America wants to have fun again - and GM, reports John Simister, may be about to deliver with this prototype for a low-slung, retro Chevy road-eater. He wants one
Published: 30 May 2006
Posted by The Independent
We all know what a Ford Mustang is. An aggressive-looking American coupé with a big V8 engine and a starring role in Bullitt. So ingrained is the Mustang in the US auto-psyche that Ford recently recast it in the style of the original and most iconic version after years of embarrassing decline. It has sold like hot pretzels ever since.
Observing enviously Ford's success, GM showed an idea for a new Camaro back in January, at the Detroit auto show. The crowd went mad, helped no doubt by the mind-altering unburnt hydrocarbons puffing from the exhausts of the five 1969 Camaros preceding the new one along the car-walk.The US wants its musclecars back, wants to feel good about itself, wants to have fun again.
So here's the new Camaro in concept form. Will GM build it? Petrol-headed product-planning chief Bob Lutz, never very good at staying "on message", has declared the intention to put the Camaro into production, and I'm driving the concept car right now. This would hardly have happened if the project was going nowhere.
The Camaro and I are at GM's proving ground at Milford in the company's Detroit heartland. Ahead of me are instruments sunk deep in 1960s nacelles, all around are shiny details in machined, polished aluminium. Behind the steering wheel are two stalks flattened like blades, another 1960s touch. And the gear lever is a fine piece of polished aluminium sculpture, moving precisely from one number machined on its housing to the next. Something isn't right, though. I'm sitting too high, making me aware of the shallowness of that windscreen as though I'm wearing a peaked cap.
"That's because we wanted to make the seats look as if they are floating," says my passenger, Gretchen Darbyshire. She has yet to drive the Camaro, which is an injustice because she is its project manager. "It happened so quickly, finishing the car for Detroit, and it's been out at shows ever since so I haven't had a chance."
I squeeze the accelerator for an exploratory burst of power. There's a 400bhp, 6.0-litre Corvette V8 under the bulging bonnet, all buffed-up with aluminium acccessorisation, and the sound it sends through the fat pair of tailpipes (machined aluminium, again) is magnificent. "You're enjoying driving this car," says Gretchen seeing the smile forming on my face. "That's good to see, because that was the idea."
Another gearshift, another crackle from the exhausts before I reapply the power and stoke up that percussive V8 beat once again. What a great sound. "Yes," says Ms Darbyshire, "we worked hard on that, trying lots of different mufflers. We might have issues with drive-by noise legislation, though."
Yes, this all feels authentic. The Camaro is low, sinewy, wide, vocal, just as a musclecar should be. There's one big divergence from the 1960s template, though. I steer the Chevrolet through a long, fast bend, and it responds accurately with credible feedback and none of the springy vagueness that the original Camaro possessed. It also feels very firm on its vast, machined-from-solid wheels (21in front, 22in rear), maybe too taut for a roadgoing car. "Too taut?" queries Ms Darbyshire. "We selected the springs purely to give the right ride height," she continues, as if to say that the tautness is immaterial because this is, of course, only a concept car. "I'm interested to know what you think, though."
She's interested because it could have a bearing on how the production car turns out. This concept car doesn't use quite the same chassis and suspension components as the production version would, but in principle they are quite similar. One of Ms Darbyshire's tasks was to select the right parts from GM's huge inventory to make the designers' ideas a reality, to bring the concept car to life and make it work. What a fantastic job that must be, a notion with which she - an engineer whose father and brothers are also engineers - readily agrees.
The chosen pieces include that Corvette engine (the latest, all-aluminium version of the Chevrolet small-block V8, of which more examples have been made since 1955 than any other engine range in history), multi-link rear suspension from the Cadillac CTS, and "pre-production" front suspension. Aha, interesting... pre-production of what, exactly?
Ms Darbyshire could not reveal the answer, but it's likely to be part of GM's new Global Rear-Wheel Drive platform whose development is centred at GM's Holden outpost in Australia but to which GM engineering teams worldwide are contributing.
Holden has already sent the Chevy V8-engined Monaro coupé to the UK, and the Camaro (if it goes ahead) is essentially a rebodied version of the next-generation Monaro.
Back to the concept car. It feels mighty rapid, of course, but the real thing would be yet faster. That's partly because it would weigh less, and, more obviously because there's an electronic speed limiter to reduce the possibility of artistic, rather than durability-tested, pieces falling off. The Chevrolet Camaro concept is a fabulous bit of fun, and its profligate engine even switches to four cylinders under gentle driving to stem the fuel thirst. GM is almost certain to make a production version, perhaps as soon as 2008, but plans for Europe are hard to fathom.
One problem is that Chevrolet has been recast, outside the US, as a global budget brand with Daewoo roots. The most glamorous of the US Chevrolets, the Corvette, is denied its Chevrolet branding in Europe and is sold here by Cadillac dealers. Perhaps the Camaro could be similarly de-Chevied if deemed necessary. It's an easy anomaly to live with if it means we can have the car.
I hope it happens. Whatever you might think about the US at the moment, it does this sort of thing rather well.