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The dust had settled. Carroll Shelby's AC Cobra had brutally taken the automotive industry by storm. No one at the time could foresee its steadfast rule of thirty years of tarmac. The combination of a light, import chassis with lots of colonial power rendered the olde-style, heavy behemoths of the day obsolete overnight. Could the killer king Cobra possibly be dethroned? Fate certainly wouldn't let it be Shelby's choice. The stage was Southern California and the year was 1963.



The task of humbling the Cobra couldn't be squandered on amateurs. Staff of the Chevrolet Motor Division/Performance Product Group covertly aligned with professional builders Bill Thomas and Don Edmunds to bring the AC to its aluminum knees.

Don Edmunds cut his teeth as a fabricator and had unexpected ties to Carroll Shelby. The first body he shaped was for his friend Craig Lang (a Shelby mechanic). Lang asked for his assistance after the destruction of his Lang-Cooper race car and tragic death of colleague and driver Dave MacDonald. Edmunds delivered the car and Lang-Cooper racing would be written into the history books. This was also possible due to the notable contributions of industry leaders like John Morton and Peter Brock.

With the employment of Edmunds, Bill Thomas had a fabricator and a down-low supply of engines from Chevrolet. However, a proof of concept was needed to move the program forward. Due to Chevrolet's self-imposed ban on racing; the car couldn't technically be called a Chevrolet or be directly linked to he manufacturer. So, Thomas and Edmunds went to work and crafted bucks for the aluminum bodies (which would later be replaced with fiberglass) and built the chassis based on Edmunds' sketches.

In order to beat Shelby they'd have to surpass the Cobra's power-to-weight ratio and gain any other dynamic advantages they could. This resulted in the rear-flung cockpit with the exhaust headers wrapped tightly around the occupant's foot boxes. The configuration also meant that the driver and passenger seats were squeezed between the rear wheel wells. The engines were vicious, Rochester fuel-injected, small-block 327s (420 hp) and stroked 377s (520 hp). While the transmissions were four-speed manuals tied directly to the differentials with only a u-joint between them. The radical chassis design positioned the drivetrain components so close together that there wasn't even enough room for a driveshaft.

The car's gullwing doors eased access into the arc-welded, chromoly space frame while fiberglass fuel tanks flanked both sides. Since the cars were built in 1963, braking duties were carried out by drums at all four corners ensuring that only the bravest drivers need apply. Packaging constraints were such that the hydraulically operated clutch actually had to be routed over the passenger-side footwell.



In spite of their best efforts, the completed versions of the car were flawed. Not unlike the Shelby Cobra, the Cheetah drivers had to cope with inordinate amounts of heat and cramped seating. The car's exhaust and engine configuration led to interior temperatures that often tested the driver's endurance. While the crew managed to achieve an astonishing 48 front/52 rear weight distribution, its handling prowess was betrayed by the short 90-inch wheelbase. If the nuanced dynamics of the car weren't enough of a challenge for drivers, the chassis flex certainly proved to hone their skills. The fact is: no car is perfect in its early development stages, but the creators of the Cheetah broke new ground in an outer plane of creative consciousness. They may have slightly lost their footing, but they were attempting to make a giant leap for mankind.

The Cheetah race cars managed to win several events in 1964 and 1965. Thomas and Edmunds were enthusiastic and anticipating the creation of more advanced versions of the vehicle. Unfortunately, merciless fate would intervene in the form of a catastrophic fire that burned Bill Thomas' shop to ashes. A prototype car and many parts were destroyed as well as the ties to General Motors.

Possibly deterred by the fire and necessary development required for the future of the car, GM withdrew their support. It's easy to speculate their reasoning, but the changing homologation commitments and the sneaky subversion of the corporate racing ban likely doomed the project. Initially, in order to compete, Thomas needed to build 100 units for street-use/sale. However, the new rules stipulated a minimum of 1,000 units to qualify for competition. Obviously, this would've necessitated higher-profile participation by the Chevrolet Division and its (previously low-key) "corporate-policy usurpers".

The Cheetah story didn't conclude on a hopeless note and it still continues. Don Edmunds learned from the experience and built over 500 cars during his professional career. While Bill Thomas benefitted from the licensing of his Cheetah-related intellectual property. It goes without saying that the car has also lived on in the hearts and minds of enthusiasts for decades. The legendary production of the Cheetah proves that there's no limit to creativity or the drive to redefine humankind's gasoline-fueled blend of art and science.

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