My name is John Chesnut, and like most of you, I’m passionate about anything that looks cool and goes fast. As a kid, I built push carts, gravity-powered machines and even a cart with a sail to catch the Santa Anna winds of southern California. I then graduated to mini bikes, motorcycles, off road vehicles and muscle cars.
My favorite cars were the 50’s and 60’s sports racers. I grew up loving the Cobra. When I was able, I built a replica of the Cobra, but, I built it using Corvette suspension and drivetrain. Those were the parts that I was familiar with. I eventually sold the Cobra and built a number of 50’s inspired cars from scratch. All using Chevy engines and Corvette aluminum independent suspension. One of my cars was featured at SEMA in 2003 and was selected to be one of seven displayed at the Hot Rod Hall of Fame dinner at SEMA that Year.
One of my favorite cars of all time was the 1964 Cheetah. The Chevrolet-powered coupe was built by Bill Thomas and Don Edmund to compete against the Cobra. Unfortunately, an ill-timed rule change and a shop fire ended the Cheetah’s development prematurely.
The Cheetah was a pure race car. The engine was set so far rearward that the transmission was coupled directly to the differential. No driveshaft was used. This resulted in a very hot and cramped cockpit and foot box. It also required the seating position to be pretty high.
I started hatching a plan for a roadster with styling ques of the Cheetah. I love the raw, open top driving experience the Cobra gives. I wanted that same feeling but in a Chevy based car. I’m 6’2”. I wanted to sit low and be comfortable so that I could enjoy driving.
The Cheetah was very light and fast but suffered from ill handling. The frame flexed too much. I wanted a more rigid chassis that would be safe and strong. One that would take full advantage of the 1984-1996 Corvette’s aluminum, independent suspension that I wanted to use.
The original Cheetah’s hood was so low that a hole was cut in the hood so the top of the engine could stick through it. The car had cooling problems so on most cars more holes were cut in the hood to let air passing through the radiator escape.
All Cheetahs were built as coupes, but because of excessive heat, one racer cut the roof off and created a roadster out of his. He essentially fixed a flat panel in between the rear wheel arches. I don’t care for that look. I feel that this makes it look like the driver is sitting too tall in the car. I wanted the occupants to be sitting down in the car, not on top of it.
The Cheetah (and other cars of the era) had a relatively narrow track. I wanted to be able to use the wider 1984-1996 C4 Corvette suspension. It’s independent, offers good geometry, steering and brakes. (especially in a much lighter car). The aluminum suspension pieces are good looking and readily available at reasonable prices.
With these things in mind, I began construction my own car. I tried to imagine that the Cheetah development had continued, and that a street version was developed. I wanted a car that had the unique Cheetah look but was comfortable for the road. It had to have great handling and be fast too!
I started on my Quest by building a dedicated space frame. I built four frames before I had one that met my requirements. It needed to be light and strong. My finished frame weighs 230lbs. I set it up so that Chevrolet small-block and LS engines will bolt in, along with the 1984-1996 C4 Corvette suspension. GM changed the front spindles and upper control arm mounting location in 1988-1996. My frame has provisions for all years of upper control arm mounts but I need to know which year suspension is being used so that the correct hole locations are drilled out.
I ended up with a frame that is 16 inches tall with a 93inch wheelbase – 3 inches longer than the original cars. I moved the engine far enough forward to make the foot boxes and cockpit very comfortable. This arrangement allows for the use of a short drive shaft. (length varies depending upon transmission used) The cockpit accommodates up to 16 in wide seats.
Aluminum panels are sealed and riveted to the frame to create the floor, transmission tunnel, and lower part of the cockpit. Additional aluminum panels seal the engine bay, which keeps air from building up in it. My frame comes to a V at the front. The radiator mounts in front of the V. Air passes through the radiator and is diverted out the sides of the frame. This results in less lift at high speeds and keeps coolant cool. I don’t have over heating problems.
I was going to create the body from scratch. But, I found a gentleman in Pennsylvania that does great fiberglass work. (Bruce [email protected]) He is well known for his Cobra bodies and parts. Bruce had created his own version of the Cheetah coupe. I purchase body skins from Bruce then made extensive modifications so that it fit my frame and my vision.
I narrowed the body, shortened it, redid the wheel arches, molded in hood vents, molded in the engine bulge, reshaped the rear end and created the rear deck, molded in the dash, windshield base, cockpit, firewall and bulkheads. The result is a simple two-piece body that slides over the frame and easily mounts to it. The full tilting front hood and the tub line up right out of the molds. The seam lines are minimal and the hand laid body is light and strong.
The original Cheetah used a plastic windshield. I needed DOT legal glass so that the car can be legal for street use. Fortunately, I found the MGB windshield (It was suggested to me by another Cheetah replica builder) to be a great fit. Produced from the early 60’s through the early 80’s the glass and frame is readily available at reasonable prices. To my eye it has the perfect look and size. The windshield frame has legs that bolt to the chassis. Nothing structural bolts to the fiberglass body.
I wanted to be able to build my car with readily available and reasonably priced parts. Pretty much all parts can be purchased from Ebay, Speedway Motors, Jeggs, or Summit Racing. I used headers and side pipes from Patriot. The headlights are 4 ½ inch halogen sealed motorcycle, and the taillights are Porsche 356 replicas.
My Cheetah is light and low. In my opinion, it handles and drives great. And, it doesn’t take a ton of power to make it fast.