Automotive History: The Birth Of The Camaro

Camaro 1967 -ad-3

(first posted 5/19/2015)    It’s a well known fact that GM didn’t approve production for what eventually became the 1967 Camaro until six months after the Mustang was released, by which time it had already sold over 100k units. That doesn’t mean that Chevy hadn’t given the idea some thought over the years.

Camaro XP 836

Internal GM advanced projects on a compact sporty four seater go back to 1958, which not coincidentally is the year that Ford introduced the groundbreaking four-passenger Thunderbird. In an article at, Pontiac Designer Bob Porter is quoted. “I remember a four-passenger, sporty type car of the general size and weight class of the Mustang being worked on in an advanced studio. In the early ’60s, similar cars were developed from time to time. Everyone wanted to do one, but at the time there was really no corporate interest.” But various design drawings and clays continued to be generated, under the code name XP-836. The Camaro’s final shape was already well under way in this clay from 1963 or 1964.

Camaro XP 836 more

As is the way with GM, that was hardly the only design that was thrown into the mix. Here’s a few others developed under the XP-836 program.

Given that Chevrolet had practically invented the compact sporty genre with its Corvair, and had its hands full developing and marketing the Chevy II and upcoming Chevelle, its rationale seems valid enough. It certainly never expected the Mustang to be the overwhelming hit that it turned out to be.

Camaro Super Nova

The Super Nova concept from 1964 (top) represents a similar if slightly different approach on Camaro design influences. Still based on the old and tall Chevy II architecture, it’s more of a glimpse at the new roof line and styling of the ’66 Chevy II, but Camaro influences are obvious too, especially that crease line down the side that came back for the ’69 Camaro. I have vivid memories of it in GM’s Futurama exhibit from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

Camaro XP-836-Panther-Clay

This more advanced clay is now closer to production, and looks almost exactly like the air brush rendering above. It’s probably from the time when the corporate green light came on, 1964. When the Mustang set sales records after its April 1964 introduction, and quickly passed the 100k mark, GM knew it had to move, and move fast. The final design was headed up by Henry Haga, and the interior by George Angersbach.

Although the roof line is still not finalized in this clay, what’s fascinating about it is that it sports the ’69 Camaro’s front end design almost perfectly. I’m guessing here, but I suspect it fell away to the production ’67-’68 front end as a cost cutting measure, and one that Chevy rectified for 1969. That would explain why the ’67 Camaro’s front end looks rather improvised, cheap and crude.

Camaro wagon

Various body styles were explored, including this “shooting brake” wagon.

Camaro 2seat

And a shortened two-passenger convertible prototype was also built; shades of what AMC later did in turning the Javelin into the AMX.

Camaro Chaparral

The final and thorny problem to be solved was the name. Panther was used for internal and planning purposes, and one could imagine a wild panther taking down a mustang. But GM shied away from overly aggressive names, like the Pontiac’s Banshee.

A pre-release car here actually carries the “Chaparral” name, after the remarkably successful Chevy-powered race cars that were tearing up the tracks at the time. In the end, GM somehow came up with the Camaro name, and even dug up an antique French dictionary that showed it meaning “friend” or “companion”. Don’t try to tell me that “Camaro” is any less fabricated or better than “Camry”.

Camaro dynamite.jpg.pagespeed.ic.dsnnFf9UVv

Here’s Chevy honcho Pete Estes getting ready to put some bang into the new Camaro name. Meanwhile, Ford found an old Spanish dictionary that defined Camaro as a “small shrimp-like creature”. And a journalist came up with another that defined it as “loose bowels”.

Camaro 1967 brochure 1

The Camaro was developed and built on the new platform intended also for the 1968 Chevy II/Nova. It was significant in that it took the unibody structure and married it to a front subframe using several rubber biscuits. The intention was to reduce noise and vibration from the engine and front suspension, and it became a standard technique going forward. It did add some extra weight, but the direction was to more powerful and heavier cars anyway.

Camaro 1967 brochure 2

The ’67 Camaro was given the privilege of debuting two new variations of Chevy’s infinitely adaptable small block V8. The soon to be ubiquitous 350 V8 was specifically designed to give the Camaro a unique engine, which it kept to itself for the debut year. Initially, it was the biggest V8 available, but after the Mustang’s introduction of its 390 V8 for ’67, Chevrolet had no choice but to follow the leader again, and Camaro was quickly approved for the Chevy 396, although in modest 325 hp trim, so as not to violate GM’s 10lb/hp minimum.

Camaro 1967 Z 28 blue

The other unique engine was the legendary Z28 engine, developed specifically to homologate the Camaro for the new SCCA Trans Am racing series. Using a trick similar to what hot rodders had been doing since the fifties, Chevy combined the four inch bore of the 327 with a three inch crank from the 283. Using the best components in its high performance arsenal, the Mighty Mouse 302 was very conservatively rated at 290 (gross) horsepower. Many in the know suggest that its true (gross) output was closer to 380-390 horsepower.

Camaro z28 racing donohue

In the hands of racers like Mark Donohue, the Z28 was unbeatable on the tracks. Someone trying to sell you a ’67 Z28? Beware, only 602 were made, and the few that survive are worth very serious bucks. But they weren’t the easiest car to drive on the street, given that its wild cam made little power below 3,000 rpm. But it would rev to 7,000 and outrun a 396 Camaro once it picked up its skirts.

Camaro 1967 and Mustang

Despite its late start, the Camaro went on to have a decent run in its first year, although nothing near what the Mustang was doing. Despite the new competition, Ford still moved almost a half million Mustangs in 1967, while Chevy had to be content with some 221k Camaros sold. The pony car wars were now in full heat, and the epic battles to come would be the stuff…of legends, and although there were some truces along the way, it’s still going on today.

Camaro 2016-vert

If it is war, the just-announced 2016 Camaro (above) is bound to win since it’s obviously an armored vehicle with gun slits for windows. Yes, they’re even smaller than the current Camaro’s.