The Italian Junkyard

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bill Thomas Cheetah, the Cheetah that would have eaten the Cobra, but eventually couldn't.

What's in a name? Heritage, expectations, maybe even destiny?
If a product or a car has never really made to be successful, it's name isn't worth much. Which is way most of you never heard of Bill Thomas or the Cheetah pictured above, unfortunately.

So what's a Cheetah, and who is this Bill Thomas person anyway? (Book reference her, come on it's easy!)
Summarizing the quite good articles you can find over wikipedia or ultimatecarpage, or even what you can get out of the one-model website dedicated two this car,  Cheetah Cars, Bill Thomas was a Chevrolet tuner and race car driver, with a taste for fact cars and thrilling projects. It was right when one Carol Chelby was setting the world in fire with his Ac Ace turned Shelby Cobra race cars that Thomas decided it was time for a unique creation of his own. Thanks to his connection at GM and the help of designer Don Edmunds, he started working on a project car to impress GM, something supposedly almost all go and no show, but when Edmunds was already creating the car, Thomas decided there was no better way to impress people than racing the car on various race tracks. The ambitious project was in for a twist.
With GM involved and Thomas past glories on the track with the Corvette, the engine of choice was actually pretty obvious. As far as I know many versions were used, tuned to various stages, but the heart was mainly the Chevrolet Corvette 327 Small Block engine from the Chevrolet Corvette C2 Series. Sometimes even the 427 Big Block engine was used.

Unfortunately for them, there is a good difference between a show car and a race car. While the clever inboard position of the front mounted engine allowed to directly connect it, via the gearbox, to the rear differential without any driveshaft, it also meant the engine was so close to the cabin the exhaust pipes were actually passing right over the driver's legs and feet. While racing cars from back in the days were no strangers to extreme heat in the cabin or even fumes and fuel vapors, the Cheetah took the matter a step further and various measures were taken the vent the car. You can indeed notice the amount of holes and vents sculpted into the bodywork to try and get some hot air out of the cabin, and the engine bay too. One owner even chopped off the entire roof.

The second main issue of the car was its chassis. Cars from those days weren't exactly engineered as they are right now, meaning that only a small fraction of the notions already available back then were actually applied to projects and cars. Planes were around since the beginning of the century or so, yet aerodynamics was a part of the automotive industry only from the late 60s at least, and mostly in race cars too.
The Cheetah though had things a bit worse because its chassis suffered from the change in target Thomas enforced midway into the design. The structure simply lacked the necessarily stiffness to cope with the high and variable loads typical or race conditions. The bending and twisting of the chassis meant the suspensions were continuously varying their position resulting in a very tricky behavior of the car. Modification to the chassis arrived in the form of gussets and additional tubes to properly triangulate the structure.
Of course the more power the car was provided with, the more difficult the job was for the chassis was.

A few victories arrived on the race track, though they weren't as highly profile as those earned by the Shelby Cobra or the Shelby Daytona, and additionally the way of the future was quickly arriving in the form of truly mid engined race cars like the Ford GT40, the Ferrari 330 Ps and the various mid engined Porsches.

Eventually, GM withdrew its "covert" funding of the project in the form of spare parts and the likes and a fire destroyed the facility were the cars were built. That was the end of the Cheetah. It's unclear how many cars were built, probably something like 23 untis between 1963 and 1965, two of which with an aluminum bodywork while the others had a fiberglass bodywork built by Contemprary Fiberglass. A company initially evaluated for the production of the fiberglass body but then discarded, Fiberglass Trends, built a few Cheetah-look-alikes using the plywood molds they received for the evaulation, but the chassis of this car was strictly intended for drag racing.
Later on, various replicas were built with and without the official blessing of the Thomas family.

So much for a summary.
What I can say about the car is that it has weird proportions for a car of its time. Back then there seemed to be the idea that a car had to be sleek and flowing to fend the air and be fast on the track, indeed most race cars from those days are also dead beautiful. The Cheeath, not so much. It's aggressive sure, but it's not exactly a work of art. The short overhangs are exasperated by the cabin basically seating on top of the rear axle. The styling also takes cues from various cars from the era but I wasn't there to say who took references from who. It surely is a mean machine and it was almost untouchable on a straight line, leaving most cars Cobras included behind to hear the sound of its thundering Corvette tuned engine.

The car in question though was not exactly a real Bill Thomas Cheetah but a great replica built by Matteo Panini and his team of former Maserati technicians. It was exhibited in Modena in 2010 by the Museo Panini collection, in collaboration with the Circola della Biella (Club of the Connecting Rod)

Thanks to the members of the Cheetah Cars forum for helping me to identify this car.

All Pictures and Words Copyright: Damiano Garro for The Italian Junkyard
This article can be linked to from other websites but its content and the pictures can't be reproduced on any other website without my written permission  

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