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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 Details.

Oct 1, 2009
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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.

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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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All of a sudden, Welburn said, "Guys, we need to steal the show this year, and if we can only do one car, I'm going to do a Camaro." It wasn't even on the proposal list. I got goosebumps because I'm a Camaro freak. He showed the early sketches that Sun Yap did, and everybody just lit up. We were highly motivated to do the Camaro, with the limited amount of time we had to do the concept, so it was born here, of American muscle and American passion for the Camaro, with real engineering and real structure, not just a bunch of tubing and fiberglass.

SC: Based on the reception the concept received at Detroit, GM decided to go ahead with the program. How long did it take, from start to finish?

AO: We did the Camaro in 31 months, making it the second-shortest program in GM history after the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky programs. Once the public found out that that we were bringing the Camaro back, the passion from the Camaro fan base just grew and grew, and the program couldn't happen fast enough. So it sure seemed to them like a long time between January of 2006 and now, but we never had any significant program delays.

There was so much attention on the camouflaged prototypes running around in Australia, with all the spy photos and everything, that Bob Lutz ordered us to take off the camouflage and let everyone see what the real car looked like, to take attention off the program. Once Chevrolet released the official photo of the white Camaro, the spy photos stopped.

SC: Apparently, Ed Welburn has wanted to do a new version of the '69 Camaro for a very long time, and he wasn't alone, was he?

AO: There were lots of people involved in the project who are Camaro freaks. Tom Peters, who did the exterior, has a COPO clone, a beautiful car. I've got a '68 convertible. There are so many people on this project who have them or had them, that they didn't mind putting in an extra few minutes here or an extra hour there or whatever it takes.

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Ed's first concept was very retro, looked a lot like the '69. We had a full-size clay review out on the design center patio with the retro-look car, Ed's own '69, a new Mustang, and a Charger all sitting there. Ed walked over and asked one of the skilled-trades guys who is a Camaro fanatic, and he said "That's perfect. You just took 1969 and brought it to 2006." Ed said "OK. We're not doing this one. We know there's a Challenger coming, and a new Mustang, and if they decide to go contemporary, we're dead. Enthusiasts will buy one, but after the first year or two? This has to sustain, and be the 21st century sports car."

So Tom Peters was brought in, with his Corvette experience and Camaro passion, and designed the car you see today. It was quite exciting to be part of that.

SC: So you were engineering the car in the concept car phase, knowing that it would be built on the Zeta platform, in Australia, along with other programs that had already started. What kind of problems do you run into when they're working in a different day than you are, halfway around the world?

AO: Well, the first thing is, I haven't seen the whites of my eyes in two years because my day ends here at about 4 p.m., 6 a.m. in Australia, and then their day starts, so I'm up till 1 o'clock in the morning every night and then I'm up in the morning at 6:30. No sleep.

In order to make this car happen, you just had to sign up and say "I'm going to give it everything I've got." Everybody on my team, everybody on the design team, the marketing team, has willingly signed up for the extra hours it takes. There's an incredible amount of sacrifice to our families, our hobbies, our sleep, but it has to be done.

They do the same in Australia, getting up at three in the morning to be at our key meetings here. It's actually a very good benefit, because, if we're trying to solve an engineering problem here today at Milford, we can get on the phone and ask them to continue working on the problem, so that when we come into work the next day, the problem has been solved.

SC: So, even under tremendous pressures to keep costs down and build the minimum number of prototypes, you actually had to build two sets of prototypes, one here and one in Australia?

AO: That's how we have to do global programs, just double the hardware everywhere. The only way it can work is if you have a global homeroom, as we call it, and that would be Australia for rear-wheel-drive cars. They have a great history with great rear-wheel-drive performance cars, and their HSV high-performance models, a small number of people with great output on performance rear-wheel-drive cars. This was the first program in the history of GM where a vehicle was engineered in a region completely different from the region where it would be built and sold.

SC: Even with all that complexity, there were really only a few significant delays despite what came out in the media. Can you comment on that?

AO: There were no delays. We had the powertrain guys here from Corvette and Cadillac CTS-V to do the V-8 engine calibrations here. The noise and vibration work was done here. We needed ride quality, we needed good squeak-and-rattle performance, and library quiet. A lot of our engineers in Australia didn't understand our need for quietness, and zero squeaks and rattles because their customers aren't as picky as ours. It was no coincidence that I tried to time our Holden engineers' visit around the time of the Woodward Dream Cruise. I wanted them to soak in all those intangibles about passion and car passion so they could understand what we're talking about.

SC: You also had hemispheric problems, in that, when it's winter up here, it's summer down there, and they don't really have winter in Australia. Was that a problem?

AO: No, because New Zealand is only a three-hour flight, so they would take the cars over there, and we ended up being able to do winter testing all year round that way. We were able to do development on our new chassis systems like StabiliTrak and traction control. We developed those in Sweden, and here in Kapuskasing (Ontario) in the winter, and New Zealand in the summer.

Same with hot testing. We were having the worst winter I can remember up here, but they were down there in 45-degree Centigrade (113 degrees F.) heat waves and drought. That was one of the things we took advantage of, having both climates all year round. I would kill to have the road system they have in Australia, and the guys who came up here couldn't believe how bad the roads are in Detroit and Michigan.

SC: Did you have an unusual problem jump up in the development program, something you didn't expect?

AO: One of our challenges was developing a snow tire. We worked with Pirelli to develop snow tires, and on both the V-8s and the V-6 RS, they are 275/35s on the rear. Not every customer will drive his Camaro in the snow, but for those who will, we had to develop a tire, and in freezing conditions on bad roads, there was some impact harshness with those tires that the Australians didn't understand, because they don't have minus-20 weather and their roads are so good. After 21/2 years of ride development at Milford here, and Lang Lang in Australia, at VIR, and on the Nurburgring, all of a sudden we had this impact harshness with snow tires to deal with.

SC: This new Camaro comes with a choice of a V-6, a hot V-8, and an even hotter V-8. Why?

AO: Our mission from Day One was no gas-guzzlers. The Challenger customer has to pay a $1,700 gas-guzzler penalty, and we didn't want our customers to have to deal with that. So we paired the L99 engine with active-fuel-management and automatic transmission and went for fuel economy. It's based on the same Gen 4 small-block, it just has the AFM on it to stay above gas-guzzler. We worked on mass as well. The heaviest LS3 V-8 comes in at just over 3,900 pounds, using HSLA steel and an aluminum hood, compared to the Challenger that's over 4,200 pounds.

SC: Your team faced significantly higher levels and standards for safety, including crash, rollover, and pedestrian protection, standards that no other Camaro team has ever had to deal with. How tough was that?

AO: The goal was, of course, five-star for everything, and we're projecting five-star for rollover, five-star for LINCAP, four-star and five-star for NCAP. In fact, we're right there for the new Stars For Cars standards that will come in in 2012. We did a study on the '69 Camaro, and if you subtract all the weight that had to be added for mandatory safety equipment since 1969, the mass ends up about the same.

SC: Now that the Camaro is in the showrooms and on the street, what about extending the model lineup with a convertible, and possibly a Z/28 version? What would a Z/28 be like?

AO: The convertible has been announced, but it has been delayed until 2011. As far as a Z/28, or a performance version, we've had this debate internally many, many times. What would you call the performance version? A Z/28? A COPO? A Yenko? Would you bring back a nostalgic name, or not? Create a new one? The SS was always the big dog Camaro, not the Z/28. The first Z/28 was built just to get us into the racing circuit against the Mustang and all the other cars that were in that class. If you were going to take a Z/28 approach, you'd try to stay true to the RPO, build a car that you could drive daily on the street, take to the drag strip and do well, or take to the track and do well, which the original Z/28 did. Take some things out of it, get the mass down, use an existing small-block, maybe an LS7, an LS9. Make it a great-performing car for the purist.

SC: We're pretty sure you can get 7.0 liters out of the existing block, so how about a COPO, a 427 Camaro?

AO: Never say never (laughs)! On the other end, we also get asked a lot about turbocharged four-cylinders, especially when they link the discussion to the Bonneville program we did with the turbo four. My answer to that is, none of us Camaro folks would do it, but if we were told to do it, we would do it. We did a study, and it leaked out, but it was only a corporate study to be compliant with future CAFE demands.

SC: You are already making over 300 hp with the base V-6 engine, so who's to say you couldn't lean harder on that engine, take some weight out of the car, and offer a performance V-6 package, although you couldn't call it a Z/28, because all Z/28s were V-8s. How about a 360hp performance V-6?

AO: Don't forget, there are a lot of aftermarket companies like Hennessey and SLP. That's great for the car. We don't have to spend a dime to get that kind of horsepower out of the car.

SC: When did you release all the relevant measuring data for the car to the aftermarket through the SEMA program?

AO: We didn't release it to SEMA for measuring until January 2009, just a couple of months before its public introduction. Our own SPO guys, who work with our engineers, were called in first, in order to get their parts engineered as quickly as possible.

SC: There seems to be a knot in the pipeline. There are close to 20,000 orders for the Camaro, but customers are waiting and waiting for their cars. Is there a problem at the plant in Canada? What's going on with the slow deliveries?

AO: We did something for the enthusiasts who wanted us to get the car out on the road in a hurry. Last October 13, we opened the Chevy website to take early orders, not something we normally do on a new program, and by the end of the 2008 we had 13,000 early orders. Normally, we wouldn't start taking dealer orders until shortly before the start of production. So it did add to the time lag of those customers who placed early orders. We've got about 19,000 sold orders. We started production March 16.

The second thing that adds into it is that Chevrolet wanted to do a one-Camaro-per-dealer unveiling on May 6, so they wanted all the Chevrolet dealers to get a minimum of one Camaro, 4,000 units, and they wanted all of them to be silver V-6s, which we talked them out of. So that took 4,000 units right out of the customers' hands as dealer orders.

So we told some of the customers that they would be getting their cars at the dealers, but not until May 6. If you take those two factors into account, and then add our batch-and-hold process, where we hold all the cars for a minimum of 48 hours in order to catch any upstream quality or parts problems, that explains some of the delay

It was like the perfect storm. You've got a product that's been out of the market for eight years. You've got a very enthusiastic crowd. You've got a company that's in dire straits in terms of our viability. Our suppliers are struggling financially. You've got a year where Chevrolet could take over from Toyota in terms of quality. Very close. So we made a conscious decision to increase our batch-and-hold from 48 hours to where some cars will stay in our possession for up to two weeks. If we had an issue with parts, we wanted to make sure we had it solved before any cars got into customers' hands.

Fifty percent of those 19,000 orders are conquest sales, people who are going to give us one chance to build them a great car. So we made the decision to hold on to the cars. I think the initial frustration is behind us now. But you're right. If I were a customer, I would want to have all this explained.

SC: So, in hindsight, was that early order-taking a mistake?

AO: In hindsight, I would still have done it, with our financial situation, so we knew where we were, but maybe I would have sent out monthly updates on our progress to remind them that it would be six months from order to start of production. And perhaps to stop some of the rumors we had about supplier problems, which we didn't have. We worked every day of the Christmas shutdown to ensure that we would have an orderly transition with our suppliers, and we never lost a beat, never lost a single part. We definitely could have done a better job with communicating.

SC: So, are you at full production right now?

AO: Almost. We have an acceleration rate, and we are on the glide path to reach full production by June 9. We're building and shipping 350 to 375 cars per day on that glide path. It's going well. The global customer audit, our daily plant audit, shows that the Camaro is the best-quality car we build in North America.

SC: So, aside from the 19,000 orders, are new sales orders still coming in despite the lousy economy and the company's woes?

AO: The sales numbers coming in indicate that our market share of the sports car market is going up, up to 3.3 percent of the segment. That tells me that the sports car market is alive and growing. We have the Transformers movie coming out June 24, and we'll have a special Transformers version of the car, Bumblebee, unveiled on that same day.

SC: We understand that you have started putting weights on the brake calipers of Camaro SS models? Why? Will they be installed on all SS models from now on?

AO: Some early Camaro customers noticed that there are weights on the Camaro SS calipers. With high-performance vehicles like the Camaro SS, minor brake noise is not uncommon. The weights act as a damper to reduce noise in certain driving conditions. This was done after careful evaluation and validation by our engineering team. These weights will only be added to early builds of the Camaro SS.

SC: What's the current status of any Camaro body-in-white program for those who want to build racecars but don't want to buy a complete car at retail?

AO: We get asked all the time. We have people interested in buying 500 cars. We have people interested in buying 100 cars. We have people who want to buy them one at a time. I won't say we're against doing that. We're looking at what is the opportunity for us to partner up with someone to do a body-in-white program. I think that, working with our performance parts guys, and working with SEMA, you might see something like that this fall. We've already done the math work to see if you can package a solid axle under the rear of the car for drag racing. We've already worked with (factory Corvette race team) Pratt & Miller on a rollcage assembly. All the work is already done.

SC: Will it work? Would you have to use a solid axle from a pickup truck, like a Silverado?

AO: Yes, that should work. We think this will be one of the most customized and accessorized cars to come out for a long time.

SC: Will you ever take a Camaro to Bonneville in the same way you took the streamliner and the Cobalt?

AO: Never say never. We could make 500 hp from a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and take it to Bonneville to race it in Competition Coupe. When the time is right, when the opportunity presents itself ...

SC: How fast did the car go at the Nurburgring?

AO: Our best lap at the Nurburgring was eight minutes and nine seconds. We didn't really have the clocks set up for an official record, but that was our time.

SC: Is the Camaro going to be able to survive the new gas mileage and CO2 regulations just announced by President Obama?

AO: I think however the Camaro gets defined to meet the regulations, it has a place in the segment and in our portfolio. There will always be a way to have a Camaro in our portfolio, whether it's volume restrictions or whether it's four-cylinder. Whatever we have to do, the Camaro's place in the matrix fits the American market.



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