by Bill Vance
With the announcement that the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird will cease production in September 2002, our historical expert Bill Vance, looks back on the origins and colourful history of these two American pony cars.
The sporty Ford Mustang, introduced in April, 1964, caught the rest of the industry flat-footed. By draping a nicely styled, long nose, short deck 2+2 body over some inexpensive compact Falcon running gear, Ford scooped the other automakers.
In the process Ford set in motion a whole new automotive genre, the “Pony Car.” No one felt the sting of being left behind more keenly than Ford’s traditional arch rival, Chevrolet.
Chevy was caught; the General Motors division had nothing to put against the Mustang. The rear-engined, air-cooled Corvair, which Chevrolet had began to promote more as a sporty car when it failed to match the Falcon’s sales as a compact family car, catered to a much more specialized audience.
And besides, the Corvair was on the brink of disaster. In Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe At Any Speed, the Corvair underwent the most savage attack ever administered to a single model. Corvair sales went into an immediate decline and the model was discontinued in 1969.
Chevrolet’s sports car, the Corvette, was by now too powerful, expensive, and intimidating to compete in the pony car market. Something clearly had to be done.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28
Photo by Bill Vance
Click image to enlarge
The engineers and stylists set to work to develop the Camaro, a direct competitor to the Mustang. In the best Detroit tradition they did the same as Ford had: borrow some components from other models. The base engine was the 3.8 litre inline, overhead valve six used in the compact Chevy II and intermediate Chevelle.
The single-leaf (“Mono-Plate”) rear springs were very similar to those fitted to the Chevy II. The coil spring front suspension came pretty well intact from the Chevelle. Unit construction was used aft of the windshield, with a subframe extending forward for suspension and engine mounting.
Even using some existing components, it took Chevrolet almost two-and-one-half years to come up with its Mustang match. The Camaro was introduced to the public in the fall of 1966 as a 1967 model and it immediately became apparent that the stylists had been more daring than the engineers.
While it had conventional front-engine, rear drive (no more rear engines for Chevrolet), the body was a thing of beauty. It was a cleanly sculpted, crisply styled piece of automotive art, something that would gradually be lost in later years through the addition of slots, spoilers and air dams.
The appearance was smoother and less angular than that of the Mustang, and looked more aerodynamic, although little thought was given to that in those pre-oil crisis days of cheap and abundant motor fuel.
The Camaro was aimed directly at the Mustang, and it was within fractions of it in dimensions. A comparison with the 1967 Mustang reveals that the Camaro’s wheelbase at 2,746 mm (108.1 in.) was almost identical to the 2,743 mm (108.0 in.) of the Ford.
In other measurements the Camaro was also very close; 25 mm (one in.) longer; 41 mm (1.6 in.) wider; and 15 mm (0.6 in.) lower. The Camaro was approximately 91 kg (200 lb) heavier.
Both cars used an inline six-cylinder engine for base power, with the Camaro’s 3.8 litres being slightly larger than the Mustang’s 3.3 litres. With 140 horsepower, the Chevrolet six was also 20 horsepower more powerful.
1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28
Photo courtesy of 1967z28.com
Click image to enlarge
The Camaro took another chapter out of Ford’s book by offering an extensive, “build-it-yourself” array of options. Camaro buyers could add such items as consoles, stereos and power windows inside, while outside they could opt for the SS (Super Sport) package with its wide stripe around the nose of the car, and disappearing headlights. Wheel covers were a study unto themselves. Both the Camaro and Mustang could be had in hardtop or convertible form.
Under the skin the Camaro offered a wide array of powertrain options including, three-and four-speed manual transmissions, or an automatic. In engines the buyer could choose all the way up to the blockbuster 6.5 litre 325 horsepower V-8.
Ford had not been sleeping in the power department either; the hottest option for the Mustang was a 6.4 litre, 335 horsepower V-8. The inevitable performance comparisons were bound to be made, and the two cars, when fitted with big V-8 engines, proved to be identical in acceleration from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph). Car Life magazine reported a time of 7.8 seconds for the Mustang 390, the same as it got for the Camaro SS 350. The Camaro proved to be a little faster at the top and at 193 km/h (120 mph) compared with 182 (113) for the Mustang.
Ford was on a sales roll with the Mustang, selling close to half a million in 1967. The Camaro couldn’t get up to speed fast enough to meet anything like that kind of sales figure, with the result that the Mustang outsold the first year Camaro by about four to one. Chevrolet did better with the Camaro in 1968 producing 235,151 of them, although still not up to the Mustang’s 317,148.
The Camaro progressed through several generations, growing faster and more powerful until it was virtually a Corvette under the skin. But in spite of this the Ford Mustang, the originator of the genre, continued to hold the preferred place among Pony Car buyers. Camaro sales declined over the years, and in the 1990s rumours began to circulate that the Camaro, and its corporate sibling the Pontiac Firebird, would be discontinued.
General Motors denied these rumours with less and less plausibility. It was not, therefore, a surprise when the announcement finally came in September, 2001, that in September, 2002, the plant in Ste. Therese, Quebec, the only source for the Camaro/Firebird, would close. With its passing two great American nameplates will slide into history.