Saturday, September 29, 2001

Camaros, Firebirds made in Norwood in their prime

Sales declined as insurance, purchase price escalated

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two motoring icons with ties to the Tristate will end their run with the 2002 model year.

        General Motors announced this week that it will stop production of the Pontiac Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro sports cars, the “muscle cars” that were built at the company's Norwood factory from 1967 to 1987. They're now made in Canada.

[photo] David Ritchie, sales manager for Rose Chevrolet in Hamilton, shows off a 1999 model-year Z28 Camaro. GM is discontinuing production after 2002.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        From 1974 to 1980, the powerful Firebird rolled across Los Angeles on The Rockford Files television show and in other TV series and movies of the period. Its more popular sister car, the Camaro, became one of the country's more recognizable cars of the era.

        “The older ones are very popular, especially the Camaro,” said Jim Beaton, an Oxford insurance agent and organizer of that city's Red Brick Rally classic car show. “They had a number of different engines in them — some as high as a 427 (horsepower). But the problem is, they became rather expensive. You can pay over $30,000 for a new one.”

        Dave Ritchie, sales manager for Rose Chevrolet in Hamilton, said the insurance industry had a lot to do with the demise of the cars.

        “Especially in the higher-powered Z28,” he said. “It has an LT1engine, one of the original Corvette engines. So it had higher insurance rates.”

        Since 1990, the country's sports car market has experienced a 53 percent decline. Many things have changed since the days of surf and the Beatles.

        “I bought a new one in 1967 when they first came out — a Camaro convertible,” said Ron Rankin, who worked at GM's factory in Norwood. “Mine had a V-8 engine with 300 horsepower. Their styles changed a little over the years but they're pretty much the same. I'd say the guys, the younger men, liked them the most.”

        Mr. Rankin, a Norwood resident and a former United Auto Workers president at the plant, said he wasn't surprised to hear the news.

        “They had talked about stopping production even before they closed our plant in 1987,” he said. “Sales kept going down.”

        He said the Firebird and Camaro became a part of American culture, representing a preoccupation with speed and power.

        “They've done a good job for General Motors,” he said. “The company sold a lot of them. I think they will be like some of the other older name cars — they'll be closed out for a while and then brought back. The Firebird and Camaro especially have a loyal following.”

        Since its introduction in 1967, the Camaro has sold more than 4 million units. Its best year was 1978, when GM sold 260,201 cars. The Firebird's best year was also 1978, when 175,607 cars were sold.

        “I think the cars reached their peaks in '79 or '80,” Mr. Rankin said. “We had three shifts running at the factory and the cars were getting a lot of attention. The Firebird ended up in the Bandit movies with Burt Reynolds.”

        This year, sales have continued to decline. Since August, Camaro has sold 22,339; Firebird 16,225.

        “But I've got people ordering special (35th anniversary) editions this year,” said Mr. Ritchie, sales manager for Rose Chevrolet in Hamilton. “There is talk of the cars coming back out at a later time. A new model will replace them.”

       The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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