Rare Bill Thomas Cheetah is up for grabs
If Chevrolets goes hand-in-hand with apple pie, the great Bill Thomas is the orchard farmer who grew the perfect apples for the great American racing bake-off. Thomas created the Cheetah in 1963, from a tube-frame chassis with Corvette-derived suspension, small-block V-8, and a lightweight body. The entire exercise was clearly designed to put the Shelby Cobra on notice, but things didn’t go entirely to plan. Still, it’s a historic piece of motorsport history, which is why we’re paying close attention to the example that recently surfaced over at Fantasy Junction—with an asking price of $590,000. (We actually drove this very Cheetah back in 2018.)
Fear not if you haven’t heard about the Cheetah; a fire in the Bill Thomas Motors factory in 1965 ended the race car’s story far too early. Had the Cheetah become a fully formed production car like the Cobra, it had the potential to become a dominant force on track. The Cheetah’s design sported a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, a featherweight (1500-pound) footprint, impressive power from the race-prepped small-block Chevrolet engine, and put the power down without a driveshaft. Thanks to the radically cab-backward design, the Cheetah only needed a solitary U-joint to connect the gearbox to the differential. Hagerty’s own Colin Comer knows a thing or two about these rare beasts:
“Due to the Cheetah’s minuscule production numbers the SCCA immediately placed it in the cowboy class of big-bore C-Sports/C Modified where it wouldn’t battle Cobras but rather ‘real’ race cars such as Chaparrals, McLarens, and Lolas. And in 1964 the FIA raised the minimum production car homologation requirement to 1000 cars. No way could a small manufacturer like Bill Thomas Motors make that many of these weapons-grade sports racers. And, knowing that the Cheetah wouldn’t be able to defeat the Cobra, GM pulled their clandestine sponsorship from the program.”
Comer goes on to mention that the Cheetah “racked up numerous victories and was showing serious potential by this time” including a 215-mph sprint at Daytona and 185 mph at Road America. That’s seriously impressive, especially for the era.
It should be noted here that there is some dispute around the number of complete Cheetahs and fiberglass bodies that were built. The example currently for sale at Fantasy Junction shares the same BTC003 chassis number as one offered by Bonhams in 2016, but there’s a curious difference in body colors between the two. Seeming to address that possible concern, Fantasy Junction’s vehicle description went into minute detail of BTC003’s history, including a mention of a spare green body that comes with the car. Your average classic car doesn’t come with a spare body, but this Cheetah’s green body received its minty top coat in 2012. The listing says this “body shell was reunited with the car for use in a wide range of events,” and that the owner also found an “unused original fiberglass Cheetah body,” painted it red, and had the correct Alan Green Chevrolet livery applied to “make the body shell and paint as accurate as possible.”
This story’s headline previously indicated the Cheetah would be going to auction, which is inaccurate. We regret the error.
Race cars are oftentimes not as well documented as street cars, and Fantasy Juntion mentions that a previous owner, who was looking to convert it into a road car after completing its restoration in the 1980s, “deduced that his car was #3 and, despite historic reference supporting Cheetah frame number assignment, welded the numbers “BTC003” to the front cross member of the frame and received license and title using the chassis number still present on the car.”
Yes, there’s a lot to process there. It would appear that Fantasy Junction is being both straightforward and forthcoming with BTC003’s history, so we’ll just let the explanation speak for itself. (While there’s clearly chatter about history/provenance with Cheetah chassis numbers, it’s clear that Bill Thomas Motors takes threats to its reputation very seriously.) As to the breed in general, Colin Comer said it best, as the Cheetah is “an experience like no other, and makes a Competition Cobra seem incredibly tame by comparison!”