If you're a diehard Camaro fanatic, there's more than a good chance you're familiar with the name Al Oppenheiser. For those perhaps not yet acquainted with Mr. Oppenheiser by name – it's a good bet you've seen his work. Whenever you roll up to a stoplight and see the new, 5th generation Camaro next to you, yep, that's Al's pride and joy.
As chief vehicle engineer for the 5th gen Chevy Camaro, Al and his team were at the forefront of bringing this iconic American sports car back to its loving public after having gone out of production for nearly a decade.
However, being the chief vehicle engineer for the 5th gen was hardly his first rodeo. Al has been a part of the GM engineering family for over 25 years, and in the process has worked on some of the coolest production and performance car projects imaginable. In 2008, his team worked on the legendary 1957 Chevy Bel Air named "Project-X." And together with David Ross, GM Design Manager Styling at GM, and many others, brought this bright-yellow star of innumerable magazine appearances back to the future with the first-ever Chevrolet Performance 50th Anniversary 427 Big Block crate engine. This build featured prominently in the pages of Popular Hot Rodding, which seems fitting for what's arguably the most popular '57 Chevy on the planet.
While serving as Director for what was then the GM Performance Division, Al also oversaw several other high-profile build projects for some pretty well known folks from the sports and entertainment worlds. A driving force behind turning Tom Peter's vision of the next generation Camaro into a functional car, Al has remained the captain of the Camaro engineering team since the car's unveiling at Detroit NAIAS back in 2006. With those things in mind, it should come as no surprise that we were pretty ecstatic to be able to catch up with Al recently and ask him a variety of Camaro-related questions. We touched on everything from the accolades the award-winning 5th gen Camaro has garnered, to his thoughts on the drag strip-dominating COPO, and on down the line to track titans, the ZL1 & 1LE – as well as the news of the first Camaro-specific parts Chevrolet has produced in over forty years!
The Camaro won SEMA's "Best in Show" two consecutive years, did you ever expect that the 5th gen would have the success it's had to this point?
I don't think any of us expected it. We knew it was going to be a hot car. It had been out of production for 8 years, so there was a lot of pent up demand and passion for it. But the fact that we had the stroke of genius to work with Michael Bay and the Transformers Movie transformed the car "literally" and connected it with a younger generation. It really took off on a much greater trajectory than we ever imagined.
Talk to us a bit about COPO. How do you feel about reigniting that flame and transforming the 5th gen into the modern-day incarnation of its legendary drag racing namesake?
We were asked by a lot of drag racing fans when we would have a 5th gen Camaro for them. Because basically, they've done everything they can to the 1st gens but couldn't get them any faster. So in order to compete with Mustang and Challenger, who have their drag racing kits and versions, it was a thrill to be able to bring the COPO back. We just had to wait for the right time and the right formula. And it's taken off as well, just like the other Camaro versions. It's been a hit, and so much so, that we're proud to bring it back for another run of 69 in 2013.
From a personal standpoint, what drew you to Camaros early on?
I was a kid, and grew up in the era of late 60s muscle cars, and I fell in love with the First Gen. My first car was a Camaro, I bought a 70 ½ RS/SS, and planned on keeping it forever. I've always been a Camaro guy, always been around it. In my career I've worked in the Camaro and Corvette performance divisions. But the thrill of being able to be part of the concept when we first decided to bring the Camaro back in 2006 for the Auto Show, literally gave me goose bumps. Then they asked me to be the Chief for it. It's a dream come true, I don't call it "work." I refer to it as a "Thank God it's Monday Job."
Generally speaking, what's the first Chevrolet Performance part and/or modification you'd recommend to a new Camaro owner?
Usually, it's our ground effects kits, splitters, and spoilers, things that help the aerodynamics of the car. I'm really happy that we're getting to work with the Chevrolet Performance Parts guys now to release parts such as the 1LE, so that anyone with a prior year's car can build theirs up similar to the production 1LE for 2013. Anything we can do to help out owners of prior year cars is a great step. These are cars that will last, and you'll see people auctioning off 5th gens at car shows 40-50 years from now.
What do you think of the whole new suite of Camaro-specific parts?
Every Camaro show I go to, and I go to several of them per year, everyone wants to bring me over and show me how they've individualized their car. They took our car and did something to personalize it. Usually it's exterior, and then it's under-hood mods. Everyone wants an air box or a smaller pulley. It's great that now consumers are going to have such a broad complement of parts to choose from to truly personalize their vehicles.
Why is the ZL1 the best car on the planet?
Because we had a passionate group of engineers and designers put everything we knew about performance technology in the car. From the aerodynamics – the car makes down force – which is rare for a production car, down to the supercharger. To all the features and functions in the performance traction management, such as the magnetic ride control. One of the great things about the magnetic ride control is that it's a peripheral benefit for us, because the car is so set up for the track. It's over a 1G-capable car. Most people don't get to take the car out to Road America, but even still, just driving the car around town on rough roads -- take Michigan roads for instance --that MR really comes into play in "tour mode." It's outstanding. So what's generally designed to enhance performance on the track is also a great feature just driving around on regular roads. The ZL1 literally has every technology trinket you could put on a car – and it's all standard.
Do you own a Camaro?
Sure do. A '68. I'm the second owner. It's a black convertible, and I did a complete ground-up restoration on it. I kept the parts original, so I sandblasted everything. And then I put new bushings and things on it. I played around a bit under the hood; it's a Small Block that makes about 360 hp. I have a 10-bolt in the back still. It's plenty of capability in a convertible – I can chirp the tires in every gear. It's actually got a one-foot paint job, but the remarkable thing is I drive it all the time. People are amazed, they think it's a trailer queen, but I built it to drive. I love spending time in it.
Sounds like you've got serious passion for the Camaro.
You know, there was a time I was working on the 2010 Camaro, during the day, and I'd come home and work on the '68 at night. So I was working on Camaros 'round the clock. Occasionally I'd fall asleep on the garage floor about 2 o'clock in the morning. My wife had a series of shoes at the back door she'd throw to wake me up. She'd say "You gotta get up and go to work on the new one!" I live and breathe it. And that's why I've got a dream job.
There was certainly an assortment of killer Camaros at SEMA 2012. Out of all them, which one would you most like to take home?
This one (points to the '67 Hot Wheels Camaro). I was a Hot Wheel collector. In my youth I had over 300 Hot Wheels cars, and every track. When we got to work with the Mattel guys it was so cool. I got to see their development lab; they have their little mini Proving Grounds like