How the Chee­tah Got Cheated

Hot Rod - - Front Page - Dave Wal­lace

Through no fault of his own, Bill Thomas never got a fair chance to match his Chee­tah against the man, ma­chine, and fac­tory that Chevro­let had se­cretly con­tracted him to un­seat: Car­roll Shelby and the Co­bra, whose back­door sup­port from Ford was help­ing spoil the new Stingray’s ex­pected dom­i­na­tion of pro­duc­tion sports-car classes. Al­though Bill Thomas Race Cars had un­der­taken var­i­ous skunkworks pro­jects for Chevro­let since the Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion rac­ing ban took ef­fect in 1957, he’d never built a car from scratch. When he vis­ited Detroit in 1962, one of the pro­jects Bill pitched was a Chevy-en­gined, Indy-in­flu­enced “sport spe­cial” street coupe that Thomas and in-house fabri­ca­tor

Don Ed­munds, the re­tired Indy-car driver, had barely be­gun plan­ning. All he had to show the fac­tory were crude draw­ings, yet of­fi­cials stunned Thomas by or­der­ing 100 com­plete cars, the min­i­mum then re­quired for SCCA pro­duc­tion classes, on the spot, throw­ing in vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited Corvette parts. Less than a year re­mained be­fore the start of the tar­get 1963 sea­son.

Al­most as soon as Thomas re­turned to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, he and Ed­munds be­gan chalk­ing out a mod­i­fied ver­sion of their aban­doned Bearcat project on the shop floor, crates of en­gines, four-speeds, IRS as­sem­blies, and other crit­i­cal com­po­nents started stack­ing up. The small race-car shop was con­verted into a Chee­tah as­sem­bly line. Mirac­u­lously, a pro­to­type hit the track run­ning at SCCA’s opener, fol­lowed by other Chee­tahs dur­ing the sea­son. Un­for­tu­nately, this would also be the year that GM’s top brass shut down all rac­ing sup­port, end­ing the “end­less” parts sup­ply. Thomas sol­diered on, con­tin­u­ing to fill pri­va­teer or­ders for com­plete cars and kits even after SCCA in­ex­pli­ca­bly in­creased its ho­mol­o­giz­ing num­ber ten­fold in 1964 to 1,000; OK for Co­bras, deadly for Chee­tahs, which were pushed into un­lim­ited classes against ex­otic, bet­ter-han­dling ma­chines (such as the Revent­low Scarab pic­tured pass­ing at River­side).

Bill Thomas might’ve thought things couldn’t get much worse un­til his shop burned down in 1966, con­sum­ing Ed­munds’s hand­carved wooden body bucks for the Bearcat and Chee­tah, along with as­sem­bly fix­tures and cus­tomer cars. About a dozen fac­tory Chee­tahs were com­pleted in four years—a few of which sur­vived ex­tended road-rac­ing ca­reers—plus un­known num­bers of chas­sis kits and orig­i­nal bod­ies.

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