1965 Cheetah GT
8-cyl. 327cid/390hp FI
With an experienced team and a lot of data.
As soon as the Shelby Cobra started going head to head against the Chevrolet Corvette in the 1962 season, it became obvious that the little Shelby was far and away the quicker car and that even the new 1963 Sting Ray was no match for it. The Grand Sport program looked promising at first, but was sadly cut short in part thanks to GM’s non-racing edict. Attempting to save face for GM, in came Corvette racer Bill Thomas. Thomas had built and tuned race-winning Corvettes as well as NHRA super stocks during the 1950s and early 1960s, and approached Chevrolet’s Ed Cole with an idea. Thomas planned to design a Corvette-based racer from scratch and build 100 examples in order to homologate it for racing against the Cobra in the SCCA. Chevrolet would then sell them through dealerships. Cole was receptive, and Chevy helped Thomas set up a shop in Anaheim, California, for what would become the Cheetah.
Unlike Carroll Shelby, who started with the existing AC Ace and modified it, Bill Thomas had the luxury of being able to start more or less from scratch and make the Cheetah ideally suited for racing using Chevrolet’s vast resources. Thomas chose a short 90-inch wheelbase, a lightweight space frame chassis, heim-jointed tubular A-arm front suspension with adjustable shock absorbers, Corvette rear suspension with trailing torque arms, and 11-inch drum brakes (Chevrolet didn’t make disc brakes yet). For power, the Cheetah utilized a 327-cid V-8 stroked to 377 cubic inches and fitted with a modified Rochester fuel injection system. The two air metering units for the system poked up through the hood, leading many to wrongly think that they were two carburetors. The engine was coupled to an aluminum-case Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed and set way back in the chassis for 47/53 weight distribution. Bodywork, which featured gullwing doors, was made out of either aluminum or fiberglass.
The Thomas-modified V-8s in the Cheetah made anywhere from 465 to 520 horsepower, which was way more than the 289s found in the Cobra. And with a weight of just 1,550 pounds, it was around 450 pounds lighter than the Shelby as well. One Cheetah was even reportedly clocked at 215 mph at Daytona.
The Cheetah GT had an extremely promising start, but there’s a reason why few people are familiar with this exotic racing car. Construction was slow, and 100 cars would not be ready for the 1964 racing season. The Cheetahs that were completed therefore had to race against mid-engined sports racers like Genies and McLarens instead of their intended production class competition. The Cheetah had exceptional power to weight going for it, but was outclassed in terms of handling and braking by the mid-engined cars.
During 1964 the Cheetah encountered small teething problems typical of a new racer, although the fiberglass doors blowing off on a long straight was a particularly big surprise. For a quick fix, duct tape did the trick. Even though the car was pretty much outclassed, it was quite competitive at the club level. Cheetas took first in 11 SCCA events over the course of 1964.
Although street cars with standard 327 Fuelies started to roll out of the shop in Anaheim, the SCCA effectively killed the Cheetah program when it changed the homologation requirement for production cars from 100 to 1,000 cars. A fire at the shop didn’t help matters, either. Chevrolet withdrew support, and the last Cheetah was completed in the fall of 1965. The exact number of cars built is still unclear, but it is somewhere around 15. At least one was a roadster, and prices ranged from $7,500 for a street car to $12,000 for one of the race-prepped monsters. Those seeking a Cheetah to buy would be hard-pressed to find one, which is one reason why a company started building continuation cars in 2007. Even so, there won’t be any more than a few dozen of these new versions.
The Cheetah is yet another one of those “what ifs” in the history of racing. What might have happened to the Cobra (or the Corvette, for that matter) if the Cheetah had lived up to its incredible potential, raced as a production car and been sold at select Chevy dealers? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fun to imagine.