Just as Ford’s Mustang program had been created amid the ashes of the Edsel disaster, Chevrolet’s Camaro was born amid the ruins of the Corvair. The Edsel had been innovative, just as the Corvair had been. The Edsel had been a family car, the Corvair an economy car, which through the Corvair Monza, had abilities to become a sporty car.
The top brass at GM also knew of the coming baby boom drivers, but they’d intended to use the Corvair to fill the gap. Ford and Ralph Nader changed that plan in a hurry. So like the Mustang, the Camaro was a rush job. GM management incited rumors of a new project on the way, of course, what else could they say? They were on the hot seat, your competitor is selling cars faster than they can manufacture them and you have no competing model to offer.
On June 21, 1966 GM sent telegrams to 200 automotive journalists toying with them. Hinting, “…Please save noon of June 28 for important SEPAW meeting. Hope you can be on hand to help scratch a cat. Details will follow…(signed) John L. Cutter – Chevrolet Public Relations – SEPAW Secretary.”
At a press conference with live phone hook ups to 14 cities, Chevrolet General Manager, Pete Estes announced to attendees they were all charter members of the Society for the Elimination of Panthers from the Automotive World. Panther being the rumored name of the new car project, then Estes officially announced the car as the XP-836. Good old fashioned PR, “We’ve got this new car, see, and boy is it great!”
What do you call it?
“It’s not the Panther! It’s the XP-836!”
Can we see one?
GM management was trying to prime the pump and to give potential Mustang buyers something to think about. Three months later, the Camaro débuted at the Detroit Auto show and debuted in dealer showrooms the following week.
Henry Haga of GM design center’s Chevrolet studios, was the cheif designer and had done design work on the Corvette, Corvair and Chevy 2. Because of the Mustang’s relative low price, Haga used parts off the shelf. Pontiac designer Bob Porter remembered, “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.”
The new Camaro came in two models, the Sports Coupe and the Convertible, but Chevrolet’s Pony Car also had 60 available options packages, from grocery getter to road warrior. The now famous Z-28 had been a “Special Performance Package” as all GM option packages began with a letter followed by two numbers. Of all the 1967 Camaro’s sold only 600 had Z-28 packages, if only you had known. A special 302 V-8 engine (just for NASCAR) with heavy duty radiator and heavy duty suspension, a 3.73: 1 Positraction rear axle with power front disc brakes. Pardon the pun, but this car’s a Hoss!
First year sales of 221,000 units were good, but GM was playing catch up and trying to play leap frog, but the 67 Mustang had sold 337,000 units. So as a decade of American astronauts raced for the moon, another great race was played out here on terra firma. The Mustang Vs. Camaro, played out ten million times. The engineers replaced by the back-yard mechanic, with a bigger carb, headers or maybe a hotter cam. Speed was just a question of money, how fast do you want to go?
With the Camaro’s success came they same pressures facing Mustang designers. Speed or comfort, any automotive engineer, with a lick of sense knows, weight kills speed, at the same time, any good marketing man will tell you, options mean profits. So both Pony cars got bigger and heavier, moving away from the whole concept of the Pony Car. The Mustang / Camaro Pony car was a one off competition, there isn’t anything else like it, in American automotive lore. Two American car companies competing head to head in a production sports car competition with the public being the winner, we shall never see the like of such again.
It was years later, I was at a car show with my 1969 Mustang Mach 1. Parked beside me was a 1969 Z-28 Camaro, as we watched, a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda with a 340 shook the earth under our feet, backing in next to us. My son looked at me asking, “How did anyone ever choose a car back then?” I could only answer, “It was tough.”