now." He details some more of the changes and upgrades made to the race-only versions of the continuation cars: "There's more gusseting, more tubing, different suspension components, different shocks, an oil cooler, a better engine, better clutch, and a fuel cell/fire system."
They're now so "bulletproof," in fact, that not even a high-speed, off-course excursion at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin's Road America-prompted by another racer's oiling of the track-could shake it. "Bob Boyce once hit a guardrail with one at 130 (mph), and it pushed him off into the gravel," Robert says about the Cheetah owned and campaigned by Boyce. "They thought that he was going to roll it, and he didn't-he clipped the guardrail on the other side. He actually fired the car back up, drove back to the pits, and the only damage was a little bend in the rear trailing arm, which took the brunt of the impact. They took another arm off another Cheetah, put it on, and won the race the next day!"
Boyce's Cheetah is a common sight at Road America, competing in the vintage races held on the 4.048-mile circuit in Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine country. He won the Optima Batteries sprint race for his competition group at the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association's (SVRA) Spring Vintage Weekend last May, and in September he took a first in the Sports Racing class-and first overall-at the Vintage Sportscar Drivers Association's (VSCDA) meet, also at Road America. He's also scored 11 podium finishes there going back to 2004.
If all goes well, you'll be seeing continuation Cheetahs racing in vintage events worldwide. "We're trying to get it approved by the FIA for racing in Europe," Robert says. "The market in Europe has opened up, and we're chasing the FIA market over there." Once the FIA gives its blessing, Robert says, they'll be able to sell it worldwide, with it becoming very valuable for those with money in Europe.
A lot of paperwork is required for the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) to certify that a car is indeed a continuation of a previous one-paperwork that Robert, and Bill Thomas, provided. "He signed some letters for me that the FIA people needed," he says. "I found the articles, the dates, entry lists, and the final list of the races that they raced in 1964 under FIA/SCCA sanctioning, with the FIA people watching the races." Those races included events at Daytona, Riverside, Phoenix International Raceway and Kent, Washington.
Race or street, one thing hasn't changed about the Cheetah from original production to continuation. "People don't realize how brutally fast they are," says Robert. Sound interesting? You bet! But what about the price for a continuation Cheetah? They are quite a bit more than the 1964-vintage prices quoted above-but you get what you pay for. "Our street cars right now are $80,000, and the race cars are $95,000," says Robert.
Would a streetable Cheetah be a car you could drive to work? Maybe-especially if your commute route has a smooth surface with a nice set of twisties in it, and no cell phone yacking idiots near you. You'd also need to have neighbors at home or work who wouldn't mind the sound waves coming from the slightly-muffled, high-output small-block that might shake their windows and tooth fillings at least twice a day. And you'd also need understanding members of your local law-enforcement community. However, if you go for the race-only version, they all might be your biggest fans when you take to the track in it! You can get more information about the continuation Cheetahs at www.billthomascheetah.com.
Data File: '65 Bill Thomas Cheetah Race Cars
Built by BTM LLC, Tempe, Arizona
Bodywork: BTM, LLC, Tempe, Arizona
Paint : Two-stage base/clear coat (Marina Blue seen here); Paint preparation & applied by BTM LLC, Tempe, Arizona
Frame: .125-inch thick, 4130 Chromemoly round tubing
Suspension: Coil over shock absorbers, front and rear
Steering: Woodward rack-and-pinion
Brakes: Production Corvette discs
Wheels: American Racing Torq-Thrust D, 15 x 8 inches in front, 15 x 10 inches in back
Tires: (On car seen here): BFGoodrich Radial T/As, P225/60R15 in front, P235/60R15 in back. (On production Continuation Cheetahs) Hoosier TO 25.5x 8.5 (front), 26.5 x 9.5 (rear)
GM Performance Parts overhead-valve small-block V8
Displacement: 377 cubic inches
Compression ratio: 12:01
Cylinder heads: Chevrolet aluminum small-block heads
Induction: 2 Holley four-barrel carburetors
Camshaft: Special grind for continuation Cheetahs
Exhaust: BTM-fabricated tube headers/side exhaust pipes
Horsepower: 560@ 6400 rpm (Advertised)
Torque: 513 ft. /lbs. @ 5000 rpm (Advertised)
Roltek 4-speed manual
Rear end: '63-'79 Corvette
Reproduction 1965 Cheetah
Seats: Lightweight fiberglass racing buckets with black vinyl upholstery
Carpets: In your home, yes. In a Cheetah? You're kidding, right?
Instrumentation: Stewart-Warner gauges (0-8000 rpm tach, plus coolant temperature, oil pressure, fuel level and voltmeter gauges.)
Sound system: See engine/exhaust system
Bill Thomas: Chevy Tuner, Cheetah Creator
If you were (or still are) a reader of the '60s editions of our now-brother-in-law book Hot Rod magazine, then you know the handiwork of Bill Thomas, and his Anaheim, California-based Bill Thomas Race Cars-one of the early "tuner shops" that built and tuned Corvettes and steel-bodied Chevys for racing and high-performance street use.
Bill started building and tuning Corvettes for the Southern California road racing scene in 1956, and his C1s won on street circuits, airport/Air Force base runways and purpose-built tracks alike. Their successes impressed Chevy's top brass so much that they asked him to race-prep the then-new Corvair for road-race duty, which he did-and like the Vettes he prepared, they cleaned up in their classes. That led to Bill's shop building specially-prepared Chevy IIs wearing fiberglass roofs and equipped with fuel-injected 327s and independent rear suspensions "borrowed" from the Corvette. However, the SCCA wouldn't recognize them as production cars, so they found their way into the hands of drag racers-and like the Vettes and 'Vairs before them, they were winners. (So were the 409-powered BelAirs and Biscaynes his shop built to race in USAC's and NASCAR's west coast stock car races, as well as the Pikes Peak Hill Climb).
In early 1963, as a way to beat the Ford-powered A.C. Cobra while getting around the GM corporate racing ban that killed the Corvette Grand Sport, Vince Piggins (head of Chevy's Product Performance Engineering crew) and then-Chevy division boss Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen green-lighted Bill to build a hundred "Cobra killers" using the 377-cubic-inch 520hp V8 for power. This top-secret program resulted in the Cheetah, and when Zora Arkus-Duntov tested the prototype at GM's Milford Proving Grounds, he said that it generated the highest lateral acceleration of any car he'd driven.
By the time Don Francisco's story on the Cheetah ran in Hot Rod magazine's March 1964 issue, Bill's shop was producing Cheetahs for the track and the street. However, no good deed went unpunished, as GM did away with Cheetah's "backdoor" funding/tech support in January 1964, and homologation rules changed to require 1,000 production units (instead of 100) for cars like the Cheetah to compete in Production classes. So, Cheetahs ran in Modified and Prototype classes instead-and, during the '64 season, they ran up front and won wherever they raced.
No factory support meant no new hardware (other than production '65 Corvette disc brakes) went on as upgrades for the upcoming season-and a fire at Bill's shop destroyed the Cheetah's production tooling, along with several cars in production.
Bill then turned his attention to steel-bodied Chevys-including special Chevy IIs for Dick Harrell, and he teamed up with Don Yenko and Dana Chevrolet to swap 427s into the Camaro in early 1967. Bill Thomas Race Cars was a prime source of Chevy factory heavy-duty and racing parts through 1971, when Bill closed the shop and turned to non-automotive pursuits.
Bill Thomas passed away on October 10, 2009, at age 88.