Historiography: Camaro at 50 – Part 1

MN C&C Oct 2015
All Photos by Randy Stern

Fifty years ago, the gauntlet was thrown down. The North American automotive industry has never been the same since.

The heart of the American car enthusiast lies within a class of steady-selling sport coupes and convertibles that fly the flag of the nation ever so proudly. As their lives took shape in the turbulence of the 1960s, their iconic place in the automotive lexicon bore fruit to the greatest rivalry that exists today. This rivalry was born with style, performance and a price tag within reach of every hard working American.

General Motors knew it had to be a part of this scene. They did so by introducing two products during the Summer of Love: The Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird. Today, the Camaro remains. In mid-August, it will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the Woodward Dream Cruise.

The Camaro and Firebird were byproducts of an idea that was spawned by the success of the former G.I.’s that fought in World War II. Americans were no longer content with just the standard issue automobile. Families wanted to diversify and enjoy the fruits of their postwar hard work and upward mobility. As they marched through Europe, they saw that automotive diversity in the small sports cars they saw along the way. The thought was to find a way to introduce them to our country as a motorized release from the potential stresses of American commerce and service.

While the sports car movement saw some interpretations by American automakers – the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Thunderbird – they ended up being something else that was unattainable to every American. The Corvette sought favor with well-heeled enthusiasts, although they were priced within reach of most American customers. The second-generation ‘Vette was spurred on by a class of motorsports-ready machinery priced double the average cost of Stingray coupe. They also held true to the two-seat formula – something insurance companies were keen to put high premiums on.

The Thunderbird did add two seats, but it also added more luxury. Ford positioned the new four-seat, enlarged Thunderbird for a higher income crowd, perfecting the personal luxury coupe genre for the next few decades.

These two cars left the average American consumer wondering how they could get their thrills in a sporty package. Muscle cars were building momentum, even though they were high performance versions of the big standard American car. However, the first Baby Boomers were becoming teenagers and were ready to take their driving tests. Not only would a sports coupe for American tastes have to be smaller than the standard sized car – they have to more very affordable for teenagers and their parents to buy.

In the meantime, the mid-sized car began to appear at showrooms alongside standard and compact cars. While automakers were wedging V8s underneath compacts, some customers wanted much more power to play with. The mid-sized two-door was the perfect car to put a larger engine inside of the engine bay with a lighter body for greater performance. Cars, such as the Pontiac Tempest, Dodge Dart and Ford Fairlane, were made into muscle cars that would dictate the car scene of the remainder of the 1960s.

Muscle cars were great, but they were more brutish than what some customers had in mind. There were still plenty of people who believe that a European-style 2+2 would be perfect for customers young and old. While they can still have V8 power, they can also be even lighter than mid-sized muscle cars and d exude their own style to boot.

The answer to their needs came in 1964. It was Ford – and Lee Iacocca – that finally figured out what to do with the average American consumer to have a stylish, performance-based coupe to sell to them. The April introduction of the Mustang drew many to their showrooms. Ford hit the jackpot with this car, as it yielded the most sales for a first-year new model in American history of that time. They finally got what the average American customer – and their teenage children – truly wanted in a car.

Ford was not alone in this new class of car. Chrysler thought about the same thing. They asked their low-priced brand Plymouth to come up with something for the young American driver. They took a Valiant two-door and made it into a fastback – with a huge rear window. Plymouth called it the Barracuda. Though introduced a few months prior to the Mustang, the Barracuda attracted a few buyers without knowing what it could possibly do for them.

GM witnessed the success of the Mustang and initial interest in the Barracuda from their iconic old tower in Detroit. They had the Pontiac GTO to sell to these same customers – the best muscle car of its time. Oldsmobile added the 442 to their F-85/Cutlass lineup, while Chevrolet expanded the Super Sport trim to the compact Chevy II/Nova and mid-sized Chevelle. The rear-engine Corvair was also a choice against the Mustang and Barracuda with its Monza models. That was until consumer advocate Ralph Nader literally killed the car with his book “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

However, the Mustang loomed large on the minds of the brass at GM. They had to get a car that would match – and even exceed – the Falcon-based coupe. Americans were wrapped up in the little “pony.” The crew at Dearborn though they were invincible. GM came up with a plan to challenge that position.

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The designers and engineers at GM went to work on an answer to the Mustang. They internally called it the Panther to throw everyone off as to which brands will get the car – and what it would be exactly. The long hood/short deck/notchback body style caught their attention and they decided to concentrate on that. A fastback body was considered, yet was shelved for another few years. They also made sure to sell a convertible version, as they still attracted customers through the 1960s.

In June of 1966, all was almost revealed. Though project XP-836 was announced, the name “Camaro” was dropped by Chevrolet’s general manager Pete Estes – the fictitious “small animal that eats Mustangs.” By September, the Camaro was fully unveiled a few weeks prior to its arrival at Chevrolet showrooms across North America.

The coupe and convertible were received with high interest. Though they never sold on the scale of the first Mustangs, Chevrolet showrooms saw plenty of traffic for their new cars. Just like the Mustang, the first generation Camaros offered both six-cylinder and small block V8s as power options. Engines topped out at 396 cubic inches (6.5 liters), with COPO models wedging the big block 427s underneath their raised hoods.

From 1967, the Camaro was offered with several packages. The Rally Sport, Super Sport and Z/28 were introduced to add more performance in both look and horsepower to the Camaro. The latter was designed to be a “track ready” Camaro made for those seeking to participate in motorsports. The Trans Am racing series was in its infancy, which participants can field Camaros and other similar coupes, as long as their engines do not exceed 5.0 liters in displacement. Chevrolet developed a 4.9 liter V8 for the Z/28 to compete in that racing series, while offering it to the 602 production models made in its first year.

For Chevrolet – and GM – the Camaro was designed to be advanced for its time. The “Coke bottle” styling was in vogue at the time, and the Camaro exuded those lines perfectly. They were a sexier contrast to the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda. Without a fastback, the Camaro did well for enthusiasts and customers alike with its notchback body and accompanying convertible at the end of the 1960s. Though AMC rolled out its Javelin and AMX the next year, followed by a sexier Mustang for 1969, the Camaro held its own sales-wise while championing on the Trans Am circuit with its Z/28.

On a personal level, the Camaro was built at the Van Nuys, California plant – several miles from where I grew up. If one car had plenty of community pride in the San Fernando Valley, it was the Camaro. Our neighbors that worked at GM’s plant off of Van Nuys Boulevard bought the cars they spent hours crafting. They made sure they bought Camaros (and Firebirds) built at their jobsite. Some might have stereotypes of Camaros and Firebirds being some official car of another place across the country, these coupes and convertibles were primarily proud Valley cars.

Also of note, the Camaro was also built at the Norwood, Ohio plant and in another plant in Switzerland for European consumption.

The first generation Camaro was successful, yet GM’s designers and engineers knew it needed a bigger hit to sustain their sports coupe through the 1970s. Their revised 1969 models were also sold as early 1970 products, while GM puts its finishing touches on what could be the most striking car of its era – next to the then-new Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger.

Early Second-Gen Camaro

GM did take some more time in developing the second generation Camaro. This time, they made it into one body style – the fastback. No more notchback or convertibles were to be developed or made past 1970 – until another generation was developed. The fastback had to be sexier than the outgoing model – deeper “Coke bottle” curves, a longer hood and a sweeping roofline. They also developed two different front ends – one with a larger grille opening without a bumper across it. It had to be aggressive – more so than the first generation models.

They also developed a more pronounced cockpit cabin, with bucket seats placed on either side of a deep center console on many models. The main dashboard wrapped around the driver. Cabin space was increased, even though the rear shelf went further back than in the notchback models.

Its arrival in calendar year 1970 could be felt across the automotive industry. The Camaro was very well done with its lower, longer platform. Its choice of models – base, SS, RS and Z/28 – were to be positioned to challenge its competitors head on. The car was a huge hit, at a time when the Ponycar ruled the automotive universe in North America.

Then, things began unraveling in the North American auto industry. The Environmental Protection Agency began mandating vehicles to clean up exhaust emissions. The EGR valve was installed in vehicles to enable unleaded gasoline to be used in their fuel systems. That led to the Society of American Engineers to recalibrate horsepower and torque rating calculations. Safety mandates were made by the Federal Government, which asked manufacturers to install bumpers that would not be damaged in an impact up to 5 MPH. In 1973, the OPEC Oil Crisis began to seep into the auto sales. The lack of available fuel cut into the habits of Americans and their gas drinking V8-powered engines.

All of these affected the auto industry through the early 1970s. They responded in various ways. Ford developed a Mustang that was built on the Pinto platform in order to meet all of the mandates put down by the government. Chrysler dropped the Barracuda and Challenger after the 1974 model year. AMC also dropped the Javelin and AMX by 1974.

GM had a different plan. They kept building the Camaro and Firebird in Van Nuys and Norwood through the entire decade – all the way until 1981. It was not about arrogance – although some have accused the company as such until the introduction of the downsized full-sized cars in the fall of 1976. If there was an air of arrogance, it was fueled by customers who wanted Camaros and Firebirds – gas crises and emissions controls be damned!

GM responded by continually improving the F-Bodies throughout its second generation life. For 1974, a new front clip included the mandated 5 MPH bumper, while giving it a shark-like appearance with its angular front end. A new wrap-around rear glass was introduced in 1975 for improved rear quarter vision. A more integrated front and rear fascia were added to the 1978 model, giving the Camaro a cleaner, more aggressive look.

By the end of the 1981 model year, Ford already introduced another new Mustang on the Fox platform. Though the second generation F-Body lasted eleven years, it was time for a new Camaro. GM was already in an aggressive new vehicle launch run. Mid-1979 saw the new X-Body go to a front-drive, transverse-mounted engine platform. Afterwards, the new J-Body global compact program was introduced for all five brands in North America – including the infamous Cadillac Cimarron. The F-Body was next, followed by the new A-Body front-drive platform that reduced the size of mid-sized offerings for good.

Camaro!

The fall of 1981 was full of anticipation for the new Camaro. The look was supposed to be futuristic, with its fastback body, lower grille and inclusion of rectangular headlamps. It was quite contemporary, but shared no GM design cues with its other products. This made the new Camaro desirable to customers wanting a taste of the “future.” The large third glass was integrated into a hatchback – a first for the Camaro. This generation also brought back the convertible model for 1987, even with the T-Top roof option being popular among customers. The future also included a modular instrument panel, taller center console and more comfortable front bucket seats.

If one thing was notable about the third generation Camaro was the fact that it featured a four-cylinder engine for the first time. Pontiac’s 2.5 liter “Iron Duke” was a strong engine, but purists questioned whether it was supposed to be a part of any Camaro lineup at all. The V6-powered Berlinetta was fine, but still purists dismissed it for being too “European” for a Camaro.

What sustained Camaro sales for its entire run was the Z28. Only one engine lurked underneath its hood – a 5.0 liter V8. Over the course of the third generation’s run, the V8 had been massaged for more horsepower while changing fuel delivery into the engine – eventually going to a multi-port fuel injection system by the final years of the generation.

If one such third generation model stood out above all – it was the IROC-Z. The International Race of Champions circuit adopted the Chevrolet Camaro as their single-model entry for their race drivers. To celebrate, Chevrolet introduced a model that was tuned better than the normal Z28 – including a higher performing V8. They were popular with enthusiasts all the way until its final run in 1990.

Production at Norwood for the Camaro ended in 1987. This left the Van Nuys plant as the sole source for the F-Body for its entire third generation run. If you want to witness Valley pride, ask any of my friends who purchased a Camaro during this generation’s run. At least one friend from Reseda bought one new – if I recall, from the dealership right in our community. The practice of buying “what we built” continued in the San Fernando Valley as the Camaro was considered “the car to get.” Sure, others bought Toyota Supras, Porsche 944s, Ford Mustangs, Mazda RX-7s, Nissan 300ZXs and the like – all competitors to the Camaro. However, the Camaro flew the flag of the Valley – right up to the end of the production run of the third generation model in 1992.

There is one more story about the third generation F-Body to be told. Back when I lived in the Bay Area in the late 1980s/early 1990s, a roommate had a third generation Z28. I believe it was a 1983 he bought second hand. It would be the first Camaro I have ever driven. It made me appreciate the “future” look of the car with its modular interior. The Z28 was comfortable, although I did not care for the high console at the time. What drew me in with this car was its raw power and absolute rumble of it. It was fast, although I have driven faster since then. Again, this was at a time when performance was still regulated, while more power was found by the manufacturers. That was such a sweet car to drive, even as it managed the tough traffic patterns of San Francisco and the approaches to the Golden Gate Bridge.

It actually inspired me to look at a Camaro for a new car. Even without considering the eventual 1991 Acura Integra that would be my last new car, I looked at a new “base” Camaro that looked like my then-roommate’s 1982/83 Z28. The lower body extensions and spoiler was there, although the audio system was completely updated. The seats felt comfortable. But, why did I not buy it? The price was within range, but again its detractions lost it for me. I was looking for better fuel economy, that damn high console did it in for me.

So, what if I bought that Camaro? Would my view on this car be different today? In what way? If there was one thing that could have played into that purchase – it would have been built in Van Nuys. Perhaps a bit of solace through some hometown pride.

There is more to this Camaro story. Stay tuned for Part 2, starting with the fourth generation Camaro…

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