Usually when we think Chevy, we think drag racing, and with Ford, mostly road and track. Possibly the biggest reason for this dichotomy is because Ford, with the aid of Shelby’s building genius, indeed became the McLaren of America. At this point, the story of Ford and Shelby has become one that’s almost tired, in spite of the fact that America’s side-oiler racing legacy will always hold a place in our race history textbooks.
Chevrolet never seems to be the best-represented nameplate when it comes to this form of motorsport, but Corvette in particular made it possible for the Chevy brand to establish their own tradition of tuning for the road race circuit. Nobody in Bowtie history helped to fortify this tradition like Bill Thomas.
Thomas was the famed builder and tuner who eventually introduced to the 1960’s racing scene the V8-powered Cheetah sportster that tried with all of its might to be GM’s equivalent of the Shelby Cobra, but because of corporate control, fell short. Long before the small-block powered Cheetah, however, Thomas’ career began in 1956 while he was preparing Corvettes for road racing.
It didn’t take long for the Anaheim, California local to figure out that his built and tuned Vettes were actually winning nearly every race in the Southern California region. Thomas’ tuning skills earned him a reputation with Chevy, and the automaker soon approached the Vette performance guru asking help to race-tune the new Corvair.
As much a Corvair expert as he was with Vettes, Bill Thomas was actually known to build the nation’s fastest Corvairs. His compact creations were beating almost everything in their class, and this tuning expertise lead Thomas to work with Chevy on some prototype versions of the Corvair.
Bill also contributed to Chevy’s race development by helping the 409 Bel Airs and Biscaynes to achieve new drag racing records.
One of the General’s more well-rounded builders, Thomas also helped Chevy to build a little-known series of Nova IIs equipped with Vette fuel injection and IRS rear suspension, cars that went on to successfully drag race and lead to the development of three fastback Chevy IIs, the first of which was bought by Allen Green Chevrolet.
By the time 1963 rolled in, Shelby’s Ford-powered Cobra was already known as a competitive road racer. During this time, Bill Thomas had a good relationship running with the likes of Vince Piggins, who was responsible for Chevy’s COPO cars, and Bunkie Knudsen, relationships that helped spark the idea for a new breed of race car.
That new breed would come in the form of Thomas’ 377-stuffed, 520-horse Cheetah, the Chevy-powered, mid-motor racer that was built to be the Cobra killer. By the early part of 1963, Bill Thomas was given the “OK” by Chevy to build 100 Cheetahs to compete against Shelby’s 427 bad boy.
If it was any indication of how potent the Cheetah could be, Zora Arkus-Duntov tested the 1,520-pound racer at the Michigan Proving Grounds where he claimed the Cheetah had accomplished the fastest lateral acceleration ever reached on the track to date. The fact that one of the Duntov brothers – founding fathers of Vette racing – had complimented the Cheetah’s track potential really said something remarkable about Thomas’ talents.
Bill Thomas’ Cheetah could have very well changed the way we looked at Chevrolet forever, but as usual corporate constraints put a quick end to what could have been a frighteningly fast car. Because GM had placed a ban on racing in January of 1963, the Cheetah was forced to remain a classified project, and though Thomas by this point had assumed responsibility for Cheetah production, GM had pulled the project’s funding in early ’64.
Because the plug was pulled on Thomas’ Cheetah, only 21 of the cars were actually built with literally a handful making it to the track. Thomas died on October 10th of 2009 at the age of 88, leaving behind the very first Cheetah ever built as a relic in his Anaheim home.
The Cheetah legacy, however, was far from deceased, because back in November of 2001 BTM came into an agreement with Bill Thomas to build some 100 continuation cars. When talking about the American road race scene, Shelby and his Ferrari-murdering Cobra will always be exalted, but at least the Vette and Bowtie worlds, thanks to Bill Thomas, can confidently say that there was a time when they had their slice of the pie!