From the mind of Bill Thomas
As the Shelby Cobra became a dominant force in SCCA and FIA sports car racing in the 1960s, a handful of competitors attempted to dethrone Carroll Shelby’s mighty Ford-powered roadsters and Daytona Coupes. A few dedicated souls at General Motors tried in vain to get a full factory-supported effort using the Corvette as a basis, spawning the track-pack Z06 and the factory lightweight Grand Sport in 1963. But General Motors’ corporate ban on motorsports squashed these attempts, and the promising Grand Sport was dead after just five cars. While the corporate ban kept any official programs from getting off the ground, there were plenty within GM who made sure a steady supply of experimental performance parts flowed out the back door into the hands of independent car builders and race shops.
One such car builder was Bill Thomas of Southern California. He had a close relationship with the engineers at GM’s performance division and found particular success with Chevrolet. He began his career preparing Corvettes for racing in the mid-1950s, eventually opening Bill Thomas Race Cars in 1960. GM approached Thomas to develop performance parts for the new Corvair, and he also prepared the big 409 Biscayne for drag racing, among other projects. In 1963, Thomas was approached by Vince Piggins, the head of Chevy’s Performance Group, to design and build a “Cobra Killer” for road racing, based around the small-block Chevy V8. The top brass at GM was strict in their enforcement of the racing ban, so Piggins could only provide parts and guidance to Thomas, who handled the bulk of the design and construction of the new sports car, which he called the Cheetah. Chevrolet supplied engines, gearboxes, and suspension to Bill Thomas, who, in essence, built a car around them.
A classic old-school car builder, Thomas built what looked right and didn’t rely much on models and theories. He had a strong understanding of what made a proper race car and wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. For the Cheetah, Thomas employed a front-mid engine layout, and a chrome-moly tubular chassis, with independent suspension borrowed from the Corvette. To achieve ideal weight distribution, he pushed the V8 so far back in the frame that the “driveshaft” consisted of little more than a flanged U-joint coupling. According to legend, the Cheetah’s body design was hastily sketched out on a cocktail napkin, yet it is one of the sexiest, most indelible racecars to come out of the early 1960s. The first two bodies were built in aluminum, while the “production” cars used fiberglass. Aerodynamic issues and a flexible chassis didn’t do the handling many favors, and the extreme rearward seating disconcerted some drivers. But once teams figured out how to overcome the quirks, the Cheetah proved to be explosively fast, and a few went on to successful racing careers. Unfortunately, only ten complete cars and a few chassis left Bill Thomas’ shop before a fire destroyed his operation and put an end to the project. With all the development and production struggles, the Cheetah could have headed for obscurity, yet it endures as an icon of American sports car racing, enjoying near-mythical status among a loyal and passionate fanbase.
Chassis number 007 is one of three Cheetahs originally purchased by Alan Green Chevrolet in Burien, Washington. Alan Green ran a successful Chevrolet performance dealership and was well-known for his support of road racing and drag racing in the Northwest and beyond. The three cars he ordered from Bill Thomas are 005, 006, and 007, and the first two were immediately put to work as road racers, while the third – this car – was given to Alan’s wife and used for promotional purposes, shows, and eventually drag racing. It was ordered in their signature shade of metallic green (naturally!) over a green interior and fitted with magnesium Torq-Thrust wheels and whitewall tires to give the illusion of a civilized street car. But this was no tamed cat, as it came equipped from new with a factory-built Chevrolet experimental 377 cubic-inch small-block V8 topped with twin carbs. A series of period photographs show Bill Thomas and racing driver Allen Grant posing with 007 in front of Bill Thomas Race Cars. Allen Grant is best known for his championship-winning career driving Cobras, but he did briefly venture across enemy lines in 1964, piloting another Alan Green Cheetah in a handful of West Coast races and chalking up a couple of wins in the process. In the photos, the Washington State dealer plate taped to the rear glass suggests Grant drove the Cheetah home from SoCal to Washington!
Once it arrived in Burien, Cheetah 007 was adorned with the Alan Green Chevrolet logo on the hood and put to work as a show and promotional car for the dealership. It appeared at auto shows across the Northwest and soon with Alan and his wife “Bookie” Green in drag racing events. Additional period shots show Bookie behind the wheel, launching the Cheetah down the drag strip. It was later developed into a full-fledged drag car by Larry Webb and Bob Redwing of Alan Green Racing, who added fuel injection to give the Cheetah an alleged 500 horsepower. In 1967, Green sold the car to John Harvey, who titled it for the first time – and it remains titled as a 1967 model today. He continued racing it until 1970 when a crash at Mission Raceway Park in British Columbia put an end to the car’s competition career. Chassis 007 then went into storage and would not emerge again until the late 1990s when it transferred ownership to Alan Book of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Book sold the car to its 3rd owner, a Mr. Barnes, in 2014, who then commissioned a complete specialist restoration to return the car to exacting original specification. The restorers were able to track down Mr. Harvey, who still had possession of 007’s original experimental 377 cubic-inch Chevrolet engine, and they were able to reunite it with the chassis.
Following the extensive restoration, chassis #007 presents in stunning condition, appearing as-delivered to Alan Green Chevrolet. The Cheetah is a tiny car, but it has enormous presence, particularly in this car’s brilliant metallic green livery with Torq-Thrust wheels and period-correct Firestone Deluxe Champion whitewall tires. The paint and body are finished to concours quality standards, with excellent detailing down to the evocative hand-painted Alan Green Chevrolet lettering and recreated Washington State dealer plates. The minimalist cockpit features correct green trim, restored original instrumentation, and just enough room for an overnight bag. Under the clamshell hood sits the original Bill Thomas engine, returned to 1964 specs with the dual-quad intake. It is fastidiously detailed, with beautiful paint finishes and a correct Harrison radiator with a modern electric fan for peace of mind.
Despite minuscule production numbers and short racing career, the Cheetah made a massive impact on countless fans of American motor racing, and it continues to do so today thanks to dedicated enthusiasts. With fewer than a dozen verified original examples in the United States, the opportunity to acquire a genuine Bill Thomas Cheetah is rare, indeed. This car’s unique history both on and off the track makes it one of the most fascinating and intriguing examples ever to become available, and its superb restoration makes it an ideal candidate for concours events the world over.
This car was recently sold through Hyman Ltd.
Images ©Hyman ltd.