Cobra vs. Cheetah

Many of you are familiar with the 1960’s era Cobra. However, many more of you are probably not familiar with it’s Chevy competitor, Cheetah. Several area auto enthusiasts own a Cobra. There may even be a few that might own a Cheetah. However, there is one person that owns both of these iconic racecars. Dick Gustaf, an engineer with TSP Architecture for the past 35 years, is that person.

The British AC Car, known in the United States as the Cobra, was produced during the 1960’s. Carroll Shelby requested British manufacturer AC to build him a car that would accommodate an American made V8 engine. Shelby initially went to Chevy to support his program with an engine and transmission, but they did not want a car to compete with their Corvette. Ford was more than happy to cooperate and provided the high performance engine Shelby requested. Consequently, he wanted the car to be a “Corvette Killer”. The Cobra was a huge success for Ford and Shelby.

The Cheetah was a sports car built by Chevy performance tuner Bill Thomas as a competitor to the Cobra. Thomas had success with other GM products including the Corvair and used his influence in the company to gain support to develop a concept vehicle. The design was unusual but was problematic, as it tended to overheat. Despite it’s handling problems, the car was hard to beat in the straightaway. The Cheetah weighed almost 300 pounds less and had over 100 more horsepower than it’s competitor. Production delays eventually doomed the project. However, since 2006, BTM (Bill Thomas Manufacturing) has started production of a Cheetah Continuation Coupe.

Dick was born and raised in Sioux Falls. A self-described “north-ender” Dick grew up in the Cathedral area. His dad was a barber and wasn’t a car guy. “Dad worked six days a week cutting hair for $.75/cut,” recalls Gustaf. “There were over 50 kids on our block and I remain close friends with some of those kids today. As kids we would play with trucks and cars and that started the whole car thing. When we got a little older, the toys turned real. We started buying cars and were always working on each other’s cars. I was so fascinated with the mechanical part of cars, I went to SDSU to become a Mechanical Engineer and wanted to go to Detroit to build cars. My girlfriend, Dody, (who later became my wife) and I were in love so I did not want to leave the area after graduation. I had offers that would have meant moving a good distance away but decided to accept a job in Minneapolis in the HVAC Industry so I could be close to her. She went with me to car shows but was not as passionate about cars as I was. She enjoyed them because she knew how much I enjoyed them. We were married in 1973. Our family grew when our children, Mike and Kristi, were born. We were not real active buying and restoring cars, as we were busy raising the kids and were living paycheck to paycheck at the time. Once the kids were out of high school, I wanted to get back into cars.”

Mike was 17 in 1997 when they built the Cobra. “Growing up I was around cars all the time,” according to Mike. “Ever since I was a baby, they would take me and my sister to car shows and races. I saw the fun they had. My life was cars and sports. We went to some national Cobra events, including Indianapolis Raceway Park-a road race track.” Right after they built the Cobra they took it to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The track, at four miles, was the longest road racetrack in the nation. “It is just amateurs going as fast as they can,” says Mike with a smile. “Everybody there is having fun. We got up to 150 MPH in the straightaways. You can actually feel yourself rise up out of the seat at that track. I would go back there in a heartbeat. Next time we will take the Cheetah. We raced the Cobra around the track and had a great time driving the car. We have also raced the car at Charlotte Motor Speedway.” Both Dick and Mike like the road courses. According to Mike, “It shows the little things that go with the big things that make a car go fast…when do you let up on the gas, when do you hit the gas. You are thinking all the time. It tests the car and the driver.”

“One day we were racing at the Mid-America Motorplex track south of Omaha when I put the Cobra into a spin,” recalls Dick. “A couple cookies later, into the grass I went. I picked the grass out and went back out again. Now that is fun.”

Dick is a member of the Shelby American Automobile Club and has met Carroll Shelby (the ex-racer and car’s namesake) at national events. “Our family has enjoyed attending these national events,” says Dick. “It is a great place to meet and talk with other Cobra owners and enthusiasts.”
Dick’s “other car” is a Cheetah, which is a mid-engine car designed to be the “Cobra Killer”. The engine placement and the resulting weight ratio were supposed to give it more performance. The car’s designer, Bill Thomas, wanted to move the engine back to balance the weight better. The Cobra had a heavier engine further up. “Keep in mind that this was 1960’s engineering,” says Dick. “They did not know a lot about how air went over a car and under a car.” The Cheetah has a 327 Corvette engine with two 4-barrel carbs, a Muncie 4-speed transmission and produces 560 HP. It is referred to as a continuation car, which is one of 100 authorized authentic Cheetahs allowed to be built by BTM. Our car was #23 out of the 100. They never got to 100 and stopped at #38. The Cheetah never received the recognition and popularity of it’s rival Cobra. “For guys my age it was, however, a very popular slot car for kids racing tracks. We have a couple of those slot cars (in the original boxes) that we have found over the years.” (See photo)

“After we finished the Cobra, we thought it would be cool to do the Cheetah,” recalls Dick. “Bob Auxier from Phoenix owns BTM and we met Bob when we were there visiting family. Mike also went to school for a year down there. Bob knew Bill Thomas and Bill allowed him to build the car. We had done some research on Cheetah and enjoyed visiting with Bob and touring his shop. We knew him for 10 years prior to when we started on the Cheetah project. We built the Cheetah, back when you could only buy them turn-key. Bob initially built our Cheetah for a racer that crashed his original Cheetah. He wanted Bob to build him one so he could finish it like his old racecar and keep it in his museum. He built it a third of the way. It sat in his shop and the guy never came to get it. Although he could only sell turnkey cars, he received permission from his distributors to sell this one before it was completely finished. He knew the passion we had for cars and this car in particular, so he called us to see if we wanted to buy it as is. We couldn’t say yes fast enough!”

“Bob is trying to sell his manufacturing company now,” explains Dick, “which will make the Cheetah even more of a mystery to many car people. Very few people know what the Cheetah is. They think it is a modified Jaguar.” Mike adds, “10 out of 10 guys will recognize the Cobra but only one out of 10 would recognize the Cheetah.”

Their Cobra is not an original, it is known as a replica. According to both Dick and Mike it’s strength is it’s styling. “It has a very aggressive styling. It is the most replicated, photographed and iconic American produced sports car ever. Additionally, it is the history of Carroll Shelby that helps make the car. He made the car but the car also made him. It is recognizable. Most people have heard of it. Regardless of what manufacturer you lean to-Chevy, Ford or Mopar, everybody appreciates the stature of this car regardless of what manufacturing is behind it. As a result, in the 90’s there were 30 some replica dealers out there building the car.

The Cheetah is a much different car. It is a coupe style mid-engine car where you sit behind the engine (many mid-engine built cars you sit in front of the engine). Gull wing doors and a long sweeping hood complete the look of the car, which is completely different from the Cobra. “The strength of the Cheetah is everything the Cobra is not,” according to Mike. “It is not well known. The reason for it’s existence was to kill the Cobra so it was built to be the anti-Cobra. The goal was to make it different from the Cobra so it could beat the Cobra. Unfortunately, it did not work out as they had hoped. The Cheetah on paper was a good concept. It just did not translate on the racetrack. The Cobra handled extremely well and the Cheetah handled like a lumbering wagon. Aerodynamically, the Cheetah is much better but on a road course, the Cobra is far superior.”

According to Dick, “Shelby, after several years of racing the Cobra, perfected what you see today. The Cheetah did not have that same luxury of improving and being modified because the race shop where it was built burned down after building only 16 vehicles. The Cobra came off an assembly line and the Cheetah was never meant to be mass-produced. Dick says, “Shelby originally wanted Chevy to support him with the Cobra but they turned him down so he went to Ford. After the success of the Cobra, Chevy felt they had to do something to compete with that mistake.”

The Cobra is street legal to drive and the Cheetah can be street-legal but it is built for racing. “I have to put lights and turn signals on it and you can drive it on the street,” says Dick. “When we show the cars, most people generally say about the Cobra, ‘wow that is pretty stylish’. But with the Cheetah, they ask more questions because they are not as familiar with it as they are with the Cobra.”

“Mike and I generally do NOT agree on philosophical car issues,” says Dick. “It is part of the reason we enjoy each other so much. We see different things. We are 30 years apart but we usually can find some common ground on everything, however. In the broad spectrum we are close. We are hot rodders and we love to drive them. We drive all the cars except the Cheetah.” “He can do what he wants to his cars and I will do what I want with mine,” says Mike with a smile.

Building these cars did not happen without a few hitches. Dick reminisces, “The first time we drove the Cobra, it was in January and we didn’t tighten a hose and once it got hot, the coolant shot straight in the air (we didn’t have the hood on at the time) and covered the car.” Another cute story involved Dody. “One particular time, we could not get it to start,” recalls Dick. “It didn’t sound like the electrical system. It sounded like it wasn’t getting gas. I had the carb off when my wife came out and asked me if I thought to check to see if it had gas in it. Sure enough it did NOT. I guess sometime we can overthink the situation.” Dody passed away a few years ago. “We lost mom after we finished the Cheetah and we didn’t go down to the shop for quite some time,” says Mike. “We are a close family but we knew we had to move on eventually. It was part of the grieving process.”

When asked which one of the cars is their favorite, the father and son team had different opinions. “My favorite would have to be the Cheetah because of how rare and how wrong it is,” says Mike. “I have looked at the Cobra for 15 years now and the Cheetah for five. If I had to take one to a car show or event, I would want to take the Cheetah but if I had to race it I would take the Cobra. The Cheetah definitely gets more questions and looks. We were showing it in Omaha a couple winters ago when one guy that looked like he just came out of the 60’s walked by the car and said ‘wow a Cheetah’. He knew exactly what it was.”

Dick confesses his favorite still is the Cobra. “I have to go with the Cobra,” he says after a few seconds of thought. “For the simple reason that I wanted to build that car ever since I can remember. It is tempting to agree with Mike on the Cheetah because I love that car also but my heart lies with the Cobra.”

The question of “how much?” often comes up when people see either or both of these cars. Dick will politely answer any question an admirer might have except that one. “That will be our secret,” he would say. TMM

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