• The Cheetah

    I don’t need to detail the popularity and mass following Carroll Shelby’s magical original Cobra had. The Cobra had it all; aggressive looks, exclusivity, immense sound-track, barn-storming performance, and all the character of the man who created it. Yet much of what makes the Cobra so special, at least, in the US, is its impressive racing pedigree. From the launch of the original 260ci powered Cobra in 1962, right through to the monstrous 427 three years later (and which remained in production until 1967), the Cobra had few true rivals in motorsport. But really, how much true competition did the Cobra actually have?

    With Fords input, the Cobra was created as a competitor for Chevrolets Corvette, both as a marketing tool, and as a race car. It didn’t start out that way, of course, as Shelby first approached G-M about supplying him with engines for the car when still at concept stage, but after they turned him down, he was able to sell the idea to Ford.

    In competition, the Cobra competed in sports production racing, as rival to the Corvette. On debut at Riverside in 1962, Bill Krause, driving CSX2002, pulled out and passed the leading Corvette of Dave MacDonald early in the race, and proceeded to draw away, until sidelined with a broken wheel hub. But from that point on, the Cobra had little on-track competition.

    The FIA production sports car Grand Touring division required that at least 100 identical units be produced within 12 months, which really meant that any real Cobra competitor required manufacturer support. The Corvette did, but G-M were deep into their no-racing ban, and although Zora Arkus-Duntov initiated plans to have a limited number of special lightweight Corvettes built, fitted with alloy 377ci engines, and homologated for GT racing, G-M knocked the Grand Sport project on the head after only five cars were built. The Grand Sport proved it would have been a genuine competitor to the Cobra, having been significantly faster when they went head-to-head in late 1963 at Nassau, but would never get to face the Cobra in GT competition.

    Other companies, such as Rootes Group in the UK, and Cobra racer Jack Griffith in the US, sought to jump on the Cobra band-wagon, producing small block Ford V8 powered sports cars (Sunbeam Tiger and TVR Griffith) that were produced in the required numbers, but that were really intended to mimic the Cobra’s success, rather than de-throne it. British company Ginetta built a small block Ford V8 powered car called the G10, but only six of these were produced.

    However, the Cobra’s on track success may have been very different had one man realized his own ambitious plans. Bill Thomas, of Bill Thomas Race Cars, had built quite a reputation by the early ‘60s for building successful racing Corvette’s and for his powerful Chevy race engines. With the death of the Grand Sport before it had even got off the ground, Thomas proposed another G-M based production car, the Cheetah, which would be designed specifically to knock the Cobra off its perch.

    With close G-M ties, Thomas’ concept was sound. Rather than G-M have to go to the hassle of building specialist parts, Thomas’ Cheetah would utilize as many production Chevy parts as possible, fitted into a purpose-built chassis, which his own company would design and build, to the minimum 100 units required. Each production Cheetah would be assembled at Thomas’ own workshops. All G-M had to do was supply the required parts, and some funding, and Thomas would take care of the rest.

    The Cheetah was an impressive machine. It featured a 90 inch wheelbase, and although the first two cars built (including the prototype) would have alloy bodies, the production cars would all have fiberglass bodies. Underneath was a Don Edmunds designed chrome-moly tube-chassis semi space-frame, in which the Thomas fettled 520hp 377ci fuel-injected Chevy engine sat so far back, the Muncie M21 was connected directly to the Positraction diff. G-M cerametalic drum brakes were fitted all-round, and each finished production Cheetah weighed just 1,700 pounds (770kg).

    Jerry Titus test drove the prototype at Riverside in 1963, and as technical editor for Sports Car Graphic magazine, his opinion carried a lot of weight. And his glowing report brought a flood of orders for Thomas. One car was sent to G-Ms Milford Proving Grounds for testing, and produced some impressive results. The Cheetah still had plenty of bugs that needed ironing out, such as extreme cock-pit temperatures, chassis flex, and lack of engine cooling, but these could have been sorted.

    However, it mattered little, as G-M soon made it clear they weren’t going to provide the support needed. Additionally, Thomas’ workshop caught fire after only 11 cars had been completed, with around five additional cars still being built. Although most survived, the Cheetah project died, and Cheetah owners were left to race against much more radical competition in Modified Sports classes, though still managed to notch up numerous race wins.

    Sadly, the Cheetah would never get to face the car it was designed to topple, the Cobra, and like the Grand Sport, will remain a case for Chevy racing enthusiasts of what might have been.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: The Cheetah started by Steve Holmes View original post