The sky is a menacing slate gray, but so far, the rain has held off. I've seldom been so interested in the weather, but this morning, even the slightest sprinkle will abort the opportunity that led me to buck morning rush hour to get to the General Motors Proving Ground at this ungodly early hour.

Clearing security, we roll up to Black Lake, the seemingly endless expanse of asphalt that is normally used for advanced vehicle testing. This morning, however, it provides backdrop for the first test drive in the Chevrolet Camaro concept car. Yep, that Camaro-the one that single-handedly stole the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, the show car that has captivated automotive aficionados around the world, and led to endless speculation about whether it might make the leap from prototype to production.

Sitting out on the tarmac, it's easy to understand why there was so much demand for the first spy shots that TheCarConnection's Web servers nearly shut down. The Camaro concept is absolutely stunning.

"I wanted the guys to design the meanest, street-fighting dog you can get," recalls Tom Peters, who oversaw the design project. The Camaro's sharp creases and flared wheel wells hint of raw power, yet the brute elements of the concept pony car are softened by its sensuous curves.

The prototype that was unveiled to so much ballyhoo last January almost didn't happen. The original idea, as outlined by GM's Bob Lutz, was to do an absolutely retro remake of the classic '69 Camaro, easily the most popular year in its long and celebrated history. The project was handed to designer Bob Boniface, who went to work out of Studio North, at the GM Technical Center in Warren, Mich.

But early last year, company officials began to have second thoughts. They called in Peters, who had played lead on the latest Corvette, and asked him to consider developing an alternative design, something a little less literal, though equally reverential. Peters quickly pulled a team together, borrowing designers, sculptors and modelers from other GM projects, and set down to work in the top-secret Studio X.

They didn't have a lot of time. The other team's effort was already well underway, and whoever won the eventual shoot-out would have to be in position to pull a running prototype together in time for the January debut in Detroit. Peters preferred working under all that pressure, he recalls, because it left "no time for over-analyzing or analysis paralysis."

What the Studio X crew came up with had many of the classic cues, starting with the cockpit-like cabin sitting atop an aircraft-influenced fuselage. It's the basic pony car formula, says Peters, that made the original Ford Mustang such an icon.

The team borrowed some other design elements from the C6 Corvette, such as the strong fender peaks and dihedral deck lid. There are other "heritage" cues lifted from the '69 Camaro, including the wasp waist and bulging rear wheel wells. But don't call this show car retro, says Peters, who insists his goal was to "take the Camaro into the future."

While Steve Kim, the project's lead designer, knew something special was taking shape in the basement studio, he was nonetheless surprised "by all the fanfare."

There was a time when concept cars were little more than fantasies in chrome. These days, however, most prototypes are little more than thinly-disguised production vehicles, four-wheel billboards declaring, "watch this space." The mandate for the Studio X crew was to come up with the most beautiful, iconic design they could manage. Production wasn't among their goals. Nonetheless, says Kim, "This is not pie-in-the-sky, that's for sure."

I'm watching the sky for rain, actually, as I figure out the Camaro's fold-away door handle. The car is a "runner," in industry parlance -- it has a real, working version of the beefy LS2 V-8, all 6.0 liters and 400-some horsepower. But it was designed to simply roll across a show floor, not out on the highway, and its electronic control systems are open to the elements. Only a little water, splashing up from a puddle, would be needed to fry this one-of-a-kind prototype.

So far, the heavens have held their wrath. So as my GM co-pilot gives me the go, I tap the start button. With a menacing road, the Camaro comes to life, settling into a brooding burble. I sit for a few moments just listening, my mind wandering back to the very first Camaro I can remember, a cherry red '69 revving at a stoplight waiting to chew up a Dodge sitting in the next lane.

Slipping behind the wheel, my eyes wander across the instrument panel. It's high-tech meets retro. The look is familiar, in the way the Jetsons made tomorrow seem so easy to identify with. If, "God is in the details," as Albert Einstein asserted, then this is a religious moment. There's an incredible attention to the subtlest of design features, capped by the copper-acrylic door inserts, a striking touch we hope to see when Camaro goes into production.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It takes a few moments to position myself in the cramped cockpit. The chopped roofline is a bit low for my six-foot frame, and the seat adjustments are limited on the show car, but scooching around I finally get my bearings. My right hand instinctively reaches for the brushed aluminum gearshift lever, shifting the six-speed manual smoothly into gear. Releasing the clutch, the Camaro leaps into motion.

I've been warned to take it easy. No burn-outs, no high-speed turns. This is, after all, just a running mock-up, even though the engine is real and the chassis is based on GM's next-generation Zeta rear-wheel-drive architecture. My foot modulates the throttle gently, though my heart screams "hit it." Common sense wins out. Or perhaps it's fear. I don't relish the idea of reporting on how I wrecked the only Camaro concept car in existence.

So keeping the speed down a bit below 40, I sweep around the Black Lake loop -- once, twice, once more for good measure. I pull back into the makeshift pit and shut the engine off. It's been a brief ride, but as someone points out, I exit the Camaro with an oversize grin spreading across my normally somber face. "I wonder what the production car will feel like," I catch myself thinking.

In the current issue of Automotive News, GM Vice Chairman Lutz stressed that for the moment, Camaro is "not an approved program." But don't expect the automaker to dither for long. Peters, the director of design for rear-drive performance vehicles, says the decision has to be made soon, "Probably this year. If we want to get it out when it's still relevant, we have to do it fast."

Considering the automaker would like to bring in a base-model Camaro for somewhere in the low-to-mid-$20,000 range, it won't be easy to make a convincing -- read profitable -- business case. According to Lutz, that would mean selling at least 100,000 Camaros annually.

There's good reason to believe that's possible. With the launch of its all-new -- and unabashedly retro -- Mustang, Ford saw sales surge to 160,975 last year, and probably could do more with additional production capacity. Skeptics will note that the Mustang had handily outsold Camaro for years, but that was a Camaro that had grown too aero-slick, almost anesthetically clean for its own good.

If the Camaro concept I drove at Milford is any indication, there's plenty of opportunity for GM to re-enter the pony car segment in a big way. Of course, it will require the automaker to stay true to the prototype that millions of fans have fallen in love with, but we can certainly hold out hope.


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