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The Cheetah Was the Grooviest Cobra-Killer to Come Out of the ’60s

One of the ultra-rare, 215-MPH big cats is coming under the hammer this May.

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Built from 1963 to 1966, the Cheetah wasn’t around long enough to change its spots.

Designed by self-taught engineer Bill Thomas, the Chevy-powered Cheetah was created to serve as Chevrolet’s answer to the Ford-powered Cobra that Carroll Shelby introduced in 1962.

Produced in a small enough litter (23 at most) so it was never classified as a production car, the heart of the big cat was a fuel-injected 327-cubic-inch V8 mated to an aluminum Corvette four-speed transmission.

With a fully independent front suspension and compact fiberglass frame, the 1,510-pound Cheetah was clocked unofficially at 215 miles per hour at Daytona during performance benchmarking, a speed that blew away the original Cobra’s top mark of about 135 MPH.

The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)

“It couldn’t compete at all,” Thomas said of the Cobra in a 1981 feature story in Automobile Quarterly. “The 427 Cobra ran the quarter-mile at 112 MPH. The Cheetah ran at 135 MPH and we were doing it with small block engines.”

Sleek and fast, the Cobra-killing Cheetah also had an impressive roar.

“The Cheetah was the noisiest race car anybody ever heard,” driver Budd Clusserath recalled to AQ. “I’d love to sit in the paddock with everyone sitting around right at my doors. They wouldn’t even see me get in the thing. I’d turn the thing on and it’d fire up instantly – balaam – and these people would jump right out of their skin.”

Unfortunately, like many other idealistic and beautiful products of the ‘60s, the Cheetah’s lifespan was fleeting.

The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)

Never able to compete with the more widely available Cobra in an officially sanctioned race thanks to its low production numbers, the line of Cheetah’s became extinct after Chevy and GM lost interest in the project and there was a fire at Thomas’ production shop in 1965.

As such, it’s incredibly rare to see a Cheetah in the wild these days, let alone the one that was used during testing at Daytona and featured in AQ’s twelve-page article in 1981, but that’s the one that we have here.

Originally owned by Clusserath before being sold to its current owner Sam Goins, this Cheetah – believed to be the fourth to ever roll of the Thomas production line – has been driver for fewer than 100 hours since Goins took possession of it in 1965, according to an owner’s statement.

The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)
The Bill Thomas Cheetah being auctioned by Guernsey’s on May 10. (Guernsey’s Auction House)

“I have owned this car since 1965, when it was approximately one year old,” Goins wrote. “The miles cannot be attested to, as the Cheetah was not supplied new with an odometer. I acknowledge that although the car has not been driven competitively for many years, to the best of my knowledge it runs and drives as it should.”

Hitting the block on May 10 at 93rd Street and Park Avenue at 7 p.m. courtesy of Guernsey’s, the car will be displayed at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park circuit on May 4 and 5 and be available for private viewing on the 10th in Manhattan by appointment only. Register to bid here.