While designers and engineers feverishly worked tirelessly to the development of a four-passenger sports car they code-named the F-car, the Chevy public relations, marketing and advertising team prepared the world for the introduction of a car they called the Panther.
All through the summer of 1965 virtually every component of the vehicle’s design and development, from preliminary design sketches to clay models, was photographed and carefully recorded. Chevy used the assets to make a 30 -minute movie The Camaro, which was later shown on TV and in movie theaters. They also introduced women’s clothes known as the Camaro Collection and even a Camaro road race game.
In November, Chevy sales executives and creative people previewed prototype models at the GM Tech Center. Campbell-Ewald, Chevy’s venerable ad agency, immediately began work on catalogs, direct mail and sales promotion materials, along with print, outdoor and TV/radio advertising. In April 1966, at the New York Auto Show Press Conference, Chevrolet sales executives announced that no name was chosen for the new vehicle, but did announce that pricing of 1967 model will be in the Corvair-Chevy II range.
Throughout ancient 1966 Chevy agonized over a title for its Mustang-killer. GM’s upper management was nervous about the competitive connotations of the Panther name. A similar bout of cold feet would later cause the Pontiac version, code called the Banshee, to be renamed Firebird. Over its brief lifetime, the F-car had been called by many names including Wildcat, Chaparral, Commander and Nova. It’s also rumored that Chevy considered using the letters”GM” in the title, and came up with G-Mini, which evolved to GeMini and finally Gemini. However, GM’s upper management vetoed the idea, fearing the car might be a failure.
Automotive legend has it that someone at Chevrolet finally suggested the name Camaro and upper direction quickly agreed. Even though the name has no actual significance, GM researchers reportedly found the word in a French dictionary as a slang term for”friend” or”companion.” It is rumored that Ford Motor Company researchers also discovered other definitions, including”a shrimp-like creature” and an arcane term for”loose bowels.”
Since a number or pre-launch materials had already been published utilizing the Panther name, Chevy’s most pressing challenge was to now rename their new Mustang killer, the Camaro.
On June 21, 1966, around 200 automotive journalists received a telegram from General Motors saying,”Please be available at noon of June 28 for significant press conference. Hope you can be available to help scratch a cat. The next day, journalists received another mysterious telegram stating,”Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World will hold first and last meeting on June 28.” Once more, the telegram was signed, John L. Cutter – Chevrolet Public Relations – SEPAW Secretary.
It was the first time in history that 14 cities were hooked up in real time for a press conference via telephone lines. Elliot M.”Pete” Estes, who replaced”Bunkie” Knudsen as Chevrolet General Manager in July 1965, began the news conference by announcing all participants were now charter members of the Society for the Elimination of Panthers in the Automotive World (SEPAW.) Estes confidently announced that Camaro was chosen as the name for Chevy’s new four-passenger sports car to honor the tradition of starting Chevy model names with the letter C such as the Corvette, Corvair, Chevelle, and Chevy II. Most automotive insiders agreed it was a ridiculous statement, given the fact that the Chevy Impala was subsequently the best-selling car in the world. Estes then went on to explain that the Camaro name was,”derived from a French word meaning comrade or pal and indicates the comradeship of great friends as a private car should be to its owner.” Automotive legend also has it that, after the press conference, when a member of the automotive press asked,”what is a Camaro?” A Chevrolet product manager immediately answered by saying,”a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.”
Soon after the press conference, editors from major magazines were invited to the GM Proving Grounds for a hands-on driving experience, hot laps with professional drivers and briefing on all aspects of the Camaro. Dealers saw the Camaro for the first time in August, at the Chevrolet Sales Convention in Detroit. On September 25, the first Camaro advertisements appeared in national newspapers. On September 28, 1966, Chevrolet launched an unprecedented ad blitz consisting of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, outdoor and television advertising.
The very first Chevy Camaro television commercial can nevertheless be seen on YouTube. It features a white Camaro RS/SS using the distinctive bumble-bee nose band emerging from a volcano. The voice over proudly introduces”The fiery new Camaro from Chevrolet… something you’ve never seen before.”
Just prior to the official June 29th launch date, a press package with photographs, specifications, and line stories were published to newspapers and magazines across the country. Over 100 members of the press were invited to participate in a gymkhana driving contest at the GM Proving Grounds. The same type of event was held one week later in Los Angeles. A group of editors were also selected to induce top-optioned Camaro RS/SS versions from Detroit to their home cities so they could publish,”I drove it personally,” feature articles in their regional newspapers.
Mustang’s two and a half year head start in the market did little blunt America’s eagerness to see the new Camaro. Chevy dealerships throughout the country were filled to overflowing with curious and willing buyers. Dealerships were issued special window trimming, urged to black-out their windows and extend their showroom hours. Long lines formed to even glimpse the new automobile. Those waiting in line were also more than willing to debate the merits of Mustang and the still unseen Camaro. It is rumored that local police were frequently called help control the crowds.
Chevy made every attempt to supply their largest dealers with a base sport coupe, Camaro RS and a Camaro SS convertible. The tactic was an extension of the creative approach used in Chevy’s national advertisements which showed all three Camaro models under a tag line,”How much Camaro you want depends on how much driver that you want to be.”
The sticker price of $2,466 to get a Camaro base coupe and $2,704 to get a base convertible was fully competitive with Ford’s pricing of the 1967 Mustang models which was $2,461 for the standard coupe, $2,692 for a standard fastback and $2,898 for a typical convertible.
Taking a page from Mustang’s success in earning additional profit from accessories and options, the Camaro could be arranged with almost 80 mill options and 40 seller accessories. Buyers could also option up to a greater 250-inch variant of the conventional straight six engine, a choice of 327-cubic-inch small-block V8s fed by a two-barrel or a four-barrel carburetor and two versions of this 396-cubic-inch big-block V8. In order to maintain the new Camaro from taking sales away from the Corvette, a corporate edict forbade equipping it with engines bigger than 400 cid. Transmission options included a four-speed manual, a two-speed “Powerglide” and in late 1967 the new three-speed “Turbo Hydra-Matic 350”.
The first 1967 Camaro built at the Norwood, Ohio, plant had a VIN finish in N100001; the first built at the Van Nuys, California, plant had a VIN ending in L100001. The 1967 Camaro was the only model year to have its VIN tag mounted on the door hinge pillar. VIN tags on later models were moved so they would be visible through the windshield. 1968 saw the introduction of a fresh-air inlet system called Astro Ventilation. The bumblebee nose stripe contained in the SS package also became available as another option in March 1968.
As factory-fresh Camaros rolled off the assembly lines at Norwood and Van Nuys, the Chevy team worked equally as tough to keep Camaro in the public eye. Camaro, Actually, was selected as the Official Pace Car for the 1967 Indianapolis 500. A white Camaro RS convertible with a 396 V8 engine, not normally available for that package, and a distinctive blue bumble-bee stripe around the nose paced the field. Over 100 special reproductions of the pace car were also produced as promotional vehicles for Chevy dealerships throughout the country.
A total of 41,100 new Camaro’s were registered in the 1966 calendar-year and an extra 204,862 in 1967. Ford, on the other hand, sold nearly a half million Mustangs in 1967. Nonetheless, the battle lines were drawn. Chevy knew they had a winner and devised a daring strategy. If they couldn’t beat Mustang on the showroom floor, they’d at least beat it in the track. And while GM was not officially into racing, that did not stop Chevrolet engineers from developing the Z/28, among the most potent and effective performance packages of all time. But, that’s another story.