"It seemed like a good idea at the time"
It all started in 1986 when Gideon a work colleague showed me a picture in the 1981 January-March quarterly issue of Australian magazine Sports Car World.
The picture was of a BRG E type Jaguar S1 convertible that had been stripped of all chrome, a roll bar installed, a set of lake pipes out the side and flared wheel arches. It was being used for classic car racing.
It was the most beautiful thing on four wheels I had seen in years.
Gideon suggested we make a kit car based on this body design, but with more utilitarian underpinnings. This was at a time when Nissan 280ZX coupes were selling for $35,000 (1986 dollars) in New Zealand, and S1 E type convertibles (restored) for $150,000.
I wanted one, my brother wanted one and Gideon wanted one, so we already had the makings of a small run. If we could sell a couple more, we could possibly recoup some of our costs.
Gideon and I worked together for an electrical engineering manufacturer in New Lynn Auckland. I was the Office Manager, and Gideon was the Product Development Manager.
The Company manufactured high quality stainless steel commercial catering equipment, ranging from pie warmers to large one off special projects. This meant we had access to a large range of sheet metal working equipment, which was extremely useful during the early stages of product development.
Apart from my own car maintenance, and making trolleys in my youth, my skills amounted to pushing figures around pieces of paper. Gideon has had extensive experience overseas working on exotic machinery in Great Britain. As Product Development Manager, his problem solving and design skills were well honed to the challenge ahead. As with all challenges of unknown complexity or length, would we have started this challenge if we had known what was involved?
One of the first decisions was what to base the kit on. The body style was already decided as we were all fans of the Jaguar E type. Gideon favoured the Triumph 2000/2500 range as it was British, had proven running gear and the track and wheelbase were similar to an E type.
Gideon’s next door neighbour was an ex police garage mechanic. When Gideon was discussing our plans to produce a kit car, he suggested the HQ Holden. The rationale behind this was they were plentiful, they were cheap, they rusted well, and there were numerous variants, from the 202 six cylinder, to the 350 V8. The running gear was robust to say the least, and the brakes were exceptional for the period, being ventilated discs at the front with the Statesman model running rear discs. It did mean the track was going to be wider than the S1/S2 E type, but this was seen as a good thing as the S1 looks a little narrow gutted these days.
One of the important decisions made early on was to use as much of the donor vehicle as possible. The logic of this was to minimise the amount of running around the builder had to do, and it would also make the job cheaper if the majority of parts were obtained from the one donor vehicle.
Work started in 1986 In Gideon’s garage with the purchase of an HQ which we stripped for parts. The rear floor pan was cut from the donor vehicle and with the rear axle still in situ this was connected to a central space frame assembly along with the front sub frame. This gave us a rolling chassis upon which to build the buck for the body.
We installed a 330 ci Oldsmobile with auto into the chassis 300mm further back and lower than would be the normal position. We reasoned that if we could make the body clear this engine, almost any engine would be able to be fitted.
In 1987 the company Gideon and I were working for decided that 19% interest from the bank was better than keeping a viable company operating, so the parent company decided to sell the business. While we had the opportunity, we decided to spend some time to kick the project along working at it full time.
Buck Construction Begins
As luck would have it, a S3 E type was sitting in a friend’s paint shop. We opened the nose and traced a profile of the rear edge onto a piece of hardboard. This formed the basis of the shape at the firewall. It was widened 150mm to fit the HQ track by adding 37.50mm at four points.
From this stage, it was a matter of building up the shape using the tried and true egg crate method using wood pieces. Every piece of wood used was made as a pair. This ensured accuracy of shape between sides. The pieces were nailed together and epoxyed to ensure rigidity. Major components were mounted in their finished positions to ensure adequate clearances.
Once the nose was finished, the tail section was done in the same fashion. It was decided at that stage to make the sills from steel and the doors would be cut down from the donor vehicle and re-skinned. The windscreen would also come from the HQ sedan rear screen utilising the surrounding steelwork as well.
Once the buck framework was completed, a layer of aluminium mesh was laid over the top surface. On top of this a layer of automotive body filler (bog) was applied, and about 15mm of plaster of paris was applied underneath to take any flex out of the top surface. This took weeks to get to a stage where the buck surface was smooth enough to apply paint.
Once the paint was applied, the buck looked like a real car. It was now ready to take moulds off. The rolling chassis was put on a trailer and transported to Kumeu where a fibreglass panel replacement company took on the task of making the moulds.
After the moulds had been taken off the bucks, the rolling chassis was returned and finished as far as possible without the nose and tail sections. A second chassis was completed while we waited for the first mouldings.
1988 Motor Expo
We wanted to have a finished car in the 1988 NZ car show held in Epsom at the Expo centre in July. This was a golden opportunity to get maximum exposure to a large number of petrol heads in a short period of time. We would be on a tight timeframe, but it was possible if our moulder produced the mouldings when required.
We didn’t know the standard rules of business in the automotive world of setting a budget and timeframe, then doubling the timeframe and tripling the budget. These rules unfortunately applied exactly to our budget and timeframe.
Our moulder’s deadlines bore no resemblance to the deadlines we stipulated when we engaged him to do the work. Guaranteed delivery dates given were never achieved. It is one thing to be late on a long term project with no specific completion date, but it is entirely different when money has been paid for exhibition space at a motor show that is taking place on a specific date. To make a long story short, we were 50/50 whether we should attend. We had paid thousands to attend, and we had no completed demo to show.
After a set of nose and tail sections came back from the moulder, we started building the prototype car for the show. The major components of the car were already together, the rear floor pan bolted to the semi space frame middle section, as was the front HQ sub frame.
We exhibited a vehicle with no doors, and the paint barely dry. We did get sales from the show and created an embarrassing amount of interest as there was always a large crowd surrounding the car, but there was also a large amount of scepticism of our ability to actually get a vehicle on the road.
After the show, the prototype was quickly finished. It was decided to build a car that aligned with our marketing strategy of a low cost build. We decided to install a second hand Ford small block with auto, and utilise as much of the rest of the components from the donor 6 cylinder HQ sedan as possible.
As anyone who has built a car from scratch, or built up a kit car knows, it is the detail work that takes the time. The build was fairly straight forward, and after the car was mobile, a hood was fitted. We were now able to start finishing our first customer’s kit. During the build of this car, it was decided that the sills, doors and windscreen surround would be better made in fibreglass to cut down the workload. It was decided that the second car would be the buck for making the moulds for these components.
It was decided that another alternative car manufacturer would take over the fibreglass mould making and moulding production as the quality of the first two sets wasn’t of the quality we were expecting, and there was talk already of a price rise for the mouldings. Tron Cars on the North Shore in Auckland who were responsible for a high quality Lamborghini Countach replica and an RX7 based car called the Mountach took on the task of making the new moulds and producing sets of mouldings from then on.
Two more vehicles were sold during this period, and a run of 6 chassis was commenced.
During 1989 the two vehicles were delivered, both as rolling chassis, and the next chassis run planned as the rest of the run was committed for the Company Directors. We wanted to start building our own cars to test and improve the assembly manual as there were differences between the prototype car and the cars from the production run.
Governments Can Always Be Relied Upon To Stuff Things Up
In late 1989, the Government changed the rules concerning vehicle importation. Essentially anyone could go to Japan and buy a car for a few thousand dollars that was worth probably 25-30k in NZ. A lot of people saw the opportunity and made a lot of money. We saw the writing on the wall, at least in the short term. Alternative cars would be consigned to enthusiasts only, which was too small a market in New Zealand for a newly established company such as ours with no other sources of income.
The Government also changed the rules regarding alternative cars (specials). Rumours quickly circulated that it was going to cost 10s of thousands of dollars to enable a special to ever become road legal. The old path of using an existing vehicle’s identification was going to be scrapped, and a new VIN (vehicle identification number) process was going to be instigated. The special vehicle was now going to have to conform to all the requirements of a new vehicle.
This would be impossible for most small volume manufacturers to achieve. In the end, these rumours were proven incorrect and the process today is relatively simple. Unfortunately, all manufacturers were affected, and sales of all kit cars plummeted.
The Directors decided to close down the operation in 1990, sell the prototype and see if the economy picked up after the 1987 share market collapse, (how history repeats itself), and what impact the Japanese imports would have on the market.
It was decided that the Directors would take their chassis away, and complete the cars themselves before the new regulations took affect from January 1991.
The Australian Connection
An order was received from Australia, and it was decided to move away from the rear floor pan from the donor vehicle, and instead continue the central space frame to pick up the mounting points for the rear axle, fuel tank and body etc.
The windscreen used was an HT laminated item to enable the kit to pass Australia’s ADR rules. The completed kit was sent to Launceston in Tasmania in November 1991.
Current Vehicle Statuses
As at September 2020, the status of the completed kits is as follows;
- No.1 - Prototype Currently being used as a Targa New Zealand competition vehicle
- No.2 - Road registered
- No.3 - Was road registered but taken off the road by the second owner for conversion from P76 V8 to Jaguar V12 running gear. Cheetah Cars Director negotiated sale to a third owner who had been looking for a Cheetah for some time. He had wanted one ever since welding up the original run of 6 chassis. He has installed a Nissan 3.0 straight six engine in the vehicle and we believe it is close to being road registered again.
- No.4 - owner purchase a Rover 3.5 and had it overhauled, and made little progress on the kit. Two of the Directors of Cheetah Cars purchased the kit as a rolling chassis, and completed it.
- No.5 - Director’s car, Road registered
- No.6 - Director’s car, Road registered
- No.7 - Director’s car, sold, engine/gearbox transplant in progress
- No.8 - Chassis destroyed, body kit only. Recently sold.
- No.9 - Exported vehicle road registered, may be on mainland Australia.
As can be seen, there are a high number of kits that have made it to road legal stage, mainly because of the ease of build, and the high percentage of components used from the donor vehicle.
Over the years there have been no body alterations, apart from optional bumpers and over riders and badge bar, nor have there been any major design changes apart from the one chassis made for Australia. The chassis design of the Australian vehicle was a one off design to overcome ADR issues and wouldn’t be adopted for a production run. The original design concept has been able to remain virtually the same from the first vehicle to the last.