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)