Through the decades, General Motors has found itself on both sides of the product curve. The '64 Pontiac GTO is an example of GM almost inventing a niche ahead of its competition, in this case the modern muscle car. On the flip side, The General found itself without a real competitor to the Ford Mustang when it debuted in April, 1964. Sure, General Motors boasted that they had a Mustang fighter, in the form of the Corvair, but performance enthusiasts took one look at the rear-engined, air-cooled offering and said "thanks, but no thanks. "Soon, General Motors, Chevrolet in particular, was burning the midnight oil to get a true challenger to the 'Stang on the streets. Code named "Panther," it emulated the Mustang's long hood/short deck proportions, and in compliance with then-current Chevrolet practice was blessed with a "proper" name starting with "C," Camaro.
By the time the newest Chevrolet was released, the Mustang had been essentially playing in a field-of-one for two years. Granted, the Barracuda debuted two weeks before the Ford, but it was a mild restyle of the boring Valiant, and it wasn't being marketed with any flair. Chevrolet saw that the Barracuda was low on the excitement scale, and when the Camaro was rolled out, the Bow Tie crew ramped up the new cars' visibility. One of the most successful efforts was this vehicle; the Camaro Cherokee.
For decades General Motors had been giving the public sneak peaks of future products at auto shows, and the trend continued with the release of the Cherokee. A big-block convertible was yanked from the Norwood, Ohio, assembly plant and shipped to the famed General Motors Design Center. Run by Bill Mitchell, a brilliant dictatorial leader who oozed superb taste. The Design Center staff applied their considerable talents toward heating up the looks of the Camaro without becoming a caricature. It's said that the mark of a good designer is knowing when to lift the pen, and it's clear that the Design Center was chockablock with talent.
The first modification from stock that most people notice is the trick hood; it was designed to showcase the new Mark IV 396ci bigblock engine that engineering guru Vince Piggins had great faith in. Topped with four Weber downdraft carburetors on a Moon Can-Am intake manifold, the unstamped preproduction L78 mill was rated at 375 hp. The tall velocity stacks on the Weber's became a focal point when they were visible beneath a custom clear Plexiglas cover on the hand-formed hood. Yet close examination of the exterior reveals plenty of special Design Center touches, such as the split front and rear bumpers, á la the Corvette. On top of the hood, next to the transparent "window" is a hood-mounted tachometer, "borrowed" from Pontiac.
At the far end, a tail spoiler was formed by the artisans at the Design Center. Between the taillights is a quick-release gas cap, one of the period's mechanical components that was virtually mandatory on performance cars. Yet this particular car had performance spades. It was fitted with Koni front shocks and AC Delco air shocks at the rear. With the massive power coming from the bow, the rearend was a 12-bolt posi the better to leave equal-length lines. Shifting duties were taken care of by a TurboHydramatic 400 three-speed automatic. Any automobile that can accelerate like a locomotive needs to be able to shed speed as well, and the fitting of J52 power front disc brakes went a long way in that direction.
During this era, any show car that had any hope of being noticed needed a high-profile paint scheme, and the Design Center didn't disappoint. The Cherokee came with an Aztec Gold Metallic finish, but the painters laid Candyapple Metalflake Red on top of the gold. Slightly translucent, the base color was visible through the red, giving the paint a three-dimensional look. Though now cracked and crazed, the original finish is still on the car.
When new, the Cherokee wore a red interior, but soon after it was completed, a black interior was installed. A tilt steering wheel sourced from a Corvette was fitted, and a fold-down rear seat allowed the car to be used for events other than merely gracing an auto show stand. In fact, the Cherokee was tasked with pace car duties during the 1967 Can-Am season opening 200-mile race at Elkhart Lake's Road America on September 3rd, 1967. The wheelman for its pace car duties was none other than famed F1 racer Stirling Moss.
Soon after its debut, Hot Rod magazine featured the Cherokee, calling it the next "Camaro for the street." While styling features such as the wild hood treatment and hood-mounted tachometer wouldn't make it to Camaro production cars, it was considered a success by General Motors due to the wide publicity the Camaro Cherokee garnered. And that was job number one in the long battle between the Mustang and the Camaro, a battle that has recently resumed. Could a new Cherokee see daylight? We could only hope.