Cheetah: The Legendary, Hardcore, Chevy-Powered Road Racer


Call it powerful. Call it quick. Call it hardcore. Call it Cheetah.

Born in an era when home-brewed “specials” made from scrounged frames and chassis hardware, hand-fashioned bodies, potent engines — and little else — were dominant in the Modified classes at SCCA-sanctioned road courses across the U.S.A., Cheetah was more than another special. Thanks to technical support from Chevrolet Engineering, Cheetah’s creator, noted Southern California Chevy and Corvette tuner Bill Thomas, was able to build the ultimate Cobra-killer for the road race courses of the world.

Photo 1

Seen here at Riverside in the spring of 1964, the Chevy-powered Cheetah was created for Grand Touring-class road racing competition — and beat the Cobras at their own game! (Photo courtesy Gary Smith)

In 1962 and 1963, the plan was for the 1,800-pound Corvette Gran Sport to take on, and beat, Carroll Shelby’s Anglo-American hot rod on road courses. But, GM management — which was then loaded with bean-counters and guys who came up through the ranks at Buick — pulled the plug on all of the company’s racing programs just days after the Daytona 500 in February 1963. This, after only 11 of the planned 100-car run were built.

Enter The Cheetah

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Note the sub-heading on Jerry Titus’ Sports Car Graphic feature. If only the FIA hadn’t changed its rules…..(Photo courtesy Gary Smith)

Chevrolet then turned their attention to supplying “back door” technical assistance to racers and car builders who ran Chevys. That included Bill Thomas in Anaheim, California. “It started as a back door, skunk works, clandestine project, way away from Detroit,” says Thomas’ son, Bill Thomas III. “Vince Piggins was dad’s contact at Chevrolet, and they did mostly stock car stuff. That’s why there’s a lot of things about Cheetah that are stock car [parts].”

Bill Thomas III adds that Cheetah received a big influence from the world of sprint car racing. “Don Edmonds was a midget and sprint car guy, and was the chief fabricator on the very first Cheetah. That first car wasn’t even finished by the time that Don Edmonds went back to Indianapolis for the May ’64 race, and right after he got back [Edmonds] started his own company, where he made midgets and sprint cars for more than a decade. He also built Indy cars.”

Edmonds and the senior Thomas constructed a front-engine-mounted car around a chromoly tube frame, with a Chevy small-block V8, and plenty of high-performance chassis hardware developed for the Chevy and Pontiac racing programs. These parts were directed to Thomas’ shop by Piggins. Thomas named the car Cheetah after the lightweight, yet lightning-quick big cat of the jungle. In the words of Thomas Sr., it was like “… a high-performance Chevrolet engine on a roller-skate.”

Photo 3

A track side shot of one of the original Cheetahs at speed. The FIA’s rule change for the GT class led to Bill Thomas stopping Cheetah production in May 1964 after just eleven were built. (Photo courtesy Gary Smith)

Let The Testing Begin

The aluminum-bodied, prototype Cheetah was track-tested by noted racer/writer Jerry Titus at Riverside Raceway for a Sports Car Graphic magazine cover story in November of 1963. Titus wrote, “ The car is beautifully balanced, with enough weight rearward to make it handle lightly and slightly over-steering, and enough weight forward to give it stable characteristics in all attitudes …” A few months later, Hot Rod magazine’s Don Francisco wrote, “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.”

“It started as a back door, skunk works, clandestine project, way away from Detroit. – Bill Thomas, III

That frame was 1 1/8-inch diameter, .063-inch wall thickness, 4130 chromoly tubing that wore coil-overs at each corner, and held a race-ready 327 cubic-inch small-block, Muncie four-speed gearbox, and a Corvette-type differential and independent rear suspension.

In all, the Cheetah weighed just 1,500 pounds in race trim — 300 pounds less then the target weight for the Corvette Grand Sport — and roughly half the weight of a production Corvette Stingray of the day.

How did it perform? How does 185 mph on the high-speed section of Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, sound? Or, 215 mph at Daytona? A quote from Titus was very matter-of-fact, “Cobras, Stingrays, and other ferocious beasts, watch out! Next year [1964], you may find yourselves listed as ‘Also-Ran!”

Photo 2

This cover illustration on Sports Car Graphic’s November 1963 issue got the attention of sports-car racers the same way Cheetah’s unmuffled small-block Chevy exhaust note did! (Photo courtesy Gary Smith)

Thomas planned on a 100-car production run to homologate Cheetah as a production-legal Grand Touring car, much in the same way that Chevrolet planned for the Corvette Grand Sport, and Ferrari for its 250 GTO. This would make them legal to race in production-based Grand Touring classes. The rules set by the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA), the international motorsports governing body, stated that 100 examples had to be built for a car to run as a GT, instead of as a prototype or modified vehicle.

The plan in 1964, was to sell Cheetahs in road-going trim for $7,500, or a competition version for $12,500. In the mid-‘60s, those prices were enough to buy yourself a pair of well-optioned production Corvettes.

Alas, the FIA changed its rules in the early months of 1964, upping the production requirement for GT cars to 1,000 at the start of the 1965 racing season. Bill Thomas III says, that five minutes after his father heard the news from the FIA, Cheetah production ended. “There were only 11 original Cheetahs,” says  Bill Thomas III. “The project went from April of ’63, when they started it, until May of ’64.”

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Thanks to reverse engineering one of the 11 original Cheetahs, the “Continuation” Cheetahs were created. They came with a certificate of authenticity signed by Bill Thomas — after he did a complete examination of the finished car. (Photo courtesy of 65CheetahCCC)

Bill Thomas then turned his attention to other Chevy race projects, with plenty of tech support from Piggins and the Chevrolet engineering crew at the GM Tech Center.

In September 1965, fire struck the Bill Thomas Race Cars shop in Anaheim. That blaze, which over the years was cited as the cause of Cheetah’s demise, instead did minimal damage to Thomas’ shop and equipment, and he was back at work soon afterward.

Photo 9

Nowadays, Craig Ruth’s shop in Ohio turns out “Evolution” Cheetahs, which keep the original’s “roller skate with an engine” appearance, while adding modern-tech, chassis, and powertrain hardware. (Photo courtesy Craig Ruth/Cheetah Evolution)

Over the years, those 11 Cheetahs built by Bill Thomas made a name for themselves, first in SCCA and FIA-sanctioned competition, then in recent years, at vintage racing events. Thanks to its on-track performance, by the turn of this century, there were more than 11 people interested in acquiring one, despite its early-1960s technology.

The Legend Continues …

That’s where the Continuation Cheetah enters the picture. A complete and intact survivor found in a barn in Ohio was the basis of reverse-engineering, and resulted in new tooling for the body, interior, and frame, in order to produce more Cheetahs. Also, the continuation cars would be modernized, and the frame would be constructed of thicker-wall tubing that made it even stiffer. Finally, the chassis hardware would also benefit from improved materials and fabrication techniques before they were bolted on. Each Continuation Cheetah would also have a certificate of authenticity, signed by Bill Thomas himself, once he’d given the completed car his closest scrutiny. Unfortunately, he passed away on October 10, 2009, which ended the continuation program after just 22 cars were complete — 18 coupes and four roadsters.

If you thought the original 327-powered Cheetah was hardcore, how about an Evolution series, with 7.0 liters of Chevy muscle up front? Evolution Cheetah’s dash contains speedometer, tach, oil pressure, voltage, and other important gauges. Photo courtesy Craig Ruth/Cheetah Evolution

Interested in a Cheetah of your own? An online check shows that still has five of the Continuation Cheetahs in stock — take a look at its website for more details. As for the 11 originals, good luck finding one, as they rarely appear for sale.

… And Evolves

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Only four roadsters—and 18 coupes—were produced in the “Continuation” Cheetah series before production ended in 2009. (Photo courtesy 65CheetahCCC)

If you’re looking for a new Evolution Cheetah, then Craig Ruth’s shop in Royalton, Ohio, has what you’re looking for. He details what goes into his turn-key, not-a-kit, titled-in-Ohio cars: “The Cheetah Evolution is built on a 1 ½-inch-diameter round-tube frame with a monocoque tub made from 1 ½-inch square tubing and 14-gauge steel. The body is of our design and uses hand-laid fiberglass construction. It resembles the original Cheetah from Bill Thomas, but is slightly larger in height. We use a DOT-approved, laminated windshield of our design, and the rear window is optically-clear acrylic,” Craig said, then continued. “We improved on the car by designing it specifically for the street. We added A-pillars to the body for strength. We have side windows, and flush-mount aircraft-style, lockable door handles. They are aluminum, as are the gullwing door hinges. All cars have air conditioning, heat, and wipers.

Finally, all interiors are leather.” The steering is rack-and-pinion, with power assist as an option, and the steering column is specifically made for us. The Evolution cars use modified GM upper and lower control arms and front hubs.

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Wilwood disc brakes give stopping power that’s up to the Evolution Cheetah’s acceleration and cornering. (Photo courtesy Craig Ruth/Cheetah Evolution)

Finally, the rearend is a custom-built, independent-suspension unit with a Winters center section and modified GM hubs. The rear brakes are GM calipers with Wilwood rotors, and Wilwood calipers and rotors mounted on the front. The suspension is supported by coilover shocks on all four corners, but the rear ones are mounted horizontally, with cantilever arms and push rods.

For power, Craig says the Evolution Cheetah can use any Chevrolet powerplant — or an engine of another brand, if you’re willing to pay for the engineering to make it work in that chassis.

In a feature about the Continuation Cheetah published in Corvette Fever magazine in 2010, this author concluded with words that also fit the originals and the Evolution cars: “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, and no cellphone-yacking idiots near you. You’d also need to have neighbors 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.

If the Cheetah in any form isn’t Chevy Hardcore, we don’t know what is!


Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Bill Thomas III for his assistance in the preparation of this story.

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