Market Finds: The Cheetah GT Coupe Was Built To Kill The Cobra

The Cheetah GT Coupe Was Built To Kill The Cobra

By Andrew Golseth
August 8, 2016

Photography courtesy of Bonhams

The first car I remember obsessing over was the Shelby AC Cobra, thanks to my grandfather gifting me a 1:18 scale 1964 427 S/C model. For a while, that was the car of my dreams. The wildest looking, the fastest, the meanest sounding, just the absolute ultimate automobile. Then I grew up. I still love Carroll’s crude tarmac weapon, but I learned the AC Cobra—though undisputedly bonkers—wasn’t the craziest racer ever built…but this 1964 Cheetah GT Coupe might be.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Cheetah, you’re in for a treat. A man by the name of Bill Thomas started his automotive career by modifying and building Corvette racecars for C.S. Mead Chevrolet Motors. After getting his foot in the industry’s door, Bill Thomas opened up his own shop—Bill Thomas Race Cars. His new venture kicked off with a General Motors contract to build hopped-up Chevrolet Corvairs and performance parts for other GM autos. Shortly after, he began building stock cars and drag racers.

But Bill’s claim to fame would be the car you see offered here: the Cheetah—reckless, loud, and provocative: basically the automotive equivalent of glam metal. At the time, General Motors wasn’t officially racing, but Bill had built strong rapport with the GM big wigs. This relationship turned to GM “unofficially” consigning Bill Thomas to build something to compete with its arch nemesis: the monstrous Ford powered Shelby Cobra.

With the help of project investor and Chevrolet dealer owner John Grow, the Cobra competitor concept began R&D in 1963. General Motors supplied its almighty 327 cubic inch V8 engines and rear suspension assemblies from the Corvette. For the rest of the underpinnings, Bill sourced Muncie transmissions, NASCAR drum brakes, and various suspension and chassis components from the GM parts bin.

Bill and his lead fabricator Don Edmunds designed a tube frame chassis, which the short overhang voluptuous body was sculpted over. After Edmunds built a wooden body mold, the first two prototype Cheetah shells were constructed from aluminum with Perspex aircraft windows—bonus points for including “gullwing” doors.

Initially, 100 Cheetahs were scheduled for production to meet FIA homologation requirements but the racing regulations changed, upping the requirement to 1,000 units. This, and a fire at Bill Thomas’ shop, ultimately killed the program after only 11 Cheetahs were built. After the two prototypes were skinned in aluminum, the remaining nine examples were given fiberglass bodies.

The chassis proved to be compromised with excessive flex, so many privateers added additional bracing to strengthen the frame to stay competitive around the circuit. In total, the Cheetah claimed 11 victories in period, despite mechanical and technical issues. With 400 to 500 horsepower on tap, depending on the setup, and weighing nearly 500 pounds lighter than the AC Cobra, the Cheetah GT is a tale of “what could have been” if GM and investors wouldn’t have pulled the plug.

This Cheetah GT Coupe was originally a narrow-body car, but after violently chucking tread at competing cars from its exposed rear wheels, FIA ordered the Cheetah’s rear arches to be widened—how awesome is that? The fourth fiberglass customer car made, this GT was purchased by Alan Green Chevrolet of Seattle, Washington, in a three-part-Cheetah bundle where it went on to race throughout the United States and Canada.

In an attempt to preserve its cloak, the current caretaker dismantled and stored away the original fiberglass shell and mounted a new body for competition use. In this configuration, the car continued racing to include ten stints at Monterey Historics. In 2012, the original mold was taken from storage, refurbished to its 1965 season livery, and remounted to the tube frame—its current presentation.

Most recently, the GT received an all-new wiring loom, the Rochester fuel-injection system was rebuilt, and the car was California road registered.

Included in the sale is a catalogue of historical racing documentation, an electrical harness schematic, a fuel-injection shop manual, and a clean California title with a blank buyer signature block—let us know if you need to borrow a pen, we’ll take a ride along in exchange.

– Full restoration to vintage specs and livery
– One of only 11 completed cars from Bill Thomas
– Documented history and FIA Historic Technical Passport

~400 horsepower 336 cu. in. OHV V8, four-speed manual transmission, four-wheel independent coil spring suspension, and four-wheel drum brakes. Wheelbase: 90 in.

Vehicle information
Chassis no.: BTC003

Auction house: Bonhams
Estimate: $300,000 – $500,000
Price realized: Auction on August 19

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Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
7 years ago

One of these runs at the Coronado Festival of Speed each year. I like the low overhang on both front and rear.

I think the Panoz GTP coupe, one of my favorites, took some cues from this layout.

It’s too bad the plug was pulled on the recent Nissan LMP program.

Christopher Gay
Christopher Gay
7 years ago

For sure. I go with my father and my son every year. Your petrolista-in-chief has my contact info. Let’s meet up. We are usually in the paddocks with a few crews.

Colin Micah-Zane Webb
Colin Micah-Zane Webb
7 years ago

If you want to know actual history about THAT specific cheetah. You should talk to my dad. He is larry Webb, original mechanic and he drove the car.

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