Design Notes: 1st Generation Camaro
One of Chevrolet’s most storied models, internally called project XP-836 during development, was originally anticipated by industry insiders to be called Panther (or Chaparral, or even Nova or Corvair, amongst other names).
That is until late June of 1966 when then-Chevrolet general manager, Mr. Pete Estes, used an unusual live telephone press conference to announce the car’s official name: Camaro. That announcement came only about three months before the first car was sold.
The Camaro was generally regarded as a direct response to Ford’s wildly popular new Mustang.
But that’s not exactly how it happened.
The birth of a breed
Arguably starting as early as 1956, with Studebaker’s Hawk, smallish vehicles were beginning to appeal to enthusiasts. Adding power to the equation, Studebaker fitted a 352 cubic-inch V-8 under the hood, before switching to a supercharged powerplant for the 1957 model. Despite a nose-heavy design, the power-to-weight ratio had performance-hungry drivers interested. American motorists were starting to get a taste for personal luxury/sports cars.
By 1958, Ford’s two-seat Thunderbird had been reconfigured to a four-seat layout to appeal to new tastes. GM’s Pontiac division responded with a new model called the Grand Prix, in 1962 (shown left), and the Buick division released a new car called the Riviera, in 1963. Not exactly what would be called “pony cars,” these models were nonetheless harbingers of where consumer demand was driving product development within the planning departments at various manufacturers.
Mr. Bill Porter, a former Pontiac designer, was quoted as saying, “As early as 1958, 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.”
By the end of the 1960 model year, Chevrolet had added bucket seats to their Corvair. The sport-trimmed car was fitted with an optional four-speed manual gearbox for 1961 and, soon, the top Monza model was outselling all other Corvair models combined.
As of that time, it was Ford that was scampering to create a similarly outfitted Falcon to match the Corvair Monza’s appeal. However, it was Ford’s willingness to gamble with a new product, based heavily on existing componentry, that delivered the Mustang to market in mid-1964.
Before committing to new product, Chevrolet decided to wait things out and see how the Mustang sold, and how their ’65 Corvair would hold up against it in sales. (For 1965, the Corvair was all-new and included independent suspension, front and rear, and a 180 HP engine, still mounted in the rear.)
While the Corvair seemed immensely more sophisticated, it wasn’t enough to match the run-away success of the Mustang. Corvair sales rose to 235,528 in 1965, almost a 23% increase over the prior year; however, Ford famously sold 100,000 Mustangs–their initial goal for the entire year–in the first three months. By the end of 1965, that model year’s Mustang sales reached an impressive grand total of 680,989 (including those sold from mid-1964).
By August of 1964, before total sales could be tallied, Chevrolet made the official decision to develop a more competitive car, albeit one that was less unique than the Corvair.
Although, Chevrolet wouldn’t be starting from scratch because they’d already done some homework.