My Car Quest

November 19, 2018

The Cheetah Racecar Should Have Been A Big Success – So What Happened?

by Mike –

Bill Thomas created the Cheetah to compete with the Shelby Cobra in 1963 and produced 16 or 17 examples between 1963 and 1965. Thomas had help from Chevrolet in the beginning because they wanted to beat the Ford powered Shelby Cobras at racing. There may only be 11 original Cheetahs left now.

Cheetah

The prototype was designed by Thomas and Don Edmunds. Edmunds also constructed most of the first Cheetah.

The chassis was built of arc-welded Drawn Over Mandrel cro-moly tubing. The engine was pushed so far back in the chassis that the transmission connected directly to the differential without a drive shaft! The drivers legs were on each side of the engine.

Cheetah

Cheetah

This is an extreme example of front mid-engine placement and explains why the rear of the Cheetah is so short – the differential had to touch the transmission. This resulted in nearly an equal front to rear weight distribution similar to a mid-engine car. This also resulted in an uncomfortable driving position because of the engine heat in the cockpit and I suspect the physical position was not comfortable for a long race.

Cheetah

Cheetah

The Cheetah used the Corvette 327 cid engine that was stroked to 377 cid and was able to produce a claimed 520 hp in a car that weighed only 1550 pounds!

The Cheetah won several races in 1964. Jerry Titus both drove the Cheetah and supported it as a contributing journalist for Sports Car Magazine.

Cheetah race car

Ralph Salyer owned and drove the most successful racing Cheetah; he won 11 events between 1964 and 1965. The Salyer Cheetah became the only Cheetah roadster after he cut off the top to relieve the driver heating problem caused by the engine placement.

The Cheetah had some serious handling problems but was very fast in a straight line because of the horse power to weight ratio. It could out run a Shelby 427 Cobra on the drag strip.

Cheetah race car

While Thomas had some great success in racing Corvettes, Corvairs and Chevy IIs in the late 1950s and early 1960s he ran into some bad luck with the Cheetah that included politics at General Motors, a lack of funding, inability to meet the homologation production numbers, drum brakes instead of disk brakes and a fire that destroyed the factory and ended the Cheetah’s chances of beating the Cobras.

What else could have gone wrong?

What do you think about the Cheetah? Let us know in the Comments.

Cheetah race car

 

 

Cheetah race car logo

Cheetah race car

Cheetah race car

Cheetah race car

Summary
The Cheetah Racecar Should Have Been A Big Success - So What Happened?
Article Name
The Cheetah Racecar Should Have Been A Big Success - So What Happened?
Description
The rare American made Cheetah race car had such a great potential but in the end it did not succeed.
Author

Comments

  1. Grifo4me says:

    A better question is why should it have been a success?

    • I thought I made the case for the potential of the Cheetah in the Post. If you look at the numbers (horse power to weight ratio) this car was better than the Cobra 427 and was very fast as a drag car and could beat most cars of the day in a drag race including the Cobra 427.

      With the engine placed so far back that the transmission connected directly to the differential the weight balance from front to back was as good as a mid-engine car.

      I think the Cheetah suffered the same fate as many small companies (like Bizzarrini) – not enough money and resources to continue to be competitive.

      • dale bulmer says:

        I really think GM’s Flag ship (corvette) had a lot to do with it as they also wanted to sell cars not just race. What a beauty she was, would take it over the cobra any day of my life, I have 3 cars i have loved 40-41 Willys Coupe received as a model , 65 Cheetah which was my all time favorite racer in the strombecker race car kits of the early 70 and the 69 camaro rs rounds out my list, love them all can’t afford any lol but love them. thanks Dale

    • dale bulmer says:

      Really !!! I guess you can’t read.

  2. AS A KID I THOUGHT THE CHEATAH WAS QUITE AN EXOTIC MACHINE. AFTER SEEING THEM IN PERSON AT THE RACE TRACK, I WAS DISAPOINTED TO SEE IT IS NOTHING MORE THAN A BUTCHERED CORVETTE! BEING A FORD GUY, THAT WAS DEVISTATING, WHILE IT IS A FANTASTIC LOOKING LITTLE MONSTER, THE CAR IS IN FACT A C-3 CORVETTE WITH THE BODY REMOVED, AND AN ALUMINUM SHELL PLACED OVER THE CHASSIS WITH MINIMAL ACCOUTREMENTS FOR DRIVER CONTROL. THE CARS I HAVE SEEN HAVE NO FLOOR, JUST AN ALLUMINUM PAN UNDER THE DRIVER’S FEET, THE TRANSMISSION DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A TUNNEL OVER IT. THAT BEING SAID, I WILL BET IT IS A KICK IN THE ASS TO DRIVE AND AS MENTIONED, IT’S AN ABSOLUTELY GEORGEOUS BODY SHAPE!
    I MYSELF HAVE TWO 63 FALCON SPRINTS AND A 63 SEDAN DELIVERY WHICH TOWS THE ROAD RACE SPRINT HARDTOP TO INFINEON AND LAGUNA SECA. I AM NOT A FAD FAN WHO JUMPED ON THE FALCON BAND WAGON AFTER ALL THE TV PUBLICITY IT HAS RECIEVED. THE HARDTOP IS THE FIRST CAR I EVER OWNED, BOUGHT IT IN 1984 AND STARTED RACING IT IN THE EARLY 90S. I HAVE SPENT MY ENTIRE ADULT LIFE BUILDING FALCONS AND TALK ABOUT A KICK IN THE ASS TO DRIVE ON THE TRACK ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU GET TO HUMILLIATE PORSCHES AND BMWS WITH A 50 YEAR OLD AMERICAN COMPACT. WATCH ME IN ACTION ON YOUTUBE TITLED DJSHOSER

    SO AS WE SAY AT THE TRACK FOR ENCOURAGEMENT BEFORE A HEAT
    PAINT SIDE UP!,

    • dale bulmer says:

      Hi Alex
      Yes the cheetah never got to the point of being a street car so yes the inside would just be like a race car nothing special its to bad it didn’t get the full treatment ,still I love the look. I glad you love the falcon its a really nice little car, tell me have you heard of the Frontenac I had one it was only made 1 year 1960, I drove it to the 23rd annual falcon nationals in 2002 for Toronto to Nashville sweet car great driver hardly anyone knew what it was thought I made emblems for it lol wish I still had it . good luck dale

      • HEY DALE,
        YES I HAVE HEARD OF THE CANADIAN BUILT FORD KNOWN AS THE FRONTENAC, IN FACT A GUY HERE IN THE SAN FRANSISCO BAY AREA HAD TWO OF THEM. NO IDEA WHERE HE OR THE CARS ARE NOW. CORRECT MYSELF ON THE C-3 CORVETTE, WOULD HAVE BEEN A C-2 (that whole nomenclature is Greek to an old fart like me)

        On the Cheatah, I mean at least the Daytona coupe had some aluminum between You and the track to keep the rubber marbles from beatin the hell out of You.

        Alex

  3. Bo Polane says:

    dear all,

    While touring northern Italy in late 2013 i discovered one clean example in a private carcollection on a
    farm tucked under a sheat. What a surprise! Not for sale ofcourse. I knew it from a american car mag
    in my younger days but never ever expected to see one live and not in Europe for sure.
    Thanks for your background information on this little gem. regards, Bo from Holland.

    • That’s pretty special Bo,
      I was pleased to have a chance to see two or three of them over the years, but it is somewhat expected when attending a historic race at Laguna Seca raceway.
      On a personal note, I am Dutch My self, born and raised in California, but My Parents immigrated in 1957.

      Alex the Dutchman

  4. Michael Bailey says:

    The single biggest problem with the Cheetah from an engineering standpoint was that with the rotating mass located so close to the drive axle, torque steer caused big-time handling anomalies that led to difficulty drifting in one direction and acceleration-related unpredictability in the car’s lateral stability in the other direction. Stability problems weren’t limited to the lateral plane, either. This kind of power in such a short-coupled package produces an enormous amount of torque roll, keeping one side of the suspension heavily loaded during acceleration, then releasing it suddenly and heavily loading the other side upon deceleration. I’m sure they were a blast of adrenaline to drive, but I wouldn’t want to make it a weekly habit against cars like the Cobra and the 250 GTO.

    • dale bulmer says:

      Thanks Michael sounds like you nailed it, maybe a high rpm motor like the 302 would be a better choice with a 6 speed trans, maybe someone will try again really do love the body on it but you’re right if its that bad to drive it wouldn’t be fun to race, well drag racing could still be fun. Thank you for the information now i know. Dale P.S I still love her!

  5. Thomas Ollinger says:

    It was a simple matter of lack of development and the commitment to do so. It had all the basic tools, but thorough development is needed, and must continue. Look at the early Cobras. They were similar to the Cheetah, light and powerful. But years of refinement by real geniuses made it competitive. I don’t believe the Cheetahs had any insurmountable issues. Except for real commitment to make it great. Thanks for a fine article, Michael.

  6. Darrel Newton says:

    Check out http://www.cheetahcars.co.nz/ it seems we had our own cars. They are raced on our Targa Rally each year.

  7. Darrel Newton says:

    Yeah they do A Ferrari front and E type back end. That’s what the designers thought would be what would sell way back then.

    • Dale Bulmer says:

      Its too bad they change it , the cheetah has a great look but of course it only going to suit a number of well off people who can afford one, but what a treat to have one.

  8. Glenn Krasner says:

    I believe that the Cheetah would have continued in production, had the fire had not destroyed their factory in Oakland. After that, it did not make sense to rebuild and keep trying to enter the racecar market, and they just wanted to cut their losses. Still, an impressive shot at a unique design.

  9. Darrel Newton says:

    At the end of the day the American version of the Cheetah would be the one I would like to have in my garage. The New Zealand version although doesn’t look to bad if you want a mix of Ferrari and E-type. For me I prefer cars that are different unique rather a mix of 2 cars to make them look unique.
    The American Cheetah does look a bit like a Cobra coupe and because I love Cobras the American Cheetah is my choice.

    • Dale Bulmer says:

      See i must have weird taste lol i never really liked the cobras and even after years of seeing them they still haven’t grown on me but i never get tired of looking at the Cheetah even the name is so cool would have been a great rivalry for years lol and yes glen most likely the fire was the last nail in the coffin.

  10. A red one was street licensed in Cincinnati OH in 1971 and pulled up to a car show. One is now raced in Vintage events in Wisconsin. New Cro Sal roadster replicas are being marketed. Yes the car was crude and no I do not regard it as either great looking or seriously conceived as a production car.

  11. rick currington says:

    Saw them race as new cars. They were placed in classes where they were totally out of their element and had horrible handling. Just a car that looks good in person and on paper, just didn’t work on the track.

  12. tombread says:

    I knew a fellow who raced one in SCCA events. Said it was unbelievably hot, the handling was completely unpredictable, and he came to hate it. More development would have been lipstick on a pig.

  13. John Mott says:

    In the second paragraph it says the drivers legs were on each side of the engine. It doesn’t look that way from the photos. Unless I’m missing something.

  14. Rex O'Steen says:

    You guys really had useful comments. I used to slot-car race with a Cheetah body when I was a kid in high-school around 1966. “from an engineering standpoint,”…I wish I had concise, cogent articles like these about the US economy, including normative guides wage rates and trade theory.

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