Cheetah, the Legend of the Cobra Killer

The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) production class championship races were stormed in 1962 by the introduction of the now fabled Cobra....


The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) production class championship races were stormed in 1962 by the introduction of the now fabled Cobra. Originally called the AC Cobra and then the Shelby Cobra, as many of you know the car was technically a marriage between a light British roadster and an American muscle car powerplant.

Although factory racing teams were banned because of a mutual gentlemen's agreement made between the Big Three in the 1950s, the Cobra was receiving unofficial support from Ford, mostly consisting in engines and transmissions.

Before the British-American Roadster had appeared, the SCCA production car races were pretty much dominated by customer-tuned Chevrolet Corvettes. One of these Corvette drivers/mechanics was Bill Thomas, who had somewhat outgrown his backyard mechanic credentials and had already started his own racing team.

When the ultra-light and ultra-powerful Cobra began to completely obliterate 
its competition, Bill Thomas approached General Motors with an off-the-record demand. Hence the Cobra was receiving help from Ford, Thomas made a request for a similar arrangement with GM. He wanted the company's support in building a true competitor for the Cobra by using parts from the Corvette bin.

His request was thankfully granted by, so Thomas proceeded to build what was to become the Cheetah, a groundbreaking racing car to dethrone the newly-introduced king of the SCCA production vehicle racing hill � the AC Cobra.

Designed by Bill Thomas and his master fabricator, Don Osmond, the Cheetah had a pretty unconventional look. The only somewhat normal quality of the resulting car was the fact that it still had four wheels and was rear wheel drive, but other than that it looked like nothing else before it (or after it, for that matter).


In order to achieve a perfect weight distribution between the front and rear axles, the Corvette engine was pushed as far as possible towards the rear. So far, actually, that it didn't even needed a driveshaft. Believe it or not, the main reason for that long hood and pushed back cockpit was the fact that the V8 lump and gearbox were directly connected to the rear axle via a limited slip differential.

Unfortunately, this odd arrangement also translated in a horrifyingly hot cockpit. On top of that, the engine's left-side exhaust ran right above the driver's feet, so you can probably guess it wasn't exactly the most comfortable to drive car on the race track.

The craziness didn't stop there though, because Bill Thomas didn't just want a Cobra or Ferrari 250 GTO killer, but a true game changer in American production car racing. The engine's displacement consisted of a massive 6.3 liters, with the maximum power achieving over 500 HP.



To truly comprehend the amount of performance the Cheetah was capable of, we should probably just let the following numbers speak for themselves. Compared with the Mark II version of the AC Cobra, the Cheetah weighed almost 300 pounds less and had over 100 more horsepower. There were some people who would vouch that it could obliterate even the mighty Cobra 427 in a straight line.

Unfortunately, the Cheetah project had a bad omen right from the start, which is why over the course of history it fell into the Cobra's shadow. In order to participate in the same SCCA sanctioned events as its arch enemy, at least 100 units had to be built in order for the car to be homologated.

Since the first Cheetah prototype was ready towards the end of 1963, it was pretty obvious that Thomas wasn't going to complete the required production 
run before the start of the 1964 season. With just a little over twenty cars finished, when 1964 came the feline was forced to race not against the Cobra, but in a special class along more advanced and better funded project cars.

On top of that bad luck, GM pulled out of the deal from fearing the racing ban instated a decade before. This in turn meant that the project no longer had a supply line for the parts required in its production.

Another bump in the road was provided by a new SCCA rule, which stated that for the 1965 season of the championship it was originally designed to compete in, at least 1,000 vehicles were supposed to be built. Even with GM's backing, there was no way for Bill Thomas to build so many cars.

If that wasn't enough, the small factory where the Cheetah was being built burned down in the same year, so the project had to be scrapped altogether. The car's fate was doomed even before it had had the chance to truly show what it was capable of. In the following years, several Cheetah-inspired kit cars have been built by various companies, but not even close to the Cobra replicas that are still being manufactured all over the world.

Since 2006, however, an Arizona company called BTM has started production of a Cheetah Continuation Coupe and Roadster, which apparently have the seal of approval from Bill Thomas himself, who sadly passed away in 2009. The cars are built to the exact specifications of the original feline and each is sold with an original letter of authenticity that was signed by the car's creator before him passing away. The starting price for one of the maximum of 100 units to be built currently stands at almost 90,000 US Dollars.



by Autoevolution
image by CorvetteFever

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