By on September 8, 2010

Part One of this piece can be found here.

Were it not for an act of God, the fecklessness of General Motors’ executives and the difference between a self-promoting Texan and a Californian willing to walk away from it all, the many Cobras you see, real and ersatz, would be joined by another predator, Bill Thomas’ Cheetah.

Developed with backdoor assistance from Chevrolet, the Cheetah was the Chevy powered answer to the “Powered by Ford” Cobra. A racing Cheetah was given one of the first Gen IV big block 396 Chevy “rat” motors made. Based around Corvette drivetrain and suspension components, and a not very robust tube frame, the Cheetah was covered in a body that is unforgettable.

Though the Cheetah only competed in a small number of SCCA races, winning 11 events while simultaneously developing a reputation for extreme speed but treacherous handling (caused by the flimsy chassis), its drop dead gorgeous body styling made it instantly memorable. The fact that the Cheetah came out in the mid 1960s, when scale models and slot car racing were hugely popular with teen baby boomers, didn’t hurt the car’s popularity.

Don Edmunds, who later went on to build over 600 race cars, laid out the basic components and then sketched a coupe body around them. For good weight distribution, they used the front mid engine layout, with the entire engine behind the front axle line. Mid-engine cars were starting to become state of the art in racing, however the needed transaxles were expensive and fragile. Mounting the engine up front but as far back as possible kept the main mass inside the wheelbase, but allowed the use of conventional transmissions and rear ends. The Cheetah took this concept to the extreme. The front of the engine was a full two feet behind the front axle line, allowing Thomas and Edmunds to completely eliminate the driveshaft. The Muncie 4 speed’s output shaft was hooked directly to the U-Joint at the front of the differential. It made for outstanding weight distribution but also cramped seating and sometimes unbearable heat from the engine and transmission sitting right next to the driver. The foot box sat between the engine block and the headers, which exited out the side of the car.

With those proportions set, Edmunds drew a tight coupe body, with minimal overhangs and an extreme turn under. At first it looks like it could be a caricature of a sports car, a cartoon, but no, the car exists and runs. If it was a cartoon, it would, by the way, run on Adult Swim, not Nickelodeon. The Cheetah is sex on wheels.

[Author's note: The following should be viewed in the context of how TTAC got started. Robert Farago founded The Truth About Cars after he got fired from his newspaper gig for describing the front end of the Subaru Tribeca as looking like a vagina.]

The Jaguar E-Type’s long hood has often been described as phallic. The E-Type coupe’s teardrop passenger compartment adds a scrotal sack to the long hood’s phallus. Well if the E-Type is a phallic symbol, the Cheetah is a well endowed phallic symbol on Viagra. As with most sexy cars, there is also some femininity in the Cheetah’s shape as well. Some of those ’60s Ferraris are very sensually styled, but the Cheetah is the BSD of hot ’60s cars.

I don’t think the relationship between the Jaguar and the Cheetah looks are coincidental. Thomas did choose to name his car after a faster big cat than the jaguar, and the cars do share the same general profile.

The E-Type has a 96 inch wheelbase and is about 14.5 feet long. The Cheetah is a much shorter car. The wheelbase is 90 inches and the overall length just under 12 feet. Still the hood of the Cheetah looks even longer than that of the XKE.

One of the important dimensions car designers set when first drawing a car is the relationship between the front wheel and the base of the windshield. Because the Cheetah’s engine is so far back in the chassis relative to the front axle, the axle to cowl distance in the Cheetah is just about as long as that of the E Type, a much longer car (the E has a long hood because of the inline 6 cylinder engine). Though the Jaguar has a much longer front overhang and a front end that is measurably longer than the Cheetah’s, the visual effect of the Cheetah’s styling is that it looks stretched compared to the Jaguar. The cowl and passenger compartment look pushed back. The Cheetah is also girthier than the E Type. Track is about 8″ wider and overall width about 4.5″ wider. Keeping with the sexual imagery, the Cheetah’s front fender swells as it arcs over the wheels. Those fender swells, combined with the rear fender haunches, add a female flavor to the car’s shape, suggesting a bust and hips.

By the way, I’m sure that Edmunds and Thomas would have laughed at all this sex talk. They just built a cool looking car.

The Cheetah’s passenger compartment is more compact and than the E-Type’s. Unlike the E-Type, whose tires & wheels are somewhat obscured by bodywork, the Cheetah’s wheel openings are fully exposed, giving the car a more aggressive look.

Like the Shelby Daytona Coupe, there’s not a bad angle on the car. The shapes of the panels flow seamlessly into each other. Just about every shape of the car is sensuous. The panel that continues the cowl down the side of the car in front of the gull wing door is a work of art all by itself. Viewed from the front, the car is low, almost sinister looking, a predator crouching. From the side, the rear end looks coiled for action and the long hood evokes speed. In nature, cheetahs (and greyhounds) are fast because they have powerful thighs and long spines that allow them to extend long leaping strides.

While it wasn’t perfect, the Cheetah was visually arresting and stunningly fast.

The Cheetah’s shortcomings were mostly due to the fact that it was not really designed to go hunt Cobras. Though many accounts say that the Cheetah was specifically conceived by GM as a Cobra beater, it’s not clear that was really the case. Certainly, once its speed was obvious it was a logical choice to use to go racing with the Cobras. On Daytona’s high banks the Cheetah did 215 mph, so it was undeniably fast. On the other hand, the idea that GM management would pay a privateer to go racing against Fords at a time when Zora Duntov’s racing Corvettes weren’t exactly getting wholehearted support from the suits is dubious.

According to people close to him (later in life Thomas himself avoided speaking about Cheetah) Thomas’ original plan was to make money selling cars that were more fast boulevard cruisers than purpose built race cars. Though the factory did some developmental track testing and racing with Jerry Titus at the wheel, as well as a little bit of factory drag racing, almost all Cheetah racing was done by privateers.

The Cheetah came to be because Thomas wanted to do more business with Chevy. He already had a working relationship with some people at Chevrolet. He had raced a team of Corvettes and built special events vehicles with Bill Stroppe for Chevrolet marketing. Stroppe decided to concentrate on projects for Ford, so Thomas hooked up with Bill Edmunds and Don Borth to do the work for Chevy. To demonstrate what they could do, they built a 1962 Chevrolet sedan for Dan Gurney to drive in the inaugural USAC stock car race at Riverside (way back when, USAC had a series to compete with NASCAR). The car came in 1st and 2nd in the two heats, winning the overall, but USAC disqualified them for some chassis mods and Thomas decided to switch to sports car “specials” that could compete in the SCCA. The idea wasn’t to go racing, though, it was to make money selling the cars.

Thomas’ connections with Chevrolet meant a supply of the latest Corvette performance components. The Cheetah used ‘Vette steering knuckles up front, attached to some rather spindly looking tubular A arms that were fabricated in-house and were controlled by coilover shock absorbers. In the back, the stock Corvette suspension and rear end was used, with the Corvette’s transverse leaf spring was swapped in favor of coilover units. Disc brakes were in short supply, so the early Cheetah used heavy duty finned Chevy drums with sintered linings. Later, discs were fitted. The first three cars had fabricated aluminum body panels. After that, molds were pulled and the remaining cars were made of fiberglass.

This was around the time that Zora Duntov was working on the lightweight Grand Sport Corvettes, and part of Thomas’ back door cooperation with GM meant that Cheetah #1 was purchased by the automaker (some accounts say it was Cheetah #2) and shipped back to the Warren Tech Center. Duntov and his colleagues found that the car had outstanding grip on the skid pad, but that the frame was not torsionally rigid. Later, after the Cheetah was raced, teams would discover frame members displaced as much as 75mm after races and most would add stiffening triangulation and gussets to try to make their cars stiffer. The original frames used 1 1/8″ 4130 chromoly steel tubing with a 0.063″ wall thickness. That’s in a car that weighed 1700 lbs and had at least 400 HP. That tubing today would be considered unsafe for building a 1200 lb Lotus Seven replica. Most “Locosts” are built with 0.095″ tubing. The folks who build Se7ens with V8 power (yes, Virginia, there are LSx powered Se7ens) use inch and a half diameter tubing as well.

Customer cars sold for $7,500 to $12,000 in 1965 era dollars. A homologation run of 100 copies, to satisfy the SCCA, was planned.

Thomas, though, didn’t have good fortune like Carroll Shelby whose patron in Dearborn openly worked with racers. GM officially did not support racing, so Thomas’ continued supply of components was based on handshakes, personal relationships and stuff getting shipped out the back door. It was similar to the relationship Jim Hall and Hall Sharpe of Chaparral had with Chevrolet. Technology transfers went in both directions, but everyone had to keep quiet about it to keep the suits out of the loop so they wouldn’t shut it all down. Apparently Hall was better at the game. Perhaps because of the Chaparral team’s many innovations (including using a Powerglide based automatic transaxle) were proprietary, Hall’s secrecy was legendary. Hall wanted to win races. Thomas, though, wanted to sell cars. To sell cars you need publicity. Publicity can be a two edged sword. After an 8 page spread appeared on the Cheetah in Hot Rod magazine, GM executives, already skittish about backdoor sponsorship of racing, put the kibosh on supplying engines to Bill Thomas Race Cars. Not long afterwards, a fire at the Cheetah shop destroyed most of the tooling and molds. Only 23 Cheetahs were built, of which at least 8 survive. Thomas got out of the car business in 1969, started investing in real estate, and died in October of 2009.

As I said, though they didn’t build many Cheetahs, the car was popular and stuck in people’s minds. Some folks don’t want to drive just another Cobra replica, even if the replica can do sub 4 second 0-60 runs. It should come as no surprise that there are people who build Cheetah replicas too. After Bill Thomas got out of the business Dean Morrison bought the rights and some tooling for the Cheetah, and later sold them to Buford Everett in 1983. Everett’s family business continues to make Cobra replicas but it’s not clear how many Cheetahs they and Morrison produced.

Ruth Engineering & Racing, makes what they say is the first “streetable Cheetah” kit, with a properly engineered chassis and attention paid to isolating heat from the passenger compartment. You can buy a body kit for about $18K and an assembled rolling chassis that uses C4 Corvette components plus the body kit for $39,500. It may be streetable but first you’ll have to come up with your own interior and wiring harness. RER says that they can fit brackets for any Chevrolet V8 so if you want to use a SBC with Edelbrock heads and a big carb, a LT1, a LSx, or even an old school 396/454 big block rat motor, you can run your choice of bow tie engines.

Shell Valley Classic Wheels, which has been making Cobra and Jaguar replicas for 35 years, also offers a Cheetah replica kit for $19,995.

Kit Car magazine editor Ed Zinke used a Shell Valley Cheetah body in his continuing Ecocat project, a Cheetah powered by a GM Performance/Hahn Racecraft Turbo 2.2 Ecotec motor.

Carroll Shelby’s own continuation Cobras and his licensing deal with Superformance shows that while style is important some folks will pay extra for authenticity. It’s not just the value of the provenance of an authorized replica. Vintage racing has become serious business and if a manufacturer wants to be able to get competition approval, it’s best if they have the cooperation (and the original blueprints) of the vehicle’s originator.

Before Bill Thomas’ death he was fortunate to see the Cheetah reborn. In 2001 Robert Auxier was licensed by Thomas to recreate and sell the authorized “Bill Thomas Cheetah Continuation Turnkey Collectible” and the car is built and sold by Auxier’s company, BTM LLC of Arizona. For safety reasons, the continuation Cheetah is not an exact duplicate. Shortcomings with the frame and front suspension have been rectified, with thicker tubing and more stiffening members welded into the frame.

We’ve got better brakes and better tires on the continuation cars. We built the chassis 33 percent stronger and fixed the few weak points that we knew about, and it’s a bulletproof car now.”

Other than that, the car is identical to those built in 1964. Fixtures were built from measurements taken from an original frame, and molds were pulled from an original Bill Thomas built car. Even the interior is original design. Though Thomas had the original blueprints to help with the architecture of the Cheetah, the interior was not well documented. Fortunately one of the eight surviving original Cheetahs has an original interior, so that was copied.

The continuation Cheetah has already surpassed the success of the original, with Auxier reporting having sold 32 and delivered 30 cars by the end of 2009, at a price between $80,000 and $100,000 depending on engine and whether it’s for the street or track. The buyers are a mix of collectors and vintage racing enthusiasts.

Cars intended for racing get additional upgrades: more gusseting, more tubing, different suspension components, different shocks, an oil cooler, a better engine, better clutch, and a fuel cell/fire system. The continuation Cheetahs are already being raced in North American vintage racing and BTM LLC is working with the FIA to allow the new Cheetahs to be used in international competition. Auxier says that having Thomas as part of the project made the process much easier.

At the time of his death, Thomas had signed 100 certificates of authenticity for the continuation cars. It’s not clear what BTM will do should production reach 100. Considering how many Cobra replicas there are, it wouldn’t be terrible if BTM made a continuation of the continuation. Though GM stopped supplying engines the first time around, if you think about how the automakers have been working hard to market both current and vintage crate motors, this time I think that GM Performance will sell them all the engines they can use. I’ll take my Cheetah with a LS9 and a Tremec 6 speed.

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15 Comments on “The Cobra And The Cheetah: A Muscle Car Tale (Part Two)...”


  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Nice and the coupe body makes it only marginally more useful than the Cobra.  Although guys are building Cobra replicas with Chevy power so now it’s almost “tomato, tamata.”

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, the Cheetah roadster was created by a customer who got tired of being broiled inside the coupe, so the coupe also has limited practicality. As per Dan Edmunds’ comments below, his father’s and Bill Thomas’ original concept was a show car that you could drive. That concept compromised the car’s performance on the track (i.e. the spindly chassis) and it’s practicality as both a race car and a street car because of cabin heat. Because the engine is so far back, the driver’s footbox is located directly in between the crankcase and the exhaust headers. Excess cabin heat was a problem, to say the least. If I had BTM build me a Cheetah, along with the LS9 and 6 speed, I’d spec the biggest air conditioning compressor you can get for a car, likewise a high CFM fan, and ducts by my feet.
       
       

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    That tubing seems unfit to make bicycles of. It must’ve twisted like mustard.

    By the way, was Wayne Cherry involved in the design of that car? It’s very much alike things he did in the UK in the late 60′s. He joined GM in 1962 as associate creative designer, and left for the UK and Vauxhall in 1965. The Cheetah is very similar to his Vauxhall XVR concept in ’66, especially from the rear:

    http://www.lotusespritturbo.com/Vauxhall_%20XVR_Goodwood_2009.jpg

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    As a kid back around 1970, I had a crush on that car. It’s been about that long since I even thought of one. Thanks for the look back.

  • avatar
    DanDotDan

    The Cheetah was styled by eye and had an interesting feature: at speed, the aerodynamic forces would rip the doors off the car.  It became known as the only car that could blow its own doors off!

  • avatar
    actualsize

    When Bill & Dad first conceived this car, it was supposed to be, according to Dad’s own term, a “malt shop” cruiser, a show car that could be driven. Imagine rolling up in front of a group of your car guy friends in one of these at the 60′s equivalent of a Cars & Coffee event and you get the original concept.
    Dad designed the chassis and the body himself and stayed through the construction phase of the first two aluminum-bodied cars. Racing was never a factor in the original design concept of the frame, and Dad knew it wasn’t going to be rigid enough for that, but events took over. At that point he Thomas left to build a one-off Indy car, and Thomas’ guys built more Cheetahs, albeit with fiberglass bodies, until the fire stopped the project cold.
    As I understand it, the Cheetah ran in the same SCCA run group as the Cobra, and was oftentimes faster, but they didn’t run in the same class and compete for the same trophy because Cobras had been sold in sufficient numbers to be homologated into a production class, which they dominated, whereas the Cheetah was a low-volume special that had to run in the open class. The head-to-head Cheetah versus Cobra match-up was just a dream that never materialized, except on Cox slot-car sets.
    Dan Edmunds

    • 0 avatar

      Dan,

      Thanks so much for the insider information. I think it’s terrific that someone with a family connection with the Cheetah read the post. Hope I didn’t get too much wrong. Your father was a very accomplished man who built a lot of race cars for a wide variety of racing formulas.
      Are there any particularly good books on the Cheetah?
      Regarding slot cars and how they affected some cars’ popularity, I spoke to one of the guys at BTM today to see about arranging a test drive for TTAC, and without prompting, he mentioned scale models and slot cars.
      It’s hard to measure just how much scale models and slot cars helped popularize certain race cars in the 1960s. I admire Jim Hall greatly and think the Chaparrals were arguably the best looking race cars ever, but I wonder if the Chaparral would have been as popular then and now, had Hall not made a licensing deal with Cox. Cox must have sold hundreds of thousands of .049 Bee engine powered Chaparrals. [Note to the youngens: Radio control was then an expensive hobby restricted pretty much to airplanes and boats. The \"gas\" powered Cox Chaparrals (I think they also sold a \'57 Chevy) had to run on tethers, either in a straight line, or in a circle.]

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Interesting Hot Rod article.  Only 50 cents at the news stand.  Ironically, Shelby was hawking his wares on page 92: Cobra T-Shirt  $1.25; Poster  $1.00; 3″ decal  25 cents.

    And only 20 bucks for a JC Whitney sourced floor shifter conversion kit (do not send currency or stamps).  And what did out of shape beer swilling losers do without Dr. Winnifred’s Athena 10X Pheromone sex stimulant?

  • avatar
    zbnutcase

    Got a job with TTAC?

  • avatar
    obbop

    “scrotal sack”
     
    MOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  What’s a “scrotal sack”????
    Yeah, I’m reading that car blog again.
    No, there’s no pics of sis prancing around in her undies here but there is at that other site but she is soooo gross looking I don’t got there but all those guys art school do.
     
    Neither makes me pant with heart-rendering lust but perhaps a convergence of the sheet metal between Tarzans’ side-kick and the Toyota 2000 would produce a crossbreed that would:
     
    http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&source=imghp&biw=1016&bih=583&q=toyota+2000&gbv=2&aq=f&aqi=g8g-m2&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=
    Probably due to my less-than-humble origins and proclivity to advocating recreational (and more) dumpster diving I would rather have a 1970-1972 Plymouth Duster or Dodge Demon.
    Parts would definitely be easier to obtain.
     

  • avatar

    “scrotal sack”

    MOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What’s a “scrotal sack”????
    About 20 years ago, I was playing a Peter Himmelman tune in the car and my son, then about 6, heard the word in a lyric and piped up, “What’s lust?”

    Your mom really would have been unhappy with the first draft. If I can crib a technique from the esteemed Mr. Baruth, the Cheetah, compared to the E-Type Jaguar, has a longer [front end] and a more compact, tighter [passenger compartment].

    FWIW, scrotum is one of those words that are just plain funny (the K phoneme is, for some reason, humorous, krazy ain’t it?). It sounds like it could be a Tolkein character. Doug Kenney and Henry Beard could have used Scrotum as a character in their Bored Of The Rings parody.

    Wow. The things you find on the internet. I found a site that curiously had a the full text of Kenney and Beard’s book. Curiously because the book is still in print. Normally you don’t see such blatant copyright violations, at least with the printed word. Then I went to the home page. The site is run by a nutcase Nazi. Not a soup Nazi, the real kind that hates Jews. Not sure how Bored Of The Rings fits into his delusions, but I’m not going to put a link here and give him traffic.

    http://www.amazon.com/Bored-Rings-Parody-Tolkiens-Lord/dp/0451452615

  • avatar

    Yes, there was at least one Cheetah built with the 396, but they otherwise were all built and raced with the small block 327, commonly enlarged to 377.

  • avatar
    So Cal Cheetah

    I don’t understand running original cars with continuation/replicars in Vintage racing. Something built 50 years later sure should be better/faster.


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