Look At What I Found!: Bill Thomas Continuation Cheetah Coupe

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
look at what i found bill thomas continuation cheetah coupe
Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

About a year ago TTAC ran a two part piece of mine on Carroll Shelby’s Cobra and Bill Thomas’ Cheetah, which some say could have been Chevy’s parry to Ford’s Cobra. The formula was pretty much the same, put a big block engine in a lightweight tube frame car, covered in a minimal but viscerally sexy body. The Cheetah is derivative. I see elements of E Type Jaguar, Devin, Cobra Daytona Coupe, and maybe some Corvette, but it works very well for me and is a very distinctive shape. Thomas, though, didn’t originally intend the Cheetah as a racer, but rather as a boulevard cruiser, so the frame and suspension weren’t really up to competitive racing. While the Cheetah won eleven SCCA races, it never developed a racing pedigree like the LeMans winning Ferrari vanquishing Cobras. Then GM stopped selling Thomas engines and he decided to walk away from the project.

A few replicar companies today offer Cheetahs in various stages of construction. The car has a bit of a following because of plastic models and slot cars back in the 1960s. Unlike the other firms building Cheetahs, Robert Auxier established a relationship with the late Bill Thomas and was licensed by Thomas to build up to 100 “continuation” Cheetahs, made by BTM in Arizona using the original molds and fixtures. For safety reasons, the original’s spindly frame was replaced with one made of larger tubing that is 33% stiffer, brakes were upgraded to modern units and the suspension was made fully adjustable. Auxier made a run of 31 cars before the severe recession put a damper on all kinds of car sales, not just hand fabricated high end replicars. It’s not clear if he’ll make any more but don’t worry, recently two of those 31 cars have come up for sale on eBay, a coupe and a convertible, according to Autoblog. Sorry if you had your heart set on a Cheetah roadster, the convertible has been withdrawn from sale but the coupe is still available. I know, I saw it in person this afternoon.

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

When I looked at the eBay listing I found out that the car was actually only about 5 miles away so I called the seller up to see about taking some photos. The car is owned by a private party culling his collection and it is being sold by Grandsport, a small car dealer and full service tuning and repair shop in Southfield, MI. Grandsport is also Ruf Auto US, the US representative for Alois Ruf’s high performance Porsche manufacturing and tuning shop as well as being a dealer for Intermeccanica, who make high quality bathtub Porsche and VW Kubelwagen replicas. David Laing of Grandsport graciously gave me access to their shop and the Cheetah for a photo shoot.

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

The Cheetah originally had a 396 cubic inch big block “rat motor”. That must have been scary. Auxier’s Cheetahs come with small block Chevys, in this case a stroked 383 CI / 350 HP version, and Laing says that the car is still a handful even without the more powerful (and heavier) big block. Maybe the closest modern analog to the Cheetah would be the Dodge Viper. It’s very fast, says Laing on a shop floor where currently sit a Ruf 3800K Cayman with 440 HP for sale as well as customers’ turboed and whale tailed 911s, but it doesn’t handle particularly well.

David Laing, of Grandsport has some experience with fast cars. See that turbo on that Porsche engine? He says that the Cheetah is very fast. Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

He did say, though, that since the suspension is fully adjustable, with the right settings it can probably be made to handle decently. You might also want to add some kind of air dam or splitter up front to prevent lift and additional cabin ventilation. The Cheetah, to many, looks great but it’s not very aero friendly in stock form. It’s said that at speed, the Cheetah could blow it’s own doors off.

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

Those doors are not very robust, though it appears that there’s at least some form of safety cage for the occupants. It’s a fairly primitive car. Remember, it’s a replica of a 1960s vintage show car cum track racer. The steering wheel is removable and is held in place with a ringed pin. The back window appears to be acrylic or polycarbonate. When Laing offered to show me what it looked like under the long, forward hinged hood, he had to use a screw driver to remove about 8 quarter turn Dzus fasteners, and the fiberglass hood isn’t quite as rigid as let’s say the forward tilting front clip of a Jaguar XKE, perhaps where Thomas go the idea for a clamshell hood. The gull wing doors flex when you open them, they’re just a fiberglass skin. They’re held up by a sliding prop rod that you have to lock if you want the door to stay up. The hood has cutouts for the air cleaner and distributor as well as two big vents.

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

One feature that the continuation Cheetahs have is something that the original owners would have loved: air conditioning, with a period correct looking unit in the cabin. Because the engine sits so far back in the chassis, the driver’s and passenger’s foot boxes sit right between the engine block and the exhaust headers. The Cheetah gets a bit warm inside. When you are hot footing it around in a Cheetah, you are really hot footing it around. Actually, that’s why Auxier offered a convertible. Even with the hood down, you can see how the foot box is wrapped with heat reflecting insulation. With the hood up you can see that the headers are wrapped with heat tape as well. While those hood vents may serve some aero purpose, I suspect their real reason is to let heat out.

Note the insulation on both the exhaust headers and the footwell. Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

In terms of cosmetics and construction quality, this Cheetah looks very good, considering how rudimentary the car is. The frame is powder coated and the silver body paint is flawless. It has a competition style flip up fuel filler cap as was used in the ’60s. Also period correct (and sized appropriately) are the 15″ American Racing Torq Thrust wheels . If you’ve seen the inside of a vintage Cobra, the continuation Cheetah shouldn’t look unfamiliar, with black carpeting, simple but complete instrumentation and red leather covered racing buckets. I could be wrong but I think that the Cobra also had a forward leaning gear shift lever.

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

This continuation Cheetah has only 865 miles on the clock. If I’m not mistaken, it’s been certified by the FIA to race in the same series that allow Shelby’s own continuation Cobras, that is if you’re brave enough to race it and find out just what suspension settings will work. Grandsport wants $89K for the car, a bit less than one of David Kirkham‘s nice Cobra replicas will end up costing you (Kirkham Motorsports supplies Shelby American with bodies made in a former MiG factory Poland for their CSX4000, CSX7000, and CSX8000 289 and 427 Cobras). It might be a bit more than you’d pay for one of Superformance’s licensed fiberglass Shelby replicas. Considering how common Shelby replicas are, if you’re looking for something with provenance that is very fast and will stand out in a crowd, or want to live out your slot car fantasies on a vintage racing track, give Bob Schneider at Grandsport a call.

Don’t freak out, you can watch in 2D if you like. Start the YouTube 3D player and click on the red 3D icon that appears in the menu bar to select 2D or your choice of 3D formats. Pardon the shaky camera, I’m still fine tuning my steadigizmo.

Specs from the eBay listing:

This is a 2008 built Cheetah continuation, number 30 of the 31 built. Titled in Michigan as a 1964 BTM Cheetah. Only 865 miles on the car. The car is painted in Mercedes silver with 3 coats of clear, period red racing seats and belts. Keeping with the Corvette heritage, it is powered by a small-block Chevy 383 making 350hp. Holley dual-feed 4 barrel; 3.34 posi rear end; Muncie close-ratio 4 speed; 9×15 American Racing wheels w/Radial TA’s and a complete second set with Hoosier track slicks. Footwells are double insulated and the headers are double asbestos wrapped to control cabin heat combined with a period correct air-conditioning system compensates for the fixed windows. This car is spotless PERFECT, look at the photos of the powder coated tube chassis! A piece of American road racing history.

I shot almost 50 photos of this Cheetah and picked out the photos that I thought illustrated this story best. If you’d like to see the complete set in your choice of 2D or stereo 3D formats, please visit Cars In Depth.

Join the conversation
2 of 12 comments
  • Doctor olds Doctor olds on Aug 04, 2011

    @mnm4ever- People choose replicas because they love the car and can't afford a real one. No doubt the Cheetah originally was not much more than a kit car, but the Cobra itself was little more. Those cars were very rudimentary, and the cars you cite are certainly far more refined and capable. Most vintage racing organizations do not allow modern chassis and performance upgrades unless there is a safety need. In other words, Corvette Grand Sport replicas with C4 suspensions are not allowed, but a replica using a correct C2 Corvette chassis is welcomed. A vintage racing friend got together with other Triumph TR3 racers to tool up new front spindles after a broken one cause him to slide upside down in front of his wife and parents in the stands!

  • Vonrok Vonrok on Aug 08, 2011

    Greetings, I am the person that bought the roadster. It's in process of being shipped to my house. The roadster has a chevy 502 big block in it, so it should move right along))I'll make an update post once I get the car and can check it out completely. I do so love these cars. Vonrok

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  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
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  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉
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