I think we all have a pretty good idea of what Ford was up to in the early ’60s on the GT race circuit – building Cobras with Carroll Shelby of course. With the undisputed prominence of the Cobra, have you ever stopped to wonder what Chevy was doing around this time? Of course there were the Grand Sport Corvettes, but for a brief moment Chevrolet was also working on a top secret back-door racing effort – something all new that had the potential to be even lighter and faster than the Corvettes. You’re looking at it; the Bill Thomas Cheetah, a Chevy-backed GT racing program designed to be a Cobra killer.
In the early ’60s Bill Thomas caught Chevrolet executives’ attention by building some very quick Corvairs, Chevy IIs and Corvettes. When Chevy saw the success of the Cobra race program, they quietly commissioned Bill to build 100 cars to meet FIA homologation requirements. These would be ultra-light 1500 lb, mid-engine, V-8 powered racers designed to do one thing – dominate the Shelby Cobra.
It’s fair to say these cars never even really got out of prototype phase though. Development began in 1963 but a fire in Bill Thomas’ shop took out most of the parts, several cars and even the original plywood buck used to form the first two aluminum bodies. On top of that there was an automakers’ racing ban in effect, so GM couldn’t be seen sneaking engines out the back door for Bill Thomas’ Cheetahs. The final nail in the coffin came when Chevy realized just how competitive the Cheetahs could be, not just to Cobras, but to their own flagship Corvette. With all of these combined pressures, Chevy pulled the plug on the Cheetah project in mid-1964. I’m purposely keeping the history lesson brief because that’s not the story I want to tell in this post.
The story I want to tell is one about the rebirth and future of the Cheetah; an obsession being lived out by one man named Robert Auxier through his company BTM LLC. BTM standing for Bill Thomas Motors of course.
Robert wanted to buy himself a Cheetah back in ’90s but quickly learned how scarce they were – production numbers are cited between 19 and 21 original cars – so he did the next best thing and built his own replica using original plans and pictures. This eventually led to a meeting with the one and only Bill Thomas, which several years later resulted in Robert receiving the rights to build continuations of the original cars.
The use of the word continuation is important here. Any schmoe can build a replica of anything, but only Mr. Auxier has gone to the lengths necessary to do this thing right by painstakingly reproducing molds and fixtures to be as accurate and authentic as humanly possible. This is all on top of forming a friendship with Bill Thomas and spending many hours and days discussing with him what a continuation venture should look like.
In order to guarantee the authenticity of his Cheetah continuations, Robert literally deconstructed one of the few remaining original 1964 Cheetahs. He used this rare opportunity to make molds right off the original body, the only way to create an exact version of the real Cheetah.
Rick Coons is BTM’s composite wizard, and has not only molded every single continuation Cheetah body ever made, he also built the molds off that original ’64 car. BTM just got a few new orders for cars so we got to see Rick in action the day we visited.
While the body was off the original car, BTM also built a fixture around the chassis, the same one they use today to build their Cheetahs.
To date BTM has cranked out 31 complete cars, with numbers 032, 033 and 034 in the works now. Keeping with the original homologation requirements, Robert plans to build 100 cars in total. This was part of his agreement with Bill Thomas and Bill even signed 100 letters of authenticity, one for each car that would be built.
Robert’s sons Bob and Charlie are working with him to build the 100 Cheetahs. Charlie is seen here stress relieving a bend while the chassis is in the fixture.
The original chassis’ used .063″ wall chromoly tubing, which was light but also led to a torsional rigidity issue out on the track. Drivers complained of the handling characteristics, but since development never really got too far the problem wasn’t addressed. Today BTM uses .093″ wall tubing, a change that Bill Thomas planned to make had he finished building all 100 of the original homologation cars. Another slight detour from the original construction is the use of TIG rather than arc welding.
The reverse engineering of the original Cheetah allowed Robert to figure out all of these various tabs and attachments which he now stocks for building these cars in volume.
Cheetahs use a lot of Corvette parts of ’60s vintage, like this old center section…
…which is connected to a ‘Vette-sourced four speed manual trans by a single U-joint!
So clearly the boys at BTM have these Cheetah builds down, but that just covers what’s already been done and I said this would be an article about the future of Cheetah race cars.
Remember that Robert Auxier has an insatiable appetite for all things Cheetah. That doesn’t mean little toy cars though, it means things like this original hand-drawn floor plan of Bill Thomas’ workshop…
…and this black and white print of the #001 aluminum Cheetah…
…and even unrelated yet mindblowing items like this one of one wheel and tire prototype from GM’s Styling Department.
Within those giant stacks of pictures and drawings and magazine clippings were visions of Bill Thomas’ plans that never came to be. He called it…
…the Super Cheetah.
Robert knew it was out there, in fact he tracked it for 20 years until he could finally get his hands on it. Today it is finally in his shop.
For a guy who has dedicated his career to continuing what Bill Thomas started, the Super Cheetah is nothing short of the Holy Grail.
The car sat quietly in a garage for 40 years, by some miracle completely untouched. Most of the forming work has been completed, but a few notes and dimensions still exist on the aluminum shell showing where the rear window should be for example.
Remember the original Cheetahs were never fully sorted before the plug was pulled by Chevrolet. The Super Cheetah was to be the next revision, with everything learned in the first pass now applied to the updated version.
It would be longer, wider and better all around, with disc brakes instead of drums, a stiffer chassis and big block power to boot.
The nose on the Super Cheetah was actually taken from one of the first aluminum Cheetah bodies and grafted onto the new body. If you look underneath you can see evidence that this front end was once part of that original car.
Robert calls the first run of Cheetahs the ‘small Cheetahs’ now that this car has been found. When you sit with the drivetrain wrapped around you it’s always going to be cramped, but the new version would alleviate a lot of the space and heat issues the first cars suffered from.
So what now? It’s fair to say the Robert Auxier is the authority on all things Cheetah, and if anyone in the world knows what to do with this priceless find it’s him. His next move is to complete the car just as Bill Thomas envisioned it. He has the correct documentation that will serve as a roadmap, and upon completion the car will most likely debut at the Pebble Beach Concours D’Elegance. It doesn’t stop with this one car though. BTM will also be reproducing these in both carbon fiber and aluminum versions, and Robert is working hard to get FIA approval so they can be raced too.
Does that sound like a lofty plan? Not to worry, Robert and BTM have already proven that they have the tools to get it done.
Robert’s story isn’t over yet, and ours doesn’t end here either. Sean recently photographed the beautiful red example we opened the story with, so we’ll have a full feature posted soon so you can get up close and personal with a real continuation Cheetah.