Chevrolet Nickey Camaro

While many continue to believe that Chevrolet’s Camaro was a belated reply to Ford’s first-generation Mustang, the Camaro was actually intended from the outset as a more conventional replacement for the radical and ill-fated Corvair. Debuting in late 1966 and value-priced from just $2,466 for the basic hardtop coupe, the Camaro was available with virtually every Chevrolet option, including a wide range of engines from a basic six-cylinder unit right up to the thundering Mark IV “big block” V-8. The Camaro proved to be a successful gamble for Chevrolet, with production for the 1967-model year totaling nearly 221,000 vehicles.

Racers quickly adopted the trim and lightweight Camaro, which adapted itself well for a wide variety of racing types. In road-racing guise, Roger Penske’s Camaros quickly dominated SCCA Trans-Am competition in the hands of Mark Donohue, winning the series championship in 1968 and 1969. Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins added to the Camaro phenomenon on the drag strip with his meticulously prepared “big block” Super Stock Camaros, which went on to dominate the all-new Pro Stock class in 1969.

On the street, if the top factory-installed 396 engines weren’t enough to satisfy hard-core performance fans, John and Edward Stephani, co-owners of Chicago’s Nickey Chevrolet, came to the rescue. Linking racing success and street supremacy to showroom sales, Nickey worked behind the scenes with GM performance-parts manager Vince Piggins and Bill Thomas of Anaheim, California to transplant the Corvette’s L72 427 big block into the Camaro. Both Piggins and Thomas were perfectly qualified for the task. Piggins supplied the latest high-performance and racing parts to the Chevy faithful despite the GM racing ban, while Thomas was an innovative racecar builder with the Cheetah, a three-car series of fastback Chevy II match racers and the groundbreaking “Novel Nova” funny car already to his credit.

The Nickey 427 cars were built in two locations, with Bill Thomas Racing Cars handling the program’s development work and construction of the cars sold on the West Coast, while the popular drag racer Dick Harrell, “Mr. Chevrolet,” initially spearheaded production and sales in Chicago. Nickey took care of the Midwestern and Eastern markets. Nickey advertisements even offered free one-way airfare for one person from anywhere in the USA to either Chicago or Anaheim to take delivery of their new Nickey Camaro.

With 450 bhp on tap (or more), the cars were brutal performers. Since they were destined for severe use, the Nickey cars included such heavy-duty racing parts as explosion-proof bell housings, plus competition clutches and flywheels. Other tweaks included high-performance intake and exhaust components, low rear-end gears and M&H Racemaster slicks, and taller coil springs up front to maximize weight transfer. Reportedly, the cars accelerated so hard that owners were advised to drag race the cars with less than a half-full tank of fuel to avoid fuel escaping from the rear filler cap!

The Nickey Camaro was the costliest dealer-modified Chevy supercar of the era at nearly $6,000 complete. However, it was the most complete and well engineered of all. Car and Driver tested a Nickey Camaro in 1967 and summed up the experience, “The Nickey 427 Camaro is, no doubt about it, an attention-getter. It looks exactly like what it is—a Camaro with Mr. America musculature. It is a very good attempt at making a dual-purpose vehicle for the Sunday sportsman, though all such creations must, of course, ultimately be a compromise.”

The Nickey 427 Camaro program was the first of its kind, predating the other dealer-modified Camaros and Chevrolet’s own Don Yenko-led COPO efforts of 1969. As such, the Nickey program blessed the new Camaro with the ferocious performance reputation it still carries today. In fact, the street credibility earned by Chevrolet with the program provided a true value far exceeding the financial considerations.

While all original Nickey-modified Camaros are special, this example is powered by the 468-cubic inch V-8 known to be the “last engine built” by the Nickey Speed Shop. Located as a barn find, the car was acquired by noted Illinois muscle car collector Mike Guarise, who restored it to its former pavement-pounding glory. While originally Olympic Gold, Mr. Guarise elected to refinish the car in Marina Blue, as it had been refinished in blue at some point and remained so for the majority of its existence. As offered, the Camaro is presented as a wild street machine with dual four-barrel carburetors, taller front springs and “cheater” slicks, plus open exhaust headers. Other great features include a Sun tach, oil pressure and coolant temperature gauge, with all three cluster-mounted on the steering column, Cragar S/S wheels with “Nickey” center caps and Firestone redline front tires. The current owner acquired the car and placed it into his private collection in 2010; he is only selling it due to lack of use and to make room for his other ongoing projects.

Given its rarity and historical significance to America’s high-performance history, this Nickey Camaro is accompanied by documentation including a signed affidavit from Dan Swiatek who built all the Nickey cars, verifying this example to be one of “his” cars prior to the restoration, which he also personally supervised. Another certificate confirms the currently installed 468 Chevy V-8 as the last engine built by the famed Nickey Speed Shop.

This 1967 Nickey Camaro is the product of some of the greatest names in American high-performance history. As a fascinating link to the all-out horsepower wars of the 1960s, it provides tangible evidence of the lengths America’s car manufacturers took to dominate both the racetrack and the showroom floor. As such, it is without doubt the perfect rival bookend to the 1971 “Mr. Norm” Hemi Challenger.

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in January of 2012 at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, Phoenix, Arizona.

450+ bhp, 468 cu. in. Nickey Certified balanced and blueprinted Chevrolet V-8 engine, dual four-barrel carburetors, Muncie four-speed manual transmission, independent front suspension with A-arms and coil springs, live 12-bolt rear axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs, and four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 108"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Darin Schnabel

Gallery: Chevrolet Nickey Camaro