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 group ready the world for the introduction of a car they called the Panther.
All through the summer of 1965 virtually every aspect 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 clothing known as the Camaro Collection and even a Camaro road race sport.
In November, Chevy sales executives and creative people previewed prototype versions at the GM Tech Center. Campbell-Ewald, Chevy’s venerable ad agency, immediately began work on catalogs, direct mail and sales promotion materials, together with print, outdoor and TV/radio advertising. In April 1966, at the New York Auto Show Press Conference, Chevrolet sales executives admitted no name was picked for the new vehicle, but did declare that pricing of 1967 model will be from the Corvair-Chevy II range.
Throughout early 1966 Chevy agonized over a name for its Mustang-killer. GM’s upper management was nervous about the aggressive 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 was called by many names such as Wildcat, Chaparral, Commander and Nova. It’s also rumored that Chevy considered using the letters”GM” in the name, and came up with G-Mini, which evolved into GeMini and eventually Gemini. However, GM’s upper management vetoed the idea, fearing the car may be a failure.
Automotive legend has it that somebody at Chevrolet finally proposed the name Camaro and upper management quickly agreed. Even though the name has no real significance, GM researchers reportedly found the word in a French dictionary as a slang term for”friend” or”companion.” It is theorized 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 stuff had already been published using the Panther title, 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 important press conference. Hope you can be available to help scratch a cat. The mysterious telegram was signed, John L. Cutter – Chevrolet Public Relations – SEPAW Secretary. The next day, journalists obtained another mysterious telegram stating,”Society for the Eradication of Panthers in the Automotive World will hold first and last meeting on June 28.”
Finally, on June 28, 1966, General Motors held a live press conference in Detroit’s Statler-Hilton Hotel. 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 substituted”Bunkie” Knudsen as Chevrolet General Manager in July 1965, started 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 declared that Camaro was selected as the title for Chevy’s new four-passenger sports car to honor the tradition of starting Chevy version names with the letter C like 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 on earth. 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 good friends as a private car ought to be on its owner.” A Chevrolet product manager immediately answered by saying,”a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.”
Soon after the press conference, editors from major performers were invited into 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, in 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 papers, magazines, radio, television, outdoor and television advertising.
The very first Chevy Camaro television commercial can nevertheless be seen on YouTube. It comes with a white Camaro RS/SS with the distinctive bumble-bee nose band emerging from a volcano. The voice over proudly introduces”The fiery new Camaro from Chevrolet… something you have never seen before.”
Just before the official June 29th launch date, a press package with photographs, specifications, and line stories were released to newspapers and magazines throughout the country. More than 100 members of the media were invited to participate in a gymkhana driving competition at the GM Proving Grounds. The exact 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 models from Detroit to their home cities so they could publish,”I snapped it personally,” feature articles in their regional newspapers.
Mustang’s two and a half year head start in the marketplace did little blunt America’s eagerness to see the new Camaro. Chevy dealerships throughout the nation were filled to overflowing with inquisitive and willing buyers. Dealerships were issued special window trim, urged to black-out their windows and extend their showroom hours. Long lines formed to glimpse the new automobile. Those waiting in line were also eager to debate the merits of Mustang and the still unseen Camaro. It’s rumored that local police were frequently called help control the crowds.
Once inside dealerships in most metro areas, buyers were treated to not one but three Camaro models. Chevy made every effort to supply their largest dealers with a base sport coupe, Camaro RS and a Camaro SS convertible. The strategy was an extension of the creative approach used in Chevy’s national ads which showed all three Camaro models below a tag line,”Just how much Camaro you want is dependent upon how much driver that you want to be.”
The sticker price of $2,466 to get a Camaro base coupe and $2,704 for a foundation convertible was fully competitive with Ford’s pricing of their 1967 Mustang models which was $2,461 for the standard coupe, $2,692 for a normal fastback and $2,898 for a standard convertible.
Taking a page from Mustang’s success in earning additional profit from accessories and options, the Camaro could be arranged with nearly 80 mill options and 40 seller accessories. Buyers could also option up to a greater 250-inch variant of the standard straight six engine, a choice of 327-cubic-inch small-block V8s fed by either a two-barrel or a four-barrel carburetor and two variations of the 396-cubic-inch big-block V8. So as to keep the new Camaro from taking sales away from the Corvette, a corporate edict forbade equipping it with motors larger than 400 cid.
The initial 1967 Camaro built at the Norwood, Ohio, plant had a VIN finish in N100001; the first constructed at the Van Nuys, California, plant had a VIN ending in L100001. VIN tags on later models were moved so that they would be visible through the windshield. 1968 saw the debut of a fresh-air inlet system called Astro Ventilation. The bumblebee nose stripe included in the SS package also became available as a separate option in March 1968.
As factory-fresh Camaros rolled off the assembly lines at Norwood and Van Nuys, the Chevy team worked just as hard to keep Camaro in the public eye. Camaro, in fact, was chosen 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 round 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 additional 204,862 in 1967. Ford, on the other hand, sold almost a half million Mustangs in 1967. Still, the battle lines were drawn. Chevy knew they had a winner and invented a bold strategy. If they couldn’t conquer Mustang on the showroom floor, they would at least beat it at the track. And while GM wasn’t formally into racing, that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from developing the Z/28, one of the most potent and effective performance packages of all time. But, that’s still another story.