While engineers and designers feverishly worked overtime on 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 aspect of the vehicle’s design and development, from preliminary design sketches to clay models, was photographed and carefully documented. Chevy used the assets to create a 30 -minute movie The Camaro, which was later shown on TV and in movie theaters. They also introduced women’s clothing called 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 admitted no name had been chosen for the new vehicle, but did announce that pricing of 1967 model will be in 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 named the Banshee, to be renamed Firebird. Over its short 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 name, and came up with G-Mini, which evolved into 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 proposed the name Camaro and upper management quickly agreed. Although the name has no real meaning, GM researchers reportedly found the word in a French dictionary as a slang term for “friend” or “companion.” It’s rumored that Ford Motor Company researchers also discovered other definitions, including “a shrimp-like creature” and an arcane term for “loose bowels.”
Because a number or pre-launch materials had already been released using 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 stating, “Please be available at noon of June 28 for important press conference. Hope you can be on hand to help scratch a cat. Details will follow.” The mysterious telegram was signed, John L. Cutter – Chevrolet Public Relations – SEPAW Secretary. 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 again, the telegram was signed, John L. Cutter – Chevrolet Public Relations – SEPAW Secretary.
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 replaced “Bunkie” Knudsen as Chevrolet General Manager in July 1965, started the news conference by declaring all participants were now charter members of the Society for the Elimination of Panthers from 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 beginning 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 then 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 suggests the comradeship of good friends as a personal 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 quickly answered by saying, “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.”
Shortly 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. LIFE Magazine teaser ads appeared in early September. On September 25, the first Camaro ads 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 still be seen on YouTube. It features 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’ve never seen before.”
Just prior to the official June 29th launch date, a press package with photos, specifications, and line stories were released to newspapers and magazines across the country. Over 100 members of the press were invited to participate in a gymkhana driving competition 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 drive top-optioned Camaro RS/SS models from Detroit to their home cities so they could publish, “I drove it personally,” feature articles in their local newspapers. Finally, on September 29, 1966, the Chevrolet Camaro was released to the public.
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 across the country were filled to overflowing with curious and willing buyers. Dealerships were issued special window trim, urged to black-out their windows and extend their showroom hours. Long lines formed to even glimpse the new vehicle. Those waiting in line were also more than willing to debate the merits of Mustang and the still unseen Camaro. It’s rumored that local police were often 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 provide 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 ads which showed all three Camaro models under a tag line, “How much Camaro you want depends on how much driver you want to be.”
The sticker price of $2,466 for a Camaro base coupe and $2,704 for a base 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 standard fastback and $2,898 for a standard convertible.
Taking a page from Mustang’s success in earning added profit from options and accessories, the Camaro could be ordered with nearly 80 factory options and 40 dealer accessories. Buyers could also option up to a larger 250-inch version 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 versions of the 396-cubic-inch big-block V8. In order to keep the new Camaro from taking sales away from the Corvette, a corporate edict forbade equipping it with engines larger 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 ending 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. 1967 was the only model year to feature side vent windows. 1968 saw the introduction 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 around the nose paced the field. Over 100 special reproductions of the pace car were also produced as promotional vehicles for Chevy dealerships across 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 devised a bold strategy. If they couldn’t beat Mustang on the showroom floor, they would at least beat it at the track. And while GM wasn’t officially into racing, that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from developing the Z/28, one of the most potent and powerful performance packages of all time. But, that’s still another story.