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Car Corner
Camaro 1967-2002, RIP

January 1, 2002
By Scott Lewis

2002. That will be the year in automotive history that saw the last of the Camaro and Firebird. No more Z28s. No more Trans Ams. No more competition for the Mustang.

But what this necessary? Why are sales of Camaros and Firebirds so low compared to the Mustang? Could the Camaro/Firebird (also know as the F-Body platform) have been saved? I intend to take a look at the Camaro (I own a Camaro and will get real tired of typing Camaro/Firebird, so when I say Camaro I mean both F-Bodies) and determine where it went wrong... and what could have been (and still could be) done to save it.

Camaro RIP

I decided to put this article out on the first month of the last year of the Camaro. So let's all say a fond fairwell to a great American Icon. Among auto enthusiast the Camaro is long remembered as the main competition, the arch rival, of the Mustang. Outside that community the Camaro is mostly thought of as a youth oriented sports car. (Yes, I know it is not really a "sports car," but non enthusiasts think lots of cars are sports cars, even when they really aren't.)

I believe the reputation of the Camaro as a bad boy hot rod is the primary reason for its demise. (Note: I also believe that dealers have had a large role in killing sales of the Camaro. Dealers have long been reluctant to deal on the Camaro under the impression that they could just sell it to the next guy. But they did this as sales where dropping like a stone. Dealers just wanted to make a big buck off of the performance youth market. Is it any wonder why people turned to the Mustang that sold more like a regular car.)

The Camaro is heading to the great salvage yard in the sky. The Camaro has maintained a wild, speed is everything attitude that just doesn't jive with the vast majority of the people nowadays. Let's take a look at the Mustang. When it first came out it was sporty, but never really thought of as a sports car. It was available with a plethora of engines, even two 6 cylinder engines, that could accommodate many lifestyles. The original Mustang had just enough room in the back seat to be used as a family car... at least for a family with one or two small children.

Today's car buyers are much more sophisticated than they were back in the sixties. Also, there is an unnatural obsession with high riding sport utility vehicles that can run over a Mustang like it was a speed bump. That means people don't want a low riding, brash, power machine. They want a more upright stance, in a more practical design... even in a coupe. Look at BMW's success with the 3 Series coupes. Even Mustangs today are more upright and more civilized than their Chevrolet competition. Mitsubishi sells a fair amount of the Eclipse and it is not in danger of being removed from production, even from a company that is not doing well and is far behind the big three in Japan in sales. The Eclipse is far more refined a car than the Camaro.

This is not the time to be the horsepower champ. Infinity's flagship has almost always had a good deal more power than Lexus' best, but Lexus still wins in the sales. Lexus knows they are providing enough power, while catering to what the luxury buyer wants... smooth power delivery in a luxurious cabin with clean lines that don't offend anyone.

Retro

Retro... it seems to be all the rage.

Ford finally got the retro styled Thunderbird out. With a small V-8, independent rear suspension and rear wheel drive. This car is supposed to be what the original was... a personal luxury car. In 55-57 it was never meant to compete with the Corvette, a sports car. This is true today. The new Thunderbird is not supposed to compete with the Corvette, the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 or Audi TT. However, I think it does come close to competing with the Mercedes SLK, which is a little ironic because the SLK keeps getting compared to the Porsche, BMW and Audi. Maybe now that Mercedes has an AMG version of the SLK the regular version can be left to compete outside the hard core sports car arena.

Another car that the Thunderbird could conceivably be compared to is the Lexus SC430. But with more than a $20,000 difference in price I don't think people will be making too close of a comparison.

Volkswagen has the New Beetle, actually calling it a Beetle. The original was called the Type 1. The Bug & Beetle monikers were fan based and never official names. In fact, the New Beetle was supposed to be called the Concept 1. I guess the retro theme got the best of them and they decided to name it what people were going to call it anyway... a Beetle... or Bug (Slug Bug for me).

Ford's Mustang and Chevrolet's Corvette have significant retro styling to them. Tell me the waterfall styling on the Convertible Vette isn't a direct influence of the 50s and 60s Corvettes. And the side ducts on Ford's car, fake as they might be, are taken right off one of the most successful cars of all time... the 65 Mustang.

Nissan is readying a new 350Z car to emulate the original 240Z. This car is supposed to get a 260 - 280 horsepower engine. It will be a fun to drive sporty car, but not a hard core speed machine. And it is supposed to be affordable. Under $30,000 (which is only a little more than the average price of a car at $26,376). The last 300ZX Turbo had more horsepower and cost more... a few years ago. Mazda is thinking about an RX8 that will hark the days of the original RX7, with a simple sports car that is fun to drive. I think both of these cars have a great chance if they are reasonably quick, fun to drive, and affordable.

Let's not forget, Volkswagen is even going to revive the Micro-Bus. This is definitely a styling exercise as it is entirely too modern to be compared to the early highway landmarks.

And everyone knows the most popular retro car out there is the PT Cruiser. This coming from the same people that brought us was it probably the most retro car of all... the Prowler. Even BMW tapped the retro theme in developing their new Z8 roadster.

With all this retro styling you should keep something in mind. Car makers hate retro. Think about it. Imagine for a moment that you spent a few years in school learning to design cars only to find out that people prefer the style of cars from 30, 40 even 50 years ago over what you can think up today.

Retro is also a double edge sword for the manufacturer. Cars today have almost nothing in common with the cars they are emulating, beyond four wheels and an engine. The New Beetle is water cooled not air cooled, front engined not rear engined, front wheel drive not rear wheel drive. It has all the amenities of any other new car, particularly air conditioning and a heater that actually works. The New Beetle also has excellent safety features such as ABS and front and side air bags. A true Beetle purist would balk at such a car. But they are cute... and every bit as cute as the original was in its own day.

The problem with retro is that it can blow up in your face. Styling is a finicky thing. If you build a car that is supposed to emulate what the original did, regardless of looks, then you could fail miserably. Also, you have to deal with people's memories... which are almost always better than reality. If the New Beetle was a true people's car like its forbearer, with a heater that only heated a car in the dead of summer, came without air conditioning, and had an engine that displayed a warning light on the dash that read "Please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery," then it would never sell. In fact, if you still needed hair pins and rubber bands to keep a New Beetle running it would be in a museum already.

But People like retro. At least they do now. But... and that is a big but... it better be as good as our memory. This is why the Mustang is succeeding where the Camaro and Firebird are failing. The Mustang went mildly retro in the styling, but went more retro with the personality. The Mustang today is a nimble enough, fun to drive, sporty coupe that has modern conveniences and a gentle personality. Not much different than the original... except that back seat which is worthless. BTW... the interior of the original Mustang was sized the way it was so college kids could drive it, and have enough room in the back seat to make out. Really! You can't make out in the back of a Mustang today, so Ford missed one retro item.

Retro Can Save The Camaro

The Camaro will see its last year of production in 2002. This will end a bitter rivalry between Ford and Chevy that has been going on for over 30 years (just with the pony cars). But was this necessary? Could the Camaro be saved by a retro redesign. I think so. Here is my plan for the Camaro to get it back on top of the Pony Car Wars:

  1. Go with a retro style like the first generation Camaros (67-69).
  2. Get rid of the bad boy image. The performance world thought Ford was nuts to come out with a redesign of the Mustang in 94 with 60 less horsepower (215hp) than the Camaro's redesign of 93 with 275hp. Which one is selling? The Camaro may be the performance champ, but the Mustang is clobbering it in the showroom.
  3. Make it sporty... but not a sports car. A more gentle ride is more important today than maximum G force in the corners. Keep it fun to drive without worrying about how fast it can run around a race track.
  4. Make it more upright. People don't like low cars anymore. After all, a low car has a harder time looking over all those SUVs.
  5. Provide a usable back seat. In convertible form there is no reason four adults shouldn't be comfortable for a couple of hours as they drive to the coast for a beach filed weekend.
  6. Make the doors small enough and light enough to be easy on the owner. The current Camaro has doors long enough and heavy enough to require a couple of extra parking spaces to get out of the Camaro. Don't park in a tight space unless you are Rubberman.
  7. Make it light and nimble. 3200 lbs. is the maximum, and that should only be for the most option laden cars. Keep it at 2800-3000 lbs.
  8. Provide multiple engine options for all trim levels. One or two 6 cylinder engines, a small V-8, and maybe a higher performance V-8. Don't go overboard with performance. However, make sure to help the aftermarket so owners can easily add performance... legally and inexpensively. This would provide the power levels the die hards want without the need for a bad boy image for the production cars.

Differentiate Between Trim Levels

I believe the Camaro can be saved with a good retro styling. Part of the retro theme should include differentiation in models. Different trim levels should include unique styling. In the 60's the Camaro with the RS option got hide-away headlights. Today the RS gets tacked on body cladding that looks like an afterthought from the J.C. Whitney Catalog. Provide more differentiation between the trim packages. You want people to be able to spot a RS from an SS from a Z-28. I remember when my 93 Z-28 was new you could easily tell a Z-28 by the black roof. Then the T-Tops became available and included the black roof. You couldn't tell if a T-Top equipped Camaro was a Z-28 or not without looking for the emblems. Oops. Also, allow trim packages to be combined. In the 60's you could get a base Camaro, a RS, an SS, a RS/SS, a Z/28, and even a Z/28 with the RS and SS packages. Let the buyers decide which packages they want. Finally, make sure the Z/28 is the top model and made in low numbers.

I have seen plenty of current generation Camaros with 60's style stripes. The factory has even put these on some models. They look awkward because they were an afterthought. I think a tasteful stripe package would work if it was designed that way from the start. It is a lot easier to remove strips if they don't sell than to add them later because of demand. Design the car to have a nice strip package up front.

More Engine Choices

Current Camaros have three engine choices, but really none. You have the base Camaro with a V-6 that is such an old design it should be in a museum. Then you take a huge leap to a 305 horsepower monster of an engine as part of the Z/28 package. The third engine is the 320 horsepower Ram Air engine that comes with the SS package. Since the SS is a limited edition package it is largely not a concern to overall production. What this boils down to for the regular buyer is choosing between a base Camaro with a crappy V-6, or a ruff riding bad boy Z/28 with a steroid injected V-8. What about a peppy 225 horsepower engine in a small V-8 or smooth DOHC 6 cylinder? Where is a 250-260 horsepower V-8 for those that just want a little more power but still want a civilized car.

Today's buyers want sophisticated engines. I think the engine choice needs much improvement in the Camaro. I believe the new Vortec 4200, 4.2 liter, 270 horsepower, DOHC, inline 6 from the new TrailBlazer/Envoy would make a great start for the engines available in the Camaro.

The base Camaro engine could be a smaller version of the Vortec, say about 3.5 liters, rated at about 220 horsepower. Consider that the 4.2/270 engine gets 22 mpg in the 2WD Envoy with 4400 lbs to carry around. In a 3000 lb. car a 3.5/220 combination should be good for at least 30 mpg on the highway, maybe 35. A 220 horsepower DOHC inline 6 in a 3000 lb sporty coupe could possibly target the BMW 330Ci (one of my favorite cars). The BMW has a 3.3 liter DOHC Inline 6 making 225 horsepower. I see a comparison test for Car and Driver here.

The next engine option, which should be available to all models except possibly the Z/28, would be the Vortec 4200. It has 10 more horsepower than the 4.6 liter V-8 Mustang. This engine would be the preferred engine in Camaros. Since the TrailBlazer does 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, a Camaro with this engine should easily perform 0-60 duties in under 7 seconds. Fast enough to make for a fun to drive car without developing a bad boy image. Also note, the Vortec engine is all aluminum, so it should be a light engine and help provide a near perfect weight distribution for the nimble handling we are looking for.

Finally a V-8 could be offered. I think the current LS-1 V-8 should be detuned to 295 horsepower. This is a retro number. First, the original 350 engine as installed in the 67 Camaro was rated at 295 hp. Second, this mild detuning from 305 to 295 horsepower should be used to make sure the car is fast without being punishing. Try and make it a smooth power delivery. Smoking the tires is out of flavor today. Remember, our goal is to get rid of the bad boy image. Power like the Lexus SC430 would be great. Once again this engine should be available in all trim levels, except perhaps the base Camaro. Maybe the base Camaro could only be had with this engine by special order. Similar to the COPO 427 Camaros in 69. Regardless, we need to keep production numbers with the V-8 low.

The Z-28 model could get a slightly, and I do mean slightly, higher horsepower V-8 similar to the Ram Air engine today. Since we are going retro, this engine should really use a cowl induction system complete with a hood like the 69 Camaro. Remember when I said we need to help owners add performance? We should make a cowl induction hood a dealer installed option on the other levels of Camaro. I bet it would be a popular, and high profit margin, option to install a cowl induction hood on Vortec 4200 equipped Camaros with the stripe package. What we have is a good performing car with some style, but without the bad boy image. Perfect. We could even offer a kit through GM's Performance Parts catalog to add a functional cowl induction hood kit for owners to add to their Camaros. One last retro theme for the Z-28... no convertible. The first generation Z cars were not available in a convertible, neither should our retro designed Camaro. If you want a convertible... fine... just make it one of the "good guy" cars, not a limited production bad boy racer.

The majority of the cars should have the Vortec 4200 engine. The base engine and the lower horsepower V-8 should be about even in production numbers. Finally there should be a very limited number of the highest powered engine, something like 5000 units a year or less. This is about what Ford sells of the F-150 Lightning with its 380 horsepower supercharged V-8 engine. And they sell every one without trouble, and don't care to make more. Also, this will help make them collectible down the road.

The Aftermarket

Take a brief look at the Civic Si. Here is a car with 160 hp. It is sporty, but hardly a sporty car. Its engine is super smooth, and has enough power for the vast majority of the car buying world. And it sells very well. The aftermarket is all over the Civic with performance upgrades. Yet I am sure that only a very small percentage of Civics get performance modifications. With some help from the factory, the aftermarket would be all over a new Camaro. Let the aftermarket turn the Camaro into the performance machine to conquer all comers. The majority of owners will leave their cars stock... and the reputation of the Camaro will be saved.

The aftermarket makes plenty of speed parts for the Mustang to get them to match, and beat, the performance of the Camaro. There is no need for a car with more than 300 horsepower. Yikes, did I say that?!? Let me rephrase that... there is no need for a stock car with more than 300 horsepower. But the aftermarket can, and does, cater to those that want over 300, even over 400 and 500 horsepower. Why should the factory build a monster machine for the masses. Leave that to limited production cars like the Viper, and aftermarket tuners like Lingenfelter, Saleen, Mallet, etc. Maybe you could help a few dealers with special high performance models like the Yenkos and Baldwin Motion Camaros of the 60s.

Conclusion

That's my plan for building a new Camaro that will sell. What do you think? Can a refined, civilized, sporty, fun to drive coupe be built that gets decent performance and good mileage. I think so. If Nissan can do it with its upcoming 350Z, and Chevrolet can get so much enthusiasm from the SSR (a retractable hard top El Camino like pickup) then why can't Chevrolet get the Camaro on the program.

Recently GM hired Robert Lutz. This is one of the key men from Chrysler (before the Daimler guys got a hold of them) that brought us the Viper, Prowler and PT Cruiser. Bob, if you are reading this... drop me a note and we can discuss my plans to save the Camaro. The Camaro can become the car that draws people to the showrooms... even if they leave with another car. Think about that.

One Last Word About Retro

The one automotive retro theme I miss the most from the 60s and even 70s is the ability to tell one year car apart from another. I can look at any Chevelle or Camaro from the 60s and tell you what year it is. I own a 93 Camaro and can't tell it apart from a 94 or 95 or 96. Is it really that expensive today to make small decorative changes from year to year? A note to car makers... if you really want to go retro bring back year to year styling changes. If nothing else it will have people talking about your cars.

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