Camaro concept chief designer, Sangyup Lee

Rex Roy of interviews Sangyup Lee in February 2006

As an automotive stylist, designing a Chevrolet Camaro, even a concept Camaro, defines your career. You will either be hailed as the genius who advanced the legend, or blamed as the idiot who screwed up an icon. There's no middle ground.

"I was kind of glad I didn't know how strong of an icon the Camaro was when I was first working on the project," admits Camaro concept chief designer Sangyup Lee. He then scowls at the thought of choking under the pressure of Camaro crazies criticizing his work.

Korean-born Lee needn't worry. The Camaro concept was easily one of the most popular sights at January's Detroit auto show. Overwhelmingly positive reactions have come from all quarters, surprising some inside GM. Lee admits that he now understands the Camaro's importance to America, and is even more proud to be a part of the project.

Positioning the concept
Born in 1967 as a competitor to the 1964.5 Ford Mustang, the original Chevy Camaro proved to be a superstar, with sales approaching 700,000 from 1967-'69. The 2006 Camaro concept is arguably in the same position as its forefather — in hot pursuit of the latest-generation Mustang, introduced in 2005. Good thing Lee's design has the chops to do battle.

Concept development
According to Bob Boniface, director of GM's Warren (Michigan) Advanced Design Studio, "There were those of us inside GM who never forgot about the Camaro, even though it's been out of production since 2002. Every now and then, we would surface the idea for a Camaro concept. In early 2005, we got the go-ahead, but Ed Welburn told us not to let anybody else know what we were working on." Ed Welburn is GM's vice president of global design.

Boniface continues, "There was early consensus that the first-generation Camaro was to be our inspiration. Some campaigned for a design based on the gen-two cars (1970-'81), but those ideas didn't last long…the first Camaros define the brand better than any other." As Boniface's early sketches show, the team's first direction was quite literal, and their initial work established a modern proportion for the car.
As winter turned to spring, Welburn and company let GM brass in on their secret project and received the corporation's blessing to create the concept. In April, the proportions of the Camaro were fixed and a friendly design competition ensued.

Concept competition
Boniface's competition was none other than his personal design hero, Tom Peters, the man responsible for such notables as the Corvette Indy. Peters is director of GM's rear-wheel-drive production studio in Warren. He quickly assembled a team of designers — led by Lee — capable of creating a viable concept within a highly compressed schedule.

Certain decisions were made prior to the teams racing back to their lumps of clay with sculpting tools in hand. Welburn, Boniface and Peters all felt the 1969 Camaro had to be their focused source of inspiration. Enthusiasts consider that year to be the strongest design of first-generation Camaros. The designers agreed, liking the 1969's more aggressive edge.

Additionally, the design was to have appeal that reached beyond hard-core Camaro enthusiasts to the general market. This thrust recognized that the Camaro's original success came from the car's broad appeal and affordability. Understanding this truth affected many future design choices, such as not using a specific model designation such as Z28 or SS, and steering clear of obvious Camaro styling cues. These included using Z28 stripes or a color like Hugger Orange. Lee further weighs in on the color issue by stating, "Designers always like neutral metallics because they show the surfacing of the design better." In other words, when you look at a silver car, you truly see what the car looks like, not just its color.

Judging of the concepts took place in July. The team from Advanced Design presented their more literal design, while the Peters production studio team took the wraps off their more futuristic interpretation. The result was — drum roll, please — a tie. Mostly. The Peters design got the nod, but all agreed that the strongest elements from the literal team's work should be somehow unified into the final product. Following GM protocol, Peters' production studio ran the project toward the end zone.

It came from Studio X
Wanting to keep the concept a secret, the production studio team worked in the subterranean Studio X. "Not a lot of people know of Studio X, and even fewer know where it is. What a wild ride we had," Peters remembers with a smile. According to Peters, the stereo was always cranked up and the atmosphere was creatively intense. "To get this thing done, there were times when we'd have two or three milling machines working on major surfaces [of the full-size clay model] while modelers and sculptors were caressing details."

Peters and Lee were quick to point out that the new Camaro's strongest features link it to the first-generation car, especially the 1969 model. Both designers point to the sail panel (where the roof meets the rear-quarter panel) and grille as areas where Camaro lineage is most clearly visible. Other details include the ribs forward of the rear wheels, the taillights and the cowl-induction-style hood. Lee proudly points out his favorite design feature: "I just love the Coke bottle shape from the plan view, the way the rear fenders swell out. It's so aggressive, what a muscle car should be."

Peters says, "The Camaro needed to go forward. We needed to take the most salient features and bring them into the future."

Interior development
Design work simultaneously progressed on the interior, courtesy of Jeff Perkins' interior studio team. We spoke with Christos Roustemis, interior studio design manager. Interior team leader Julien Montousse gets credit for the overall tone of the interior, while lead designer Micah Jones takes a bow for details such as the gauge clusters. Roustemis clearly pronounced, "This was never going to be a circus car, something that couldn't or wouldn't be produced. We wanted this to be doable."

To this end, the team picked up on the theme of modernizing recognizable elements from the first Camaro. Their results show a deft understanding of what works and what's cool. The concave, circular gauges hearken to the late 1960s, while a modern projection system beams critical info onto the flat dash above the console. Indirect lighting highlights the interior's sweeping surfaces and textures. And it's all practical for production.

Having learned much from the less-than-stellar success of the fourth-generation Camaro and Firebird (1993.5-2002), the interior team feels confident that room and comfort won't be compromised by the exterior's steeply raked windshield. Inside the concept, we didn't feel like we were sitting in a hole: a good initial impression for sure.

The final stage
The exterior and interior design teams toiled through the summer so their project could be handed off to those who would actually build the showcar. These teams worked feverishly from August until January. Thousands of hours went into transforming clay models into a running, rolling work of art in steel, aluminum and fiberglass.

The running gear features the familiar 400-horsepower LS-2 V8 and Tremec T56 six-speed. In this use, the LS-2 uses GM Powertrain's cylinder-deactivation technology to help deliver highway mileage in the 30s. The team hopes the LS-2/T56 broadens the concept's appeal by making it seem achievable.

2006 concept vs. 1969 ZL-1
In search of an authoritative review, we contacted Jim Stubbing of Heartbeat City ( Stubbing's company manufactures and/or retails so many parts for first-generation Camaros, you could build an entire car by checking enough boxes in his catalog. As a bonus, Stubbing supplied the pristine 1969 Camaro ZL-1 used for our photo shoot. Among Camaros, the ZL-1 is superlative in power, rarity and cost. Its aluminum 427-cubic-inch big-block engine was underrated at 430 hp at 5,200 rpm. Estimates on its genuine output are closer to 500. No other factory-produced Camaro has ever matched its power.

To meet requirements for the NHRA's Super Stock drag-racing classes, Chevrolet needed to build at least 50 ZL-1s, and they exceeded the requirement by 19 units. Today around 40 are known to exist, and they command prices in the high six-figure range.

Stubbing's ZL-1 is the perfect comparative ancestor for the new Camaro concept. Not only does this particular model feature a Chevy bowtie in the grille, it also sports a cowl-induction hood — two design elements that factor prominently into the new vehicle.

At 110.5 inches, the concept's wheelbase is not only longer than the 1969's (by 2.5 inches), but also longer than the new Mustang's by 3.4 inches. The team wanted to lower the concept's visual stance, and the extra wheelbase helped, but not as much as the almost 6 inches of track added up front (3 inches were added at the rear). At 63.8 inches front/63.3 rear, the concept is only slightly wider than the current Mustang, but its dimensions may change on the way toward production.

"If it were on sale today, I'd buy it. No question," Jim Stubbing smiles. He's quick to appreciate the family resemblance between the two cars. Stubbing further notes that in his conversations with fellow enthusiasts and his company's customers, "Everybody loves the concept, even though some guys aren't real crazy about the grille, but that's far from a deal-breaker."

As Stubbing rumbles out of the studio behind the wheel of his ZL-1, he shakes his head and says, "They can't build that thing too soon." And then, in harmony with the archetypal Camaro owner, he pops the clutch and lays two perfect black stripes of rubber across the parking lot.

Will they build it?
As we inquire about production plans, each GM designer responds optimistically, and with slightly different information. Tom Peters' answer is, "It's producible just the way you see it, even with 21- and 22-inch wheels." Peters noted that they could have gone even larger, but the bigger wheels made the concept look cartoonish.

Lee echoes Peters' optimism for the concept's future. "When we designed it, we wanted it to be producible, so if it went into production, it wouldn't need many changes."

Regarding the interior, Roustemis couldn't have been any clearer. "Our design even takes into account the need for airbags."

It's no secret that the 2006 Camaro concept struck a chord — loudly. The corporation is investigating the car's business case, but GM is offering no more details. As it stands, the Camaro could be built on GM's new rear-drive platform (called Zeta in an earlier iteration). This new platform uses a fully independent suspension with struts in front. Introduction as soon as 2008 as a 2009 model is said to be the target.

Our educated advice to GM is not to wait. Ford's Mustang proves that a market exists for pony cars — good ones, that is. Many enthusiasts inside GM understand this, as do those at Dodge who birthed the Challenger concept.

Bob Boniface sums up the Camaro's development process by concluding that, "The passion won out. The car people won. The car guys in design and engineering demanded that this car happen, and that it be a truly modern interpretation of a Camaro. Some marketing people asked for more rear legroom and a larger trunk, and we said 'No.' We couldn't allow the idea to die on the vine or become something other than a true Camaro."

Fine words. Excellent sentiments. Now comes the hard part.

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