For decades the Cheetah has been a bit of legend over in California, and with good reason. It all starts with these two statistics: 500+ horsepower in 1,500 pounds of weight.
There’s this as well: 215 mph at Daytona in 1964, and nearly 200 mph at Riverside, a much shorter track. And while Cheetahs won 11 races in C-Sports/Modified classes in 1964, there are also stories of flexible frames and their effects, doors flying off at 200 mph, and a driver’s compartment comparable to the latest “As Seen On TV” miracle oven.
So it was with some trepidation that I clamored into a machine I came to affectionately call “Godzilla.” If those aggressive looks don’t give you an inkling of the Cheetah’s monstrous nature, firing it up and pushing in a clutch that would make a fantastic piece of gym equipment most certainly will. Hit the starter button and Mt. Vesuvius erupts as the engine and exhaust explode with noise, making a 427 Cobra sound sedate by comparison.
And speaking of Cobras, Carroll Shelby’s machine was the Cheetah’s raison d’etre. Cheetah creator Bill Thomas was a prospering southern California businessman and engineer with a background in airplanes when he began racing Corvettes in 1957. He was so successful that he quickly became hooked on competition, and gained the moniker “Mr. Corvette.” He began building engines and cars for others, and by the early 1960s, his prospering Bill Thomas Race Cars firm had become very accustomed to winning.
A Real Radical Machine
So when Carroll showed up in 1962 and started dominating races in his Ford-powered Cobras, Thomas couldn’t simply sit still until Shelby’s cars were vanquished. He was well connected at Chevrolet, and with some backdoor assistance created the radical machine I found myself in.
Cheetah #026 is the last one made, and it’s an experience unlike anything else. There I sat in a bucket seat, contained in a lightweight tube frame with slinky coachwork draped over it like a thin fiberglass bed sheet as the fuel-injected 377 cubic inch (6.3 liters) V8’s mechanical lifters chattered away, the whole car literally shaking, shimmying, and throbbing with a power to weight ratio one normally associates with motorcycles.
Simplicity is Beautiful
Making the experience more unique, Cheetah 026 is likely the most original extant, having had just three owners and wonderful documentation back to Day One. There are probably around 1,000 miles on the car but no way to tell, for this particular example doesn’t even have luxuries such as an odometer.
Or a speedometer.
Or even side windows.
Simply put, Cheetahs were all about speed, pure and simple. The interior makes “Spartan” seem plush, which goes with hand-in-hand with its no-frills, lightweight construction.
The engine’s radical cam gives a lopey idle, so I let the clutch out gingerly and the car jerked forward. And that’s when the fun(?) started, for even a slight prod on the accelerator was enough to leave most cars—moderns or the Cheetah’s contemporaries. Chassis 026’s V8 was built to turn at 9000 rpm (Star Wars stuff back in its day), but because it was running lean the owner asked me to hold it to 6000 rpm so “nothing expensive happens.”Thankfully it didn’t, and most especially because no sooner are you up and moving than even a slight dab on the accelerator snaps your head backward as if the hand of God yanked it.
The Crazy Part is…
Which brings us to the wildest part of the Cheetah experience, and why it has the reputation it does. No matter how hard I tried, I never felt the accelerator touch the floor—regardless of the gear I was in. At first, the throttle was perhaps 40% of the way down before I needed to shift. It was much the same in second and third, so I thought I could lull Godzilla into thinking I was going easy by putting it in fourth and then rolling into it.
But that didn’t work either! Count 3-4-5-6 as fast as you can and that was about the amount of time the Cheetah needed to go from
3000 to 6000 rpm in fourth! The bushes alongside the road blurred at an incredibly alarming rate, and the owner’s chase vehicle quickly became a speck in the vibrating mirror. As you catapult forward, your eyes being sucked to the back of your head, an incredible wave of noise bombards from everywhere in any gear—the un-muffled engine’s tappets and pistons up front, and exhausts the size of trashcans bellowing just below your left arm and shoulder.
We often talk of “suspension travel” when describing cars here but you can eliminate the word “travel,” for the Cheetah’s lack of filtering meant you felt every bump and pebble on the road. Amazingly even with that heavily modified 327 cum 377 ahead of you, the steering proved surprisingly light. At the slowest speeds you could easily turn the wheel, and it’s direct but not nervously quick—a blessing because the way this car moves when you are hard on it, you could correct yourself right off the road!
When my time with the Cheetah was over I had no idea of how fast I had gone. As noted earlier the original owner didn’t have a speedometer installed, but to bring home the point of how utterly insane this thing is, and why it deserves so much respect if you had the skill to truly master a Cheetah you could conceivably pull up next to a Bugatti Veyron and show it your
taillights. Late in the day after Godzilla was put away, the current owner showed me a letter written in the late 1960s that spoke of taking chassis 026 to an NHRA sanctioned drag strip. There, the car turned a 10.2 second quarter mile on its first run, and eventually broke into the 9’s.
And that was on 1960s rubber…