Gritty Kitty: Cheetah replica begs you to hunt Cobras on the cheap
If you’ve ever wanted to own a Bill Thomas Cheetah, but don’t have the six figures required to take home an original, look no further than this replica coupe listed on Bring a Trailer. The fiberglass-bodied copy is a send-up to the original Chevy-powered road racer—which fizzled out in the 1960s, but not before inciting a cult following.
Not familiar with the Cheetah? Let’s get you up to speed. Back in the late 1950s, self-taught engineer Bill Thomas left his job at an aircraft parts manufacturer for a position at C.S. Mead Chevrolet in Pasadena, California. There, he eventually brokered a sponsorship from his employer to go club racing in SoCal’s burgeoning sports car scene. Over the next five years, Thomas amassed over 100 victories at the wheel of his venerable Vettes.
General Motors took notice of Thomas–who was nicknamed Mr. Corvette–and brought him into the company’s fold. Life was good for the group until 1963, when GM chose to self-impose a racing ban amidst a potential anti-trust lawsuit. Meanwhile, Carroll Shelby’s new Cobra was wiping the floor with Thomas-tuned Grand Sports. That’s when Thomas approached GM’s Ed Cole, in relative secrecy, and pitched a Corvette-powered sports car that could beat the Cobra. Labeled as a Bill Thomas Motors project, the effort would be small enough to fly under the radar of GM’s corporate ban. Thomas could even continue working with the Chevrolet parts that had delivered him to sports car stardom.
Cole approved, and Thomas’ shop Bill Thomas Motors (BTM) set to work building 100 coupes to satisfy FIA homologation rules. Each fiberglass-bodied racer featured a 327 cubic-inch fuelie mill, NASCAR-style drum brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering. Its footprint was practically a square with a 90-inch wheelbase (!) and a 59-inch track. Unfortunately, even with GM’s clandestine backing and Thomas’ veteran experience, this cosmic cat never lived up to its full potential. Teething issues in development were exacerbated by the lack of an appropriate running group and a devastating fire that wiped through BTM in 1965.
Despite their lack of race wins, original Cheetahs bring big bucks nowadays, due in part to their scarcity. “Somewhere around 16 were built,” says Hagerty senior auction editor Andrew Newton. “I don’t think anyone agrees on how many are left, but it’s probably safe to say around a dozen.”
Lucky for the hoi polloi, several companies started to mold replicas of the cars not long after the program’s demise. And during the hot-rod fiberglass boom of the 1960s, Cheetah bodies were wildly popular on the strip and street. Fiberglass Trends produced a version of the Cheetah and dubbed it the GTR. In fact, the fiberglass body in the BaT listing looks suspiciously similar to the GTR.
True to the original Cobra killer, this replica sports a 327 cubic-inch Chevy V-8 (though not an original Fuelie). Instead, a pair of recently rebuilt four-barrel Edelbrocks poke through the hood. A Muncie four-speed and a limited-slip diff round out the drivetrain.
From the listing photos, we can’t quite discern if the “steel chassis” has origins elsewhere or if it is indeed a purpose-built tube frame. Bringing the whole show to a stop are a set of front discs paired with rear drums. Like the original coupe, the replica sports a devilish set of side pipes. Sporting Superior Industries mag-style wheels match the build’s bombastic attitude.
Inside, the interior is upholstered but otherwise just as spartan as that of an authentic Cheetah track-rat from back in the day. The small three-spoke wheel is remarkably close to the downtube. According to the listing, the driver’s hands will likely contact the cage during sharp turns. RCI race belts and a Hurst shifter complete the go-fast look. As far as gauges, it’s just the essentials: tachometer front-and-center, small speedometer, no odometer.
No worries, either. This replica is a far cry from the real thing, and that’s totally cool. The most recent running, driving Cheetah replica listed on BaT sold for $36,500, so unlike an original Cheetah, there’s no reason to baby this beast. Instead, it could serve as a road-going placeholder until you’ve amassed the six-figures to go Cheetah hunting. This replica already comes with a clean Arizona title–which, for kit cars, can be a tough task to obtain. You’ve got less than five days to make this fast feline your own.