Feature: Nickey always was Chicago’s “Supercar Headquarters”

Feature: Nickey always was Chicago’s “Supercar Headquarters”

By John Gunnell

Nickey Chevrolet was a Chicago institution until it closed in 1973. The Nickey Chicago Speed Shop was then created, and remained in business until 1977. Nickey—the name is spelled with a backwards “K”—was a Chevrolet dealership that came to focus on the high-performance speciality niche during the muscle car era. In 2006, the Nickey rights were purchased by Stefano Bimbi, who revitalized the Nickey Chicago brand via Nickey Performance, Inc. (www.nickeyperformance.com.)

The history of the original Nickey dealership can be traced all the way back to its founding in 1925. It was sold to the Stephani family of Chicago in the 1930s. Brothers Ed and Jack Stephani assumed management of the company after returning from military service in World War II.  Ed held the title of president and Jack was in charge of sales and marketing. During the late-‘60s, Nickey became the largest Chevrolet dealership and high-performance car parts shop in the world.

Tom Stephani, a real estate professional and vintage racer, was Jack’s son. According to Tom, his dad dreamed up the idea of putting the “K” backwards in the company’s logo. While on vacation in Florida, he noticed another company’s sign done that way. As soon as the sign appeared on the dealership, people stopped to point out the “error.” The people won a piece of upside-down cake and maybe bought a car.

Nickey’s first involvement in checkered flag competition came in 1957 sports car racing with a Corvette SR-2 racing car nicknamed “The Purple People Eater” after a rock ‘n’ roll song. A man named Lindy Linheimer set the car up. Jim Jeffords was the driver and Ronnie Kaplan was crew chief. A 1958 Corvette called The Purple People Eater MKI gave Jeffords the Sports Car Club of America B Production championship that year. It was followed by the 1959 Corvette Purple People Eater MKIII which Jeffords drove to a repeat Sports Car Club of America B Production championship in 1959.

The horsepower race of the late-‘50s and early-‘60s led to some horrific racing accidents and drew the attention of the United States Congress. Ford tried introducing optional Lifeguard Safety Features in 1957, but very few customers were inspired to pay extra for them. As the 1950s dawned, the government was ready to start making certain safety features standard on all automobiles. By 1963, automakers were feeling heavy pressure to get out of racing and in mid-1963, General Motors ordered all of its divisions to halt any direct support of teams involved in any form of racing.

To do an end-run around this infamous “performance ban,” Chevrolet used Californian Bill Thomas to funnel parts to the racing community. The Stephani Brothers were wise enough to tie-in with Thomas and began offering what they promoted as “Super Car Conversions” in 1966. Bill Thomas Race Cars supplied Nickey with technical help, which led to Nickey building the first ’67 Camaro with a 427-cid V8. Eventually, Super Car Conversions in three different stages of tune, each more powerful than the last, were offered. They were called Stage I, Stage II and Stage III.

Nickey Chevrolet’s Service Department did many hot rod-style conversions and the parts department—which stayed open late on weekends for drag racers—specialized in selling factory go-fast hardware. Like dealers Don Yenko of Pennsylvania, Berger Chevrolet of Michigan and Fred Gibb of Illinois (to name a few), Nickey Chevrolet specialized in shoe-horning big-block V8s into cars never meant to have them and/or selling high-performance parts to muscle car fanatics and hot rodders.

Don Swiatek was the Nickey dealership’s High-Performance Parts Manager, and he and his crew would do it all. They could build up straight-axle Tri-Five Chevys for heavy-duty dragging or drop a 427-cid Turbo-Jet V8 in a Nova or Camaro. Even legendary Chevrolet writer Doug Marion once worked at Nickey Chevrolet. Right after Stefano Bimbi bought the Nickey name, Don Swiatek and Ronnie Kaplan helped on projects and did consulting at his facility in St. Charles, Ill.

Jack and Ed Stephani also became affiliated with “Bonanza” TV star Dan Blocker and his Vinegaroon racing car, which was later owned and raced by Tom Stephani. In addition to driving this Chevy-powered car in sports car races, Blocker did promotional work for Nickey and also appeared in the company’s High Performance Parts brochures.

“I remember how the parts department at the original Nickey Chevrolet would stay open until midnight, so street racers and hot rodders could get the parts they needed ASAP,” Stefano Bimbi once recalled. His father Domenico, who was a mechanic before starting his own auto service business, often took advantage of the late hours to make emergency parts runs. “It was a huge operation and Nickey Chevrolet offered the largest inventory of genuine Chevrolet high-performance parts available anywhere.”

The Stephani family owned Nickey until 1973. It was then sold to become Keystone Chevrolet. It is believed that the last Nickey Super Car Conversion was performed on an early 1974 Camaro that’s now in a private museum along with other significant Nickey Super Cars. This yellow car was ordered by a man who read about Nickey’s Stage III L88 Nova conversion in a 1973 Hot Rod article. The car was delivered in November 1973 and quickly Nickey-ized. Within a month of the car’s delivery date, Nickey Chevrolet closed.

The high-performance gurus that helped the company earn its reputation – Nickey vice-president Al Seelig and Don Swiatek were the mainstays – relocated. Their new facility on Milwaukee Ave., in Chicago, was called the New Speed Shop and Automobile Conversion Center. They continued cranking out ultra-high-performance Chevys for four more years. By then, the high-performance era of the late-‘50s and early ‘70s was winding to a close due to high insurance rates and performance-robbing government regulations. There was nothing to do but to close the shop down.

Bimbi was in the right place at the right time when he attended the Chevy Vettefest in Chicago in 2002.  While he was there, he learned that the rights to the Nickey name might be available. Not long thereafter, Bimbi bought the rights and mapped out a plan to open his new “Supercar Headquarters” in St. Charles, Ill. “Nickey is going to cover all of the bases,” Bimbi said. “We will build modern continuation Super Cars that you can’t get from the factory, as well as vintage continuation cars. We’ll also sell high-performance parts, hot rod stuff and official Nickey memorabilia and apparel. And, for the record, we have built several Nickey Super Camaros for customers in Canada.”

Categories: Features, Muscle Car Plus