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Carroll Shelby’s stillborn Corvette, and the Chevy Cheetah that never caught the Cobra


Carroll Shelby’s stillborn Corvette, and the Chevy Cheetah that never caught the Cobra

The passing of Carroll Shelby last week brought back a wealth of historical reminiscences, and none offer a bigger what-if than this car, Shelby's first attempt at building his own sports car that would end with the Ferrari-whipping Cobra. If only General Motors hadn't turned him down, Shelby might have put the Chevrolet bow tie across a few finish lines rather than a blue oval.

Even before his racing career was curbed by his health, Shelby paired with two Texas Chevy dealers on an idea to build a race car from the Corvette that could beat Enzo Ferrari on his own terms. Using three chassis from 1959 Corvettes, the trio shipped the cars to Italy, where they had them rebodied by the Scaglietti design house. The result was a beautiful, lithe coupe that while influenced by Ferrari, stood on its own, and looked poised for battle.

GM executives liked Shelby's plan -- but in 1960, the corporation barred itself from all forms of motorsport, part of a reaction by automakers worldwide to the rising number of deaths in the sport of drivers and spectators. Shelby moved on to British automaker AC Ace, and beat Ferrari using Ford power, leaving Chevy and Corvette engineers to wonder what might have been.

They didn't wonder long.

After seeing Shelby's success in Europe with the Cobra defeating Ferrari, a Corvette racer named Bill Thomas used his GM connections in 1963 to construct a Cobra-killer with secret backing from the high-test engineers at Chevy. Dubbed the Cheetah, Thomas' goal was to build a 520-hp, 1,500-lb. coupe that would leave the Shelby Cobra 427 and anything else in its rear-view mirror. Built with designer Don Edmonds, the Cheetah featured a V-8 set so far back into the hood that the transmission hooked directly into the rear axle, with no driveshaft.

While it made for lightning-fast straight-line speed, the Cheetah could never win with top-notch competition. The chassis wasn't designed for the loads the engine could create; the engine's exhaust ran over the driver's legs, turning the cockpit into a man-sized broasting machine, and a fire at Thomas' workshop destroyed much of the Cheetah's tooling. Rule changes in international racing also made front-engined cars uncompetitive, and the Cheetah died in 1965 after just a couple dozen were built. It's one of the lasting testaments to Carroll Shelby that the world's largest automaker could never answer the challenge a Texas chicken farmer laid down on the track.

Photo: Kansas Sebastian via Flickr