Fifty years ago Chevrolet corrected a mistake it had made 52 years ago by underestimating the public’s overwhelming response to Ford’s Mustang. At the time of the ponycar’s launch at the World’s Fair in 1964, the General really had nothing to compete with the wildly successful Ford, other than the Corvair (which was about to be taken out at the knees by a crusading Ralph Nader), the utilitarian Chevy II, and a still-born concept called the Super Nova that GM execs refused to green-light for fear of cutting into sales of the brand-new Chevelle.
Once GM’s top brass realized it had a crisis on its hands, development of an all-new car moved quickly. The Super Nova turned out to be a starting point, from which Chevy’s designers and engineers began working on the project that was code-named XP-836. To save time and money the Chevy II was used as a basis for the new car, though significant upgrades were made to ensure it would be superior to the Mustang. The front suspension was revised to improve handling, the front subframe was extended into the unibody to smooth ride and vibration, the interior got a sporty makeover, and powertrain choices went far beyond the thrifty engines normally found in the compact.
A number of names were considered for the new car, including Chevette and Gemini, but the one that seemed to stick best was Panther, a claws-out predator for Ford’s pony. In fact, Pete Estes, then Chevy’s General Manager, told a press conference at the 1966 New York Auto Show that Panther was the name, only to change course two months later in the car’s launch press conference. It would be called Camaro, a term reportedly found in an old French-to-English dictionary that meant comrade or pal.
This photo from the GM Heritage Center, dated September 23, 1966, shows GM stylists hard at work in Chevrolet’s Design Studio #2 rendering Chevy’s new F-body in clay. The caption supplied for the photo identifies the cars as 1967 models, but the date of the photo is months beyond the car’s June introduction. So either the photo was set up for PR purposes (most likely), or those are 1968 Camaros being shaped. The fullsize tape rendering on the back wall seems to preview a ’68 model, as it has no vent window in the front door.