The Camaro That Almost Was
How GM's hot concept pony car got that way.
by Paul A. Eisenstein
Call it the Camaro that almost was. The pony car that shook up this year's North American International Auto Show was really the result of a top-secret shoot-out between some of General Motors' top designers.
Even before GM pulled the plug on the last production Camaro, the automaker has been struggling with ways to bring back the once-popular muscle car. An ill-conceived concept car nearly made it onto the auto show circuit in early 2005, but was abandoned on orders from CEO Rick Wagoner.
Ford was already committed to the retro path, with a Mustang unabashedly repeating the theme of the much-loved 1967 model. So Wagoner ordered his design team to come up with something that picked up the visual cues of past Camaros without being slavishly retro.
GM's Advanced Design studio didn't get back to work on the Camaro concept until spring 2005, but "within about three weeks, maybe four," recalled GM design director Ed Welburn, they already had something striking in mind. Sketches were transferred to clay, and soon, a life-size model was ready for review.
"When I walked out onto the patio and saw it, it was obvious it was a Camaro," Welburn, himself a Camaro collector, told TheCarConnection. But he still wasn't satisfied. "I liked it, but I wanted them to push it farther."
Studio X joins the fray
In an unusual move, GM authorized a second design group to begin work on its own concept. The job was handed to Studio X, a facility so secret, it is located well away from other GM design offices, far from prying eyes. Overseeing that effort was Tom Peters, one of the automaker's most creative designers, who'd only recently finished work on the muscular Corvette Z06.
Peter's team got to work in June, and also had its first serious concept ready within weeks, the model to the right in the photograph above. Actually, as the second, more detailed image reveals, Studio X integrated two different models into one, so in a sense, Welburn and GM car czar Bob Lutz had to choose from three distinct alternatives.
Where the first studio's work bore a strong resemblance to the relatively tame '68 Camaro, Studio X came up with an alternative that, according to Welburn, "had a lot of flair," more like the iconic '69.
Their final decision was anything but Solomon-like. Instead of sawing the baby in half, Welburn and Lutz encouraged the two teams to learn from one another. And so, while they finally rejected the Studio X design, the work of the original studio borrowed many of the more edgy features the secret team's concept had incorporated. The striking, angular grille is perhaps the most obvious of those features.
By mid-summer, the go was given, but the final concept vehicle wasn't completed until days before it went on display in Detroit . A second, clay model was painted and shipped to the West Coast, for a belated appearance at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
What's ahead for the Camaro? It's the talk of the industry, it seems, right now, and it's hard to get folks at GM to keep quiet about the concept. But the caveat remains: it's just a concept for now. Several questions must be answered before a final decision is made about production. Can a good business case be made, especially if the base model starts in the low-$20,000 range, as car czar Bob Lutz is promising? Will a production version drive as good as it looks? Will the design still hold up in late 2007, the soonest it could likely hit market?
"We do need to move very quickly" towards making a go/no-go decision, Welburn stressed. So it's likely the Camaro's fate will be decided by the middle of this year.