Images courtesy of General Motors.
From an enthusiast perspective, automotive assembly plants are fascinating places. Within their walls, some of the most memorable cars and trucks of all time have taken shape, vehicles that captivated the public at auto shows and in new car showrooms. Many years later, the survivors continue to be restored, cherished and enjoyed.
Since the very first one rolled off the Norwood, Ohio assembly line back in 1966, people everywhere have been fascinated by the Camaro. As the publication you’re holding in your hands illustrates, we’ve used them as daily drivers, customized them into street machines, gone racing in them and resurrected them from extinction. However, for much of the recent past, we haven’t been able to buy a new one. As a result, when we visited a Camaro gathering or event, many of us heard comments such as, “I wish I could have seen Camaros being built back in the day,” or “I wish I could have ordered the Camaro I now own, with these particular options, from brand new.” Back in 2002, when GM cancelled F-body Camaro/Firebird production at the Ste Thérèse plant just outside Montreal after a continuous run of 35 years, many enthusiasts thought they were witnessing the end of an era. There would be no more GM pony cars rolling out the door.
However, as the old saying goes, never say never. Not long after the last F-body rolled out the door, GM actively began talking about resurrecting the Camaro (if not the Firebird). With assistance from the General’s Australian subsidiary Holden, which was working on a new generation, large car rear-wheel-drive architecture (the Zeta, primarily for its own home market Commodore sedan), the concept of a new Chevy pony car gained traction. Although the Ste Thérèse plant, which built the fourth-generation (1993-02) models, had been razed to the ground by this stage, the decision was made to build a new Camaro. Like previous versions, it would be built in North America.
GM’s Car Assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, which forms part of the massive Autoplex including a former truck plant and nearby Regional Engineering Center, was ultimately chosen as the location. In many respects, selecting this Canadian facility could not have been better timed. With truck operations living on borrowed time at Oshawa and reduced capacity with the discontinuing of the W-body cars (Chevy Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix), building the new Camaro there would add good deal of prestige to the plant, as well as providing much-needed support for the local economy. The Oshawa plant is close to major rail and road networks and had gained a reputation as one of the most efficient factories in GM’s portfolio, receiving numerous accolades, including the J.D. Power and Associates Gold Award for initial product quality in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007. This also made it appear a logical choice for a “halo” vehicle.
Originally opened in 1953, the Oshawa Car Assembly plant has over 10 million square feet of factory workspace and is longer than three full-size football fields put together. Having been a center for North American GM large and mid-size car production for many years, in 2008, the facility was converted into a state-of-the art Flexible Manufacturing facility. This process involved consolidating the two major assembly lines at the factory and putting into place a manufacturing system that allowed the line to assemble multiple different GM products. These products could be added or removed at short notice to more efficiently cope with changes in market demand without requiring the need for dedicated assembly plants, which can prove costly when those plants are idled or shifts reduced as demand for a particular vehicle falls (as witnessed by the light truck segment during 2008).
As far as the fifth-generation Camaro goes, despite much of the design and engineering work being carried out by both GM’s North American and Australian operations, the entire assembly (apart from sub-components such as the brakes, engine, rear end and transmission) begins and ends at Oshawa.
Recently, with the assistance of GM Canada, we were allowed unique access to some sources within General Motors, specifically relating to the current Camaro production process at the Oshawa plant. As a result, we were able to bring you this document the production process of the fifth generation Camaro, as well as uncovering some interesting facts.
Assembling just a single automobile like the Camaro is a very complex procedure requiring many different processes. It’s incredible to see sheets of raw steel come into the factory at one end and a completed car leave at the other.
A modern automotive assembly plant like Oshawa is a far cry from those in the industrial age. It is light, clean and, although bustling, extremely efficient. Production of each Camaro begins when raw steel is brought to the plant by truck and offloaded. The first port of call is the stamping plant, where the steel is shaped and formed into floor pans, chassis rails, firewalls, inner fenders, roof panels and body parts. The noise from stamping is immense, as is the size of the stamping machines themselves. It’s hard not to come away impressed, even if your hearing might forever suffer for it.
Once the individual body parts have been formed via stamping, they are then brought together for sub-assembly on what’s called an Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV), essentially the beginning of the assembly line. For the Camaro, this involves the body shell, doors, trunk and hood. For assembly, the Camaro unibody parts are placed on a buck, where over 450 individual robots are employed to weld the panels together and check the quality of the welds based on a pre-set program. Specialized robots are employed to take pictures and examine over 5000 different weld areas of each shell. If a completed body shell fails quality control, it is removed from the assembly process until its particular quality issues are addressed. Once the shells have been assembled, they are then mated with the formed hood, assembled doors and trunklid, which are welded together at different locations from the main unibody. Via other AGVs, the doors, hoods and trunklids converge with the body shells and are installed, though it’s interesting to note that that some doors are installed before trunk lids and vice versa on particular body shells.
Once the bodies have received their extras, the painting process begins. The first step in painting is what is called E-coating, where the bodies are rotated and completely submerged in a special liquid chemical compound. Over 300 volts of electricity are passed through this liquid while the body shells are grounded. This ensures that the E-coat sticks to every surface of the structure and does its very best to ward off corrosion, which is vastly improved compared with the 1967-69 originals.
Once the body emerges from the E-coating process, it is then baked under high intensity lights to dry the E-coat before heading to the primer stage. Once primer has been applied, it then moves into the main paint booth. Current Camaros are offered in 10 different exterior colors: Aqua Blue Metallic, Black, Cyber Gray Metallic, Imperial Blue Metallic, Inferno Orange Metallic, Rally Yellow, Red Jewel, Summit White, Silver Ice Metallic and Victory Red. At the Oshawa plant, different colors have their own Automated Guided Vehicle tracks, to keep the paint process fast and efficient. Modern paint booths are clean to the point of being sterile to protect the paint from contamination by foreign objects.
Once the bodies have received their final topcoat of paint, which is dried under more high power lights, clearcoat is added to protect the finish. Once the clearcoat has baked, assembly of the actual car can begin.
The bodies end up on a moving conveyor system, mounted on an adjustable plinth which is raised or lowered depending on the individual workstation. Each individual unibody is tagged with its build sheet to ensure certain features are added or left out depending on the specific order request of that particular car. At this point, the glass is installed and the doors removed, to be trimmed on their own. The car’s wiring harness is put in place, along with the rubber stripping and sealing, instrument panel, interior carpet, headliner, seats and other interior, trunk trim and fuel tank.
While the bodies are coming together, the driveline, suspension and brake assembly process has already begun. Engines, transmissions, cooling system suspension and brake components, shipped in separately from assembly plants, are joined together on their own AGV. As the “greasy bits” edge further toward completion, hoses and belts are added, along with engine accessories and other dress up items. At each workstation, the parts are installed and quality checks performed. If everything is not within the required specifications, the line is stopped until the problem is addressed or the sub assembly removed. Given the nature of Camaro production, it is in everybody’s best interests to keep the line moving as efficiently as possible. Although the Camaro is a unibody car, once the front suspension, engine, transmission, radiator, exhaust system, driveshaft, rear suspension and brakes are joined together on the same buck, they look very much like a complete chassis. Once completed and inspected, each of these assemblies is then automatically guided to meet up with bodies, where giant hoists join them together like oversized model car kits.
Now the final assembly and trimming begins. The doors, fully finished with mirrors, wiring and trim, rejoin the rest of the car, and on go the headlights, taillights, marker lamps and fascias. The wheels and tires are also installed and torqued to specifications. Then the final trim, including any stripes and exterior pieces, are added and the fuel tank filled with gas. The completed Camaro is then started, ready to be driven off the line and into the “shakedown” booth. Here, the cars are put on a special rack that uses rollers to align the steering and aim the headlights.
Then it’s onto the final inspection, where every part of the car is quality checked to make sure it meets the required standards, including a 100 percent water testing for structural integrity and drainage, noise, vibration and harshness, as well as engine performance, steering and braking.
Once that has been completed and each Camaro has passed inspection, the cars are placed in a holding area, ready for transportation to the dealers that ordered them. Some will go by truck, others by train and a few by boat to their final destination. From start to finish, it takes just under 24 hours to build an entire fifth generation Camaro, and at the time of writing, the Oshawa plant was running three shifts of approximately 5400 workers in total to build this car and the Chevy Impala, which is also assembled here. In 2011, GM will also add Camaro convertible production to the line. Whether it will require a slightly different approach to assembly remains to be seen, but the fact that Detroit is building real muscle cars again means that right now is an exciting time to be a performance enthusiast. It’s cool to see history being made once again.
Fifth Generation Facts
AutoTrader Classics got the chance to talk with Steve J. Nimigon, Senior Planning Administrator for GM Manufacturing, regarding the Camaro. He gave us some very interesting insights into current Camaro production.
AC: Steve, thanks for talking with us today. Our first question, really, is how long does it actually take to build a single Camaro from start to finish?
SN: If we include “transit time” between the different departments that assemble the Camaro, the average time of production, from when the first sheet steel is formed until the car is driven off the line, is 24 hours, based on three shifts working at the plant.
AC: When did you first start taking actual orders for the car?
SJN: Official pre-orders for the new Camaro began in October 2008.
AC: When did production of the 2010 Camaro officially begin?
SJN: Production officially began on Monday, March 16, 2009.
AC: What was the first car off the line?
SJN: It was a black SS V-8 coupe outfitted with the RS package.
AC: From what we understand, there was a rather special occasion regarding that car?
SJN: That is correct. Bids were placed at Barrett-Jackson’s Westworld auction in January 2009 for the very first Camaro #0001 off the line. The winning bid was by Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which was I believe $385,000. The proceeds from the sale of that car went to the American Heart Association. On March 16, Rick Hendrick arrived at Oshawa to drive that very first Camaro off the assembly line.
AC: Now that production is well under way, can you tell us roughly what the ratio is of LT (V-6) Camaros to SS (V-8) models on the production line?
SJN: We are currently running about 65 percent of the SS model versus 35 percent for the LT model, but this varies based on market demand. We are truly flexible, as the plant is capable of running any ratio.
AC: Quality is a big part of the production process. Can you describe a little about what’s involved when building a car such as the Camaro?
SJN: Over the past decade, cars built at GM's Car Assembly plant in Oshawa have ranked at the top of industry quality surveys. The entire team works together to ensure each and every vehicle is built exceed the highest customer satisfaction. Throughout the Camaro build process; there are several quality inspection stations. This includes, but is not limited to, a final inspection process, a 100% on-line water test and bump track to ensure we are shipping the driest, quietest vehicles possible. Our newly-constructed, state-of-the-art flexible assembly line encompasses a multitude of engineering enhancements, ensuring world-class quality, such as fastener torque controls, vision stations and comprehensive error-proofing.
AC: Besides the US and Canada, are any of the cars specifically consigned for export? Based on my own experience, previous cars were built for Europe and Middle Eastern markets – is that correct?
SJN: We ship the Camaro all over the world, so no matter where you may see one, it was built in Oshawa. Our current markets are North, Central and South America, the Middle East and Japan (we have many individual country codes). We do not build any for Europe at this particular time, though there are plans to actively look at distributing cars in Europe through official channels in 2011.
AC: Are there any differences on these cars that are instigated during the production process?
SJN: Cars are processed the same, with only very minor differences (examples: labels and radio calibrations, depending on where in the world they are being shipped). After being produced, protection for sea transit is applied at the plant and at the port. Looking at a Camaro headed to Tokyo, Toronto or Tucson, you couldn't see a difference.
AC: I’m assuming that both SS and RS models are built right alongside each other – is that correct?
SJN: Yes, absolutely that is correct.
AC: From when a customer makes a factory order at a dealer, roughly how long does it take until the car arrives at that dealership, ready for customer delivery?
SJN: When a customer places a factory order through their local sales outlet, based on our current production schedule, it takes around three months before the car is ready for delivery. At present, we’re experiencing high demand for Camaros, so, relatively speaking, the waiting list is quite long.
The author would like to say a big thank you to Dustin Woods of General Motors of Canada Public Relations and Steve J. Nimigon for their assistance with this article.