On August 29, 2002, a bright red Chevrolet Camaro Z28 rolled down the assembly line at General Motor's Ste. Therese plant outside Montreal, Quebec, ending 35 years of automotive history. When this car rolled off the assembly line, GM handed the pony car market over to its archrival, the Ford Mustang. Since that time, not only has Ford had the pony car market to itself, almost as if to spit on the grave of GM's F-bodies, Ford displayed a concept version of the next new Mustang a matter of months later.
From the time the Camaro and Firebird were introduced in September 1966, they developed a cult following. While GM's F-body had its ups and downs, it became a mainstay at Chevrolet and Pontiac showrooms. Over the years it was everything from a limited-production big-block muscle car to an underpowered 4-cylinder economy car, much like the vehicle GM's F-bodies were a response to, the Ford Mustang. With that kind of history, it almost seems unthinkable GM would discontinue it, yet they did.
The Cover Story
Publicly, GM blamed slow sales, a deteriorated sports coupe market, and plant overcapacity. John G. Middlebrook, GM vice president and general manager vehicle brand marketing and corporate advertising pointed out at the time that the sport coupe market combined with the increasing popularity of trucks and excess manufacturing capacity made the decision to discontinue the Camaro and Firebird unavoidable. Yet the crosstown rival Mustang was selling extremely well, at roughly 150,000-plus cars per year. Still, even up to the very end, Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird comprised the second-best selling car body in its class. Chevrolet's Camaro--which will be the primary focus of this article--is also one of GM's best-known names, right up with Corvette, and as easily recognizable as the Mustang name. Seems Camaro could have continued with simply a new model. What happened?
GM isn't willingly giving out information on this, but there's been a lot of speculation over the past couple of years, ranging from the pretty logical to the somewhat bizarre. On various internet sites, disgruntled fans post everything from "GM wanted to make trucks instead" to "GM didn't care about the car" or that GM's Brand Management from outside the auto industry had little to no experience.
It would seem the lack of commitment from GM management would be the most plausable. Next to the Mustang, the F-body seemed stuck in time. In the fourth-gen F-body's lifetime (which ran from 1993 to 2002) Ford saw fit to give the Mustang two body revisions and three special editions that were more than a paint and trim job (the Cobra, Bullitt and Mach 1).
There is a lot of frustration in trying to get an accurate picture of the Camaro and Firebird's future. GM has refused to discuss it in the way they have discussed future Cadillacs, the recently introduced Corvette, or their move towards rear-wheel drive in many of their future cars such as Buick, Pontiac or Saturn. Ask about GTO, and you'll hear that it's going to be a part of Pontiac's line-up for some years to come. Ask about Camaro, and you get the feeling the GM reps want to run for the door.
The Plot Thickens...
In the late '90s, GM was moving headlong into front-wheel drive passenger cars, save Cadillac's future carline and the Corvette. GM put more of its resources into trucks and SUVs at the expense of cars. All of which most likely played a role in the demise of the F-body. Amidst this trend away from RWD, there was unusual secrecy involving the Camaro name, and the future role of GM's Ste. Therese plant. It's virtually impossible to know all the forces that were in play, but searching through tidbits in news stories and putting the pieces together points to a difficult future for the next Camaro, possibly even causing problems with using the name again.
Back in 1987, GM initially planned on closing its Ste. Therese assembly plant, which would've put thousands of employees out of work. Opened in 1965, Ste. Therese was Quebec's only automotive assembly plant, and was a key contributor to Quebec's economy. The Quebec government was willing to go the extra mile to keep it open. Both the government of Quebec and the government of Canada along with the local Canadian Auto Workers union stepped in with an almost irresistible package for GM. The governments granted GM a 220 million dollar (Canadian) interest-free loan, payable in 30 years. Both the Quebec and Ottawa governments each contributed 110 million each. GM also was awarded over 100 million dollars in tax breaks to keep the plant open.
This basic agreement helped the Ste. Therese plant win the exclusive mandate from GM to produce the Camaro and Firebird. There has been a lot of speculation on this in various F-body enthusiasts circles, but in a statement regarding labor relations, this arrangement is stated clearly on GM Canada's own media information website: "GM of Canada's Ste. Therese, Quebec plant has the exclusive General Motors mandate to assemble Chevrolet Camaros and Pontiac Firebirds."
At first blush, it could be assumed that GM--through interest-free loans--was paid to keep the plant at Ste Therese open. The plant was initially scheduled to close down around 1990, however, if GM had closed the Ste. Therese plant back then, it would've hit the provincial economy hard. It would've also hit the Quebec government hard which would be faced with large unemployment compensations, a sizable idle workforce and a departing major employer at a time it was trying to attract new jobs to the area. It's very likely that had GM's plant closing gone through back in 1990, it would have cost the Canadian government far more than the cost of the loans.
This loan agreement came with the obligation that GM would continue to make the F-body at this plant until at least 2001, unless the vehicles made there were no longer profitable and had to be discontinued. There apparently was also the belief on the part of many rank and file union members and those that live in the area of the plant, that the factory would continue operations the entire length of the loan (until 2017), even with other vehicles if necessary.
Over the 10 years the fourth-generation F-body called Ste. Therese home, over 900,000 cars were produced there. The end came in sight as early as 1998, the year of the last F-body exterior update. GM began looking at its plants with an eye towards reducing over-capacity, and one inviting target was the Ste.
Therese plant, which stuck out on the balance sheet like a sore thumb. Certainly it would be argued by no one that a plant under the control of the Canadian Auto Workers union is a far "softer" target to shutter than a typical American UAW plant. The Ste. Therese plant had a capacity to produce in excess of over 200,000 cars per year, yet in 1997 just over 126,000 F-bodies were produced, making it one of GM's most underutilized plants in North America. The plant was a dud, and to top things off, had a bi-lingual workforce which was harder to train, long supply lines, even longer shipping distances for finished cars, and marginal on-site storage for materials and partially finished vehicles.
At around this time it is thought that GM first decided to suspend spending on an F-body replacement, so it would probably be wrong to assume there was a conspiracy to "starve" the F-body in order to close the plant. Instead, it's far more likely that knowing the F-body would be gone, it made no sense to continue spending on advertising and PR on the F-body. This move likely hastened the F-body's demise.
Yet hope wasn't entirely lost by Camaro and Firebird loyalists within GM. It is known that GM was in fact looking at other options for a new F-body which included basing it on the latest "V" chassis, which had just been introduced in Australia by Holden, and was the basis of the Opel-made Cadillac Catera. Buick had considered importing or building a version of Holden's Statesman, but that plan, along with building a Camaro based on the same chassis, was shelved once the legal ramifications of closing Ste. Therese were realized. It is also rumored that GM looked into the possibility of basing an F-body on the "Y" chassis that is the basis of Corvette, or a front-wheel drive chassis (possibly sharing with the Malibu).
GM initially did plan on replacing the F-body, but by the late '90s, the emphasis within the camp of then-product boss Ron Zarella was on trucks, and that's where the resources went. As far as cars went, the future at GM became front-wheel driven. This meant the end of the F-body, independent of events at Ste. Therese.
One of the first questions is why couldn't GM simply base the next Camaro on the previous chassis? One reason is that like the SN95 Mustang chassis, the last F-bodies got their beginnings well over 20 years ago, making them perilously close to being obsolete. There were also new safety regulations coming that involved substantial changes in side impact and rear collision standards. It would cost just as much to create a new chassis as it would to upgrade the old one, so why not make it modern? Besides, Ford was not-so-secretly working on a new chassis for the next Mustang (the Fox-based Mustang's rear-mounted fuel tank wouldn't pass muster under new impact standards).
Weeks prior to the end of F-body production, GM Performance division head Mark Reuss told Detroit-based automotive press in a speech on July 10, 2002 that finding a suitable RWD chassis for the next Camaro was a high priority. Yet within days, Reuss sent out a letter denying the statement, saying GM was not "looking to replace, nor is there any plan to replace the Camaro and Firebird." This brings up the next question that has Camaro/Firebird conspiracy theorists wondering. Why not make a statement on Camaro, and why the secrecy? GM has a policy of not talking about future vehicles, but as the very public saga of both Pontiac Solstice's and GTO's march to production shows, it's not an inflexible policy. Although GM refers to the Camaro as being on "hiatus," no one seems to dare talk about the future. Soon after Mark Reuss made and retracted his statement on finding a chassis for the next Camaro, it is known that there was essentially a ban by GM on any mention of a future Camaro. The corporate line on Camaro was that it would come back "someday."
Meanwhile, Pontiac General manager Lynn Myers and GM's new product chairman Bob Lutz seemed to remove all doubt about a Firebird in the future by stating that Pontiac was moving up market as a sort of American version of BMW. This means performance across the board, but also meant a more upscale crowd. Something not exactly represented by the Pontiac Firebird. Even Pontiac's youth-oriented "pass it on" ad campaign was viewed as the wrong direction, and ended up becoming short-lived. Mr. Lutz said the ads sent the wrong message about the division, that it is too down-market and not exciting and aspirational enough. "It didn't show the kinds of people we wanted the brand to be associated with," Lutz said. Even more recently in a conversation reported by Ward's Auto World, Lutz acknowledged the end of the Firebird by stating, "Firebird's day is gone."
So, with the door apparently closed on a Firebird, why is no one talking about the Camaro? Though it's nearly impossible to get anyone from GM to answer this, plenty can be answered by reviewing previous press releases and stories from various news agencies.
The Canadian Auto Workers union local 1163 (the union that worked at Ste. Therese) was furious at GM for closing the plant, and initially took a defiant stand. President of CAW 1163, Sylvain Demers, called the closing a "betrayal", and "an insult to all Quebeckers." Even then, Quebec premier, Bernard Landry chimed in by saying, "We will not accept this defeat...It is not honorable for GM...that after 25 to 30 years of service they can tell workers 'We are leaving'..." CAW officials attempted to convince GM that it would be more profitable to shut down plants outside Quebec. The closing of Ste. Therese became an emotional issue not just in the area, but also in the entire province.
The union scored a victory prior to GM closing the Ste Therese that spared the plant from being demolished for one year. This was to enable the union, various Canadian governments, and GM to find another use, or buyer for the plant, sparing the jobs there. The union at the time had tried unsuccessfully to bar demolition of the plant for three years (until 2005) in order to make it part of the following national labor agreement with GM. In the end, the efforts of all involved failed to find another use for the plant.
Officially, GM wanted to tear down the plant because of their belief the property was more valuable as a vacant lot than a 2.1 million square-foot plant, much too large for just about any use other than a high-production vehicle factory. Keep in mind, however, that the plant also had a mandate that it would be the sole source for Camaros and Firebirds. It now begins to come into focus that any comment on a future Camaro or Firebird prior to the plant's disposal, via sale or demolition, perhaps could very well create a situation where GM would be compelled to keep the plant. From a legal perspective, it might be construed that any future car that carried the name Camaro or Firebird would have to be made at this plant, at least till 2017, the year all Canadian government loans are to be repaid.
One could read into this that GM was the bad guy, but again, this would be a bad assumption. A lot of good did come out of this situation. The CAW and Canadian governments were active participants with GM in looking for uses or a buyer for the plant for over a year. General Motors greatly expanded employment at their Oshawa Ontario plants, and moved many former Ste. There workers to other positions at various other assembly and parts manufacturing plants. Over 90 percent of Ste. Therese workers either were or will be eligible for retirement and or pensions when the plant closed, or by 2005. GM also began working with premier Landry to develop new areas for Quebec's automotive industry. All these conciliatory efforts are apparently designed to pave the way for a new Camaro in 2007, which PHR was the first to reveal last month.
It had been strongly hinted, and now confirmed, that GM was working on a sporty car for Chevrolet which includes a 5.3-liter V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive, and four-passenger capacity. This vehicle will be based on GM's upcoming "Zeta" chassis being developed by Holden, GM's Australian division. Production for Zeta is likely headed for GM's Hamtramck, Michigan plant, which will soon be phasing out Cadillac Deville, Seville and Buick LeSabre. Although at press time, full details are not known about this car, but it is known that it will fall into the same "ponycar" market the Camaro filled. An anonymous source close to the vehicle project has told PHR that GM has asked Delphi Corporation, the world's largest automotive supplier, to submit a bid on the safety restraint (airbag) system and steering assembly for a MY2007 Camaro. The only issue seems to be the final name and who will supply sub-systems. At the time this is written, the Ste Therese plant is being demolished, and it's expected the land it was on will be sold by General Motors. Once this happens, it will be interesting to see if GM is a little freer in talking about the future of the Camaro nameplate.
When it's all said and done, the degree to which Chevrolet is free to talk about an upcoming Camaro relies almost entirely on its relations with the Canadian government and the satisfaction of the Canadian Auto Workers union. We have no doubt there will be a "Camaro-like" vehicle in our future, so the issue really boils down to the use of the name and how litigious the lawyers feel about it. We hope they can overcome their objections and let the good times roll!
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