An icon of modern day sports cars, the Shelby Cobra came onto the scene in the 1960s and made a name for itself as a lightning quick racer… as well as a handful. Featherweight design, hard-hitting American V8, and a proven chassis. Nutty as it was though, the Cobra did have an even nuttier contemporary.
The Cheetah. Built by California road racer Bill Thomas, the Cheetah distilled the Cobra recipe to the nth degree with a lighter design, veritable mid-engine layout, and even lairier handling, until a fire at Bill’s shop prematurely ended production of the super sports car in 1965. Just over a dozen original Cheetahs escaped the fire, and while those cars are exceedingly rare, you can have the next best thing – a brand-new continuation model.
In 2001, longtime Cheetah enthusiast Bob Auxier looked into buying an original Cheetah. The car’s stratospheric price tag convinced him otherwise, but instead of give up, he met with Bill Thomas himself and acquired the rights to the car. He’s been building official continuation model Cheetahs ever since under the flag of BTM Race Cars.
Like its animal kingdom namesake, every bit of the Cheetah is engineered for agility and outright speed. Thomas’ cars featured a lightweight chromoly space-frame chassis, fiberglass body panels, independent suspension at all four corners, Muncie gearbox, and a 327ci small block Chevrolet V8 (later eked out to 377ci) pushed so far back into the chassis that only a universal joint separates transmission from rear axle. Weighing a scant 1,500 pounds, the Cheetah’s 360 horsepower was more than enough to send the rear wheels a twitching.
A gorgeous shape – yes, those are gullwing doors – the Cheetah developed a reputation for its sheer ferocity. In the bends, early Cheetahs proved difficult to handle, exacerbated by intense cabin heat. Due to the mid-engine layout, the exhaust was routed out the side of the car, around the driver’s feet, making for a fairly steamy ride.
All things considered, Cheetahs made impressive showings in SCCA racing and amidst the vast popularity of their Shelby Cobra rivals, Cheetahs represent a welcome alternative, whether in original form or modern continuation model.
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