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Super Chevy Interview - The Man Behind The Camaro

Al Oppenheiser Knows More About The '10 Camaro Story Than Any Man Alive, And He Tells Super Chevy Most, But Not All, Of The Det

Well, it's finally, finally here after three long years of waiting. The Camaro is back on the market after nearly a decade's absence, and the reviews, including ours, have been very, very positive indeed. Great looks, great power, excellent handling, good fuel economy and great value for the money.

So, how did they do it, and do it so well? That's what we wanted to know from GM veteran Al Oppenheiser, the chief vehicle engineer for all of GM's global rear-wheel-drive programs, which currently include the Solstice, the Sky, the Camaro and the Pontiac G8.

Oppenheiser is a 24-year veteran of GM engineering who had one of those luscious RS/SS '701/2 Camaros when he was still in school, drove a few Corvettes, and now has a perfectly restored black/red/white '68 Camaro SS350 convertible in his garage, along with a Harley Sportster 1200.

He has worked on Corvette and small truck programs at GM, as well as international programs with Opel, Isuzu, Daewoo, Toyota, and Suzuki.

At work, he is surrounded by 40 or so Camaro, Chevrolet, and Corvette freaks who worked on the Camaro program with him, with more like them down in Australia, where GM's rear-drive programs are headquartered.

He was also involved with two recent Bonneville Salt Flats land speed record projects at GM, the 189-mph SoCal Lakester powered by a blown Ecotec four, and a 156-mph Cobalt, also powered by an Ecotec four, that set eight records. He was in charge of all GM concept vehicle programs, including building both Camaro concepts and some special GM cars for Jay Leno. Clearly, he is a guy who gets it.

Super Chevy sent its man in Detroit, veteran automotive journalist Jim McCraw, to sit down with Oppenheiser in his sun-filled office at the GM Vehicle Performance Center for a wide-ranging discussion about the history and gestation of the '10 Camaro in an effort to sort the truth from the rumors and internet chatter about the program.

SC: The history of this Camaro is different from all other Camaros in that it was designed here in Detroit, engineered and developed in Australia, and will be built in Canada like the last one, but in Ontario, not Quebec. Can you take us through some of the thinking behind the program?

AO: It actually started here, and I was in the room when (GM head of design) Ed Welburn came up with the idea, along with (retiring GM vice-chairman) Bob Lutz. I was the director of the performance group at the time, and one of the areas I had was concept cars. We were trying to get concepts that were realistic, paying attention to mass, to packaging a lot of horsepower into something that looks good, getting that last mile per gallon and mile per hour out of it. We try to do our concepts in 40 weeks, start to finish, and we started this one with 38 weeks to the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, and we still didn't have our piece de resistance selected yet.

There were several ideas that were up for bids, and not one of them was a Camaro. There was a Corvette concept, which turned out be the Stingray that was shown at the 2009 Chicago Auto Show. That was going to be the star concept for the 2006 Detroit Auto Show.

There was a forum at the virtual reality studio in the design center, with Rick Wagoner, Bob Lutz, Ed Welburn, John Smith, our head of product planning, and Jim Queen, the head of global engineering, what we called The Gang of Five. Lutz told us that (retired Corvette group head) Dave Hill didn't want to do the Corvette because it would take attention away from the introduction of the production ZR1. Then we wanted to do a whole Corvette gallery from 1953-on for the show.

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