How the first-generation Chevy Camaro design came to be

Michael Lamm Mar 31 2020

 

 

Firsthand tales about the Camaro’s origins

 

The following feature appeared in the February 1979 issue of Special Interest Autos and was excerpted from (former SIA editor and founder) Mike Lamm’s book, The Great Camaro. We’re reprinting it here because it contains in-depth information about the first-generation Camaro’s development, derived from interviews that Lamm conducted with the people who worked at Chevrolet on this historic project.

Word had come down in early August, 1964, that there would be a Chevrolet sporty car for 1967 to challenge the Mustang directly. General Motors now realized that the 1965 Corvair couldn’t match the Mustang’s engine and option versatility.

The news pleased Chevy general manager Bunkie Knudsen mightily, and GM’s Design Staff, as mentioned, had been hoping for just such an opportunity and wasn’t caught at all unprepared.

The man with overall charge of the F-Car’s styling was GM Design Vice President William L. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell also oversaw the second-generation Camaro’s styling—the 1970½’s—and he makes no bones about which version he likes best. “The 1970½ Camaro,” he says, “is a designer’s design; but that first series was designed by committee.”

 

 

In February 1965, refinements brought Camaro to its final “face.” Haga’s studio was also working on ’68 Corvette, so rear aspects showed resemblance.

 

 

What Mitchell means is that certain specifications for the 1967 Camaro were laid down early by Chevrolet engineers and management to accommodate the practicality of the 1968 Chevy II. While the Camaro came first and did get the major styling and engineering emphasis, everyone realized that the Camaro had to be the specialty car, and the Chevy II had to be the volume seller. Thus the new 1968 Chevy II could and did dictate certain terms and conditions to the Camaro design team.

Two of the compromised dimensions that left the Camaro’s designers less than ecstatic were: 1) the tallness of the cowl, and 2) the short dash-to-front-axle span. Comments David M. Holls, then Chevrolet group chief designer, “We were a little unhappy with those dimensions, but they were just requirements—a tooling requirement and a cost consideration.”

The Camaro’s chief designer for both the first and second generation was Henry C. Haga. Haga reported to Dave Holls, who in turn reported to Chevrolet/Pontiac executive designers Charles M. (Chuck) Jordan and Irvin W. (lrv) Rybicki. All, of course, had a good deal to do with the Camaro’s eventual shape, but most of the actual drawing board work and clay modeling came out of Henry Haga’s Chevrolet Studio Two.

As it happened, that particular studio also had responsibility for the design of the rebodied 1968 Corvette. Haga had helped productionize the 1965 Corvair, and he’d been instrumental in styling the Super Nova show car. So all three—Corvette, Corvair, and Super Nova—influenced the Camaro’s design.

 

Henry Haga’s studio evolved “high-bone” fender line for first-generation Camaro, sketched here in the extreme.

 

Henry Haga was working as design director for Opel in Germany when we contacted him for his remembrances of the F-Car’s early styling development. Haga wrote back a long, very informative letter detailing his involvement with not only the first-generation Camaro but also the second. He headed the design teams that created both cars. Here are parts of Haga’s letter:

“To start with, the men in Chevrolet Studio Two—the designers, modelers, and engineers—were all auto enthusiasts. We were pretty excited when we found out we had a chance to design an all-new, four-place sporty car that would eventually compete with the Ford Mustang.”

The General Motors design theme of that era was termed fluid, and it emphasized a look based on an interesting proposition. The GM theory held that if you take a heavy wire frame and bend it into the basic three-dimensional outline of the car you want, then stretch thin canvas over the frame, and if you finally blow compressed air gently up into the bottom of the canvas envelope, you get a very natural, free-flowing, un-artificial body shape. This fluid form showed up most strikingly in the 1965 crop of General Motors cars, and it continued as a corporate look for a number of years thereafter.

“The canvas-stretched-over-wire theme,” continues Henry Haga, “served to give the Camaro its own character and separated it from the Mustang approach, which was much stiffer and more angular.”

 

The body buck for XP-836, on which the clay will be applied. Note the Mustang right next to it.

 

The 1964 Super Nova show car set the first direction for the Camaro-to-be, although it was used only loosely as a model. The Corvette and Corvair also entered into the Camaro’s early styling, as Haga explains further.

“The continuity of the GM design concept was consistent even though the 1965 Corvair design started in an advanced studio, headed by Ron Hill, before it became a production studio project in the Chevrolet studio. I was privileged to be production studio chief in charge of the Corvair at that time. Later, when we started to design the 1967 Camaro, we again chose the fluid theme as being the most proper direction for us to pursue.

“We felt very strongly about reducing design to its simplest form, using only one peak down each body side, interrupted by accented wheel arches. The profile of the car also was very simple, using the classic approach of crowned fender lines, with their high points directly above the accented wheel arches.

“We purposefully avoided any contrived design lines and superfluous detail. Even the execution of the wide, horizontal-loop front end and grille, with its hidden head lamps in the Rally Sport variant, was as pure in content as we could make it.”

 

Except for possibly the backlite, much of the styling of this early clay model differs from the production Camaro. Yet it is appealing.

 

Haga goes on: “The F-Car design had one major flaw, though, and that was proportion. The cowl was too high, and the front wheel location stood too far back; what we call the ‘dash-to-axle’ ended up too short. Those were areas and dimensions shared with the Chevy II for 1968. Also, the execution of the side rear-quarter window didn’t help the car’s sportiness, because it made it look more like a conventional hardtop than an exotic sports car.”

On the brighter side, a last-minute decision to use the Chevelle rear axle gave the F-Car a wider tread than initially planned. This came as a pleasant surprise for the designers, because the wider tread meant a huskier, more potent looking car.

Another fortuitous result of having to use the Chevelle axle was that the 1968 Chevy II also benefited. “The rocker and wheel tread,” notes Dave Holls, “is much wider than it would normally have been for a sedan of that type, and that came as a result of the Camaro’s influence. The Nova’s dash-to-axle also grew larger than it would have been otherwise.”

The F-Car, which was code-named XP-836 and Panther by the designers, took shape very rapidly, going from drawings to clay to fiberglass within a few short weeks. Two styling nuances were the curved side windows and the Coke-bottle-shaped sideview, enhanced with bright rocker trim on the RS models and given a slimming up by using black paint beneath the lower door line. The use of black here blended with the road shadow to give the Camaro’s body a slimmer, less bulky look — an idea borrowed from the Corvette and Super Sport versions of the Chevelle.

 

A different version with revised side and quarter windows and front and rear treatments.

 

A styling headache stemmed from an early engineering specification to use 13-inch wheels and tires. “Because of an improper definition of what the car was going to be, there was some confusion about wheel and tire sizes,” continues Hank Haga. “I remember at one point, that we had a tremendous amount of open wheel cut surrounding the tires. Because of the Camaro’s marketing philosophy, we had to make the car offer a full range of tire sizes. This left the poor car with the smallest tires at a great disadvantage.”

Another frustration came from the two-body type limit imposed by Chevrolet management: coupe and convertible only. “We weren’t able to include a fastback in the Camaro line,” laments Dave Holls, although one was mocked up in clay as a response to the Mustang fastback.

Other body styles considered for the first-generation Camaro were a two-place convertible and a two-door station wagon, or Kammback. These were based as much as possible on existing sheetmetal tooling, which by then was pretty far along. But both the two-place ragtop and the wagon turned out to be mere styling exercises, because there wasn’t a budget to put them into production.

Budget restrictions, in fact, were quite drastic in this car, because it had to compete with the Mustang, and one of the Mustang’s main selling points was price. Price consciousness became less of a problem after about 1973, when the competing standard-sized ponycars dropped by the wayside.

 

“Oil-cooler” hood louvers for SS were originally intended to be functional, but water leaked in. Early RS grille beamed lights directly through grids.

 

The F-Car’s instrument panel borrowed heavily from the 1968 Corvette-to-be. The man who headed the Camaro interior design team was George Angersbach, who had responsibility for all Chevrolet sporty and small car interiors, including Corvair and Chevy II. Angersbach reported to Chevrolet chief interior designer Donald Schwarz.

“We were working on the 1968 Corvette at the time we were doing the Camaro interior,” notes George Angersbach. “The ’68 Corvette was originally slated to come out as a 1967 model. But then there was some uncertainty about the timing. We wanted to be sure we didn’t lose that 1968 Vette instrument panel theme—the two big dials—so we put them into the Camaro, too.

“Actually, those two cars—the Corvette and the Camaro—we tried to keep them a family, where you’d have the out-and-out sports car and then you had the sporty four-place coupe and convertible to go along with it. We put some of the Corvette flavor into the interior on purpose.”

Donald Schwarz broadens the Camaro’s interior development by adding, “The Super Nova was the first car we did of that type. The basic philosophy of the Super Nova’s interior was what ended up in the first F-Car—the two large dials. But the control area of the Super Nova started at the top of the instrument panel, then sloped back toward the seats and blended with the tunnel console to form a divider down the middle of the car. The console . owed back between the rear seats. It was a lot like the 1963 Riviera.

 

Taken in early 1965, this photo depicts a clay model with side and quarter window treatments, kick-up of the rocker area, and front and rear shapes that are much closer to those of the production Camaro, but the taillamps and rear bumper still differ.

 

“When they decided to go ahead with the F-Car, we had to get practical. We couldn’t do the tunnel all in one swoop, because Camaros with bench seats wouldn’t have consoles. So we ended up doing the design with the center panel rolled under instead of outward.”

On the interior door trim, the designers decided they wanted a one-piece, molded, contemporary look and settled on a new and fairly expensive material for the Rally Sport door panels—a foam-filled laminate. Cadillac had used the same material previously, as had the Corvette. The idea was to give a softer feel to the RS, plus good insulation, and yet have some bulkiness and plushness to puff out around emblems and brightwork.

“We modeled this foam-filled panel in clay,” says Don Schwarz, “and I clearly remember that it meant going to a great deal of expense for tooling and production. We had a meeting in the Design Center auditorium. Mr. Knudsen was general manager at the time, and the Fisher Body people didn’t really want to do these molded door panels for what amounted to a low-budget car.

 

This front view of the clay model reveals rectangular instead of the round parking lamps that the 1967 production car ultimately received, and grille differences.

 

“Mr. Gathman, who was head of Fisher Body, was invited over to the meeting by Mr. Knudsen, and Knudsen said, ‘This is what we want,’ and Gathman said, ‘Fine, that’s what we’ll do,’and they did it. The design came out fairly close to what we intended.”

With no space for extra gauges within the F-Car’s twin W dials, and with the air-conditioning outlet taking up the top portion of the 1967 Camaro’s central control panel, a question soon arose: Where to put the additional gauges that performance enthusiasts were bound to want?

The answer came from another interior designer, Sue Vanderbilt. Sue suggested and executed not only the design of the three-dial console gauge cluster for the ’67 model but also the four-gauge “sawtooth” console pack for 1968-’69. Ms. Vanderbilt later became one of the chief designers of Chevrolet interiors. The mounting of these gauge clusters on the front of the tunnel console came as a compromise after no more comfortable spot could be found.

 

Designers converted Camaro to two-seater by removing eight inches behind door.

 

The 1968 Firebird, by the way, placed all working gauges into the big right-hand dial and used the same basic instrument panel for 1967-’69 as the 1967-’68 Camaros. Pontiac had gotten permission to join the F-Car program in February, 1966, and quickly designed their own grille, front-end sheetmetal, rear trunk panel, and the hashmarks on the rear fender flanks. Pontiac also made some mechanical changes, including multi-leaf rear springs from the beginning plus the use of their own engines, transmissions, wheels, bigger tires, etc.

In the F-Car’s final design stages, Chevrolet sent a quarter-scale model of the coupe to the Ling-Temco-Vought aircraft windtunnel near Dallas. This took place in February l965, during one of Detroit’s worst snowstorms. A staff stylist, a clay modeler, and a Chevrolet engineer were glad to get out of the cold, and accompanied the model to the relatively balmy climes of Texas.

“This was at a time when we were first getting into aerodynamics,” comments engineer Victor Valade. “We wanted to make sure the car had some good aerodynamics. This was still early enough in the first Camaro program so minor changes could be made in the body shape.”

The windtunnel tests spanned 11 days, and a few small changes were made as a result to clean up the Camaro’s airflow characteristics. One involved reworking the front valance panel beneath the bumper. Another had to do with reshaping the front fenders slightly. Both were carried through into production Camaros.

 

Station-wagon version of 1967 Camaro was also built during same period. Chevrolet stylists regretted not getting permission to do a Camaro fastback to compete with Mustang 2 + 2, but despite little hope, they mocked one up anyway.

 

The quarter-sized model still had the original narrow tread called for in early Camaro specifications. It was trimmed to duplicate a full-sized car carrying two people and V-8 engine. Airflow was recorded by using wet ink spots on the surface of the model, and also by a force balance under the tunnel floor.

Special instrumentation measured lift, drag, side force, body roll, pitch, and yawing movement. The results let Chevrolet check on ventilation, power consumption. traction at high speeds, and crosswind sensitivity.

 

“Panther” script adorns the concealed-headlamp grille.

 

A positive-pressure area showed up at the base of the windshield, as expected, so that’s where the cowl vent and cold-air pickup for the air cleaner went. Chevrolet had been using cold-air induction on race cars since 1963, when Paul Prior, working in Vince Piggins’s area, improved Daytona lap speeds of 1963 lmpalas by 2-3 mph. Ducted air cleaners were thus offered and homologated with the first Z/28 introduced at Riverside in November l966.

And because of negative air pressure near the very rear of the coupe, the Z/28 got a spoiler. In fact, engineer/ author Paul van Valkenburgh, working in Chevrolet R & D at the time, used the windtunnel figures to design not only the Z/28’s rear spoiler but its front air dam as well. And designer/ engineer Larry Shinoda of Chevrolet’s special projects studio used this same windtunnel data to design the Z/28’s cold-air hood scoop—the 1969 option with the rear-facing opening.

 

The Camaro was chosen to pace the Indianapolis 500 in 1967.

 

SOURCE: Hemmings

 

 

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