I worked at Chicago's Nickey Chevrolet in 1965-'66 as its first owner relations manager. My office was 50 feet from the acclaimed service department where the likes of Bill Skarupinski (mechanic and "Director of Road Tests"), Mike Terrafino, Lou Anselmo, and other skilled wrenchmen built up or modified new or used Chevys any way a customer wanted—thanks in large part to Nickey's High Performance Manager, Don Swiatek, a well-liked executive who had been there since 1952.
The Nickey crew was a well-oiled machine. The concept was "Order Monday and pick up Thursday." These Chevy stalwarts couldn't wait to get to work to see what new orders came in. You had to be there. And yes, by the way, they all made very good salaries twisting wrenches at what was then the world's largest and most aggressive Chevrolet dealership.
By model year 1967, Chevy high performance had been super strong for over a decade. But when the super slick Camaro was introduced in September '66, virtually everyone everywhere who dreamt of buying one was aghast. An L79 small-block would have been nice. And what about having a '66 Chevelle L78 396? General Motors had a passenger car policy of not letting any new model (except Corvette) have a curb weight-to-horsepower ratio of 10:1 or less. Evidently not understanding the virtue of the "Win on Sunday and Sell on Monday" sales principle, the new 3,200-pound Camaro only got RPO L48, 295hp 350 as its top engine. With a hydraulic lifter, smooth-idle camshaft and upper rpm power limit of no more than 5,500 rpm, the competitors were all licking their chops. But not all was lost.
A few months after I was hired by General Manager Al Seelig, he hired a well-known, top Chevrolet drag racer, Dick Harrell, to oversee the new Nickey high-performance speed shop and lend his name and expertise to all the new car sales possible. Assisting him in the new speed emporium was '66 L79 Nova racer Al Gartzman. Through close association with Chevrolet's Product Promotion Department, a kick-ass Camaro plan was created. Nickey soon teamed up with Anaheim, California's Bill Thomas Race Cars to offer special, ultra-high-performance, 427-cubic-inch Camaros—complete with a warranty.
The plan was simple: West Coast buyers could purchase their special custom Nickey 427 Camaro from Bill Thomas Race Cars. Everyone else would be offered a complimentary one-way ticket to Chicago to buy their Camaro at Nickey. But in talking at length with Swiatek (himself a Polish-Italian American with a racing record a mile long and now retired), he remembered like it was yesterday all the mail, inquiries, and orders received from 48-state customers who wanted to buy their 427 Camaro in California from the legendary Bill Thomas Race Cars and all the West Coast buyers who wanted to buy direct from Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago.
Harrell was quoted in a few stories that a dozen or more sales contracts were written up during the first few hours of the first day Nickey offered its 427 rocket ship. Records like that were never kept. All that mattered then was overall dealer profitability. We all thought that life as such would never change. Power-shift here we go!
Thomas Race Cars performance resume was staggering: It built and prepped road-race Corvettes, and it built a lot of Hayden Proffitt's NHRA World Champion '62 409 Bel Air. It created the fuel-injected 327 Cheetah road racer and more. Putting Thomas together with Chevy's Vince Piggins, then Dick Harrell and Don Swiatek—there indeed was no shortage of brains, talent, or experience.