The 2016 Chevrolet Camaro was a fresh design, but it still reaches all the way back to 1968 for many of its design cues. The first-gen Camaro is one of the most celebrated American cars in history, yet, when GM’s top design staff — Bill Mitchell and Irv Rybicki — talked about the 1967 to 1969 Camaro, they dismissed it with almost outright derision. “It’s a committee car,” said Mitchell.
In case you’ve never heard of either Bill Mitchell or Irv Rybicki, here’s a brief synopsis:
Bill Mitchell was — without question — the single most powerful, influential and recognized automotive designer in the latter half of the 20th century. In 1958, he became Vice President, Styling Section for GM, only the second man to ever hold that position. Harley Earl came before him, inventing the job, and Mitchell distilled it into a celebrity position. Nearly every recognizable GM car in the post-war period had his fingerprints all over it: Split-window 1967 Corvette. Buick Silver Arrow — the car that would become the 1963 Buick Riviera. Cadillac Eldorado. Pontiac GTO. And, in 1967, the Chevrolet Camaro.
Irvin Rybicki was only the third man at GM to hold the position of VP of Design. He was Mitchell’s successor, with gargantuan shoes to fill. He was never the outsized, flamboyant celebrity that Mitchell was, but in that position, he made an indelible mark. He’s most inextricably linked with the 1971 to 1981 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, cars that would define the 1970s. His reign also include the third generation Camaro, and the fourth-generation Corvette, pushing a wind-cheating modernism throughout the GM divisions.
Both Mitchell and Rybicki were interviewed in the mid-1980s for a priceless series of automotive oral histories conducted by the Benson Ford Research Center at the Henry Ford Museum.
Rybicki told the entire story of how the 1967 Camaro came about, after the launch of the Ford Mustang at the 1964 New York International Auto Show: “They sold 400,000 [Mustangs] the first year, and everybody was back knocking on our door, ‘Where is that — we’d better get things moving here now.'”
Years prior to the Mustang’s history-making launch, though, Chevrolet had designed and planned a four-seat sports car that would’ve beaten the Mustang to the punch by two years or more. “Buick had the Riviera. Bill Mitchell sold that on his own to the Buick division. He was very strong for getting a personalized coupe, and Buick bought it,” Rybicki remembered. “We looked at the volumes that Buick was turning out the first years. I was running Chevrolet studio at the time, and I sat down with the team, and we had a little discussion about it. Buick can sell X number of cars in one year at that price, what if we did a little personalized car? How many would Chevrolet sell if the price were right?”
That would’ve been the calendar year of 1962 and early 1963, when the Riviera launched. “We wouldn’t go the Buick route because that’s a more formal, sophisticated, four-place automobile,” said Rybicki. “We’d do something to appeal to the youth of America. Something sporty 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 want to do it, go ahead and do it. You got room.'”
The car wasn’t designed in either of the famous Chevy-1 or Chevy-2 design studios, according to Rybicki: “We had a warehouse across 12 Mile Road, and we went over there and worked on this car. I had a fellow working on it who is now in charge of Advanced-One, whose name is Phil Garcia, and we put together some ideas, found one we liked and modeled the automobile.”
The car — which would’ve been a Mustang fighter before there ever was a Mustang — was clay modeled and “di-noced,” the plastic finish coat used on top of clay models, before Bill Mitchell got a look at it: “I invited Bill over. He took one walk around it, and he said, ‘Jeez, that’s a damned good-looking car. We’d better get [General Manager of the Chevrolet Division] Bunkie [Knudsen] over here.’ Bunkie walked around the car, and he said, ‘Damned exciting.’ But he said, ‘I want to tell you something, fellows. The last thing Chevrolet needs is a another car.'”
That was the end of the line for Chevrolet’s four-seat car aimed at a younger audience until the Mustang launched. “The following year, in April, it was there for everyone to see that there was a need in that spot at the low end of the market. When Ford brought the Mustang out, General Motors didn’t react to it until the first year numbers came in,” said Rybicki. “Then we started moving fast. The question of whether Chevrolet needed another car or not was a moot point at that time, and we went right after the Camaro.”
Unfortunately — in Rybicki’s estimation, at least — Chevrolet wasn’t interested in the car that they’d designed in the Warehouse Studio a year and a half before. Chevrolet brass wanted something cheap and in a hurry, which meant designing on an existing, or soon to be existing chassis.
It’s erroneous to suggest that the Camaro was based on the Chevy II architecture. It was based a modified version of the upcoming 1968 Nova chassis, which had already been approved and engineered, but wasn’t in production yet. That car would be the basis for the as-yet-unnamed Camaro. “When we got the word we’d better get started on a four-placed, sporty vehicle–it wasn’t called Camaro at the time, it had an XP number–we thought we’d go back to that [earlier designed car],” said Rybicki, “but the decision was made that it would have to come off the Chevy-tooled under body and cowl and use the suspension and engines and windshield. We didn’t have the flexibility.”
The result was a car that Rybicki and — in his opinion, the rest of Chevrolet’s design staff — wasn’t really proud of. “The original Camaro, while it did well in the market, was not satisfying for anyone here in this building…not Jack, not myself, not the chief designers involved,” he said in that 1984 interview.
Bill Mitchell concurred in the same interview series from the Benson Ford Research Center. “You don’t committee a car. Now, a good example, the first Camaro and Firebird,” Mitchell said. “I can’t remember what the hell they look like.” He laid the blame for the Camaro and Firebird’s less-than-exciting aesthetics at the feet of GM’s Executive Vice President Louis Clifford “Cliff” Goad, President Jack Gordon and James E. “Bud” Goodman, Chief of GM’s Fisher Body Division.
“Goad, Goodman and Gordon, I said, killed it,” said Mitchell in no uncertain language.
“Each one said, ‘Shorten this, do this.’ It’s a committee car.” Both Rybicki and Mitchell agree that their real desire was to develop what eventually became the second generation Camaro — which debuted in 1970 — instead of the 1967 to 1969 car. For the first generation, Rybicki said “We did what we were asked to do. But when that program was finished, I got with our vehicle packaging group, and we started planning the second-generation car, and there was no inteference. We did a new under body and placed the seats where we wanted them, and go the cross section.”
Mitchell points to the second generation car’s long-standing success as validation of his point: “[T]hey ran for ten years, because I got the right dash to axle, the right cowl height,” said Mitchell. “It’s like good clothes. A woman with a good build is ageless, and this baby, it still looks good.”