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The New, Go-Go Camaro

GM's fifth-generation concept car drew raves at the Detroit auto show. Its designers say the challenge was striking a balance between classic and modern

Just a few months ago, the situation looked pretty bleak for Chevrolet Camaro fans hoping for a fifth generation of their favorite pony car. Key General Motors (GM) executives were saying a new model would never happen. And the assembly plant that GM was contractually obligated to use for the production of any future Camaro was demolished and dumped in a landfill.

Then word leaked out that a Camaro concept inspired by the iconic 1969 model and powered by a V8 engine lifted from the C6 Corvette would be shown at the Detroit auto show. And indeed it was: With great fanfare at the tail end of a parade of historic Camaros, the never-before-seen concept car made its public debut.

Odds are, the concept Camaro unveiled at the Detroit auto show or something close to it will see production sometime in 2008 as a 2009 model for GM showrooms. However, GM isn't about to confirm that the new Camaro will ever be built. They better make up their minds: If early reviews and comments from online forums and blogs are any indication, this is a car GM should definitely greenlight.

Fred Staab and Les Jackson, co-hosts of Cruise Control Radio, recently talked with Tom Peters and Jeff Perkins, the GM designers responsible for the interior and exterior look of the new Camaro. Peters and Perkins shared their thoughts about the Camaro design process, which took place in GM's high-security Studio X in Michigan, and explained what styling cues from the past were important to keep and how the design changed in order to remain relevant to today's buyers. Edited excerpts from their talk follow.

When did work begin, and how long did it take to build the new Camaro concept?
Peters: It began in earnest in the first part of last year, after a discussion [GM Vice-President of Design] Ed Welburn had with Bob Boniface and several other designers over in Europe. Ed said we really need to do another generation Camaro, and they got going on developing architecture portion [chassis design and layout], and we got into some theme work [overall design].

I got involved in the February or March timeframe. Then, about the middle of the summer, Ed invited me up to his office and said, "We would like to have an alternative [design], because it's an important car, and we want to look at more than one theme." Initially, it was kicked off as being more of a faithful a reinterpretation of the '69, which was deemed the iconic Camaro.

Did you have to change your interior design of the car from the original more retro design to the current one?
Perkins: Not really. We did a number of designs [ranging] from very retro to very contemporary. We were inspired by the 1969, or the first generation Camaro, but we said we had to execute with very contemporary, new details. Our goal was to have the Camaro faithful -- the Camaro Club -- look at the car, recognize the connection to the past, and love it. But just as important, you want a whole new generation of people to look at the car and love it and not necessarily rely on its history.

What's Studio X? This is the Area 51 of General Motors design, isn't it?
Peters: There's a great history there. When I started with GM in the early '80s, there already was a mystique to Studio X. I was involved with the Corvette Indy years ago, and we actually developed that in the basement in the Studio X studio where earlier Corvettes and even some of the Corvair concept work [was done].

The reason they did [work in the basement of Studio X] was to get it out of the limelight so that the team could focus on this concept in a place where it can be quiet and without a lot of interruptions.

All the designs you came up with really capture the Camaro feeling. How did you accomplish that?
Peters: There's that magic to it, and that's what we wanted to get. There are different ways to execute a car. It's getting that right balance. That heritage aspect that's so powerful. [But] you can't do a literal reinterpretation, you have to bring it to the next level. You have to make it new, because there are new customers out there that don't necessarily care if it looks like the '69, just so it says Camaro in a powerful, new way.

If you had to make a production interior tomorrow, what constraints would you have using the generic GM components as opposed to the dramatic design that you came up with in the concept?
Perkins: Our objective was a little like the Pontiac Solstice, where we wanted to do a concept car that, if we go to production, it doesn't take a lot of translation. The basic overall shape, that real strong brow above the top, the real simple cross-car IP, that's all very doable.

A lot of times, we do these things as somewhat vision models. If it goes in production, we say, "Hey, let's get as close as we can to capturing that show car." There's a big push now at General Motors to make sure we don't just grab parts off the shelf, that they're designed specifically to be more integrated, especially things like the radio and HVAC.

If they greenlighted this car tomorrow, is the concept buildable as it sits now?
Peters: There are some things you've got to consider in going forward -- like how you stamp the panels, the legal requirements as far as lamps, and things of that nature. And you want to make sure that it's very usable by the customer.

As far as concept cars go, I think this is probably the closet we've done to getting it real and understanding what it would take to translate into a production vehicle. We're evaluating that right now.

We've heard that the Camaro will have the LS2 Power Plant from the Corvette as one of the engine choices. Is that correct?
Peters: That's an obvious selection, because if we do go forward with this vehicle, it's got to be strong on the street. One of the things we talked about in developing this car is how much personality, how aggressive should it be. I gave my guys pretty simple directions. We talked about aircraft influences, the history of Camaro, and its heritage. We talked about could we shake a little bit of Corvette in there.

But at the end of the day, what I [told my team was] to draw the meanest street-fighting dog you can come up with. They have an aggressive personality, and if you do a car like that, you're going to have the power plants to back it up. Because, let's face it, that whole segment -- Mustang, and even with the Challenger coming on board -- you're in a competitive environment.

On the interior design, the last generation was criticized a little bit on quality. Have you improved the interior over previous generations?
Perkins: Absolutely. That was a priority for us. If you think back to the first Camaros, and on a lot of the muscle cars, the interior was a little bit of an afterthought. It wasn't as much of a priority. We really tried to raise the bar on the interior. We wanted the design to be just as exciting as the exterior.

But to compete in the market today, your interior has to have the quality. It has to have the materials, and you can no longer just rely on, hey, the car's got a big motor and rear-wheel drive. Even with the concept car, we tried to use premium materials where you see them and really focus on the detail and the gauges and the shifter, that really convey the horsepower and convey very precise movement and high quality.

Why are the lines of the concept car so sharp and crisp as opposed to more rounded like the old car?
Peters: That's the way we feel it needed to go. Look back at [our] sources of inspiration that bring us to that. One was the C6 Corvette, which is more angular and crisp. Also, [we used] aircraft as a source of inspiration. If you look at the YF22 Raptor and some of the Stealth fighters, they're angular and crisp and purposeful.

Why do designers look at aircraft? Because they're leading-edge technology, high-performance vehicles, where the form follows the function. You want to get that in an automotive sense.

How much do you listen to the potential Camaro buyer or someone who owns one of the older cars?
Perkins: We listen quite a bit to what people -- especially in the Camaro Club and the Chevy Clubs -- have to say. It's always interesting to look at a lot of the blogs and see what they think is important in the car. We always look to what's the underlying theme of the inspiration. That's the most important thing we have to capture.

You have to be careful because this car has two requirements: It has to look like a Camaro, but it also has to look new. It's a fine line there between the two. In terms of getting official input in, there are two or three different ways. The Internet is so powerful. We're watching that all the time. Camaro Clubs have their Web sites. We look at that.
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