The Bill Thomas Cheetah

A Brief History

 

The Cheetah was meant to be Cobra-killer. It was Corvette powered, with a custom-designed chassis and suspension. There has never been another car like it. Unfortunately, the Cheetah never made production. A fire in the shop stopped production somewhere around the 16th car. We know for sure that 11 cars were completed. Beyond that is speculation and wishful thinking. At least 8 cars survive. Bill Thomas Race Cars was owned by Bill Thomas Jr. However he went by Bill Thomas and did not use the Jr. This causes some confusion as his son Bill Thomas III is often refered to as Bill Thomas Jr. My wife tried to contact Bill Thomas Jr by letter and never received a response. I did not have a telephone number for Bill Thomas Jr and did not ever try to contact him by telephone. I met his son, Bill Thomas III, in 1990 when I was having work done on my Cheetah. He confirmed what other people had told me. His father did not wish to talk about anything that had to do with the “Cheetah”! The following is gathered from conversations with two people that worked at Bill Thomas Race Cars during the period that the Cheetah was being built until the withdrawl of GM's support and a fire at the shop. They are Don Edmunds and Bob Ryan. Bob Ryan told me that he was charged with cutting the tubing for the frames and then welding the frames of the "fiberglass" Cheetahs. As such he kept a journal of the frames as they were built. The information specific to the Dixon Cadillac sponsored Cheetah is from my friendship with both Jack Goodman (owner and sometime driver) and Rolf Pickard (the used car manager at Dixon Cadillac and usually the other driver). From 1963 thru 1966 I was racing a “B” production Corvette in the Cal Club region of the SCCA. My family was in the business of selling used Cadillacs and my family had done business with Dixon Cadillac for some time. It was natural that we would pit together at the races.

Production History            Race History              Chronological History

photo by Tom Heitt, courtesy of bonediggers.com

Production

The Cheetah was conceived and created by Bill Thomas at his company Bill Thomas Race Cars. Due mainly to Thomas' connections at Chevrolet, the most recent Corvette technology was available to the pair for almost every component. 

In order to get the engine (and weight) as far back as possible, it was decided to forego the traditional use of a driveshaft.  On this car, the universal joint on the frame-mounted differential is coupled directly to the transmission output shaft joint. 

Don Edmunds, a Thomas employee, is generally credited with the original chassis work. Once the engine, driveline and suspension were completed, Edmunds simply created a frame to cage them, and a cage is exactly what the tube frame resembles. The body was created in much the same manner.   A simple wooden buck was built over the frame and the first aluminum body was hand formed. This first body had a tubular substructure for support. Then they took molds from the aluminum body, one more aluminum body was built before the first fiberglass body hit production. About this time Don Edmunds left to form his own company, Autoreasearch, Inc., to build racing cars on his own http://donedmunds.com/fullsize/sportcars/index.htm   .

The Cheetah quickly developed a notorious reputation, although some drivers such as Jerry Titus were allegedly impressed with it's performance. The tremendous acceleration of the 377ci motor (in the fully optioned race car known as Stage 3)  versus the total weight of 1700 pounds, combined with heavy duty Chevrolet drum brakes - which were more than dequate for a car of twice the weight- kept straightaway power from being an issue for this car. In fact, it was the massive horsepower to weight ratio that, despite Titus' skill with the car, promoted its notorious reputation. 

Sadly, the factory never produced the required 100 cars to qualify as a production automobile due to many circumstances - from the fire in the factory, to Chevy's lack of support, and of course the car's reputation....

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