Camaro 50th Anniversary

Camaro 50th Anniversary

Camaro 50th AnniversaryBy Cam Hutchins,

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro. It’s technically not the 50th birthday, but with the rebirth of the 2010 Camaro, the bad times are stricken from our memory… almost.

The brass at Chevrolet watched as the newly introduced Mustang started to outsell the Chevy Corvair. A new lightweight front-engine rear-wheel drive platform, Project XP-836, was started and variously dubbed the Nova, Panther, Chaparral, and Wildcat (later used for a Buick). The Camaro was based on a new chassis, the F-Body that would also be used for the 1968 Chevy II, renamed the Nova.

This was the era of “Madmen” and the big ad campaigns, and marketing was everything. The news of a Mustang competitor coming from Chevrolet, code-named Panther, had been reported in the automotive press in April of 1965. What happened in June of 1966 is truly hard to believe, but apparently about 200 journalists got telegrams announcing an important “SEPAW” meeting….with the cryptic message of helping “scratching a cat.” Signed by a Chevrolet public relations man and “SEPAW” Camaro 50th Anniversarysecretary John L. Cutter, who promised more details would follow.The next day, the same journalists got another GM telegram, claiming June 28th would be the first meeting of the “Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World.” For this “SEPAW” meeting, GM held a live press conference with 14 cities linked via telephone, a ‘first’ for a press conference. Pete Estes, the general manager of Chevrolet, announced at the meeting that all present were now charter members of “SEPAW” and that this was the first and last meeting of the “Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World.”

This was Chevrolet’s way of causing a stir and it certainly was a great way of announcing that Project XP-836 was no longer to be referred to as Panther, but keeping in the vein of the Corvette, Chevelle and Corvair, the Camaro name was announced.

Two answers to the question of what is a Camaro were offered at the time…

  1. a small vicious animal that eats Mustangs
  2. the word camaro in the French-English dictionary was slang, to mean friend, pal, or comrade.

But the press digging further, found the word camaro was not recognized in the French language, but the Spanish knew the word as a type of shrimp. Years later, GM brass would announce that regarding the whole Camaro name meaning… it was just a made-up word the marketing guys thought was cool.

Camaro 50th AnniversaryThe 1967 Camaro was unveiled at a Detroit press preview on September 12th, 1966, and a week later in Los Angeles, and then went on sale at the end of September 1966. While in the design stages, a variety of models were considered including a fastback, two-seat roadster and a station wagon. Just a coupe and convertible were built, with many engine sizes from the 230 inline 6 cylinder to a 327 V8, but also new to Chevrolet for the Camaro was a new 295-horsepower 350 V8. The “Pony Car” Wars were truly on!

The term ‘Pony Cars.’… first penned by Car Life magazine editor Dennis Shattuck, must have  irked Chevrolet. Imagine starting the trend of smaller sporty cars with the Corvair that inspired the Mustang, only to have the whole genre called “Pony Cars.” I guess it could have been worse and they could have been called “Fishy Cars” after the Barracuda..

The Camaro was certainly a success with 220,906 selling in 1967, 235,147 for 68 and 243,085 in 1969 and certainly robbed sales from the Mustang, along with its sister car the Pontiac Firebird. But GM was still dominated by Ford in the Pony Car sales wars….but not on the track.

Camaro 50th AnniversaryWhat did help snare the youth market was racing, and the Camaro got picked as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500. But the ‘racing on Sunday selling on Monday’ was really achieved by the new class of racing known as Trans Am. Starting in 1966 and first called the Trans-American Sedan Championship, Trans Am was started by  Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) President John Bishop. The series was open to GT-style cars, with over-2.0 litre and under-2.0 litre raced at the same time.

It derived from the SCCA’s A and B Sedan Club Racing, and was just what the American auto makers needed to sell cars, lots of cars. Almost all of the lighter V8-equipped cars competed, including Mustangs, Firebirds, Barracudas, Cougars, Javelins and Challengers among others, with Chevrolet winning the manufacturers trophy in 1968 and 1969 with the Camaro Z/28.

This marketing bonanza meant GM was supporting teams wanting to race Camaros and producing a car suitable for the Trans Am series. The RS and SS packages were a great start but the Z-28 was the creation of Vince Piggins that was a race-ready Camaro that would beat the Mustangs. Coming straight from the RPO (Regular Production Option) RPO28, the “Z/28” was introduced in late December 1966, but because of it not being mentioned in sales literature, only 602 were built. RPO28 needed to conform to the Trans Am 5.0-litre cap of 305 cu. in. A 302 cu. in. V8 was created by installing a 283 crankshaft into a 327 block for a 3-in. stroke and 4-in. bore. Rated at 290 hp, it produced more like 360 hp with the single 4-bbl carb, and the optional dual-quad set-up put out 400 hp. Z/28s also had 15-in. wheels, heavy-duty suspension tidbits, an 11-in. clutch, close-ratio 4-speed manual transmission, and a quicker steering ratio.

Camaro 50th AnniversaryThe first race of the 1968 Trans Am season was held in conjunction with the 24 Hours of Daytona, and Camaro had three times more places in the top ten than Mustang. The next race was won by Camaro with five top-ten finishes to three for Mustang in the over-2.0 Litre class. Camaro won the season thanks to the “no holds barred” methods of a couple of Camaro’s top privateers, Roger Penske and Smokey Yunick.

The term “no-holds barred” is also known as cheating. Smokey Yunick got a hold of three  Camaros, bought a spare small block and big block, and any “optional heavy-duty parts” available from Chevrolet. The cars were claimed to be Z/28s but of course, one was a big block car. Smokey claimed they all started as stock cars but with roll bars, American racing wheels and racing tires. The cars all had solid lifter engines, four-speed transmissions and posi-rear ends. The trio claimed to have set 100’s of FIA records at Bonneville on a 10-mile course. The cars spent 12 days setting records; imagine punishing a big block at 8,100 rpm for hours at a time driving 175 mph!

The engines were not the only ones punished; at least one of the small-block cars was acid dipped, had the front fenders and hood reshaped to be wider and lower, the windshield laid back, drip rails pulled in tighter …all to gain a little more aerodynamic magic. That Black and Gold car, number 13, was promptly sent home from Trans Am but was raced up until the late ’70s and is now owned by Vic Edelbrock.

The Camaros that did make it into Trans Am racing were also acid dipped and the first car Roger Penske and Mark Donohue raced was quickly banned from Trans Am because of extreme lightening. It needed a NASCAR-style roll cage to keep it from extreme flexing. With 1968 grille and taillights, it came back alongside a 1968 Penske/Donohue Camaro Z/28. Both cars had been acid dipped, but extra weight was added in the right places to make the cars better balanced for better handling. Only one of the cars was legal weight….but by using trickery and cheating, the legit car was checked through pre-race inspection…then hustled back to the pit area to get the second car….but the legit car would come back with the second number on it. The same thing was done after the race.

Camaro 50th AnniversaryThe battle on the street was still raging, with Camaro gaining on Mustang every year. For 1968, the Camaro lost its side vent windows but got new government-mandated side marker lights and the 396 cu. in. engine available in three flavours… 325, 350, and 375-horsepower. The SS package outsold the Z/28 package by 30,695 to 7,199. In 1969, the sales numbers were up to 243,085, with the slightly reworked panels becoming one of the favourite Camaros of all time and the inspiration for the 2010 fifth-generation Camaros.

Chevrolet unleashed two versions of the 1969 Camaro that would enter into muscle car folk lore – Central Office Production Orders (COPO) 9560 and 9561. Both Camaros were equipped with 425-hp 427 cu. in. engines, with many of the 1,015 COPO 9561’s produced being sent to Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania. The COPO 9560 featured an all aluminum ZL-1 427 that was light and perfect for racing, and ultra-rare with production only being 69 cars.

1970 saw a complete redesign of the Camaro with the demise of the convertible, and the “slash” in the Z28 was slashed! What was not slashed was weight. The Camaro, as did all the pony cars, got larger, heavier and more powerful with every year, and often took on a dual role as “Muscle Car,” much to the chagrin of insurance buyers. The pressure put on the automotive manufacturers by insurance companies and the environmentalists forced smaller and smaller horsepower outputs of many cars. The Oil Embargo did not help these gas-thirsty cars, either.

Camaro 50th AnniversaryUltimately with the boost in sales, Chevrolet actually put some money into designing the third-gen Camaro, and they got it right in spades. Modern fuel injection, a five-speed manual transmission and they were almost 500 lbs (225 kg) lighter than the second-gen Camaros. IROCs had 225 hp and convertibles came back in 1987.

Still using some form of the F-Body after more than a quarter of a century, the 1993 fourth-generation Camaro came out with a coupe and convertible 2+2….car talk for tiny backseat. Anti-lock brakes were standard, and an optional six-speed manual was offered as well as traction control. Horsepower was up to 330, and an all-aluminum engine was offered in 1998.

The lights went out on the Camaro from 2003 to 2009, when an Australian cousin came to the rescue. Taking an ugly duckling and turning it into a brutish snarling swan is exactly what Chevrolet did to the Australian GM Holden Zeta platform. The 2010 Camaro was all it was supposed to be, and then some. In the late ’70s, as most youth were getting ready to disco and pop the T-roofs on their Z28s, nobody was thinking the future was bright enough to expect a Camaro with 425 hp and zero-to-60 under 5 seconds….and with a 6-speed manual transmission!

Camaro 50th AnniversaryFor the sixth generation, they are sharing a small Cadillac chassis and are under the 5-second mark 0-60… closer to 4 seconds. But if you just want a grocery getter, you can have a turbocharged four-cylinder that will get you to 60 mph in a leisurely 5.4 seconds. Truly, the past is the past and it is time to get past the 1979 Z28. In fact, let’s forget the whole debacle of ’70s era of car production. With today’s amazing technological advances, it should only be one or two more generations until Camaros are equipped with Flux Capacitors and capable of time travel…but will they still have intermittent wipers?

Categories: Features, Muscle Car Plus