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Evolution of an icon: 50 years of the Camaro and why it still chases the Mustang

Fred Lum

Start with the name: Camaro. Breaking the Ford Mustang’s stride was never going to be easy with a car called a Camaro.

Arguably, it was the first model name that meant nothing at all. Up to then, cars referenced places (Riviera, Bel Air, Daytona), numbers and letters (GTO, Ninety-Eight, 911) or things (a wild horse).

The on-the-money Mustang had set American hearts aflutter in April, 1964, as no other car since the Model T. Ford sold 680,989 in 1964-65, and another 607,568 in 1966.

Related: The Pony car's long and difficult ride back to greatness

When Chevy’s response went on sale on Sept. 29, 1966 – a rivalry began that continues 50 years on.

General Motors insiders had known their car as the Panther. But Pete Estes, running the Chevrolet division, had no enthusiasm for calling cars cats.

Camaro? Estes told bewildered journalists his marketing experts had found the word in a 1936 French-English dictionary. Translated, he claimed, it meant friend, pal or comrade – implying a close relationship between car and owner.

Fred Lum

An edgier definition – “A small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs” – emerged later, solid gold for some hard-driven public relations person.

GM could only hope. Ford’s pony car had the momentum. Wilson Pickett’s Mustang Sally was America’s soundtrack of the day cranked high on AM radios everywhere, just as the original version by Mack Rice rode the charts in 1965.

But marketing had a plan. If Camaros were to outrace Mustang on tracks across America, the Ford’s hold on the public’s imagination might begin to crack.

Camaro’s racing breakthrough, in February, 1967, was all-Canadian.

Craig Fisher not only eclipsed every Mustang in the field, but Mark Donohue’s Penske Camaro as well, in the Trans-Am opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Roger Penske, already a major name among American racers, bought one of the first Camaro Z/28s after production began on Dec. 29, 1966. But Canadian team owner Terry Godsall also bought two, from Gorries Downtown Chevrolet/Oldsmobile in Toronto.

Gorries sold a special line of Camaros it called the Black Panther. Whatever Estes thought of the name, Godsall’s Trans-Am car was painted as a Panther.

“Doug Duncan built supermodified racing cars – he’s in the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame as a builder – and he built our Camaro on one of the higher floors of the Gorries building, away from the service department,” says Fisher, also a hall-of-famer.

Duncan outdid Donohue, Penske’s engineer/driver, choosing spring rates, building a stronger roll cage and otherwise enhancing the Camaro’s then-unusual design – a frame extended forward from the unitized body, as opposed to the Mustang’s full perimeter frame.

“The car was manufactured in Ohio,” says Fisher, living now in Thorold, Ont. “But I say it was sold by a Canadian dealership, made into a race car by a Canadian guy, raced by a Canadian team with a Canadian driver.”

A Dodge Dart actually won the race but, by finishing second, Fisher scored the Camaro’s first Trans-Am points – and first bragging rights over Mustang.

Fred Lum

Driving first-generation and sixth-gen Camaros on the same day is like teleporting between Gordon Lightfoot playing the Riverboat and Gord Downie and the Hip at Kingston – different moments, yet singular.

Scott Sinclair’s dad, Bill, bought his 1969 Indy Pace Car Convertible replica used in Florida in 1991. Chevrolet sold 3,675 such Pace Car replicas with Hugger Orange stripes on Dover White, that looked exactly like the 133 provided to the speedway, of which two were modified to stay ahead of Mario Andretti.

Sinclair is known for his Corvettes. Asked how driving the Camaro compares, he says, “It’s just like a little two-door sedan, only the exhaust may be a little noisier.”

Our 2016 Camaro feels like a two-door Euro coupe, only the exhaust is noisier – the 6.2-litre V-8’s rolling thunder much more assertive than a turbocharged import’s – on the way to Sinclair’s home near Bolton, Ont.

Camaros used to feel buried in baby fat; their excess weight compromised turning, braking, accelerating. The sixth-gen car reacts with immediacy. It weighs 90 kilograms less than its 2015 counterpart. The steering rivals the Porsche 911’s in feel and response.

The 2016 Camaro 2SS Coupe boasts 455 horsepower, 455 lb-ft of torque, accelerates through the quarter-mile in 12.3 seconds and tops 290 kilometres an hour.

And here’s a surprise: the flat-cornering Camaro rides comfortably over bumps, both in the case of this $53,625 2SS model with its optional magnetic shock absorbers, and the $42,630 2LT V-6 model with standard suspension.

As for the 1969, many regard it as the best-looking. In fact, the 2010 fifth-generation Camaro paid tribute to its contours. Driving the ’69, though, documents how far the moving parts needed to evolve.

The skinny Rosewood steering wheel feels disconnected from the front wheels while cruising between 90 km/h and 100 km/h. The brakes are minimally effective. The body jostles crossing speed bumps.

But stomp the accelerator and the 300-hp V-8 (350 cubic inches or 5.7 litres) states its case as ancestor to the 6.2. The Turbo Hydra Matic automatic kicks down to first gear, the tires squawk and the Camaro heaves forward as though ready to pace another Indianapolis 500.

Pony car sales plummeted in 1971, then fell further in 1972, when only 125,093 Mustangs were sold, compared with 68,651 Camaros and 29,951 Firebirds.

High insurance rates, tougher safety regulations and the 1973 energy crisis were factors. As well, America’s appetite for powerful sporty coupes seemingly waxes and wanes in response to some otherworldly moon.

Whatever the cause, Ford’s response was Chevrolet’s gain. The 1974 Ford Mustang II, based on the Pinto econocar, promised improved fuel efficiency. In every other performance measure, it was a dud.

Camaro topped Mustang for the first time in 1977 with 218,571 sales. Clever Chevy: The second-generation Camaro weathered the challenges from 1970 through 1981 with only minimal changes – such as a wraparound rear window for 1975 and removable T-top roof panels in 1977.

The 1979 Camaro was its biggest seller: 282,571. That same year, Ford replaced the Mustang II with a model that was properly proportioned and powered, and the old order was restored: Ford ruled again with 369,936 sales.

Ron Fellows financed his first Camaro through GMAC. In fact, it wasn’t only his race car, it was his daily transportation.

Giordano Ciampini

“That first year if I’d crashed in a race, I’d have had no way to get home,” he says. “Drove it all winter, too – put on the snow tires, threw the hockey bag in the trunk and kept going.”

He recalls those times while driving around Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in his 2016 Camaro: The idea was to lap faster in the new car than he had winning the championship in 1989, until pouring rain put paid to that project.

“What was so great about that series, a young racer could live on the prize money,” he says. “I’d quit my job at Consumers Gas and was instructing at Richard Spenard’s racing school. I remember Richard sticking his head in the car after my first win (at Sanair, Que.): “Roneeee,” he said, “Five-thousand dollars! You won five-thousand dollars.”

Giordano Ciampini

As the rain lets up, Fellows switches to his 1989 championship car. After decades in storage, mechanic Kirk Robinson has brought the old car back to life, as well as made a 1996 Camaro race-ready for his son, Jordan, and Fellows’s son, Sam.

Giordano Ciampini

Getting into the gas up the back straight, still tiptoeing as the track never quite dries, the tach touches 4,000 rpm and Fellows remember how fantastic the noise was amidst 40 cars in a series race.

Sam Fellows follows in the ’96. “Three generations of Camaros, two generations of Fellows,” dad says. “Pretty neat.”

He remembers the ’89 as “Maxine” – engineer Steve Challis had a fondness for naming cars. Racing Maxine and her sister Camaros, heavy and not at all powerful for their weight, taught Fellows how to carry speed into corners, how to preserve brakes and tires for late in the races, when to make a move and when to wait.

Four years in the Player’s/GM motorsports series: the equivalent of a graduate degree in racecraft that carried Fellows into the Trans-Am and ultimately helped win him the 24 Hours of Daytona, his class at Le Mans and several NASCAR road races.

The Camaro’s revival coincided with Mark Reuss’s ascent at GM.

Reuss’s first car was a 1967 Camaro he restored as a teenager. He brings this up in conversation – it certainly beats rehashing the Pontiac Aztek, which he was in charge of bringing into production at the age of 36.

Reuss was assigned to run the GM Performance Division in 2001. His prime responsibility was race cars, but as Ford Mustang sales averaged 150,000 in the Camaro’s absence, GM execs debated whether the market merited another try.

With his background in performance and years spent integrating GM’s global development, Reuss was the executive who knew how to make it happen.

In 2006, a silver concept Camaro at the Detroit auto show recalled the ’69, as reimagined by the animators of the movie Cars – beefier, hunkered down, with an angry face.

GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, run by Reuss through 2008-09, honed the fifth-generation Camaro for production that began at Oshawa, Ont., on March 16, 2009.

That the new Camaro felt more solid than its predecessors was a credit to the Australian-designed platform on which it was based. The current sixth-gen is a sharper scalpel; credit to the Alpha platform on which Cadillac’s ATS is built as well. “We have something that goes beyond what was traditionally a muscle car,” Reuss said at this year’s Indianapolis 500 as a Camaro paced the field for the eighth time. Translation: a true sports car.

After 50 years, nobody needs to ask what a Camaro is, least of all at Detroit’s Woodward cruise in August, where Chevrolet celebrated the nameplate’s 50th and 250 pumped owners followed Reuss in a parade up Interstate 75.

However, the Camaro is hardly eating Mustangs today. Although Camaro outsold Ford’s pony car from 2010 through 2014 (in the United States, but not Canada), the latest Mustang is eating the sixth-generation Camaro’s lunch.

Ford has sold 72,530 Mustangs through July in the United States, against 42,354 Camaros. Camaros fare worse in Canada, outsold 5,605 to 1,780 through July. Dodge Challenger has become Mustang’s tougher rival here with 2,346 to the end of July. The next move needs to be Chevrolet’s.

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