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Actor Dan Blocker of Bonanza fame (left) and Charlie Hayes (right) both drove Nickey-sponsored sports racing cars and represente

SEMA Pioneers: Nickey Chevrolet and Bill Thomas Race Cars

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Nickey Chevrolet was a Chicago institution until it closed in 1977. The original Nickey Chevrolet dealership traces its history all the way back to 1925. It was owned by the Stefani family. During the late 1960s, it became the largest Chevrolet dealership and high-performance car parts shop in the world. 

Like dealers Don Yenko of Pennsylvania, Bill Thomas of California and Fred Gibbs of Illinois (to name a few), Nickey Chevrolet specialized in shoe horning big-block V8s into cars never meant to have them. Or rather, cars meant to have them, but never with official GM approval.

Bill Thomas Chevrolet also got into the high-performance market niche in the early 1960s, with its Bill Thomas Race Cars division fielding a competition version of the Corvair and then bringing out a kit of parts to upgrade 1962-67 Chevy Novas. A Bill Thomas Nova fitted with a 327-cid V8 kit got national attention when it appeared in the pages of Hot Rod magazine.

Don Swiatek was the Nickey’s high-performance parts manager—he and his crew could do it all. They built up straight axle Tri-Five Chevys for heavy-duty drag racing and dropped 427-cid Turbo-Jet V8s into Novas and Camaros. Even legendary Chevrolet writer Doug Marion once worked at Nickey Chevrolet.

By 1966, Nickey Chevrolet had published a high-performance parts catalog that was loaded with super-duty equipment for Chevrolets. By 1967, Nickey had teamed up with Bill Thomas Chevrolet of Anaheim, California, for the purpose of expanding its high-performance market coverage by selling its “Special Go-Fast Genuine Chevrolet Parts” to outlets, including speed shops in the Midwest and West Coast.

“Surveys show that Chevrolet owners make up more than 55 percent of the total retail business in speed equipment,” said the catalog’s introduction. “You can get that business and keep it when you stock and sell these hard-to-get Genuine Chevrolet Performance Parts.”

The catalog copy urged other dealers to “take a look at the Genuine Chevrolet Go-Fast Parts that are available only through Nickey/Bill Thomas “ It advised the other dealers that they would not need to worry about backorders or parts that didn’t fit or discount house price cutting if they bought Genuine Chevrolet Parts from Nickey/Bill Thomas.

“Two inventories, EAST & WEST, mean that YOU SAVE costly freight bills by buying from the location nearest you,” said the catalog. “Giant Computerized inventories enable your order to be processed RIGHT NOW. No delays or substitutions.”

The catalog claimed that Nickey/Bill Thomas sales engineers studied sales figures for 22 months to come up with a tailor-made inventory for speed shops of all sizes. 

“All of these items are heavily advertised. . .presold . . . in national magazines to make your over the counter sales a snap,” the catalog said.

To qualify for the prices, shops needed to buy only a minimum opening inventory of Genuine Chevrolet and Nickey/Bill Thomas parts.

In addition to pre-selling Go-Fast Parts with advertising, Nicky and Bill Thomas Race cars decided to promote their combined catalog and parts sales at the first SEMA Show in 1967. The two companies shared one of the 96 exhibitor booths at that event held at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. 

Some of Nickey Chevrolet’s spokespeople at the SEMA show included actor Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on the Bonanza TV series, and racer Charlie Hayes. Blocker drove a Nickey equipped racing car called the Vinegaroon—which still survives) and Hayes drove the Nickey Chevrolet McLaren. Another well-known driver of Nickey drag racing cars was Dick Harrell. 

Stefano Bimbi is one person who would like to know more about Nickey’s role in the first SEMA Show. Bimbi purchased the Nickey brand and has been engineering a rebirth of Nickey’s “supercar headquarters” in St. Charles, Illinois. He builds modern Nickey Camaros, buys and sells collector cars, markets a Chevrolet “gasser” kit, and he restores classic cars and muscle cars. He is also very interested in the history of Nickey and of its connection to Bill Thomas.

John Tinberg—who is associated with Bimbi’s business, which he calls Nickey Performance—purchased a genuine Bill Thomas Nova in 2009. He then threw a party for the car at his home (a converted 1930s Dodge dealership) and invited Bill Thomas, son of Bill Thomas Sr.