The first-generation Camaro’s history is well-trodden. From the minute Pete Estes issued his acclaimed columnist absolution and video conference, featuring the 1966 rollout of “Norwood ‘F’ Car Pilot-Production Unit”, there’s been no curtailment of activity for Chevrolet’s second-most iconic nameplate. That is, except from the bodies who advised the aboriginal model. Aback Bill Mitchell and Irv Rybicki—VPs of GM’s Styling Section—talked about the 1967–69 Camaro and accompanying Firebird, they absolved it.
“I can’t bethink what the hell they attending like,” Mitchell said in 1985. In his view, the atom of the aboriginal architecture was abolished by compromises from all sides. “It’s a board car.”
It’s adamantine to appreciate aloof how abundant ability Mitchell and Rybicki wielded, abnormally in the 1960s and ’70s. In the absolute history of General Motors, alone seven bodies accept captivated their positions at the company. Almost alert as abounding bodies accept absolved on the moon.
Mitchell was amid the best powerful, influential, and accustomed automotive designers in the closing bisected of the 20th century. He shaped the way we beheld automobiles from the minute he took the job in 1958. Every apparent GM car from the 1960s to the aboriginal ’70s were afflicted by his aesthetic.
Irvin “Irv” Rybicki came appropriate abaft Mitchell. Rybicki was never the larger-than-life amount that Mitchell was, but he fabricated an enduring mark in his own right. He’s best remembered for the 1971–81 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, cars whose looks would advice ascertain the 1970s. His bulk additionally included the third-generation Camaro and the fourth-generation Corvette.
In the mid-1980s, both Mitchell and Rybicki were interviewed for a alternation of automotive articulate histories conducted by the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum. For automotive enthusiasts, and decidedly admirers of GM cars, these interviews should be advised civic treasures.
The conversations appearance how adamantine top-tier GM designers—despite their power—had to apostle for their work, how generally they failed, and how absinthian they could be about what ability accept been.
Rybicki explained the burden that the architecture studios were beneath afterwards the barrage of the Ford Mustang at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in April. “They awash 400,000 [Mustangs] the aboriginal year, and everybody was aback animadversion on our door, ‘Where is that—we’d bigger get things affective actuality now.’ We were a little backward advancing in with the Camaro, and the aboriginal one wasn’t all that exciting, because it was a blitz project, and we did it off the Chevrolet X platform.”
Such affected compromises were a antecedent of above annoyance for both Rybicki and Mitchell. According to Rybicki, by June 1963, Chevrolet had advised and planned a four-seater that could’ve competed with the Mustang from the start. Bunkie Knudsen, however, couldn’t be assertive that Chevrolet could advertise the adventurous coupe. “Buick had the Riviera. Bill Mitchell awash that on his own to the Buick division. He was actual able for accepting a alone coupe, and Buick bought it,” Rybicki remembered.
If Buick bought into the abstraction of a larger, four-seat action coupe, the abeyant for a smaller, sportier two-door at Chevrolet could be substantial.
“We looked at the volumes that Buick was axis out the aboriginal years,” Rybicki said. “I was active Chevrolet flat at the time, and I sat bottomward with the team, and we had a little altercation about it. Buick can advertise X cardinal of cars in one year at that price, what if we did a little alone car? How abounding would Chevrolet advertise if the amount were right?
“We wouldn’t go the Buick avenue because that’s a added formal, sophisticated, four-place automobile. We’d do article to address to the adolescence of America. Article adventurous and dynamic. We talked ourselves into it. I came to Bill [Mitchell] and I chatted with him about it, and he said, ‘Well, all right, if you appetite to do it, go advanced and do it. You got room.’”
The car was advised abroad from the high-profile Chevy-1 and Chevy-2 studios: “We had a barn beyond 12 Mile Road, and we went over there and formed on this car. I had a adolescent alive on it who is now in allegation of Advanced-One, whose name is Phil Garcia, and we put calm some ideas, begin one we admired and modeled the automobile,” Rybicki said.
Phil Garcia isn’t a domiciliary name like Mitchell or alike Rybicki, but he would go on to account the aboriginal architecture that would eventually become the 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle, Chevy’s Colonnade entry.
The car he formed on went as far as the adobe archetypal date afore Bill Mitchell saw it: “I arrive Bill over. He took one airing about it, and he said, ‘Jeez, that’s a accursed attractive car. We’d bigger get [General Manager of the Chevrolet Division] Bunkie [Knudsen] over here.’”
Bunkie Knudsen was accepted for demography risks. He’d green-lit bodies like Pete Estes and John DeLorean to brace the Pontiac cast aback he was active that division, and he’d submitted a appeal to aftermath what became the 1963 Riviera afore Buick blanket it out from beneath him.
Knudsen wasn’t awash on the baby two-door. “’Damned exciting,’” he told Mitchell and Rybicki, but that was as far as it went. “’I appetite to acquaint you something, fellows,’” Mitchell after quoted Knudsen, “’The aftermost affair Chevrolet needs is addition car.’” For Rybicki and Mitchell, that apparent the end of the band this small, adventurous four-seater at Chevrolet.
Ultimately, Chevrolet did acquaint a adventurous four-door auto abstraction at 1964 New York International Auto Show—dubbed the Super Nova—bearing a lot of the aforementioned mini-Riviera architecture cues. However, aback the assembly Mustang appeared at the World’s Fair that aforementioned month, Chevrolet was aback bent flat-footed.
“The afterward year, in April, it was there for anybody to see that there was a charge in that atom at the low end of the market. Aback Ford brought the Mustang out, General Motors didn’t acknowledge to it until the aboriginal year numbers came in,” Rybicki said. “Then we started affective fast. The catechism of whether Chevrolet bare addition car or not was a arguable point at that time.”
The administration at Chevrolet, however, weren’t absorbed in the car that Rybicki and Mitchell had apparent Knudsen 18 months before. Ignoring the Super Nova concept, GM assumption capital article bargain and achievable in a hurry, and that meant bearing a car that could sit on a banal platform.
That belvedere would be the accessible 1968 Nova chassis, which had already been accustomed and engineered but wouldn’t be produced until the abatement of 1967. “When we got the chat we’d bigger get started on a four-placed, adventurous vehicle—it wasn’t alleged Camaro at the time, it had an XP number—we anticipation we’d go aback to that [earlier advised car],” Rybicki said, “but the accommodation was fabricated that it would accept to appear off the Chevy-tooled underbody and cowl and use the abeyance and engines and windshield. We didn’t accept the flexibility.”
The consistent Camaro—a car that has accomplished allegorical cachet aback its introduction—simply wasn’t article that Rybicki or anyone abroad on his aggregation was appreciative of. “The aboriginal Camaro, while it did able-bodied in the market, was not acceptable for anyone actuality in this architecture … not myself, not the arch designers involved,” he said in that 1985 interview.
In abounding ways, this aftereffect was a forerunner for the Blazer abstraction from the mid-’60s that died on the vine. The K5 Blazer that eventually accustomed in 1968 may accept been a delinquent success, but it didn’t booty the bite out of what could’ve been.
Mitchell agreed that aboriginal Camaro was a adumbration its pre-production self. Mitchell acquainted that GM Executive Vice President Louis Clifford “Cliff” Goad, President Jack Gordon, and James E. “Bud” Goodman, Arch of GM’s Fisher Body Division, were amenable for a car that, in the end, wasn’t groundbreaking.
“Goad, Goodman, and Gordon, I said, dead it,” he anecdotal in the ’85 interview. “Each one said, ‘Shorten this, do this.’ It’s a board car.”
What would’ve happened if Rybicki and Mitchell had the time they acquainted they bare to architecture a able sports car? In short, we would accept enjoyed the spirit of the second-generation Camaro years afore the 1970 archetypal year aback it debuted. Rybicki said of the first-gen Camaro: “We did what we were asked to do. But aback that affairs was finished, I got with our agent packaging group, and we started planning the second-generation car, and there was no interference. We did a new underbody and placed the seats area we capital them, and got the cantankerous section.”
Mitchell was analogously addicted of the second-gen Camaro and Firebird, pointing to the long-running success of those cars as affirmation of their superiority: “They ran for 10 years, because I got the appropriate dash-to-axle, the appropriate cowl height,” he said.
For what it’s worth, GM artist John Schinella pushes aback on Mitchell and Rybicki’s assuming that the aboriginal Camaro was a board car. “I formed on that aboriginal Camaro, and let me acquaint you, that aggregation put its affection and body into the design,” Schinella says. “Bunkie Knudsen would consistently appear over to allocution about it, and he admired the administration and anticipation it was a cleaner, added balanced beheading than the Mustang.”
Even if Mitchell and Rybicki banned of the final product, GM’s quick turnaround to advance a adversary for the Mustang angry out to be a complete judgement alarm to appropriate the amiss of its beforehand oversight. Board car or not, history will consistently account the aboriginal Camaro.
The Mitchell and Rybicki interviews are cataloged at the University of Michigan’s Auto in American Life and Society website.
The column The first-gen Camaro was a compromised “committee car,” according to Bill Mitchell and Irv Rybicki appeared aboriginal on Hagerty Media.