The Wild and Wonderful Bill Thomas Cheetah

Cheetah 5

While wandering around the auctions in Scottsdale, it is very hard not to stop and stare at so many cars of so many different types. Each car has its own personality. Beautifully displayed, many however are what you can call “garden variety.” No matter how many coats of wax you put on a car, they are still one of many. But then of course there are the cars that stop you in your tracks… The beauty, the provenance — the RARITY!

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One particular car, that did just that, was the #006 competition Cheetah, built in 1964 at Bill Thomas Race Cars in Anaheim, CA. Going across the block at Barrett-Jackson, but not netting it’s reserve, this Cheetah is only one of 15 of these bizarre conceptual cars known to remain in the world — not that there were many to begin with. Further, this Cheetah was built with the Corvette heavy-duty 427 ci L88 aluminum-head racing engine option — the only one of its kind from the Bill Thomas Factory.

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

The story of the Cheetah is as intriguing as the rare car itself. In 1956 Thomas did tuning and modifying of Chevrolet Corvettes for racing at C S Mead Motors Co, beginning in 1956. In 1960, Thomas started his own company: Bill Thomas Race Cars. General Motors contracted directly with Thomas’ company to develop performance tuning on the then new mid-engine Chevrolet Corvair. He also race-prepared the 1962 409 Bel-Airs and Biscayne’s for drag racing. Thomas even had a foray into working with the Unsers. Thomas developed a Chevrolet that won at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in the capable hands of Louis Unser.

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In 1963, the renowned “racing ban” was still in effect at the “Big-Three” — albeit at its end. Several privateers received “covert” factory support for performance development. Thomas quietly worked with General Motors Performance Product Group head Vince Piggins to develop the Cheetah as a concept vehicle. Designed with Thomas’ longtime Corvette friend, Dave MacDonald, to drive the car, unfortunately, the deal never came to fruition. In a separate deal, Carroll Shelby offered MacDonald a drive in Shelby’s new Cobra, which MacDonald accepted. Sadly MacDonald was killed racing in the 1964 Indianapolis 500, and never had the opportunity to compete in the Cheetah.

Cheetah 2

By 1964, FIA rules changed from 100 cars for homologation to 1000 cars. In sports car racing on the big stage, the rules of homologation required OEM manufacturers to produce a certain number of cars for the public to match the ones that were racing. This led to Chevrolet pulling its support of the Cheetah project. In late-1965, a fire broke out at Thomas’ Anaheim factory — a total loss. Bill Thomas then decided to pull the plug on the Cheetah project. He moved on to work on development of Camaros for Chicago’s Nickey Chevrolet. The last documented Bill Thomas produced Cheetah was ordered in late 1965 and was delivered in Spring 1966.

Cheetah #006 is a marvel to behold. This example is a complete nut-and-bolt, museum-quality restoration by BTM LLC of Arizona. Originally it was ordered new in ’64 by Jack Goodman, owner of Clarence Dixon Cadillac Dealer in Hollywood, CA. The Dixon Cadillac livery was part of the restoration. The car has a 1967 genuine Corvette 427 ci L88 IT-code crate engine attached to a ’67 M22 Muncie 4-speed manual transmission with a heavy-duty 4.11 rear axle putting the rubber to the road. Built on a 4130 chromoly chassis and suspension with its original fiberglass body, and original fiberglass and aluminum interior. Since 1964, the car has had only seven owners.

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

Cheetah #006 was the first Bill Thomas Cheetah ever to attend Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2016, and has a great deal of racing provenance. It raced for five years in both SCCA and FIA sanctioned events including the Times Grand Prix at Riverside, Laguna Seca, Willow Springs, Pomona, Bend in Oregon, Odessa in Texas, Stardust in Las Vegas, War Bonnet, Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson and the Santa Barbara Road Races. It even claimed the 1968 Southern Pacific region SCCA A/SR Championship. Drivers included Jack Goodman, Mike Jones, Ralf Piccard, Jim Phillips and Sid Harmon.

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

Courtesy Barrett-Jackson

Considering the rarity — even among a rare breed — along with the racing provenance of this car, it is surprising that it was not snapped up by a new and passionate owner. However, it is safe to say the collector car marketplace is in a serious “correction period.” While many cars are selling, the prices are flat-to-low. Hopefully this is another we will see campaigned again.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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