It’s 1975 all over again – for the Chevy Camaro.
That year, there was no Z28 and the next year there was almost no Camaro. Chevy – GM management – came very close to cancelling both the Camaro and its sister car, the Pontiac Firebird, because of wilting sales.
Things are much worse now than they were back in ’75.
So far this year, Chevy has sold 29,551 Camaros.
There are still four months left in this year, so it will probably not be that bad by the end of the year, but it is still bad enough. GM is publicly worried enough that it has announced it will be cutting the 2019 Camaro’s price by $1,000 to $25,995 and offering a new and lower-cost 1LE Turbo performance package to go with the four cylinder engine that is the current Camaro’s standard engine. GM believes this will make the Camaro more competitive with the Ford Mustang, which also offers a turbo four – and outsells the Camaro dramatically.
So far this year, Ford has found homes for 48,362 Mustangs. That’s a difference of almost 20,000 cars so far and no small thing.
Dodge is also selling more Challengers than Chevy is Camaros – and the 2018 Challenger is the same car, more or less, as the 2008 Challenger. It hasn’t been significantly updated in a decade while Camaro has been radically updated just recently.
But that brings us to the Camaro’s problem – which isn’t really a sales problem.
It is a Camaro problem.
Back in ’75, the problem wasn’t Camaro. It was the government. Like the Iron Sheik, Uncle had put cars like the Camaro in the camel clutch and made them humble. Emissions regs and the introduction of low-octane unleaded gas – necessary for the catalytic converters which had come online that year – were strangling the power of the muscle cars’ formerly muscular V8s.
In 1975, the Camaro’s strongest V8 made 175 horsepower, almost 200 horsepower less than the 1970 Z28 Camaro’s V8 produced.
Federal saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety mandates had also uglified the Camaro’s formerly beautiful face.
The exterior shape of the ’70 model (first year for the series which lasted through to 1981) had been designed by Bill Mitchell, who took his inspiration from the Ferraris of the mid-late 1960s – which were cars designed by men who appreciated beauty. Who were not men like Ralph Nader and the like whose feminine obsession with saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety took precedence, not because people were clamoring for it but because people like Nader controlled the government, which was forcing it down people’s throats.
Chevy had to replace both the front and rear clips with a blunted design and hung heavy and hideous full-length bumpers across them both in order to comply with the recently passed 5 MPH bumper-impact mandate.
The ’75 cars were much slower – and much less attractive – than the earlier cars. People were turned off – sales were down – and it seemed certain The End was near.
It had already come for all the other muscle cars. By ’75, there was no more Challenger, no more GTO, no more much of anything worth being interested in. The Mustang survived as a downsized shadow of its former self, sharing a platform with the Pinto. Initially, the Mustang II didn’t even offer a V8.
But GM – smarter back then than it is today – understood that the issue wasn’t Camaro; it was the external forces just described. They knew the car was sound and that what was needed was what was lacking on account of the government – power and looks.
By ’77, the Z28 had returned. It wasn’t as powerful as previous Z28s – just 185 hp out of its 350 cubic inch V8 – but it had style and was fun. GM worked near miracles with the Ugly Betty front and rear clips, first with the Firebird – which got body-colored Enduro front and rear clips in ’76 that hid the Ugly Betty bumpers under those covers and gave the cars back the streamlined and graceful look the government had taken away.
Camaro got the same treatment in ’78.
A sales tsunami ensued. In 1987, total production was up to 272,631 cars. The next year – 1979 – it would approach 300,000. Which for perspective is about the same number of Camrys Toyota sells today in a market with twice the buying-age population.
Fast forward to 2018 and today’s sales. The problem now is Camaro.
It is definitely not a horsepower problem, either. The 2019 Camaro comes standard with a 295 horsepower engine – 100-plus horsepower more than the hot-selling ’77 Z28 offered – and it is very quick: zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds. That’s quicker than the top-of-the-line 1970 Z28, which had a V8 – not a turbo four.
So what is the problem, specifically?
The current Camaro is a styling and ergonomic mess. It has an unusable back seat (there’s so little legroom that GM doesn’t even publish the legroom number) that it is effectively a two-seater and a trunk so tiny (9.1 cubic feet – smaller than a Miata’s) as to make the car useless, except as a Speed Car.
But that’s what people buy Corvettes for.
And the Corvette has a 15 cubic foot cargo area – despite being a much smaller car (177.9 inches long vs. 188.3 inches long for the Camaro) and so is a more useful car as well as an easier to park car.
It also easier to drive.
Because you can see.
In the current Camaro, it’s hard to see anything because of the car’s cat-slit side glass and chopped roofline. It is also disproportionately long and wide. The thing feels enormous and oafish even though it is light and powerful.
The problem with that is there are only so many of those – and most of them have been buying Mustangs or Challengers instead. Probably because their girlfriends and wives will still talk to them afterward.
So cutting the price probably isn’t going to cut it. Camaro needs a redesign that will make it more like the successful Camaros of the past and a lot less like the Camaro being sold – sort of – today.
GM has lost sight of the fact that horsepower and performance – while obviously important things to people who buy cars like Camaro – are not the only things.
. . .
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