I really love looking at stillborn car prototypes. And while it feels weird to type "love looking at stillborn" anything, there's just something about the alternate-world possibilities of them that make seeing these concepts fascinating. And I can't think of anything more fascinating than a Mini-Camaro made to compete with the VW.

Actually, it's even weirder. This concept, also known as GM project XP-873, could have been part of a whole GM Corvair marque. So it would have been a Corvair-branded Mini-Camaro designed to compete on cost and size with the VW Beetle. Just wrap your brain around all of those little bits there, and enjoy your confusion burrito.

I stumbled onto the Mini-Camaro project in this interview with Roy Lonberger, who was a designer at GM during Bill Mitchell's tenure as GM's head of design. He describes project XP-873 as

In Studio-X we were charged with developing a four passenger Mini Camaro (XP-873) project for Pete Estes, Chevrolet Engineering, and Mr. Mitchell. It was intended to be the size of (and cost less to manufacture than) the Volkswagen Beetle. Fellow designer Geza Loczi was assigned to the studio, along with several modelers, and a tech stylist. Larry Shinoda would consult and occasionally Dave Holls would stop by. As before, concepts were presented weekly as full clay models in the courtyard or dome, and all design decisions were made by Mr. Mitchell. Interestingly, this project predated the Vega project several years later led by Jim Musser.


The pictures of these Mini-Camaro designs show something that is clean, compact, and quite handsome. A little, relatively inexpensive Camaro like this would certainly have been an interesting competitor not just to the Beetle, but to the Gremlin, Pinto, Opels, and many other cars in that era's batch of new compacts.

A bit more research reveals more strangeness about XP-873: it was part of a project to expand the Corvair name into its own GM marque. Which is something I never even realized was being considered at all. This 1982 article in Special Interest Autos sheds all kinds of interesting light on the commonly accepted story of the Corvair. Far from being dead (at least internally at GM) in 1965, development and planning was continuing well into 1968, when Corvairs (again, a whole family of Corvair-badged cars) for the 1970s were being planned.


Not all these Corvairs would have stuck with the flat-6, air-cooled, rear-engine design of the original Corvair, either — many were planned using conventional water-cooled engines from GM's stables (which were all cheaper to build than the Porsche-like flat-6 of the original Corvair) mounted either front or rear.

The Mini-Camaro/XP-873 project came from an order for a "five-passenger, low-cost vehicle...to go after the VW market," according to the orders given to the styling department. To keep production costs low, a conventional front-engine/rear drive layout was planned, mated to a decidedly sporty body, with great long-hood, short-deck proportions.


Some early designs had a massive rear hatch that extended all the way out to the rear side fenders of the car; other later ones incorporated a fully-openable front end, flipping forward, fenders and all, like a Triumph Spitfire.


The low, sporty look is emphasized in these pictures showing it between a Corvair and a Beetle, and it does appear to be more of a 2+2 than a full 5-passenger car. It's clear that a great deal about these design ideas made their way into the Vega project to come later, and also seem to be the source of the best parts of the Vega, period.

I think it's a real shame this concept never made it out of the design studio. These are some really attractive little sport coupes that I think would have found a receptive market. Something with Camaro style at Beetle levels of price, size, and economy? Hell yes, and that's coming from a very pro-Beetle guy.


GM would be wise to revisit these design ideas for future entry-level cars to compete with things like Ford's Focus and Fiesta STs, or even the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ. Small, cheap, FR layout, great look — what's not to like?

So, GM, get one of your interns to pull some drawings from your archives. They can work late, if need be. I said it's ok.

(Photos credits: GM Design via Hemmings and DeansGarage)