Driving a Bill Thomas Cheetah will make your palms sweat
Fred Yeakel wasn’t looking to sell his Ferrari 250 Lusso in 1989. “I would get offers all the time and just say no,” the 77-year-old Yeakel says. “But this one guy wouldn’t go away. After a few months of calls I told him I’d trade it for a Cheetah just to get rid of him.”
It was good plan. Cheetahs (the car, not the cat) are extremely rare. Most enthusiasts have never even seen one. Bill Thomas only completed 10 or 11 of them in 1963 and ’64, and the rigors of racing claimed a few along the way. But Yeakel’s scheme didn’t work. To his astonishment, the phone rang again a few weeks later and his nearly 30-year proprietorship of this race car began.
Building the Beast
Don Edmunds designed the Cheetah while working at Bill Thomas Motors in Anaheim, California. “One day Bill called me into his office and said, ‘We should think about building a sports car,’ Edmunds says in the biography The Saga of Rotten Red: The Don Edmunds Story. “We talked about what it should be, assessed the fiberglass cars currently on the market and discussed, ‘Maybe a coupe?’ At that point I took a piece of paper from his desk and made a quick sketch of what I thought a coupe might look like. Bill took a look at it and said, ‘Can you build this?’ Modest guy that I am, I said, ‘Sure.’”
Thomas quickly secured the support of Chevrolet, and Edmunds began building Cheetahs with Corvette suspension, brakes, and small-block engine. He also used a lightweight fiberglass body with a single-piece flip nose and a chrome-moly tube chassis. But according to Edmunds, he was shocked when he completed the first car and Thomas announced he was going to race it in sports car events.
“At no time did we discuss using the car we built as a race car,” Edmunds says in the book. “If that had been the case, I’d have used bigger O.D. tubing with greater wall thickness and would have added additional tubing to the chassis to triangulate the frame for much greater stiffness. I absolutely designed it as a concept car, a highway cruiser, a ‘malt-shopper.’”
Thomas wanted to build 100 to homologate the cars for production racing, where it could take on Carroll Shelby’s Ford-powered Cobras. But they didn’t get there. After the first few were completed, Edmunds left to start his own shop, Autoresearch. Chevy pulled its support in March 1964, ending production. The cars that were sold raced in SCCA C/Modified and each team did its own development.
You had to have a steel stones to race a Cheetah. Edmunds, who was the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1957 and would go on to build successful Indy cars and Midgets as well as Evel Knievel’s X-1 Sky Cycle, constructed the chassis with small 1.0-inch and 1.3-inch diameter tubing. Its wheelbase matches the Cobra’s at just 90 inches and its track widths are extremely wide, measuring 59 inches in front and 57 inches in the rear. Edmunds also pushed the fuel-injected V-8—and the driver—as far back as possible, leaving no space for a driveshaft to connect the Muncie four-speed to the Corvette differential. Instead, there’s a single universal joint.
The Cheetah ditched the Corvette’s leaf springs in favor of coils, and Edmunds used the Corvette’s 11-inch four-wheel drum brakes. “Instead of the heavier finned drums of the Z06, he chose the Heavy Duty units with the fan housed inside the drum,” Yeakel says. Other Corvette parts included the taillights, ignition switch, and key.
“This is a small car until you get racing with Lotus 23s and Brabhams. Then it’s huge,” says Yeakel, who has been vintage racing his Cheetah for three decades. “But it is light. It weighs 2108 pounds with me in it and full tanks.” Oh, and those side saddle tanks, which surround the interior in race fuel, were originally made from fiberglass.
Heart of the Beast
So the Cheetah weighs less than a Mazda Miata, but it’s powered by a wicked small-block. These cars were delivered with a 327 enlarged to 377 generating more than 500 horsepower. Thomas promised 200 mph, and Cheetahs were clocked at 215 mph on the high banks of Daytona. Today, Yeakel’s car is powered by a “street motor,” a 60-over 327 with 1964 Corvette fuel-injection “double-hump” heads, a roller hydraulic cam, and 11:1 compression. He says it makes about 425 hp, but the aural violence pumped from its open side pipes suggests there’s considerably more.
“It’ll rev to 7200 rpm,” says Yeakel over the V-8’s thunder, which is echoing off the cinderblock walls of his small cluttered shop in Anaheim. “But I want the sucker to live a long time so I usually shift it at 6800.” Also in the shop, which sits about 100 yards from where Edmunds opened Autoresearch, is a ’64 Corvette roadster vintage racer, a few spare small-blocks, and the original Cheetah signs that hung in Bill Thomas Motors, which was located about a mile up the road on East Juliana Street. Yeakel obtained the signs after a random encounter with a past Thomas employee who noticed his Cheetah t-shirt at a local fast food joint.
Although a few Cheetahs were sold as street cars with headlamps, carpet, and mufflers, Yeakel’s was built for competition. Originally red, this car was delivered to Seattle’s Alan Green Racing in February of 1964 and was campaigned from March 1964 to September 1970, winning its first season with Jerry Grant behind the wheel. By the fall of ’64 it was painted green, but it was also raced in period painted purple, yellow, and blue by subsequent owners Jerry Copley (1966) and Barrie Grant (1967). Its fourth owner, Robert Pinkham, converted the Cheetah to a street car before selling it to Yeakel.
Its original wheels were real magnesium American Racing wheels measuring six and seven inches wide, and Yeakel has those treasures tucked away in the corner. Today the car rides on wider aluminum units, but he still paints the faces of the brake drums white just as Alan Green did because he thought it looked cool.
Driving the Beast
Climbing inside a Cheetah takes the dexterity of a lizard. You have to simultaneously hold the featherweight gullwing door up over your head, climb over the impossibly wide and fragile door sill, and get your legs past the large diameter steering wheel and into the painfully small pedal box, which is radically offset to the left. Oddly, Edmunds designed the Cheetah without A-pillars, although Yeakel’s car has been equipped with slotted posts since day one. There are even period photos of the car fitted with side windows.
Inside it’s all business. Arms out driving position. Tightly spaced pedals. A gaggle of a gauges. A smattering of unlabeled toggle switches. And two low-back black vinyl buckets. There are modern five-point harnesses, although I’m seriously thinking it may be better to be thrown clear. There are two oil temp gauges, one is for the rear differential, which is packing 4.11 gears, and the tach is to the right just ahead of the chrome Hurst shifter with an exposed linkage and a black knob that’s an inch or two above my right knee. I can see the case of the Borg-Warner T-10 transmission through the hole in the anodized aluminum tunnel.
Heat has always been a problem in these cars, both for the engine and the driver, partially because of the full belly pan. There’s a reason much of the hood is cut away for ventilation and the radiator has been moved up in the chassis and canted forward for better airflow. The fenderwell style headers pass right over the foot boxes, cooking your feet. “Your leg is up against the transmission, your feet are next to the engine block, and your butt is on the differential. Everything gets hot,” Yeakel says with a grin. To lower interior temperatures some teams even cut the roofs off their Cheetahs and raced them as roadsters.
My knees and hands are fighting for the steering wheel. Visibility is also an issue. In every direction. Through the plastic windshield I can see the small-block’s distributor, ignition wires, and the two down-draft air meters of the Corvette’s Rochester mechanical fuel injection. Zora Duntov used the same setup on the SR2 and Grand Sports, although he ran them side draft, which doesn’t flow as well.
Before I set off, Yeakel bends down and puts his head through the small side window. “The throttle is sensitive,” he yells over the deafening cackle of the pipes. “It’s driven with the throttle.” The throttle’s response is instantaneous and the clutch pickup is smooth, but driving a Cheetah is a learned skill, and a few laps around this industrial park, dodging delivery trucks and Camrys, has my palms sweating. Or is it the intense heat now coming off the drivetrain?
The shifter, which is the original unit, takes some muscle. You have to put your shoulder into it, but its action is smooth and mechanical. At just half throttle, the small-block pulls the little machine down the road with more noise and speed than I can really process. More pedal just brings more fear as I start upshifting at over six grand—first second, then third—before jumping on the brakes and getting it slowed for the tight left hander at the end of the block. With so little weight over the rear tires and tightly packed pedals, it’s much too easy to botch the footwork on the downshift and lock the rear tires.
Too much power mid-corner and it lifts the front end and won’t steer. Lift abruptly to plant the front tires and the rear end tries to lead the way. And catching the slide with the slow steering and short wheelbase isn’t exactly easy. It’s fun if you can stay ahead of the horse, but fall behind and it’s pucker time.
I shouldn’t have expected anything less. “I warmed it up one lap and it was evil,” Allen Grant once said about driving a Cheetah at Daytona in 1964. “I decided to find out what it would do before the banking because it already tried to bite me. Then the honey did a snap on me, the rear wheels were steering, and I spun backward into a drainage ditch in the infield and bent the car in half.”
Yeakel’s time with his Cheetah has been far more enjoyable. But after three decades with the car, an adventure that has included street driving, vintage racing, and a recent appearance on Showtime’s hit drama Billions, this Cheetah will head to auction in Scottsdale in 2019.
Maybe there’s another Lusso in his future.