Number 1 under the lights

The Camaro That Launched The Pony Car Rivalry

By late 1964, Chevrolet found itself on shaky ground. The Corvair’s appeal had diminished, while cross-town rival Ford continued to set the world on fire with its new Mustang. Chevy needed a winner.

It is surprising, then, that the car that would launch the greatest rivalry in automotive history was conceived and built so clandestinely that only a handful of engineers and designers even knew of its existence prior to the official unveiling. Completed in May 1966, the very first Camaro — then called the “Norwood ‘F’ Car Pilot-Production Unit” — was secreted away until its dramatic unveiling that August. Full production followed soon after, and nearly 100,000 cars were built in the first year alone.

Unlike previous designs, which were granted a series of rolling prototypes to build hype with the car-buying public, Chevrolet opted to hold its cards close to its corporate chest and instead offered subtle hints, particularly in what it might be called.

Various names were floated to journalists in 1966, including “GeMini,” “Commander” and “Wildcat,” until finally GM settled on “Panther.” No photos of the actual car were released, however, and by June the name changed for the last time. In a massive press conference held in 14 cities via teleconference hookup, Chevrolet General Manager E.M. “Pete” Estes announced the Camaro name, giving only a few details regarding specifications and noting that the car would, in fact, be a direct competitor to the Mustang. Reportedly taken from a list of some 2,000 words and meaning “friend, pal or comrade,” the Camaro name received immediate criticism from the PR folks at Ford, who pointed out its nearness to camarón — Spanish for “shrimp.”

With its compressed design and development timeline, production followed suit, and the very first Camaro, s/n 123377N100001, was built in a mere four days. On May 17, 1966, the Fisher Body coachwork was delivered to Chevrolet. From there, final assembly began at the Norwood plant in Ohio. It would become the first of 49 hand-built Camaros used to develop both the initial run of the car and the factory in which production would take place. That first Camaro featured a 230-cid engine, column-shift three-speed transmission, and a handful of other “modern” amenities, including pushbutton radio and deluxe seat belts. It was painted in the iconic Granada Gold show paint required of all first GM vehicles and had a matching gold interior.

Following the official unveiling of the Camaro line in August 1966, the first Camaro was sent to the GM Tech Center for a series of promotional stills and videos that would be circulated throughout the country in time for the September 8 roll-out to dealerships. The car was then delivered to R.T. Ayers High Performance Chevrolet in Yukon, Oklahoma, where it would remain as a showroom attraction for several years, before passing through the hands of numerous owners.

The car’s provenance was gradually lost and forgotten, and by the 1980s, it had been gutted and outfitted as a drag racer, with radiused rear wheel wells, massive slicks, funky paint and a fiberglass front clip. It wasn’t until 2009 that the car was recognized for its historic significance through some sleuthing on an Internet message board.

Dave Hanna of Sterling Classics in Kansas spent two years restoring Camaro No. 1 to its original glory. This past summer, during the Woodward Dream Cruise, it was displayed to celebrate its addition to the National Historic Vehicle Register. It is rightly regarded as a national automotive treasure. And it is once again fittingly painted gold.