(first posted 6/30/2014) It’s a well known fact that GM didn’t approve production for what eventually became the Camaro until six months after the Mustang was released, by which time it had already sold over 100k units and was on track to be the most successful new car introduction ever. The rear-engined Corvair, which had pioneered the sporty-coupe market in the US and inspired the Mustang, was clearly not going to be competitive. But that doesn’t mean that Chevy hadn’t given the idea some thought over the years.
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 1958 Thunderbird. In an article at holisticpage.com, 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 airbrush (below) from 1963 (more likely 1964 or 1965).
Given that Chevrolet had practically invented the compact sporty genre with its 1960.5 Corvair Monza, 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.
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.
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. Although the roof line is still not finalized, what’s fascinating about this clay is that it sports the ’69 Camaro’s front end styling 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,
Various body styles were explored, including this “shooting brake” wagon.
And a shortened two-passenger convertible prototype was also built: Shades of what AMC later did in turning the Javelin into the AMX.
The final and thorny problem to be solved was the name. Panther was used for internal and planning purposes, 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”.
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”.
The Camaro was developed and built on the 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.
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 once again following rather than leading, after the Mustang’s introduction of its 390 V8 for ’67, the Camaro was quickly approved for the Chevy 396, although in modest 325 hp trim.
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.
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 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.
Despite its late start, the Camaro went to have a decent run in its first year, although nothing near what the Mustang was doing. 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.
Related reading: 1960.5 Corvair Monza Coupe: The Most Influential Car of the Decade
Neat. I haven’t seen most of these pics before. It’s interesting that GM kicked around the idea of building a car like the Mustang and never pulled the trigger (until they had to play catch-up), while devoting resources to more exotic vehicles like the Corvair and Toronado.
The proportions of the prototype in the first picture are strange. My first thought was that the roof is sitting too high on the body. This is probably because it was based on the “old and tall Chevy II architecture”, as you said it in the text Paul.
The clay in the second picture reminds me of a prototype for the AMX mid-engine sports car, but extended to add rear seats. The early Camaro clay with the alternative roof are like a first gen Monte Carlo.
Pete Estes lighting the giant make-believe stick of dynamite is reminiscent of the “Dodge Rebellion” ads that were already circulating for MY1966.
Chevy playing catch-up to Ford was the rule rather than the exception in the 1960s. Estes had been very successful at Pontiac, but in DeLorean’s book, it was argued that Estes spent too much of his time at Chevy reacting to the “suggestions” from the 14th Floor of the GM building instead of listening to his gut and his sales people. In fairness though, Chevy was larger than Pontiac by an order of magnatude, and was a much tougher Division to run.
Delorean’s 1969-73 era at Chevy would have him in ever more hot water as he went his own way, by almost any means necessary.
Ford, on the other hand, was in a really creative period and seemed to be uncovering new market niches by the month. They finally learned the secret – stop playing by GM’s rule book and out maneuver them instead.
In some respects, GM was caught between a rock and a hard place during this era.
If GM introduced a string of new models that did increase sales at the expense of its competition, it risked being the target of anti-trust action by the federal government.
If the new models largely stole sales from existing GM models, the corporation faced increased costs without a corresponding increase in sales, market share or profits.
The 1958 Thunderbird is a good example of this. It sold in the medium-price market. GM was dominant in this market segment during the 1950s. If GM had offered something like the four-seat Thunderbird in 1957 or 1958, it undoubtedly would have sold to a large number of customers who otherwise would have bought “regular” Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks. GM would have therefore been largely taking sales out of its own hide.
Ford was very weak in the medium-price market – that was why it introduced the Edsel in the first place. So while a four-seat Thunderbird would steal some Mercury sales, it would also most likely steal a fair number of Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick customers. From Ford’s perspective, that was a definite win.
Regarding the original Mustang, given that GM was already selling Corvair Monzas to people who wanted sporty compacts, it was understandably hesitant about introducing a vehicle that would undoubtedly cannibalize Corvair sales. The Corvair went nowhere as an economy sedan, but was a hit as a sporty compact.
Ford faced the opposite situation when it came to compact offerings. The Falcon had never made much headway as a sporty car, even with the attractive Sprint versions that debuted in 1963. Ford had much less to lose by introducing a unique sporty car like the Mustang.
Well said. And GM’s “spot between a rock and a hard place” wasn’t exactly all that painful….The Mustang was an unexpected mega-hit, but then it didn’t last all that long either, in terms of really big sales.
And don’t I remember, by the end of the 60’s, Hank the Deuce griping that, “We bring out all these new models, new niches, and in the end we’re still selling the same amount of Ford’s as before”? My dad used to laugh that every new model Ford that came out just cannibalized sales from the profitable big Fords.
The Mustang seems to have been the only exception to that.
If we are honest with ourselves, the three real deadly sins at GM were the Vega’s terrible rust and reliability issues, the complete meltdown of the X-cars, and the push for volume over high prices and prestige at Cadillac. The first two destroyed the public’s confidence in the company, and meant that almost nothing that came after, good or bad, would easily restore that trust.
The push for volume at Cadillac meant that there would be too many cost cutting measures at a division that should have been playing in Mercedes Benz territory. The cars sold by Cadillac by the early 70s should have been Buicks.
Ford’s market share remained relatively static during the 1960s through the mid-1970s. That was certainly better than having market share bounce up and down, as Chrysler’s did during the same period. And GM’s share began a long, very slow decline after its 1962 peak that was briefly arrested in the late 1970s.
If I recall correctly, it did become a bone of contention between Iacocca and Henry Ford II that, for all of Ford’s product innovation during this period, its market share did not increase.
The only thing I would add to this is that I think Chevrolet was very confident that the second-generation Corvair would be a smash hit — a reasonable if ultimately inaccurate assumption.
I also imagine that there was some concern over “how many models is too many?”
Remember that in a span of a couple of years they went from 2 Chevrolet models in 1959, the Chevrolet and the Corvette, to having Corvair, Chevy II, Malibu and full size Chevrolets by 1964.
Well ,remember that the Mustang is a reply to the Corvair Monza, so they already thought they had that niche filled with the sales figures the Corvair was pulling in from 1960-1963.
Plus there was a compact with full hardtop coupe, convertible, 2door sedan, 4door sedan and wagon available at every other division except Cadillac, so they figured that they had covered lots of bases already.
Plus the Chevy II, which Chevrolet cooked up in record time, also had pretty hardtop coupes and specialty models too
While at the same time GM was launching the new 1963 Corvette, the Riviera, etc etc.
I think those 1961-63 numbers include Corvair trucks and vans. I don’t believe that production of Corvair passenger cars alone ever reached 300K. I want to say that the peak was in ’61 at around 290K. Starting in ’62, the Chevy II (and to some degree the improving economy, as well as the Fairlane) began cutting into sales.
So, they were still selling upwards of 200,000 Corvair passenger cars, and a whole slew of other Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick compact cars too, the point I’m trying to make is that GM was already in that niche before the Mustang.
The Corvair’s peak year was ’62, which was about 292,000 not including the FC95 commercials. But, as Carmine says, it’s not like the Corvair was being propped up by sales of the commercial models.
The Corvair was a market miscalculation in many ways. It didn’t come close to what Ford did with the Falcon, which satisfied the inexpensive compact car market and when GM shifted towards marketing the Corvair as a sporty car, Ford took the Falcon and turned it into a Mustang.
In both cases, Ford used old engineering to outdo GM’s expensive new engineering. Ford reaped a profit out of every Falcon and Mustang that GM couldn’t. What satisfied auto aficionados. both then and now regarding the Corvair, didn’t satisfy the needs and perceptions of the American compact and sporty car markets.
The Corvair begins a new chapter in GM’s history of spending a great deal of time and money to design a production car that falls short of expectations. By the mid-1980s, it had become such an irritant of hype not meeting expectations, GM unleashes a slew of profitable clones across their entire brand hierarchy. After the Corvair, the Vega, and the X-Body, compared to their profitable successes with the Chevy II, the Chevelle/Malibu, and the Chevette, it should not be surprising to find GM management reluctant to spend money on new auto ideas.
Ford showed GM how to niche market with existing chassis and engines to gain maximum profits. While Ford might not have gained sales against GM during this time, they were putting out new products for less money.
Had the Corvair been a marketing success, GM would have continued pouring money into new cars. What we see here with the Camaro is not just “catch-up” with Ford, but a realization that putting out a new car didn’t mean building an entirely new car.
The technologies then existed for GM to put out new cars that were perceived as completely different – that really weren’t. Which may seem odd from the 5 division company who should have learned that decades earlier.
It could be interesting to compare the Corvair with the Valiant (who was a separate make for its first year in the USA while it was a separate make in Canada until 1966 before it became a Plymouth). Exner’s designs might afraid some folks but by 1963 in a more mainstream design along with the compact Dart who replaced the Lancer who was a reskinned Valiant; Chrysler beginned to get a solid grip in the compact market until the launch of the ill-fated Aspen/Volare.
“The technologies then existed for GM to put out new cars that were perceived as completely different – that really weren’t. Which may seem odd from the 5 division company who should have learned that decades earlier.”
They had after all been doing this with the full-size cars for a long time.
I wonder if there was ever an accounting or final verdict as to whether the Corvair and BOP compacts paid back their development cost etc or ended up in the red. They were certainly an interesting experiment, to paraphrase Thomas Edison GM learned a few ways how not to build an automobile. If they broke even or near to it, surely that is not a bad outcome when weighed against the potential of getting a jump on the competition if it had worked. No risk, no reward.
I wonder if they had delayed the ‘experiment’ a decade whether they might have chosen transverse front wheel drive for the Corvair?
Hemmings blog posted a old article from Mechanix Illustrated about the Camaro when it was known under the codename of Panther.
And one Chevrolet-Oldsmobile car dealer in Toronto did a package for the Camaro titled “Black Panther” http://www.firstgencamaro.com/blackpanther.html
The black panther is gorgeous.Thanks I’ve never seen or heard of it before
The Black Panther name would soon have very different connotations!
I’m sure in the early 60’s, the GM old timers were still expecting young[ish] adults to buy strippo BelAirs and to ‘move up’ to Buicks, etc.
I can imagine after World’s Fair, on GM’s14th floor: “What with these kids [adults all ges] today  wanting these tiny cars [Mustangs]!?”
Then, the old timers went “All right build some small cars, but make them cheap!”
“We want them back in real [big] cars after they come to their senses!”
Right…..Which is why they came up with the Corvair Monza coupe in 1960 and the turbocharged Monza Spyder in 1962, the Corvair coupe plays a large part in Ford developing the Mustang.
Oh, and the whole line of specialty compacts in 1961-1962, including the turbo-charged JetFire F85..V8 Skylark and Tempest…which lead to the development of the intermediate cars and the GTO in 1964, which of course, was never bought by any young people….yep, GM had no clue at all how to sell and market cars to people in the 60’s, which explains their massive market share of course.
Don’t forget that GM’s first head of design, Harley Earl, also appreciated smaller, sportier cars. Some of his Motorama cars reflected this. The LeSabre, for all its flamboyance, was closer in size to a Chevy than a Cadillac. The LaSalle II sedan was about the size of a Corvair; and was designed around a small 60° V-6.
There was a big difference, though, between the people at the divisions who came up with stuff like the GTO and GM’s senior management (the 14th Floor, q.v.). That era was full of a constant tug of war between people like DeLorean and Estes (or John Beltz at Oldsmobile) and the old-line sales and corporate guys, who were often resistant to if not aghast at some of the divisions’ ideas and promotional stunts. All of that is well-documented.
Also, while the corporation was willing to let the divisions try the occasional engineering exercise, that didn’t mean there was any organized corporate effort to market to or even identify the youth market to which the Mustang and GTO appealed. (Pontiac did and as a result senior management was constantly yelling at them to cut it out.) The Corvair Monza was essentially a fortuitous marketing accident while the Oldsmobile Jetfire and rope-drive Tempest were interesting engineering projects developed without a lot of apparent thought to who would buy them.
Furthermore, a lot of GM’s senior sales executives WERE pretty out of touch by the ’60s. Pontiac’s general sales manager insisted that they would have a hard time selling even 5,000 GTOs and Lee Mays at Chevrolet was resistant to what became the first Monte Carlo because he thought specialty cars were a waste of time. The fact that that didn’t hurt GM more than it did came down to styling, resale value (by then based as much on reputation as anything else), and the sheer strength of the dealer body, which put Ford and Chrysler to shame in that era.
I was reiterating what Ate Up said and what Brock Yates wrote about the “tug of war” decribed above.
The fact that the Vega was poorly built says it all. Not to mention that the GTO had to be ‘snuck in the back door’.
“It was significant in that it took the unibody structure and married it to a front subframe using several rubber biscuits.”
Did somebody say Rubber Biscuit?
The way Holdens had been manufactured since 1948 hardly a new idea for GM their foreign divisions had used bolt on subframes since BOF died out in the 30s.
That’s egg zachary what popped into my head too!
Guy I went to sub school with had one of the earliest 67s sold. I think it had a 307 but whatever it was it was small because he went to a 68 as soon as they came out. It had something much bigger. Don’t have too much knowledge of them as I liked the Novas better. Did ride across the eastern states in a 69/230cid/3 on the floor model that I liked a lot. Good economy and a comfortable cruise.
Hard not to notice how things seem to borrow from the second gen corvair. I think that would have been a winner but for the in house competition trying to compete with the mustang. Should have followed their nose a few years earlier and they could have owned the competition.
The top picture is very Opel Manta.A real beauty unlike today’s Camaro,
Chuck Jordan got around, including a stint as Opel’s Design Chief.
I am amused by how much the Camaro clay’s rear passenger windows evoke the Caprice two-door’s.
It also apes some of the shapes that came later on A-body coupes too.
Exactly what I was thinking, a very close match
I just realized the extent to which the Mustang story overshadows everything so much that I really don’t know jack about the Camaro story. Very interesting write up.
Jim Grey’s point about the roof on the clay resembling the ’66 – ’68 Caprice roofline is valid. But, with the sharp kick up, I saw the ’71 Buick Riviera in both the clay and the picture above the clay.
Always interesting how styling elements would circulate for a dozen years or so.
Great article; as Dave B says the Mustang story overshadows all and I didn’t realise how early they had been looking at something like this. Interesting how that third pic, the airbrush, has a nose that is reminiscent of the Banshee/C3. Chevrolet Chaparral. Very chi-chi name.
I’ve always thought the Super Nova would have been a cool production car…
Let’s also remember the Camaro “Hawaiian” show car with its squared headlights.
I think the 1967 Camaro would had look cool with its squared headlights.
All these photos new to me, Paul—I really like that 1964 concept car. Also new-to-me is this Chevy promotional film from the launch–nearly 20 minutes.
Youth music and styles of the times balanced with plenty of footage of development, styling, computer-assisted engineering, etc. Several Chevy officials speak, as well as comic artist Milton Caniff (the “Steve Canyon” guy):
I almost wish Chevy had stuck to the proposed ‘Chaparral’ name instead of Camaro, which really means nothing at all. It would have implied more performance and endurance. BTW, where on earth did that journalist come up with the idea that Camaro meant ‘loose bowels’?! That’s just dumb. But really, if you ask me (which, I know, nobody did), Ford got the better name.