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. In 1964 Chevrolet sent a letter to Bill Thomas informing him that Chevrolet was withdrawing all support for the Cheetah project. Chevrolet’s withdrawal of support is what ended development. This also meant that no guidance on how to build the required 100 cars. Also a larger facility was needed to get the Cheetah into production and set up a dealer network. The last documented Bill Thomas produced Cheetah was ordered in the fall of 1965 and delivered in April 1966.
We can document that 11 cars were completed. All the Bill Thomas Cheetahs were delivered with drum brakes and Fuel Injection. The loan exception was the Alan Green Chevrolet race car. It used cross ram Weber carburetors. The Webers were replaced in the summer of 1964 with a dual air meter fuel injection system based on the 1963/64 Corvette Fuel Injection produced by Rochester Products and modified by Bill Thomas. Any number beyond 11 Cheetahs 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 referred to as Bill Thomas Jr.
In the spring of 1991, my wife tried to contact Bill Thomas by letter and never received a response. I did NOT have a telephone number for Bill Thomas 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 at a shop in Costa Mesa, CA. Bill Thomas III confirmed what other people had told me. Bill Thomas 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 time period that the Cheetahs were being built. 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 following information specific to the Dixon Cadillac sponsored Cheetah is from my friendship with both Jack Goodman (owner of Dixon Cadillac and sometime Cheetah driver) and Rolf Picard (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 the family had done business with Dixon Cadillac for many years. It was natural that we would pit together at the races. I was privilaged to race Jack's Cheetah at Willow Springs in February 1965.
In July 1965 the small block Corvette motor was replaced with a new 396 Rat motor and a rock crusher transmission. I accompanied the Cheetah and Rolf Picard to San Louis Obispo for the first race with the 396. It over heated, even with a second radiator installed. The transmission kept sticking in second gear.
The Cheetah next ran October 31, 1965 in the LA Times GP at Riverside Raceway.The Cheetah was slower with the Rat motor than it was in 1964 with a stock Corvette 327/375hp motor. The Cheetah needed chassis development!! A bigger, heavier more powerful motor only compounded the chassis deficiencies. The Cheetah with the 396 was so bad that Jack Goodman told Rolf Picard to take the Green Flag, complete 1 lap and then come in the pits on the second lap. When Rolf came in, Jack had Rolf get out and told me to take the Cheetah back to load on the trailer. Jack said that the Cheetah had qualified for prize money by completing 1 lap. I was heartbroken! This was the Cheetah's last race under Jack Goodman's ownership.
The Cheetah still had drum brakes on all four wheels. David Pinjuv replaced the front drum brakes with Chevrolet disk brakes in 1968 when Jim Phillips owned the Cheetah and Jim was running for the Pacific Region SCCA, A/SR championship. Interview with Mike Jones and David Pinjuv
photo by Tom Heitt, courtesy of bonediggers.com
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 yoke.
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 at California Metal Craft. This first body had a tubular substructure for support. Then they took molds from the aluminum body, Don Edmunds is not sure if a second aluminum body was built before the first fiberglass body hit production. In the spring of 1964 Don Edmunds formed his own company, Autoreasearch, Inc., to build open wheel racing cars of his own design. Autoreasearch .
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, Bill Thomas Race Cars/Bill Thomas Motors never produced the required 100 cars to qualify the Cheetah as a production automobile due to many circumstances - Chevy's lack of support, the fire in the factory,and of course the car's reputation.... The missing link was chassis development on the same scale that Ford provided Carroll Shelby. What a glorious product it would have been if GM had provided the needed expertise.
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