The Bill Thomas Cheetah was an American sports car designed and engineered entirely with American components and built from 1963 to 1966 by Chevrolet performance tuner Bill Thomas. It was developed as a competitor to Carroll Shelby's Cobra.
The Cheetah was the brainchild of self-taught engineer Bill Thomas. Nicknamed Mr. Corvette for a string of nearly 100 race victories racked up in Corvettes of his creation, Thomas parlayed his success into a contract with General Motors as a performance guru of sorts.
After successfully prepping GM products for road circuits, drag racing, and even NASCAR, Thomas in 1962 went about the business of preparing a Corvette Sting Ray for what should have been another dominating season. His plans were foiled, however, when Carroll Shelby appeared and began stealing SCCA podiums and headlines with his Ford-powered Cobra.
In 1963 Thomas gained covert support from General Motors Performance Product Group head Vince Piggins to develop the Cheetah as a concept vehicle. It was designed by Thomas and Don Edmunds, his lead fabricator. Edmunds is credited with the bulk of the construction of the car. Financing for the project came from private investors, Thomas, and John Grow, a Rialto California Chevrolet dealer.
Grow owned the prototype car. Using his racing connections, Thomas arranged for material assistance from Chevrolet for the major components - the Corvette 327 engine, Muncie transmission, and independent rear-end assemblies. Other components were stocked from the larger GM parts bin, such as Chevrolet passenger car spindles, and NASCAR spec Chevrolet drum brakes.
The 1964 Cheetah above was ordered new in '64 by Jack Goodman, owner of Clarence Dixon Cadillac Dealer in Hollywood, CA. It is one of 15 known to survive in the world today. This is the only Cheetah ever built and raced with the famous Corvette heavy-duty 427ci L88 aluminum-head racing engine option.
The Cheetah was to debut at the 1963 Los Angeles Times Grand Prix but crashed in practice two days before with Don Horvath at the wheel. Its aluminum body was replaced by a fiberglass one. Its first event was at the Cal-Club, Riverside International Raceway event on February 1, 1964.
It crashed at the end of the first lap with Jerry Titus at the wheel. A water hose had come off, spraying water under the rear wheels causing the car to skid off the track at the turn. Titus raced the car throughout the 1964 season.
He was a vocal advocate of the Cheetah as a contributing journalist for Sports Car Graphic magazine. In 1965, Jerry Entin became the car's owner (race car number 58) and he raced it with some success. This car was used in the Elvis Presley movie Spinout.
In 1969, the car was retired from race duty and was registered for street use. Yes, street use. Appropriately the state was Utah, home of the Bonneville Salt Flats. While the Cheetah was never raced on the legendary land-speed record course, it was undoubtedly one of the most potent road machines in the state – or any state – at the time.
In a showdown with even the most highly tuned Ford Cobra, the Cheetah’s superior power-to-weight ratio was sure to see its quartet of Corvette taillights fade into the distance.
Casey Putsch describes owning, restoring, and racing a 1965 Bill Thomas Cheetah with Weber carburetors and Rochester Fuel Injection.I