The automotive world changed forever on April 17, 1964.
For Ford, the debut of the Mustang on that day launched not only a wildly successful new car but a whole new personal sporty car market segment. It wouldn’t take long for “personal sporty car” to morph into “ponycar,” in tribute to the model that kicked it off.
For Chevrolet, it was a nightmare. Even before the Mustang’s reveal executives knew that the public’s tastes in cars were changing, and that the economical Chevy II/Nova and sporty Corvair couldn’t shore up its end of the small-car market without help. For a short time a cadre of Chevy brass pinned its hopes on the Super Nova, a New York Auto Show dream car with a fiberglass body reminiscent of the Buick Riviera but sitting on tried-and-true Chevy II mechanicals.
Handsome as it was, though, the Super Nova was deemed by some as a threat to the then-new Chevelle. So the project was killed, right about the same time that the Mustang was born, leaving Chevrolet with a whole lot of nothing to answer the Mustang’s challenge.
But that wasn’t entirely true. It would take two years for Chevrolet to bring a competitor to market, but the Super Nova project gave designers and engineers a head start on developing a new small car, which was code-named XP-836.
Like the Super Nova, the XP-836 would be based on the Chevy II platform to shave development time and costs. But Chevy’s engineers realized this new car had to be better than the Mustang in every way possible. So to improve rigidity as well as NVH, the Chevy II front subframe was extended back farther under the car’s body and mated to the unibody with isolating rubber mounts. Handling was revised by redesigning the front suspension with unequal-length control arms, coil springs over shock absorbers, and a sway bar.
The XP-836’s rear suspension didn’t receive quite as much attention, as the Chevy II’s monoleaf springs carried over essentially unchanged. Radius rods were designed for V-8-powered models to work against axlewrap, but it would be a while before the monoleaves were addressed.
The XP-836’s exterior design roughly mimicked the Mustang’s long nose and short rear deck, but otherwise the two were very different from the get-go. Chevy’s stylists opted for curving lines and a pinched waist for the car where the Mustang was all straight lines and slab sides. The photos of models and mockups you see here illustrate how much variation there was along that major styling theme, but also how early—by 1965—the looks were getting close to the car we know now.
Several names were considered for the XP-836, including Gemini and Chevette. For a long time the car was known as the Panther; even as late as April 1966 Chevy GM Pete Estes announced that name to reporters at the New York Auto Show. Eventually, Chevrolet decided to maintain its tradition of using car names that start with the letter C, and the Panther became Camaro, a term reportedly found in a 1936 French-to-English dictionary meaning comrade or pal.
In June 1966, more than two years after Mustang rocked its world, Chevrolet introduced the new Camaro to the news media, and in September it made its public debut. It was available as a coupe or convertible, in Sport Coupe, Rally Sport, or Super Sport trim, and with engine choices ranging from a 140hp inline six to the all-new 350ci, 295hp L48 small-block V-8 available in SS models. Big-block engines would come a little later, as would the high-revving 302 as part of RPO Z28 to homologate the Camaro for Trans-Am racing.
In that first year, more than 220,000 Camaros were sold. Solid performance, but a figure that was less than half of Mustang’s sales for 1967. The battle for sales, as well as for the hearts and minds of car (and racing) enthusiasts around the world, would continue for the next 50 years, and shows no signs of slowing down as it enters its sixth decade.
Camaro: The Next Generations
Second Generation: 1970-1/2-1981
What’s New: European-influenced styling; powertrains start strong, end weak due to emissions and fuel economy mandates
Highlight Models: Z28
Peak Output: 375 hp (1970 396 L78)
Road Test Quote: “The Chevy guys are finally back in the ballgame with their 1980 Z28”—Hot Rod
Marketing/PR Spin: “A Sports Car for the Four of You”
Third Generation: 1982-1992
What’s New: Shorter wheelbase, lighter than predecessor; hatchback bodystyle; major revisions to suspension; fuel injection; 350 V-8 and convertible return
Highlight Models: Z28, IROC-Z, 1LE
Peak Output: 245 hp (1990-1992 5.7L)
Road Test Quote: “With 14-second e.t.’s and near-100-mph trap speeds, the IROC lives up to its muscle car heritage and delivers far more than its well respected ancestors from 20 years ago”—Hot Rod
Marketing/PR Spin: “IROC ’n Roll Camaro”
Fourth Generation: 1993-2002
What’s New: Longer overall, heavier; steeply-raked windshield and backlight; plastic body panels; short/long control arms replace MacPherson struts
Highlight Models: Z28, SS, 1LE
Peak Output: 325 hp (2001-2002 LS1)
Road Test Quote: “…a car designed and engineered to get you into trouble”—Automobile
Marketing/PR Spin: “If everyone owned one, maybe we could have prevented disco”
Fifth Generation: 2010-2015
What’s New: All new after eight-year hiatus
Highlight Models: ZL1, Z28, COPO
Peak Output: 580 hp (2012-2015 supercharged LSA)
Road Test Quote: “The new ZL1 is the ultimate factory Camaro—now and probably ever”—Autoweek
Marketing/PR Spin: “Street art. Really, really fast street art”
Sixth Generation: 2016-
What’s New: Lighter architecture; powertrains range from 2.0L turbo to 6.2L V-8
Highlight Models: 1LE, ZL1, 50th Anniversary, COPO
Peak Output: 640 hp (2017 6.2L supercharged LT4)
Road Test Quote: “What if a Corvette Z06 had four seats?”—Motor Trend
Marketing/PR Spin: “Only two parts carry over from the fifth-generation Camaro to the new Gen Six: the rear bowtie emblem and the SS badge”
Wait, What Year is It?
Revisions for the second-generation Camaro were so extensive that it took Chevy’s engineers far longer than expected to have the car ready for production. The new cars finally went on sale on February 26, 1970, which is why many consider them 1970-1/2 models.
This photo from GM’s archives, of a 1969 Camaro wearing a 1970 plate, leads us to believe Chevrolet was concerned that the car wouldn’t make it into the model year at all. But Chevrolet opted to continue selling them as 1969 models, making the model year—at 17 months—a banner one for Camaro sales.
Keeping the Pace
Since its birth year, Camaros have been used to pace the Indy 500 nine times: in 1967, 1969, 1982, 1993, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2016. Last year’s race was paced by a 2017 50th Anniversary model, to mark the Camaro’s birthday.
The frequency increased considerably after 2002, when Chevrolet made a deal with the Speedway to be the exclusive supplier of pace cars and other official vehicles. Since then the job has been swapped between Camaros and Corvettes. Corvettes have paced the Indy 500 the most, at 13 times, with Camaro close behind at 9. Mustang has managed a measly 3.