Chevrolet Camaro History – Happy 50th Birthday!

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“The Guys In The Glass House” are making a lot of noise about how tomorrow (April 17th) being the 50th Anniversary of their econocar-based, equine-themed “sport/personal” car.

Let them…as that date is also when events inside Chevrolet and General Motors started moving—and fast—that resulted in the Camaro.

Back in the late ‘50s, the domestic Big Three automakers began “thinking small,” designing, styling and engineering cars smaller than their standard-sized ones. That generation of small cars debuted in the fall of 1959, with the most radically-engineered of the group being the one from the nation’s top-selling car brand—Chevrolet. The rear-engined, air-cooled Corvair found a home in the Chevy lineup, and 250,000 of ‘em found homes that year.

But, how do you follow up that kind of first year success? By making a “sporty” version of it, with front bucket seats and tasteful chrome accents—voila, the Corvair Monza, which appeared at midyear, and set the tone for the Corvair lineup. (With the coming of the front-engined compact Chevy II, the low-level ‘Vairs were phased out and moved upscale, sort of, starting in ‘61.)

1962 Chevy Corvair Monza Debut 2 2/5

1962 brought the turbocharged Monza Spyders, cars that those who drove loved.

During that year, an all-new Corvair was green-lit for production starting in model-year ’65—still rear-engined (with the turbo version available), but with swoopier styling and an all-new rear suspension system.

The Blue Oval guys countered with their own bucket-seated version of their new-for-’60 compact (which this writer’s family had one of…the only things it passed on the road were gas stations, and otherwise it wasn’t worth writing home about, so I won’t).

Then, they went and re-sculpted their front-engined compact into something that looked totally different, yet shared key body, powertrain and chassis parts from their existing small-car platform—“borrowing” that idea from GM, who’d learned the value of sharing such key components—and realizing cost savings that ran into the zillions—decades earlier.

So, once the Blue Oval guys had their new “ponycar” ready, they produced a 60-second TV commercial that aired on the night before that car’s on-sale date at the same time on the NBC, CBS, ABC and CBC television networks—and just about every other commercial TV station in North America then. (Boy, didn’t that go over big on The 14th Floor…NOT!)

The resulting sensation led to 22,000 of those “ponycars” sold ON THE FIRST DAY, which forever wiped out the ill effects of The Glass House’s much-ballyhooed “all-new” medium-priced car of six years earlier (Edsel).

It also caused the product planners at GM and at Chevrolet to pull the plug on any further development of Corvair, even as the second-gen ‘Vair was only four months away from the start of production. Sure, the ’65 Corvair got the support it needed, and it sold over 235,000 that year.

But no new Corvair models, body styles, or anything on that platform would be forthcoming. (In essence, Corvair was a “dead car rolling.”) Instead, the goal now was to come up with a sporty, small(ish) front-engined car that would blow its competition into the weeds.

Spy photos that appeared in Motor Trend Magazine in ’65 and ’66 showed engineers wringing out an unusual-looking test mule, one with an existing Chevy II hardtop body, but all-different sheetmetal forward of the windshield—and a smallblock V-8 powering it. Per M/T, it was code-named “Panther.”

If you do the math, they only had sixteen months to get it ready for a summer’66 start-of-production. If you think you’ve had a thrash to get your Chevy ready to show, think of the one that Chevy’s chassis engineers, plant engineers and Fisher Body’s body engineers had to make their deadlines!

All that R&D and engineering work and design work by Chevy’s styling crew (which incorporated the long hood/short deck look championed by stylist Dave Holls, when he was at Buick working on what became their ’63 Riviera, and became Chevy styling cues after Dave was promoted to head of one of Chevrolet’s advanced-design studios, after a short stint at Opel)—all came to a head on September 29, 1966.

That’s when Camaro debuted as the centerpiece of Chevrolet’s “Dramatic…DistinctiveDARINGLY NEW!” 1967 line-up.

1967 Chevy Camaro Z28 3 3/5

And, as legendary radio newscaster Paul Harvey used to say, “NOW…you know the rest of the story! (Editor’s note: Scott, one of our in-house historians, was a neighbor of Dave Holls during the early and mid ‘60s.)

1967 Chevy Camaro Indy 500 Pace Car 4 4/5

More kudos for the all-new Camaro in ’67: Selection as the Official Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.

1967 Chevy Camaro Profile 6 5/5

Long hood, short deck. The Glass House crew thinks that it came up with that styling cue. Unfortunately for then, Dave Holls had always loved that look (dating back to the Cadillac V-12 and V-16-powered factory custom roadsters of the early ‘30s), and he not only used it in his original concepts for what became the ’63 Buick Riviera, but also on Chevys like the early Camaro once he was promoted to head one of Chevrolet’s advanced-styling studios.

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