History of the Camaro, part 1

When the Mustang came along in 1965, it caught Chevrolet completely off-guard.  The automotive press hadn’t clued them in, and their own “futurists” (people paid to predict the future) couldn’t grasp the concept of a pony car in time to create their own version.  Ford’s Mustang had a complete monopoly on this new class of fun, exciting sports car.

That’s why General Motors got to work instantly on their own version.  They needed to do something big to counter the Blue Oval’s little creation.  That something was a unibody coupe based on the upcoming ’68 Nova.  In it’s most basic form, it came with the usual independent front suspension, three-speed tranny, and a little  “think I can, I think I can” 230 cubic inch straight-6 engine.  It thought it could make a piddly 140 horsepower, although most say that was pretty optomistic.

Norm Ross' 69 Chevy Camaro

That was the end of the resemblance to the Mustang v1.0 “secretary’s car.”  The 40-checkmark long factory options list brought out The General’s big guns in full force.  This list included several small-block V8’s, and even went up to a four-barrel 396 big block, spitting fire to the tune of 375 horsepower.

But what name could they give this beautiful new beast?  Being Chevrolet, it had to be a made-up word with no sensical meaning whatsoever.  It also had to start with the letter “C.”  You know, like Corvair, Corvette, Chevy II, etc.  That’s why GM marketing execs took a lesson from Brian Fantana’s playbook and called it “Panther.”

Why Panther?  Because in the future, 60% of the time this car would start a fight between a Chevy and a Ford guy, every time.

warning: some parts may be NSFW

Thankfully, someone came to their senses and gave the car a solid, unique name.  Something that, unlike Panther, was less cheezy and less likely to cause young, attractive PETA members to protest naked through the streets (yeah, we regret that part, too).  On June 22, 1966, automotive journalists across the US received telegrams inviting them to the first and last meeting of “The Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World.”  The letter was signed by John Cutter, a Chevy public relations guy.

On June 28th, journalists huddled around telephones in 14 cities, waiting to hear the gospel of the Chevy gods.  The good word was that the Panther project had been formally re-named to Camaro.  Although the official explanation was a fuzzy, feel-good explanation with big words, Chevy product managers put it best: a Camaro is “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.”

By September 12, 1966, the public had their first view of The General’s new ride, and by the end of the month, the car was available on dealer lots.

1967 Camaro SS 350

As mentioned, Camaros could be had with power options ranging from the teeniest 140-horse, 6 cylinder engine, up to a proper musclecar-sized 375 hp, 396 cubic inch big-block Chevy.  During the entire 3-year run of the first-generation, there were thirteen different engines available, including the infamous COPO aluminum 427-ci big blocks.

Don Yenko, a Chevy dealer based out of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, saw what the Camaro was, and what it could be.  He began ordering SS Camaros in 1967, swapping out the stock L-78 engine for a 427-ci L-72 motor.  Sadly, this modification disqualified it from drag racing, keeping sales down to an estimated 50 units.

The following year, Yenko made use of a little-known loophole known as COPO, or Central Office Production Order, a system made for ordering fleets of specialized commercial vehicles, like taxis.  Through the fine art of order form manipulation, Don Yenko got his hands on dozens of specially-built drag racers taxis with stiffer suspension, 4.10 rearend, and 140-mph speedometer.  You know, for those really hurried fares to the airport.

Flamed '69 Camaro

Yenko finally hit pay dirt in 1969, when the factory finally shipped 201 Camaro racers taxis equipped with an aluminum 427-ci engine.  The motors were complimented with a choice of standard or automatic transmission, stronger suspension, spoilers, stripes, and a pack of Kleenex to clean up the tears when a (supposedly real) Yenko Camaro is crashed into a boat in 2Fast 2Furious, 34 years later.  Today, these cars have sold for more than $2.2 million USD.  Except for the one Paul Walker crashed into a boat-it’s screwed.

The Camaro has gone on to become one of the most important vehicles in North American car culture.  It’s potential has been exploited in more ways than most of us could imagine, and we have just scratched the surface.  Even though Ford had the head start in the pony car wars, Chevy hit the ground running.  Next week, we’ll see just how they covered lost ground in subsequent generations of Camaro.

Yellow '69 Camaro SS396

Hmm, why does that yellow Camaro look so familiar?  Maybe because it’s the cover of “Class of 2009”!  The first edition has been available for some time now, but there’s a second edition on its way.  Keep it tuned to this website as we reveal details of this bigger, badder, better version of our first real book!

Like what you read?  Why not check out our Hot Rod History series on the Chevrolet Corvette?  Or maybe some show coverage featuring first-gen Camaros in their natural habitat?


1 Response to “History of the Camaro, part 1”

  1. March 10, 2009 at 7:53 am

    As always a Great Piece. I really look forward to the rest of this article as I own a 1971 Camaro Z28 RS. I would be glad to submit pics if you want.

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