Today, the words “tuner car” conjures up images of an AMG or Renntech-equipped Mercedes. Or perhaps a Stillen-equipped SUV or a McLaren Mustang. But long before these high-impact, sophisticated cruisers existed, a group of dealer-based “tuners” were turning out supercars of a different sort. Baldwin-Motion, Dana, Nickey and Yenko were all Chevrolet dealers who sold modified bowtie products ready for the dragstrip, thinly disguised as streetable (and thereby finance-able, and in theory, insurable) cars.
When Chevrolet introduced the Camaro in 1967, it was a direct response to Ford’s Mustang. The “pony cars” were different executions on the same theme: a long-hood, short-deck four-seater with engine choices ranging from a minimal six-cylinder to a high-performance V8. The Camaro could therefore be a sensible choice for the young family, if equipped with a six-cylinder or modest V8. It could be optioned as a sports luxury car with air conditioning, power steering and brakes, and upgraded interior, all the way down to fake woodgrain dashboard and console panels. The third choice was to head toward go-fast options, with drum brakes all around (they weighed less than the discs) and a radio/heater delete, and then head to the speed shop for performance modifications not on the list of GM options. The demand was there for more than just a normal 350 V8, and even the 396 V8, introduced part way through the 1967 model year, couldn’t satisfy the drag-stripper’s need for speed.
Nickey Chevrolet, located on Irving Park Road in Chicago (the backwards K was Nickey’s trademark) was involved in selling go-fast race parts for Chevrolets, as well as selling new Chevrolets. Owned by Edward and John Stephani, Nickey joined forces with Bill Thomas Racing in Anaheim, California, to build and sell turn-key race cars, and to provide all levels of performance parts for Chevrolets. Nickey’s thriving catalog business made it possible for Camaro owners to build their own street racer, one part at a time. Nickey/Bill Thomas Racing had two plants to convert small-block cars to 427s, the Chicago location serving the East and Midwest, and the California location taking care of the thriving West Coast market.
Advertising for the Nickey/Bill Thomas Racing Camaros (as well as Novas and Chevelles) was not subtle. One 1967 ad read, “Here is where you go to get all of the go power, and your Chevrolet High Performance parts, PLUS the know-how to make you GO.” Not sports cars for the stringed-back glove set, Nickey Camaros were drag racers for the street and helped Chevrolet stay involved with racing, albeit on the sly.
The era of the dealer-built tuner Camaro was short lived. The increasing cost of insurance made selling 427-equipped cars a nearly impossible task. By 1969, as claims statistics from earlier years filtered in, it became nearly impossible for an insurer to write a policy at any cost. Baldwin-Motion survived the changeover to the new body style in 1970, even introducing a 454-equipped model of their famous Phase III. The final death blow to dealer-built tuner cars was the fuel crisis of the early ’70s; few outside of the serious racers had any use for a car that measured its fuel requirements in terms of minutes per tankful.