February 4th 2017 | 17 minute read

NO OPTION BUT TO OPTION – GM’s Muscle Car Conundrum

Regular Production Option and Central Office Production Order…..The most significant words in the GM world of 60’s performance cars. During that time and in what turned out to be a very new and adventurous portion of the business, the General’s company policy could only be described as muddled. History will show that GM produced some of the most competitive batch of Muscle cars of the era but did so in an environment of an internal identity crisis.

RPO and COPO had to become the back door codes used for the development and sale of many of the General’s production based performance cars. During the period, some of the hot GM product did make it to full production status but equally, many did not and the option routes were needed to keep things cooking. GM’s boffins, restrained by the Donner Declaration could now circumvent the ‘rules’ without getting slung down the coal tip.

Most of us who follow this stuff know that this was the way things were back in the day, but please consider just how committed the GM petrolheads had to have been to get things done. Constrained by silly internal politics, the G Men still managed to outmuscle the Ford techies who, by comparison and with uncle Henry’s support, lived in performance nirvana.

By 1964, ‘go faster’ activity was effectively being handled in dark rooms by Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick. The careless mention of Holleys, long duration cams or close ratio gears could get you sent to administrative duty somewhere south of plant maintenance…..I know, I worked in such an environment. Why was this necessary in a world where performance was clearly becoming a requirement in the game of manufacturing and selling saloon cars?

The problem for GM had origins in 1957 with the AMA* and an agreement to a ‘no racing’ policy amongst the US manufacturers. In reality this ‘agreement’ hardly affected the racers, with the Corporates simply reducing activity on above the line exposure… racing went on and factory ops supporting the racers went underground.  A few years later, however, things became more serious for GM and they were forced to stop even the indirect involvement in the performance/racing business.

Firstly, in 1958 GM’s east coast finance team grabbed the reigns from the previously all powerful production and engineering mid-west group. Things became a lot more conservative. Corporate power had shifted from tech to finance and for GM this was perhaps a short term godsend. At the time, the US Fed was unhappy about the nearly 50% share of the market held by the company and had warned of impending action to chop off some arms and legs. Problem…. GM, despite taking a lower public profile had such a good plug of cars in their model lines, that market share increased to 54% by 1962 and thru to ‘64. The Feds were getting agitated and losing some of those body parts was a very real possibility.

This was catch 22 for the 14th floor…. The compromise position taken was to keep heads down and stay out of the firing line. A conciliatory move by the chairman Frederick Donner in 1963 banned any form of GM motorsport. At the same time engine capacities were restricted for given vehicle sizes and the marketing team forced to moderate communications on anything associated with performance / power / speed. He used that 1957 AMA agreement as the lever to rationalize the need. Social responsibility seemed a safe route and with 54% of the market, what could possibly go wrong in the process of controlling errant engineers. The directives were clear…..or were they? The events of 1965 and the publication of a book criticizing the safety of US autos were going to further entrench the conservatism.

Yes…..the racing ban seriously curtailed the competition operations at  Chevrolet and Pontiac and these had to be closed down….down but not out…..thanks to a few hardy Pontiac souls. There was no ban on enthusiasm and creativity. The General’s tech troops had these in spades and some very special people in the development areas kept the flame alive. If GM’s boss-men figured they had put a lid on the radicals in their midst they were in for a huge wake up call.…. In the end, the market would dictate the requirement and the baby boomers were about to turn the comfortable view of the world as seen by granny GM’s execs upside down and, far better, hand the in-house petrolheads a lifeline.

* (American Automobile Manufacturers Association) 

Given that Ford were well into the performance car business in 1963, it was amazing that the first shot in the game of quick saloons was fired by GM late that year…. this only a few months after the Donner declaration. John De Lorean and his team of techs had flouted the engine size rules by developing and listing a package that will stand as the holy-grail of GM options, RPO 382. This specified the fitment of a big block 389 V8, normally at home in the full size Catalina, into a ‘compact’ for the first time….The Pontiac GTO had arrived. All dealers had to do, was order a Pontiac Tempest with the 382 option (and a plethora of individual go faster options hooked in to that option). In so doing, the General had unwittingly rubber-stamped the Muscle Car and had done it with eyes wide shut.

Despite the intent written into the new Donner policy , there were those that assumed the new rules to refer to full production variants only and took the chance to use the RPO system (used mainly to cover basic specification differences from colour, trim, A/c, power steering etc) to include radical mechanical variations. The engine size rule was however pretty specific, max 330 cid for a ‘compact’. Elliot P Estes….. the boss man at Pontiac a competent engineer himself, supported his tech team,  took the chance and Ok’d an initial 5000 for production.  32000 sold in the first year…..The hard-done-by engineers had scored one over the administrators…always good.

Ford followed suite but did so with a far more emphatic global corporate message. The Mustang launch, handled loosely in synch with the declaration of their Total Performance strategy (marketing the blue oval’s product) happened by mid 1964.  These two events sent a very clear and concise communication to the industry and to potential customers….. Sporty, fast and powerful were very much what the buying public were able to get from Ford.  Mustang sales, as we all know, had taken off like a rocket.

The arrival of the GTO, whilst nowhere near the sales success of the Mustang, had nevertheless outstripped all GM sales predictions and cemented the notion that fast was good…..even for General. Predictably, the ‘Goat’ as it became affectionately known, rattled cages in the very competitive environment which existed between the GM brands. Pontiac had stolen a march on their peers and done so by cleverly circumventing the rules.  Ironies abound & the good people at Oldsmobile, Buick and Chevrolet had their noses out of joint.

Far more significant and not considered by the suites on the 14th floor, was the biggest irony of all, the arrival of the GTO and consequently the advent of the Muscle car,  had effectively opened a parallel universe….racing, or shall we call it competition, had moved onto the street …..motivated primarily by the General.

Oldsmobile reacted quickly in ‘64 with the first 442 (four speed, four barrel, dual exhaust) This moniker was not to be confused with engine size because Olds stuck to the sub 330 small block rule for the initial year. By 1965, however, both Buick and Olds had gone the big block route with the GS and 442 respectively and it was now OK to slot engines of up to 400cid into GM compacts…. but only as options. Chevy responded with the very limited production Z16 396  Malibu of 1965, a rare and special car indeed. This was, however, a promotional campaign for the new 396 ‘Rat’ big block engine and with only 200 built (201 actually, one was a convertible,) it took a few years to get Chevy into the muscle car business proper.   6:20

In 1966 the 396 Malibu SS joined GM cousins in the 400 cubic inch club . That did not last long…..by 1969 hot Malibus reverted to new option packages simply because they now broke the 400cid rule. COPO 9562, a 427cid dealer option and the LS6  454….. the wildest muscle cars of all time. Despite the bans, GM were in the fight up to the armpits.

The option to option remained an option and it kept the tech guys busy, administrators confused  the bean counters happy and far, far more important, kept the legions of GM dealers doing good business by maintaining relevance in the changing times.

Not only were GM finding it difficult to decide whether they were half pregnant in the go faster business but were unexpectedly dealt another blow with the publishing of Ralph Naders Unsafe At Any Speed in 1965. The already conservative execs were given even more ammo to keep their heads in the sand. The book criticized all manufacturers on the issue of safety. GM were given a special mention on the stability, or lack thereof, of the Corvair. This really got under the skin of the board and they implemented a campaign aiming to discredit the man and in the process, prove the Corvair to be OK. This was a double irony. Ford had figured the Mustang to be a competitor to the Corvair and GM, knowing the Mustang was coming, initially considered the second generation Corvair complete with new very sporty styling and multilink rear suspension to be that competitor, both were wrong.

That 1965 Corvair, whilst no match really for the Mustang as a sporty alternative, could still have taken its rightful place as a very well packaged, beautifully styled car and might even have created a new and unique niche market….it did not **.

Had the suites kept a low profile on the Nader issue, his book would probably have caused no more than a minor dust cloud…..they did not. In March of 1966 GM were forced to make a public apology to Nader for harassment. The Corvair became the centre of negative publicity and went south quickly after that…. sad because it was a really good car in the final form.

So, here was the General, already dealing with the Fed, Ford and the fallout from the Nader debacle now having to deal with a large portion of the buying public wanting fast, powerful and loud. The pesky business of showing a responsible corporate identity in the face of this buyer onslaught proved to be something of a juggling act for the General.  The Nader affair had simply increased GM’s paranoia.

GM had quietly decided to pull the plug on the Corvair by the time the Camaro project came alive anyway. The 1966 – 69 Monza is in my the top ten of 60’s American iron simply because it was not only the most beautifully penned American car of the era but made an important engineering statement for the US motor industry. The unique (for the USA) rear engine layout and first ever turbocharged production car tag gave some insight as to the technical capability at Chevrolet. In addition, whilst  being a rear engined package that one would think required absolutely exclusive tooling and components for everything, the Corvair  shared internal body sheetmetal with a range of GM rear wheel drive cars….These guys were really smart.

If that was not difficult enough, the situation for GM and performance cars was becoming even more complicated…. the Mustang was going gangbusters. GM needed a direct competitor in the newly established pony car sector. GM’s response, ultimately to be the Camaro, was chased up for release. The Camaro is about to be launched and let’s be frank here, nobody in the GM organization can a) fully understand the real reasons why the Ford has taken the US market by storm b) whether the Camaro is going to be the antidote. All they know is that the market has shifted like quicksand and their car has to be good…. It was …. and without my GM cap on, ultimately turned out to be a better car than the already good Mustang. That fact did not automatically translate into sales, but did give GM a platform from which to launch…… and launch they did….. unusually.

Remember, sporty fast and loud were not the cornerstone of the Generals brand. But this car back in ’69 screamed sporty and fast standing dead still in an underground parking lot…..

Imagine just for a second the possibility of having a  purile, conventional launch from GM to attack the Mustang…..that would not have worked. Let’s take a look at what the Mustang had achieved in the two years before the Camaro came along. Aside from stunning sales figures, the message was sporty, fast and, as the car gained go-faster derivatives….very fast and very loud. Ford had already created a cult phenomenon and in that period stamped a race pedigree on this car…. GM by comparison was in fully fledged ‘no racing, no sporty communications’ mode.  This was catch 22 territory, so how were they going to do it?…..Well, apart from the TV ad, quite cleverly..

Firstly there had been so much press hype and speculation about the new Mustang competitor from GM, that the arrival on the market was an open secret…the speculation  so rife that the press had already allocated the name Panther. There was in fact such massive ra-ra that the name was considered to be the real thing…. Chevrolet capitalized on this by putting together the most unique communication exercise in the history of the US motor industry….a countrywide (first time ever) real time communication link with the media in 14 cities around the country announcing the demise of the Panther (essentially saying to the press you guys got this completely wrong)…..and introducing the Camaro. The press were initially confused but the penny dropped and the process did its job of creating the type of interest every car maker dreams of.

The launch TV ad consisted of a 350SS Camaro seemingly enveloped in Volcano smoke and Lava ….  Really?…. The volcano looked good (lots of smoke) but what exactly did it symbolize?…..nothing much, except that on all fronts Chevrolet had avoided reference to any real performance and completely side-stepped a direct confrontation/comparison with the Mustang on that level.

This BS….sorry I’m an engineer…..was not what this was all about. Every red blooded Chevy man wanted this machine to beat the crap out of a Mustang and show the world just that. Let’s now really examine what is happening inside the GM tent……can you imagine the frustration built up in those Chevrolet engineers watching this lot going on. These are men who at the flick of a switch could take that Mustang on in the performance game and give it a good smack….but they are restrained, they all have families, careers and responsibilities and needed to tow the party line. It took big balls to shake the system…… incredibly…… a few did.   Without them, the Camaro would have found it a lot more difficult to prove its true DNA. We owe a massive debt of gratitude to Vince Piggins and that stalwart Elliot P Estes for the Z28 version of the Camaro.

The Z28 option became the biggest conundrum in GM’s product history. This car was not affected by the engine size rules in the Donner Dictates but it was an absolute contradiction in almost every other way possible. It was a racing car masquerading as road car…. Period….Proudly built by Chevrolet in the midst of the…. “thou shalt not be exciting” blurb…… How did this happen??

Again the issue is about special people and again the same man who hung his reputation on the line for the GTO in the midst of restrictive corporate pressure, Estes, gave the go ahead for the Z28 project.

Instinctive engineering feel is something often taken for granted and we all know that decision making can be a laborious process of crossing t’s and dotting i’s when colourless business choices have to be made. It gets worse when one is required to convince equally colourless finance and admin jockeys of a good idea. In this case we have pure automotive genius mixed with the courage to do something against the very ethos of the corporate state. The two main players, Estes and Piggins made the call based on straightforward, ballsy, engineering inspired, car guy…. knowledge.

How do we know that?

Well not only was Piggins up for building a hot Camaro to prove that the Camaro had balls but he was going for Ford directly…..in their own back yard….racing. The value of having a man like Piggins in the business will never be understood by financial and administrator types and worse nor by many in pure engineering ……simply because corporates seldom understand enthusiasm and unique in-built talent. People like this are often referred to as Crazies ….But….What do you do with a talent that has racing experience, knows the parts catalogue backwards (the critical instinctive knowledge of what can be made to fit where) is a natural born engineer and is passionate about doing something spectacular. Our Chevrolet CEO of the period Elliot P Estes was a competent engine man himself …. So he let him have his way.

The 283cid Z28 prototype built by Piggins (not known as the Z in those early stages ) was driven by Estes in a proving ground test run in October of 1966, a month after the main Camaro launch. At that time, the legendary 302 engine did not exist as a factory spec, so the two simply created it and generated the works order for the build of the first 302 that day. Piggins had initiated the hot Camaro project (the detail of which which is eloquently covered in many on-line articles) and incredibly, the first dealer delivery of a complete production 302 engined Camaro Z28 happened just three months Later, in February of 1967. How spectacular was that?

Not only did they have to productionise the prototype but they had to build, test and approve the 302. Here’s the point of this compendium of facts:

Chevrolet had to make a statement to directly challenge the Mustang ….they did so but not through their marketing people and front line BS but through their  prodigious engineering capability. The earlier efforts of stalwarts like Duntov, who’s 283 fuel injected Corvette mill formed the basis of the 302, came together over this short period (which included the winter break), to produce this iconic machine. It was ‘right’ straight out of the box and despite being an optioned performance car, carried a full GM warranty.

Where the GTO, option 382, is the holy grail of options in the catalogue….. option Z28 is to me a resounding message of courage, determination and proper car engineering.

The magic of this story is that the Z28 went on to do exactly what was required. In a rare 60’s Ford vs GM road course one-on-one, Chevrolet, with Piggins still required to operate in clandestine mode (he  had appointing Penske, Donahue and co on the front line), clobbered the Blue Oval fair and square in Trans Am racing in1968/69.

The significance of this tends to be lost.

Ford had started this all back in ’64 and by the time the confrontation loomed, they were at the peak of their racing prowess in every conceivable avenue of motor sport. This included F1 with the DFV Engine, thru Sports cars with the GT40 and AC Cobras, saloons with Galaxies, Falcons, Cortinas and Escorts. Ford’s racing infrastructure, special part availability, personnel, 3 years of full-on race experience, specifically with the Mustang/Shelby connection, as well as the Total Performance Corporate backing…..it should have been a cake walk against the constrained GM team.

It wasn’t……I’ll put this as kindly as I can…Chevrolet engineering outsmarted Ford engineering whilst Ford were at the top of their racing game. Far more embarrassing was the simple fact that as far as mechanical design was concerned the Chevrolet attempt came mostly out of existing parts bins*…..Ford were hurried into two engine redesigns to do the job and by 1969 were just about chucking the kitchen sink at developments to recover lost ground.

The Point to all this?  GM pulled out of the series after 1969 *, the job done in positioning the Camaro and still under ridiculous limitations from the executive. It therefore begs the question……what would have happened if GM had remained in the Game and decided to throw their own kitchen sink at motor sport and done so world wide?

The answer to this is somewhat rhetorical…..Sadly they did not, but a number of hardy souls around the world did it for them…..and that provides us with the opportunity to regale the tales of those brave souls who kept the flame alive.4

  • Strictly speaking it was in fact Penske who terminated proceedings by wanting to run cars supported by an official works manufacturer.  Whilst the tie-up with GM had been an undercover operation run with the support of GM and motivated by Vince Piggins, Pensky’s move to American Motors resulted in the second string prep of the Chevrolet entries from 1970, with GM still refusing to become officially involved.

More on this in the Z28/Can Am write up still to come….

By | 2017-11-24T10:11:37+00:00 February 1st, 2017|Categories: Performance Saloon Car History|Tags: , , , |4 Comments

About the Author:

I have been in the motor industry all my life and despite spending 20 odd years with Datsun/Nissan, remain a GM man at heart.

4 Comments

  1. Jay Clark February 20, 2017 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    Great Article!

  2. Bruce Meaker March 3, 2017 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    Interesting history

  3. […] in “No Option but to Option” our first post on this site, John De Lorean flouted GM company policy on the 330cubic inch rule […]

  4. Affordable Muscle Cars April 21, 2018 at 8:27 am - Reply

    Actually it is a very useful blog for me and it has educated me with some unknown things about the muscle cars.

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