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Bitchin' Camaro: The First-Generation Chevrolet Camaro Z/28


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Bitchin' Camaro: The First-Generation Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

Written by Aaron Severson

Sunday, 28 October 2007 13:02

Nobody, least of all Ford, expected General Motors to take the success of the Mustang lying down. Still, it took two and a half years for the General to field its challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and despite the Camaro's fresh styling, a broad selection of engines, and a blinding array of options, the Mustang outsold it two to one.

If they couldn't beat the Mustang on the showroom floor, Chevy decided, they would at least beat it at the track. GM was not officially in racing, but that didn't stop Chevrolet engineers from concocting a fearsome homologation special to qualify their new baby for Trans-Am competition: the Camaro Z/28.


The fact that it took GM as long as it did to produce the Camaro (and its Pontiac sibling, the Firebird) is somewhat puzzling. GM knew about the Mustang long before it debuted, and Chevy stylists had been playing with four-seat "personal car" designs since at least 1958. In 1962, Chevrolet styling chief Irv Rybicki had proposed building one such design on the platform of the compact Chevy II/Nova, and in early 1964, Chevy had shown a prototype of a Nova-based personal car, appropriately called Super Nova, at the New York Auto Show. Despite all those antecedents, the car that became the Camaro wasn't approved for production until August 1964, four months after the Mustang's spectacular bow.

Why? When Chevrolet General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen vetoed Rybicki's personal-car concept back in 1962, he declared that the last thing Chevrolet needed was yet another car. At the time, Chevy had the full-sized Chevrolet, the Corvette, the rear-engine, air-cooled Corvair, and the compact Chevy II, and the division was busily readying the midsize Chevelle/Malibu for a 1964 debut. There were limits to even Chevrolet's development and marketing budget, especially for something management didn't see as a volume product.

Knudsen assumed that Chevrolet's existing models, particularly the Corvair, would be more than a match for any new small Ford. The Corvair's sporty Monza model, introduced late in 1960, had uncovered a decent-size market for sporty performance in a smaller package. Chevy sold 218,728 Monzas in 1962, and they'd recently added a turbocharged version called Spyder, one of the world's first turbocharged production cars. Stylist Ron Hill had just penned a sleek new Corvair design for the '65 model year that looked to be a sure winner.

When the Mustang proved to be an instant success, Knudsen realized he had made a mistake, but it wasn't until Mustang sales topped the six-figure mark that GM's upper management was convinced. The new Corvair, for all its lovely, Italianate good looks, was no match for the competition from Dearborn, in part because its top engine, the a 164 cu. in. (2.7 L) turbocharged flat-six, had only 180 gross horsepower (134 kW), while the Mustang's base 289 V8 offered 200. The Corvair was clearly over-matched, and the public had cooled on its radical engineering, not helped by the growing controversy over the treacherous handling of early Corvairs.


Thanks to all these delays, Chevy's Mustang-fighter, known internally as the F-body, did not go on sale until September 29, 1966, more than two years after the Mustang. The highly anticipated car was originally supposed to be called Panther, which is how it was usually described in press. By the time Chevrolet general manager Pete Estes made the official announcement in mid-1966, it had become Camaro, which GM claimed meant "friend" or "pal" in French.

Estes said that the Camaro name was chosen to honor the tradition of beginning Chevrolet model names with the letter C, which was ludicrous, given that the Chevy Impala was then the best-selling car in the world. The real reason was that GM's upper management had gotten nervous about the aggressive connotations of the Panther name; a similar bout of cold feet would lead the Pontiac version, the Banshee, to be renamed Firebird.



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