4 November 2016

What killed the Camaro? Let’s push past the obvious

If a sales comparison with the Ford Mustang is any indication, the fifth- and sixth-generation Camaros are far more appealing than those GM was building when it pulled the plug in 2002, creating an extended gap in production. So if killing the fourth-generation model ultimately resulted in the superior automobiles we see today, it was a worthy sacrifice.

Still, plenty of Camaro aficionados have dropped F-bombs over the F-body’s death. What killed the Camaro? Poor sales are the easy, obvious answer. But experts say it goes deeper than that.

“The popularity of pony cars/muscle cars was falling fast, pickups and SUVs were on the rise, and Mustang had been clobbering Camaro for years,” said Hagerty Historian Glenn Arlt. “The F-body was unique to North America, so killing it was a small sacrifice in terms of global sales. Considering GM’s financial problems at the time, it was a logical and cost-effective move.”

Karl Brauer, Senior Director of Automotive Industry Insights for Kelley Blue Book, agreed. “The Camaro was a victim of several market forces in the early 2000s. Not only was demand for rear-drive performance coupes dropping, but demand for SUVs was rising. The combination meant GM had to decide between an expensive redesign of the aging Camaro platform or investing in additional SUV capacity. Given GM’s larger financial challenges, along with the higher profit potential of an SUV versus a niche market two-door coupe, the Camaro never had a chance.”

Assembled in Sainte-Thérèse, Que., Canada, the fourth-generation Camaro launched solidly in 1993 and sales increased in 1994 and ’95. But the numbers still fell far short of projections; even in its best year – 122,738 units in 1995 – the plant produced less than half of its 250,000 annual capacity.

Moving ominously, GM of Canada eliminated a second shift at the F-car factory in early 1996. According to authors John Gunnell and Jerry Heasley (in “The Story of the Camaro,” released by Krause Publications in 2006) trade magazines were already discussing a major redesign of the F-cars for 2000, but it never happened. “A 30th Anniversary option for the Z28 pumped up a bit of excitement, but overall the Camaro story was the ‘same old-same old’ one more year. By ’98, the Gen IV Camaro was ready for a trip to the beauty parlor for the latest in facial treatments, but a new hood, fenders and nose did little to stem continuing erosion of sales.”

In addition to falling sales, Gunnell and Heasley said labor issues and the 9/11 terrorist attacks also played roles in the car’s demise.

“The Camaro was beginning to be viewed as part of the problem, rather than any type of cure (for GM’s financial woes). It took some strenuous bargaining by Canadian autoworkers involved in labor negotiations to even secure the future of the Ste. Thérèse plant until 2001… (and) when terrorists took down the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, there were shock waves felt immediately in the Canadian auto industry. As the border between the U.S. and its neighbor to the north tightened, the economic advantages of making cars in Canada began to disappear.”

Autoweek reported the inevitable news in its Sept. 25, 2001 issue. “It’s official, at least for now… GM will stop building the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in September 2002. The Ste. Thérèse plant will close at the end of next year; the move will idle 1,400 employees… General Motors said it will incur a one-time, pre-tax charge of $300 million in the third quarter to cover the cost of the plant shut-down.”

The fact that GM paid more than a quarter-billion dollars to halt production suggests it expected to lose a mind-boggling sum by continuing to build the F-body.

Longtime GM executive Scott Settlemire, who was Camaro product manager in the late 1990s, told autoblog.com in 2013 that the death of the iconic automobile felt “like losing a child.” In a 2007 letter published on the GM Heritage Center website, he spoke to the elephant in the room.

“Much speculation, finger-pointing and blame has been placed and assigned as to why they went out of production,” wrote Settlemire, who is sometimes referred to as the F-bodfather. “That said, there are many reasons why these very special nameplates were put on hiatus … some evident – yet I submit to you that there were many other reasons completely foreign to those who are not intimately involved within the auto industry. Suffice it to say that many people – both enthusiasts within the public domain as well as many of us within the GM Family – were devastated when production of the fourth-generation cars came to an end in August of 2002.”

It didn’t seem to matter: Seven years after GM ended F-body production, it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in June 2009, reporting $82.3 billion in assets and $172.8 billion in liabilities. As bleak as the situation was at the time, General Motors has found its way back to profitability. In fact, on Oct. 25 the automaker reported third-quarter earnings of $2.77 billion and is on pace for a record-setting year. In addition, according to CNN, GM met its obligation to the U.S. Treasury two years ago (although taxpayers lost an estimated $10.6 billion on the bailout deal).

“Thankfully, America’s No. 1 automaker not only survived its reorganization but has come back stronger than ever,” Kelley Blue Book’s Brauer said, “which means the current Camaro’s future remains bright, even as SUV popularity continues to grow.”

Total “Generation IV” North American production (as provided by GM):

1993 – 39,103*

1994 – 119,799

1995 – 122,738

1996 – 61,362

1997 – 60,202

1998 – 54,026

1999 – 42,098

2000 – 45,461

2001 – 23,021

2002 – 41,777

*Short year (model change)

11 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Rod Norris GA November 9, 2016 at 14:39
    Why can't i share your stories on Facebook ?
  • 2
    TAK Atlanta GA November 9, 2016 at 14:50
    Oh give me a break! The F body Camaro was just a shell of the original concept, a fun little pony car. It had awkward styling with the GM blandness of the 2000s, it was underpowered, and had a cheap looking interior. I don't miss that car at all. On the other hand, the new Camaro is a hoss! I was going to say it is BadAss, which it is. I guess I just said it.
  • 3
    Rodeo Ontario November 9, 2016 at 15:11
    The goofy downsized cheaply built 1982 Camaro , was the beginning of the end of that car. It was just ugly . The Camaro you see today is a completely different car with the name tag only .
  • 4
    Robert Greene Fort Myers, Florida November 9, 2016 at 17:05
    The F-body Camaros and Firebirds were a disgrace to their respective badges, looking more like dinner mints than pony cars. And now, we're stuck with a design which keeps trying to eliminate side windows with its chopped top look. Why not just eliminate windows altogether and put a periscope in the roof? At least the Mustang and Challenger still have some semblance of side windows and a nod to the classic lines of their ancestors. By the way, just for those who think I'm sour grapes on GM products, I am the original owner of a 2005 GMC Sierra with 231,000 miles on it, a truck which I absolutely LOVE. I don't hold the same love for these smashed top nuclear missles. I'll take a '67 - '81 era Camaro or Firebird over any of the current crop of chopped top sardine cans.
  • 5
    S Inverness fl November 9, 2016 at 18:16
    What killed the CAMARO!! GM did, The same way they killed the last ones. RE-STYLE the CAMARO into sometime that is no longer recognized as a CAMARO . GM di the same thing with the GTO , Just because you call it a GTO, don't make it a GTO. They re-branded it to a G8 and it sold. GM, if your going to re-style a CAMARO, Call it a XYB8 anything but CAMARO
  • 6
    Jim Benson North Carolina November 10, 2016 at 22:14
    How many 67 Z28 camaros were built?
  • 7
    Dan Kimberlin SC November 10, 2016 at 10:24
    The biggest problem was again "RODGER" He decided that GM Styling should be GM Design Staff. AND, they should have more say on design than engineers. SO, they designed a front wheel drive Camero. Quess What!! Only after 50 prototypes were running at the proving grounds was it "discovered" that front wheel drive sports cars were (as engineers told them) a disaster. No Camero that year.
  • 8
    Charles NJ November 10, 2016 at 00:53
    Great article, thank you!
  • 9
    Joe Cleveland,Ga. November 11, 2016 at 10:20
    We (the public) need an explanation as to the intent of 10.6 BILLION dollars that was taken out of my and YOUR money to bail out GM is to be repaid. It's no wonder GM is profitable...it's from forced handouts from you and I that made it easy for them. Still ,after all these years, no repayment nor attempts to collect have occurred? Will I ever buy another GM product? Bleak future for GM if they count on my patronage. I'll stick to honorable companies like Ford until GM pays what it owes to us,the American taxpaying citizens
  • 10
    Richard Turgeon Henderson nevada November 16, 2016 at 21:07
    I owned a 1969,1970.and a1972.they were great cars.The new incarnation is a bloated chop top copy of the 1969 Camero.
  • 11
    ferd the cloud December 28, 2016 at 09:34
    Joe, it was not GM that took 10.6 billion dollars of taxpayer money from us. That happened courtesy of our Federal government, which responded to arm-twisting by lobbyists and media over-hype which in turn panicked taxpayers. As part of the bail-out deal, the Feds were given GM stock. Like any other dip into the stock market, investments are risky. The Feds sold the GM stock as part of a structured plan, and wasn't losing money on its GM stock, until a groundswell of naysayer criticism forced the Feds to sell its remaining GM stock earlier than planned. The stock was down at the time, so the Feds lost $10.6 billion. It was not GM's fault because GM does not control the stock market nor public opinion nor the Fed's reactions. GM does not owe the Fed nor us any of this money, just like it doesn't owe shareholders money whenever the share price goes down. I'm not happy with the deal either, but feel you should at least be unhappy for real reasons.

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