The Greats of Chevrolet Before They Were Famous: Don Swiatek

It is impossible to have a discussion about Chevrolet performance and the history of the company without a mention of Nickey Chevrolet. But “Nickey” wasn’t exactly the name of a person, but rather the name of a company with several big players involved throughout the years.

There was Mr. Nickey, who started the dealership in the 1920s, then Edward and John “Jack” Stephani, who purchased the dealership from Mr. Nickey in the 1930s and owned it into the 1960s when it became famous, Bill Thomas, who helped create one of the very first high-performance Nickey Camaro, Dan Blocker, an actor famous for his role as “Hoss” in the TV show Bonanza, who not only had Nickey Chevrolet sponsor his race car known as the “Vinegaroon” but also became a spokesman for the dealership, and Don Selieg, Nickey Chevrolet’s vice president. But regardless of how many big names were associated with Nickey back in the day, it was parts manager Don Swiatek that played one of the biggest roles in Nickey history!

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Though Nickey Chevrolet was established in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the beginning of the musclecar era that the name Nickey became synonymous with high-performance. Renamed Nickey with a backward “K” in 1957 as a way to attract attention, Nickey Chevrolet started racing in 1958.

The Stephani brothers entered Nickey into road racing with the famous purple 1958 Corvette known as the “Purple People Eater”. The Corvette, though not officially backed by Chevrolet, was backed by Zora Duntov, and went on to take the 1958 B/Production Championship title. That same year, Nickey also sponsored stock car driver Fred Lorenzen, who went on to win the USAC championship.

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Swiatek (seen here in the Nickey booth) was a major player in Nickey Chevrolet, from overseeing the Hi-Performance Department to selling high-performance Chevys at trade shows. Image: Yenko.net

Fast forward to 1965, after one of their mechanics, Ron Kaplan, was injured in an incident in the pits of Kent Raceway during the 1964 United States Road Racing Championship Series, Nickey Chevrolet was no longer a company that owned racecars. However, they still sponsored racers, including Dan Blocker. This move helped Nickey Chevrolet grow immensely and helped the dealership become a high-performance Chevy-centered speed shop.

In 1965, then Parts Manager Don Swiatek was approached by Nickey Vice President, Don Selieg about making Nickey a performance shop. Agreeing the idea sounded like it would work, Swiatek was given 30 days to transform Nickey Chevrolet’s body shop into a one-of-a-kind, high-performance speed shop. The ramification for not transforming the shop into a profitable speed shop in that time? Being let go from Nickey Chevrolet.

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Nickey Chevrolet offered a wealth of high-performance options for any musclecar enthusiast to choose from. Image: Yenko.net

As we all know, Swiatek succeeded in bringing Nickey Chevrolet into the high-performance world, and because of that, he was quickly promoted to manager of Nickey’s Hi-Performance Department. He worked with customers to design their perfect performance Chevy, and with Chevrolet’s introduction of the Camaro, Nickey Chevrolet got an even bigger bump in the industry.

In the fall of 1966, under Swiatek’s guidance, a brand new 1967 Camaro was fitted with a 425 horsepower 427ci engine, following Dana Chevrolet’s decision to put a 427ci engine from a 1966 Corvette into a similar brand new Camaro. It was this upgrade that truly set Nickey Chevrolet on its path to greatness, and started the development and building of high-performance Nickey cars for the next several years.

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Swiatek checks out a 1973 Nickey Super Camaro Stage III, one of just two known second-generation Nickey Camaro big-block conversions to exist. Image: Nickey

Unfortunately, the appeal of the musclecar eventually fizzled out, and for Nickey, the last straw was when General Motors accused the dealership on selling cars but not paying GM for them, causing Nickey Chevrolet to officially close its doors in December of 1973. But, that’s not where the Nickey story, or Don Swiatek’s story end.

In 2002, the Nickey brand was revived by musclecar enthusiast Stefano Bimbi, who purchased the Nickey name and trademarks before opening Nickey Performance. Of the crew that Bimbi brought on to create new high-performance Chevys under the Nickey name badge was Swiatek, who was a part of Nickey Performance family until his death in February of 2012. Of the projects Swiatek saw with the rebirth of Nickey, was the famous fifth-generation Nickey Camaro!

About the author

Lindsey Fisher

Lindsey is a freelance writer and lover of anything with a rumble. Hot rods, muscle cars, motorcycles - she's owned and driven it all. When she's not busy writing about them, she's out in her garage wrenching away. Who doesn't love a tech-savy gal that knows her way around a garage?
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