Automotive History: The Birth Of The Camaro

Camaro Super Nova1964 Super Nova

(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.

Camaro study 1

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, 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).

Camaro study 2

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.

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. 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,

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, 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”.

Camaro dynamite

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 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 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.

Camaro 1967 Z28_Side_resize

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 1967 Z 28 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 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 advertisement

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