Early history of bill thomas 427 big-block conversions for nickey chevrolet lives in this 1967 camaro – hot rod network

History is truly the discipline of keeping an accurate record of events and stories. Muscle car people are often history buffs. Some revel in racing history, some are fascinated with factory assembly processes, some obsess over owner history, and some delight in digging up new information. Dean Klein is the quintessential history buff/muscle car aficionado. His historical penchant often drives him to uncover lesser-known stories of 1960s and 1970s muscle cars. Dean is making sure that no one forgets the Bill Thomas Race Cars story.

In the early 1960s, Bill Thomas rose to prominence via his involvement as a research and development specialist with General Motors’ racing program.

He designed and built the Cheetah as GM’s response to the Shelby Cobra. He worked with Chevrolet in the development of various powertrain and chassis combinations for Stock and Super Stock racers. He was also contracted by Chevrolet in late 1966 to perform big-block conversions on the West Coast for the newly introduced 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. About that same time, Nickey also contracted Dick Harrell to perform big-block conversions in the Midwest.

Dean owns one of the California-based Bill Thomas Race Cars conversions, this Butternut Yellow 1967 Camaro. In December 1966, a gentleman in California purchased the car, originally an SS350, new for his girlfriend. The relationship ended sometime in mid-1967, and he got the car back. He wasn’t satisfied with the performance of the small-block engine, so Nickey Chevrolet, then “the largest performance parts dealer in the country,” says Dean, commissioned Bill Thomas Race Cars to convert the car to Nickey big-block status.

Dean has the original Bill Thomas Race Cars conversion paperwork for the Camaro, dated October 19, 1967. While most of the Bill Thomas conversions used 427-inch Corvette engines, this car received a “cheater” 427 engine that came in at 467 ci. The car was also equipped with a 12-bolt Posi rear with 3.07 gears. Best guess is that the owner was interested in high-speed highway cruising instead of quick acceleration. A “Bill Thomas Traction Kit” (a set of traction bars) was also installed, as was a set of “special mufflers,” a set of Rader wheels, and a set of “Perrelli” (sic) tires.

The original Camaro SS350 cost about $2,800 new in December 1966. The Nickey-Thomas big-block conversion cost $4,951.36. That puts the total cost of the car close to $7,750. In 1967 dollars, that was easily $2,000 more than the price of a nicely equipped 1967 427/435hp Corvette.

Those wheels are a significant piece of the Nickey-Thomas legacy. Manufactured by Rader Wheels, they were advertised in 1967 as the Nickey/Bill Thomas Camaro Wheel, available in 14- and 15-inch sizes at $120 for a set of four. “I have only seen three sets of original Nickey/Rader wheels ever,” says Dean. “I was able to buy two sets. I paid $1,300 for one set that needed to be restored, and $2,800 for the set that is now on the car, not including center caps.” Quick math shows he spent more than $4,000 just for the proper wheels for this Camaro. That’s dedication.

Bill Thomas Race Cars would end up doing just a small number of 1967 Camaro big-block conversions under the arrangement with Nickey. The cost of shipping cars from California to Chicago made the partnership cost-prohibitive. Nickey then turned to Dick Harrell to perform the big-block conversions, and by the end of 1967, Bill Thomas Race Cars was no longer connected to Nickey Chevrolet.

“While doing that research I sat down with Bill Thomas on a number of occasions, and he kept taking about this yellow car,” Dean recalls. “A couple of years later I was following up with Bill, and he told me he had been called by the owner of that yellow car. I asked him to find out whatever happened to it, and it turned out that owner still had it. So Bill got it for me.”

When Dean took possession of the Camaro in 2004, “it was in pieces,” he says. And not just disassembled—the original owner had started to turn it into a full-blown race car, cutting some of it up in the process. During the restoration, “anything that wasn’t original on the car I put repo stuff on there,” says Dean. “I intentionally did that so people could recognize what had been changed.”

At the dawn of Camaro big-block conversions in 1966, Nickey Chevrolet in Chicago contracted with Bill Thomas Race Cars in California to do the conversion work on West Coast cars. Documentation for this 1967 Nickey-Thomas Camaro includes a Bill Thomas Race Cars work order from 1967 that was written and verified by Ron Ogilvie. Current owner Dean Klein also has a letter of authenticity from Bill Thomas and a complete three-owner history. The original big-block was gone when Dean Klein bought the car, but Bill Thomas’ son built an engine using a date-correct 427 block. The engine is equipped with a Bill Thomas BT550 cam, a Bill Thomas–modified Weiand intake manifold, and a Holley 3310 carburetor. Bill Thomas Race Cars headers dump into an OE-style big-block exhaust system with N.O.S. “Hush Thrush” transverse muffler. Bill Thomas originally used Corvair mufflers when the car was built. A signature Bill Thomas Race Cars decal adorns the valve cover. The simple interior features basic black bucket seats, no console, and a standard black steering wheel with an SS center horn button. A Stewart-Warner Green Line 8,000-rpm tachometer is mounted on the steering column with a proper hose clamp, while S-W water temperature and oil pressure gauges are under the dash. Adding to the distinctive look of the Nickey-Thomas Camaro are Rader Wheels’ rare Nickey/Bill Thomas Camaro Wheels. The Camaro was originally equipped by Bill Thomas with Pirelli tires. The rear currently has N.O.S. Pos-A-Traction cheater slicks. Look closely and you can see the original “Bill Thomas Traction Kit” traction bars just behind the wheels. The SS350 badges remain installed on the car since that is exactly how it emerged from Bill Thomas Race Cars in October 1967.