In the 1960s, it was Chevrolet's idea, and California racer Bill Thomas' dream, to create a car that would challenge the Cobras of Caroll Shelby. The result was the Cheetah, a car that would shatter track records wherever it raced. Speeds of 185 mph at Road America and 215 mph at Daytona were recorded. While the car was built to beat the Cobra, its small production run was its downfall because it failed to meet the homologation numbers number for it to race in the same class as the Cobra. Although famous on the track, this Cheetah is one of eight produced specifically for the road-out of a total of around 27 cars built. It is also the very last car built; the Anaheim factory was destroyed by fire soon after the car was finished.
The compact size, svelte 1750 weight and 350 horsepower from the small block Chevy made the Cheetah an extremely fast automobile. Bill Thomas was a well-respected Chevy tuner and had a mission to build a 'Cobra Killer.' On paper, it looked like he succeeded. In real life, the story was rather different. The extremely short wheelbase made for very tricky handling, even in the capable hands of people like Jerry Titus. Engine cooling and driver fatigue were also early issues that eventually were overcome.
Unfortunately, just as success was arriving, a factory fire destroyed the molds. Around the same time GM was pulling the plug on its racing efforts and true mid-engine race cars were starting to dominate the track. In the end, only 29 original Cheetahs were built.
Road Racing categories have always been exciting and competitive which often bred many unique and creative racing machines. The 1950s was particularly exciting as road racing specials, kit cars, and modifieds seemed to roam the tracks one circle at a time, turning heads and winning trophies. The European cars were dominant for a while, then lightweight specials powered by American muscle began to turn the tides. Mainstream manufacturers such as Ford and Chevrolet found their nitch with the Cobra's and the Corvettes. The modified Corvette's had been highly competitive in the SCCA production until the big three American Companies agreed not to race during the close of the 1950s which meant there were not Works teams. Loopholes in the agreement were exploited, and Ford was able to make sure appropriate funding made it to the Shelby Cobra project, unofficially of course.
Bill Thomas approached General Motors with a similar proposal, requesting funding to build a series of modified vehicles based on Corvette components that could be worthy contenders of the might Cobra. The proposal was accepted and the 'Cheetah' was born.
SCCA Competition had homologation requirements for various classes and categories of racing; the category where the Cobra ran required at least 100 examples be created before it could qualify for racing. As the beginning of the 1964 season came into sight, Thomas had nowhere near that many, and had to race in the specials class which pitted his front-engined machine against some very highly-developed mid-engined race cars.
The Cheetah had a tubular spaceframe chassis and powered by a Corvette V8 small-block engine bored out to over 6 liters. Thomas was restricted to only Corvette parts, so all components were stock or modified Corvette materials. The Cheetah had a tuned-version of the Rochester fuel-injection system which helped produce over 475 horsepower. The positioning of the engine was done to improve performance; it sat very far back in the engine bay resulting in the driver compartment moving rearward. The engine was mated to a Borg Warner T-10 four-speed gearbox and sent the power to the rear wheels. The rear wheels were a mere inches behind the driver. Corvette drum brakes were placed on all four corners which would prove to be unworthy to handle the massive amounts of power produced from the engine. The entire package was clothed in a lightweight aluminum hand-formed Coupe body featuring exotic gullwing doors.
Theory never guarantees success. After much planning, building, tuning, and modifying, the Cheetah was brought to the track. Its performance was less than adequate and disappointing. Teething problems are to be expected from any new race car, but some are just too difficult to overcome. The doors blew off the vehicle while at speed, its brakes were inadequate, and the cockpit had poor ventilation making it unbearably hot for the driver. The heat problem was solved for at least on car whose top was cut off. The first year proved to be a valuable learning experience.
SCCA regulations were changed for the 1965 season, now requiring a minimum of 1000 cars to race in the GT category. This would be a very difficult, if not impossible, target to achieve, especially considering Thomas' factory had been damaged in a fire. Thomas had no recourse except to terminate the project.
Around ten examples of the Cheetah were ever produced, with only eight making it to modern times. Many of the remaining cars are still used in historic competition. By Daniel Vaughan | Jun 2008