Remember when you could get a brand-new Camaro with mega-horsepower at a Chevrolet dealer that specialized in high-performance cars and parts? Not only that, but remember the dealer would let you choose from three levels of performance?
That description not only fit Nickey Chevrolet back in the late 1960s, when they swapped 427ci engines into first-generation Camaros, it also fits today’s Nickey Performance, which converts today’s Camaros into the 21st century counterparts that can turn a low 11-second e.t. on the 1/4-mile.
From The Beginning
Stefano Bimbi remembers Nickey’s glory days, and initially wanted to recapture the vibe at a time when the last fourth-generation Camaro was being released. He recalls, “In 2002, there was a company called GMMG that was building motif cars. They decided since 2002 was supposed to be the end of the Camaro as we knew it, they would build 69 motif ZL1 cars.”
He bought one of those ZL1-powered cars, and made it look like a Nickey Camaro of days gone by. “It had the Nickey script down the side of it, it had a yellow-painted engine block, and a bunch of the styling cues that Nickey used back in the day,” says Stefano. “It was the last new Camaro that I would be able to buy, so it was going to be my keep-forever, special car.”
Stefano told us, “That car got a lot of attention, and that’s when I got the idea to revive the [Nickey] name and marque. So, I found out who held the trademarks and intellectual property.”
After the deal was made, and all the rights were acquired, Nickey Performance reopened in 2005. “The impetus was to revive the marque, and that’s why we hired Al Swiatek, the one and only Nickey Performance parts manager, and Ronnie Kaplan as consultants to the project,” says Stefano. “Both were in full support of this project, and both have since passed away, but they were involved with us from day one.”
The original Nickey brand involved Camaros treated to high-powered engines that weren’t on the factory options list. The new venture started with the newest Camaro they could find at the time. “We built one fourth-generation car — a 2002 model that received a 427ci engine with twin turbos” Stefano says. “When Bill Thomas was still alive, he was involved with that car. Since it was the end of an era, we wanted to wait for the new [fifth-generation] cars to come out, but it took GM a lot longer to get that new car to us than we had anticipated. In late 2009, we received our first fifth-generation Camaro.”
What Nickey Performance has done with the latest Camaro is nothing short of amazing. “We’ve followed the formula that our predecessors established,” notes Stefano. “Nickey was the first aftermarket converter to give their customer three options: Stage I, Stage II, and Stage III. That was eventually copied by Motion Performance, who had Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III performance packages.
“We still follow that guideline today. We build Stage I, Stage II, and Stage III options, knowing that the Stage II will be the most popular, as it comes in naturally aspirated and supercharged, and relates to the most people. Our Stage I is the entry-level of modifications, and Stage III is really an over-the-top build with wild modifications.” Stefano adds that not only can Nickey customers choose from one of three performance-proven packages, they can also custom-build one from scratch. “We just finished up the first twin-turbo, fifth-generation Z28 — no one else had done that,” says Stefano, proudly. “It’s a conservative package with 800 horsepower.”
Eight hundred horsepower for a street car, on street tires — it’s pretty difficult to harness all that power. – Stefano Bimbi
If this sounds a lot like what happened in the late 1960s, you’re right. Not long after Zora Arkus-Duntov wrote his intra-Chevrolet memo, “Thoughts Pertaining To Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet,” Nickey Chevrolet began stocking parts like the Duntov 30/30 camshaft, dual four-barrel carburetor conversions, and other high-performance parts for the then-new 265-inch small-block V8.
As Stefano recalls, “It was really Zora Arkus-Duntov, and his work with the Corvette in 1955, when he started building and pushing high-performance parts, working on the V8 engine, and making those parts available to the racing teams and dealerships, and Nickey had both.”
Nickey Chevrolet began fielding race cars such as the famous “Purple People Eater” Corvettes that owned SCCA production racing in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “That’s what Jim Jeffords drove to win the SCCA B/Production Championship, winning 10 out of the 12 races that year,” says Stefano of the 1959 Purple People Eater.
They also had performance-mined people on the payroll. “Al Selig was the vice president of fixed operations at Nickey,” says Stefano. “He ran parts and service, and was the guy who put the deals together for racers to sponsor their cars, he was the guy who hired Dick Harrell.”
Road course, oval track, drag strip—if there was any place where cars raced in and around Chicago back then, the Chevys that won likely had Nickey parts and know-how behind them. “Nickey hired Dick as a performance manager/racer,” says Stefano. “It was really Dick who was the impetus to try and build complete cars so we could homologate them for drag racing. While he was working for Nickey Chevrolet, he wrote letters to both NHRA and AHRA saying, ‘We’ve got these 427 Camaros that we’re building, we’re going to build X amount of them, they’re available to the public, and we’d like to get them legalized for [your] respective drag racing classes.’”
That’s why Nickey began offering a package cars. With hindsight being 20/20, it was a really good idea, because it was a heck of a package and was something that no one else was doing at the time [late 1966].
How did these package cars happen during the 1960s at a time when GM’s senior management frowned on any direct involvement in racing? Nickey had inside help from Chevrolet chief engineer E.M. “Pete” Estes and Vince Piggins. They were the inside contacts within Chevrolet that made sure that Nickey got the newest and best hardware that factory engineers created.
Unfortunately, the threats of insurance and emission-control laws eventually curtailed the conversions. New-vehicle emissions limits that started in 1968, came with a five-year/50,000-mile requirement. This meant that anyone who did an engine swap in a new car had to certify that their swap met those standards. That, and high insurance rates and surcharges for anything performance-oriented, led to the last Nickey conversion in 1974. That Camaro had an L88 427ci engine, and rolled out the doors in December of 1973.
Stefano tells us, “When the dealership closed, a lot of key guys who were involved in building the conversion cars didn’t want to work for the new dealership. They moved to a place on Milwaukee Avenue, and opened a shop called Nickey Chicago. It didn’t have the Chevrolet franchise, but they still continued to buy cars from network dealers, and build cars all the way up until 1977.”
The Beat Goes On
Fortunately, advances in automotive-engineering technology have resulted in shops like Nickey Performance building incredibly-powered-yet-totally-streetable cars for their modern-day customers. “Most of our customers want to drive their cars and have fun with them, so air conditioning is a feature that many of them want,” Stefano says. “I can remember my parents didn’t get air conditioning in the house until the mid ‘70s. Now we wouldn’t think about having a home without it.
He adds, “We’ve built street cars with over 1,000 horsepower,” mentioning the bragging rights that come with a car so powered. But with that power — now, as then — comes the need to get it to the pavement. Stefano says, “Eight-hundred horsepower in a street car on street tires is difficult to harness. We’ve actually built a Nickey Camaro with over 1,500 horsepower. Again, that was more of an exercise in engineering, as we couldn’t use all that power. The car was incredibly fast, both in a straight line and on a road course, but that was an insane amount of horsepower to have in a car that also had working air conditioning and a Bose stereo.”
Where can you find out more about Nickey Performance’s current projects and past heritage? “The best place to keep track of what we’re doing is our Facebook page,” says Stefano. “I routinely post information and pictures of our current builds as well as builds we’ve done in the past. That’s where people can ask questions and respond to projects that we’re building. Or, they can go to our website and take a look at some of the different packages and offerings that we have.”
Way back when, the name “Nickey” meant the place where you’d find factory-engineered high-performance Chevy parts and cars built to win. Nowadays, thanks to Stefano Bimbi’s efforts, and input from legends such as Al Swiatek and Ronnie Kaplan, Nickey still means Chevy Performance — even if they don’t use the backwards K like they used to!