Sometimes what I do to keep a roof over my head is pretty cool.
A week or so ago, I got to hang out with the creative forces behind the new Camaro ZL1.
I won't bore you with all the details, but the ZL1 the track-ready version of the Camaro with 580 horsepower and 556 lb-ft of torque. It slingshots to 60 mph from a standing stop in less than four seconds. Yeow-zir!!!
I sat next to Al Oppenheiser, Camaro's head engineer at dinner that night and spent some time with Tom Peters, the design director for GM performance cars, at the track the following day. These are guys who nurtured their passion for performance cars on the muscle cars of the 60s and 70s.
Their enthusiasm for what they do is infectious and the envy of wannabe carguys like me.
While Oppenheiser could pass for an engineer on just about any project for any brand -- after all, what the heck does an engineer look like -- Peters is far from the stereotypical car design head. I've met a few of them and been around a bunch more. Often they are younger guys -- or older guys trying to look younger -- with spiked hair, Ferragamo loafers, red glasses frames and unstructured sport jackets.
Tom Peters? Not so much.
Peters is an unpretentious, middle-age guy who you wouldn't give a second look if you passed him in the aisle at Lowes.
Dressed in a white shirt, black jeans, black tennies and a black ball cap at the track, he might have been on his way to a backyard barbeque or to do a little shopping at Sears. He's a tall, lanky guy -- sort of the Ichabod Crane of hot rodding.
Even as a kid, he felt compelled to draw things -- all sorts of things. His teen years coincided with the height of the muscle-car era. He muses about muscle cars -- Camaros, Super Bees and Roadrunners -- with a far-away look in his eye. "They were like super heroes on the street," he told me.
He began drawing Big Daddy Roth-like images from photos of muscle cars, and made a few bucks selling them for a quarter a piece at school. At age 15, he began painting cars.
Nature took its course and he headed to the Art Center College of Design in California. Graduating in 1980, he went to work for GM; but almost immediately left for a two-year stint at Texas Instruments. He also spent some time on the film E.T. before getting the call from GM's vice president of design, Chuck Jordan, that brought him back to General Motors.
He has remained there for 30 years working on such projects as the Corvette ZR1, Trans Am, Bonneville, IROC and the Cadillac V16 concept.
Tom told me that he had two core challenges in designing the Camaro. One was meeting the huge expectations of what Camaro means to its loyal followers. Two was somehow making it relevant to new, younger customers. "There's a huge level of expectation out there," he said.
As he walked me around the ZL1, he pointed out the grille that was inspired by modern military rifles and machine guns. "I wanted the front end to have a weapon feel to it," he explained.
The hood scoop is actually a reverse intake. Rather than collecting air, it faces backward, serving as an exit for air coming through the engine compartment from the grille and front air dam.
He talked at length about how many of the exterior's lines were actually sculpted from clay rather than on a computer. "We used some hand sculpting," he said, "Creating those subtle shapes took a long time."
Tom's a down-to-earth guy who doesn't seem caught up in the trappings of his office.
He is exactly the guy who should be designing traditional American iron.