The Greats of Chevrolet Before They Were Famous: Bill Thomas

BillThomaswithCheetah_700

Image: Greg Sharp, Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum via Hemmings

Where would Chevrolet be if it weren’t for its performance cars over the years? From the C1 Corvette to the modern musclecars, Chevrolet has seen much of its success delivered by performance vehicles that wouldn’t have been possible without the countless engineers that took them from sketch to reality. One such performance great was Bill Thomas, a man with a talent that took Chevrolet performance to a whole new level in the 1960s. We’re, of course, talking about the creation of the GM Cheetah.

Born William “Bill” P. Thomas in May of 1921, Bill Thomas spent most of his life living in Anaheim, California. By 1956, Thomas was involved in the industry, particularly with Chevrolet models and their relatively new Corvette. Tuning and modifying Corvettes for C.S. Mead Motor Company for road racing purposes, a number of which went on to win races all over Southern California, Thomas soon opened a company of his own known as Bill Thomas Race Cars.

Soon enough, Chevrolet got wind of Thomas’ talents, and asked him to work with a new racecar the company was creating in the early 1960s, the Corvair. Thomas went on to build a number of high-performance Corvairs for the company, as well as work on the 409 Bel Airs and Biscaynes, helping GM make even more headlines on the racetrack. By the end of 1962, Thomas had worked on just about every factory performance vehicle Chevrolet built. His talents were so evolved on such cars, that GM handed over a top-secret project to create three fastback Chevy IIs, which later ended up making their own mark on drag racing.

In early 1963, after hearing of the new Shelby car that was making its racing debut, GM had the fire lit to create a new racecar that could rival the upcoming Cobra. This prompted the Cheetah project, headed by Thomas as the designer, and Don Edmonds as the lead fabricator.

Using his racing and Chevrolet connections, Thomas was able to secure many of the parts the duo needed to create Chevrolet’s “Cobra killer,” including the base 327ci V8 engine, Corvette-style independent rear suspension, and a Muncie four-speed transmission. Once finished, the prototype car was sent to the GM Proving Grounds, where it impressed the likes of Zora Duntov.

Wanting to compete in the Grand Touring class, production of the Cheetah was put in place in late 1963, so it could legally qualify for competition by having 100 production models built. Unfortunately, the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA), the international motorsports governing body, 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. Unable to meet that requirement, production halted.

Though initially it was not the fastest or most reliable racecar, the Cheetah made waves everywhere it went, whether it was on the track or in the pages of performance automotive magazines. Eventually, the car claimed a number of wins in the industry, including hitting 185 mph at the 1964 Road America competition at Elkhart Lake, and 215 mph at Daytona that same year.

Even without backing from Chevrolet, some of the Cheetahs that did make it to the track continued to race through mid-1965. But, because of their lack of advancements since 1963, and the surge of advancements in other racecars in their class, the Cheetah quickly lost its edge, and its place in competitive circuits. By 1970, Thomas closed down his racecar company, and went on to pursue other interests.

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
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