LOVES PARK, Ill. (WTVO) — “It all started at NicKey.”
You might not know from its inconspicuous exterior, but just off Alpine Road in Loves Park resides a 100-year-old company that changed the entire history of American muscle cars.
NicKey Performance is a legendary car builder and tuner that pioneered the domestic supercar. Started in 1923 as a Chicago-based Chevrolet dealership, NicKey has gone through multiple owners and namesakes before eventually landing in the hands of Stefano Bimbi, who continues the legacy of making the biggest and baddest cars right here in the Stateline.
The NicKey Chevrolet brand began with founder Mr. Nickey, who sold the dealership to the two brother, one sister Stefani family after World War II. “They’re the ones who brought the NicKey name to performance prominence in the 60s,” Bimbi said.
NicKey started racing with Jaguars and specialty Corvettes in the 1950s, however the brand really gained nationwide fame with their work on the Camaro with “Mr. Chevrolet” and star drag racer Dick Harrell in the late 1960s.
“When the Camaros were slated to come out as a ’67 model at the end of 1966, Dick saw that that Camaro could hold the top dog engine which was only available in Chevy ‘big cars’ or Corvettes,” explained Bimbi.
“He figured out that big engine would fit in the Camaro… Dick figured if we could put the [Corvette engine] into that Camaro and we could [gain approval] for racing, we’ll make enough of them so that they can let me enter them as a production car and by doing that we’ll sell them to the public as a package, that’s where the NicKey super Camaros evolved from,” said Bimbi.
“That’s where that supercar genre started. It all started at NicKey and then other agencies and builders and tuners branched out from there.”
NicKey received their first shipment of Camaros in August or September of 1966, by October the modified vehicles were being tested and receiving extensive media coverage.
“Within a couple of months, the whole world knew what could be done and what was being done. So another dealership could certainly copy what NicKey did, but they pioneered that concept of the domestic supercar — building a car that the factory would not dare build, packaging it together, selling it to the public, and getting it [approved] for drag racing.”
The dealership closed in 1973. However, the former owners opened a new iteration of NicKey named NicKey Chicago, focusing on building performance vehicles until 1977.
In 2002, Bimbi recieved an opportunity to obtain the NicKey trademarks, and after a little effort, the third iteration of NicKey, NicKey Performance, was born.
This year, the brand is celebrating 100 years, with Bimbi and his team continuing the legendary legacy of NicKey.
“Even though we’re not a franchised Chevrolet dealer, we do buy and sell vintage cars from that era, as well as we buy new cars from the dealerships, we outfit them with our packages: stage one, two and three, just like NicKey did back in the 60s,” Bimbi said.
“They’re known as the very first organization to take that big engine and put it in that lightweight car, which even GM wouldn’t do. General Motors thought that was way too much power for that car back then, they thought it would be unsafe and corporate brass thought that anyone who wanted to drag race was a hooligan.”
“And some of us still are,” Bimbi said with a smile.
Though the Camaro is slated to be discontinued in 2023, Bimbi says NicKey Performance has no plans to slow down.
“I don’t think we’ll have a gas-burning Camaro coupe coming back anytime soon… so I’m bummed out, but we’ll have plenty of business to last for a long, long time.”