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Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50


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Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

The Chevrolet Camaro started out the way all accidents do; suddenly, and as a reaction to something outside of its makers’ control. In this case, the chain of events that made the Camaro a reality for hundreds of thousands of high-energy teenage tough guys, and the slow-motion middle-aged men they eventually grew to be, was twofold.

First, in the middle of the 1964 model year, Ford brought out a goofy little car nobody was ever going to buy. Called the Mustang. Sales for this were actually through the roof. By 1966 even Paul Newman was racing one, driving sales high enough to give Ford’s competitors vertigo. The second factor was Unsafe at Any Speed, which effectively convinced the public that GM’s “sporty” little Corvair was basically a death trap. It killed sales and drove the line out of production. Thus it was that GM arrived at the 1967 model year with a competitor who was eating the teen and young adult market alive, at exactly the time it had a pony car-shaped hole in its lineup.

You could say GM overreacted to this a little. First, the company dropped a hastily underdesigned Firebird onto its downmarket brand Pontiac. Then, almost as if the Firebird had been a warm-up run, Chevy debuted the Camaro later that year and started a Ford/Chevy rivalry that still hasn’t ended for America’s gearheads. In its day, the Camaro would sell nearly 6 million units, and counting. Because the things are back and selling like they used to in the good old days when you could put lead in your gas tank.

Over the years, the Camaro has been through several distinct phases. In reality, it’s gone for more facelifts than the actresses from Friends. But to the fans who’ve loved it all along, it’s still got the same kick it did when the Beatles were still on tour.

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101967-69: Starting With a Bang

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

Chevy wheeled out the first Camaro in the middle of the model year 1966, at the same time Dodge was offering the first generation Charger and Ford was rolling deep with over 600,000 sales of the Mustang. Diving into the market was risky, so Chevy took a novel approach. The first generation Camaros came with a salad bar of options and trim packages, with the idea that at least some of them would be popular enough to keep around and grow the line from in time. First generation buyers could opt in for the coupe or the convertible, which came with an inline-6 powerplant in 230 or 250 cubic inches. Foreshadowing the muscle contest to follow, Chevy also offered 302, 307, 327 and 350 V8s, and then just for the heck of it, they also shoved a 396 V8 into the premium power models on the off chance anybody was nuts enough to want that. Trim packages ranged from the conventional, ho-hum standard model to the Super Sport, Rally Sport and, in 1967, the Z28.

 

Camaros liked playing with fire from the beginning. The Super Sports, for example, were generally silver-and-black, with an aggressive “SS” flash on the front grill. Chevy didn’t actually put a skull and crossbones icon on the hood or advertise itself as a final solution for morning commutes, but the design choices hinted at a rebel outlaw attitude that went pretty well with the 6.8-liter insane asylum under the hood. When the Z28s came out – for car customers who felt the Rally Sport street-(barely)legal racecars were for old ladies – the even more aggressive styling became distinctive racing stripes and a broad, predatory ram scoop for the hood that did absolutely nothing for air intake, but made the car look like an orbital battle station on the prowl. To Chevy’s surprise, the market loved everything they were offering. Over 800,000 first generation Camaros would be sold before the 1970 redesign.

9Back for Seconds

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50
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Sequels are always hard to get right, but Camaros were always supposed to be a second-run production car. The success of the first generation was encouraging, but the three model years were only meant to act as a test run in the new pony car market. All along, the idea was to find out what people liked, based on sales figures, and then do more of that for the second generation. The wild success of gen-1 messed up this plan a little bit because it seemed that the customers liked everything. So, Chevy redesigned the whole line with more of everything and set it loose on the market in 1970.

Generation 2 Camaros looked a lot like the gen-1s, in that they were still F-frame bodies with A-arm front suspensions and less shock absorption than you’d expect. The transmissions were still all over the place, and a skilled driver could still steer them by alternating the accelerator and the brakes, without touching the wheel, but the new Camaros had sleeker front ends and an oddly pleasing front-to-back hump profile that made them look like an animal getting ready to pounce. The engines stayed the same, though Dodge had by now lost its mind and was pushing 7-liter engines and Hemis with raised blocks for its Chargers and Challengers. In case the Chevy big blocks weren’t loud enough, they still had carburetors you could ventilate with a screwdriver and make a trip to the grocery store sound like Siberian tigers getting fed into plastic shredders if you wanted to. For some reason, possibly due to Soviet subversion of the American auto market, Chevy discontinued the Super Sport line in 1972. Despite this betrayal, the sales numbers stayed good, and gen-2 Camaros kept rolling out until 1981.

8Honorable Mention: The Mythic Z28

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

The name “Z28” wasn’t meant to be a model when it was first introduced. Like the Z27 (Super Sport) and the Z22 (Rally Sport), it was just Chevy’s internal trim code. If the world was a normal place, nobody but GM engineers would ever have known or cared what it meant or why the car was called that. There was something special about the Z28 though. Designed from the start to be a racecar for your garage, the Z28 took on an almost mystical power in the eyes of its fans. The Super Sport may have gotten you a girlfriend in 1968, but the Z28 was for dating cheerleaders.

When the Z28 came out, Chevy’s smallest Camaro engine was the 327. GM had a smaller engine, the 283, but not for the Camaro. Engineers fused the two engines to make a lightweight, overpowered Tasmanian Devil of an engine with a 3-inch-stroke crank in a 4-inch bore to make the 302.4-inch Z28 powerplant. This monster revved at 7,000 RPM like it was sipping its morning coffee, and what was supposed to be a 290hp performance engine blew out the dynamometers at 350hp, easy. Some versions of this engine are rumored to have reached 450hp at 5,500 RPM, but that was never confirmed since nobody ever stopped revving a Z28 at 5,500 RPM to find out.

In a moment of sublime tension, Chevy stopped making the Z28 in 1975 and ’76, only to bring it out as its own model in the 1977 model year. From then on, the Z28 badge wasn’t an RPO serial number anymore – it was a lifestyle.

7Morning in America, but for Camaros

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50
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The third-generation Camaros rolled out in time for the 1982 model year. Everybody knew the market had changed in the 1970s, not least because a bunch of emission-control laws had strangled the pony car market until the Challenger was dead, the Charger was a hatchback, and the Mustang was scaring its friends and loved ones with the appalling Mustang II rust collection unit. If Camaro could redesign to meet the new Morning in America Thirtysomething car market, the field was wide open and covered with half-dead muscle cars that weren’t going to put up serious competition anymore.

Give Chevy a deal like that, and they’ll surprise you by going high and low at the same time. First, they finally built an automatic transmission that could find your gear on a turn, which was nice of them. The manual transmission Camaros offered also got a lot tighter and had way less play in the shift from third to fourth gear. A new fuel injector system came in to replace the carburetors that used to chug and whine in high altitude or on unleaded gasoline. And the body redesign ditched the gentle curve of the first and second generations for a sharp, razor against your neck kind of silhouette. Designed like a ramscoop on an interstellar spaceship, this new batch certainly looked like ye olde muscle cars still had some life in them.

Well, yes and no. And there hangs a tale (two tales, actually) of the time Chevy forgot to put an engine under the hood, a.k.a., the Tale of the Iron Duke.

6WTF Chevy? The Iron Duke Saga

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

Imagine you’re in charge of the Camaro product line. It’s 1982 (or at least the runup to the ’82 model year), and the boys in the design department have handed you sketches of a sharp-looking prowler of a pony car. Every line on this vehicle screams high performance, and the line currently has a decade and a half of happy customers who like the way the Camaros have always accelerated and cornered. Now, you need a powerplant. What do?

If you’re a Chevy product manager from 1981, you call some friends at Pontiac and ask them if they have a hunk of wheezy iron that might manage to move under its own power on a downhill slope, then market the product as an “Iron Duke” and wait for the design awards to start rolling in.

On paper, the Iron Duke engine looked impressive. It was a 2.5-liter fuel-injected pushrod straight-four that seemed like a good compromise between performance and economy that got positive reviews when it was in the 1977 Firebird. Inside the heavier Camaro, however, the Iron Duke’s 90hp powerplant turned into the mechanical equivalent of Woody Allen and started gasping for its inhaler before the car could fully merge onto the interstate. While it would be unfair to say the engine delivered nothing at all under the hood of the 1982-85 Camaros, the mismatch between sharp styling and putt-putt performance was such a massive disappointment it wound up hurting the sales of the other Camaro models that were actually good. Thankfully, Chevy came to its senses in 1985 and moved the Iron Duke into. . . the S10 pickup.

5Honorable Mention: IROC-Z

Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50
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Men should not be judged by their sins, but by their eagerness to repent. Chevrolet, fresh off of its 1982 Iron Duke calamity, made up for the slip in spades in 1985 with the IROC-Z. “IROC” stands for “International Race of Champions,” and the “Z” is a reference to the Z28s that were where this line began. The 1982 Z28 had already been chosen as Motor Trend’s car of the year, and the IROC-Z package bumped up the Camaro’s performance with:

  • Upgraded suspension
  • Lower ride height
  • Delco-Bilstein shocks with custom valves
  • Bigger sway bars
  • A frame brace called the “wonder bar”
  • Smoking-hot decals all over the body
  • The IROC-Z also had an optional tuned port injection system lifted from the Corvette, which made the whole thing sound like an excited puppy while it was cornering on twisty roads. With this sacrifice, the gods were satisfied, and Camaro’s sales numbers climbed for the rest of the third generation production run.

    4Gen-4, Triumph of the Blah

    Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

    The fourth generation Camaro came out in 1993 and ran until 2002. Apart from a somewhat more streamlined front end and the introduction of an optional T-top, not a whole lot was going on for Camaros in this line. The extremes of the Iron Duke and the IROC-Z got ironed out into a middleweight V6 and V8 engine package, and the convertible came back in 1994, but mostly the Camaro seemed to have lost some of its spirit. Blame Bill Clinton if you like, but all of America spent the ‘90s drifting away from sport coupes and into SUVs and hypercharged trucks, rather than spending on cars like the Camaro and the newly reborn Mustangs. By 2002, the sales numbers had been flagging for long enough to close the plant and shutter the line. Camaros were dead at 35.

    3A Little Life Yet -- Police Cruise

    Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50
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    Camaros have always wanted to be fast little darters, as opposed to the raw ICBMs of the Corvettes, so design teams for the line prioritized cornering and maneuverability. These traits came in handy in the early 21st century, when Mustangs tried to move upscale in price at the same time state police and highway patrols around the country were looking for sleek interceptors as chase cars. Starting in 1993, the Z28 B4C police package featured upgraded shocks and struts, plus a bigger cooling system than almost anything else on the road. They made decent fleet sales until 2002 but stayed in service – with increasingly expensive maintenance due to lack of parts – until 2009. If you got pulled over in California on your way to see the original Matrix film in theaters, there’s a chance you got clipped by a Camaro with a badge painted on it, like an outlaw who pins a star on his coat for a Western.

    2Chevy's High Horse

    Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50

    Starting with a concept car in 2006, there were murmurs that Camaro might still have some life in it. Those murmurs got louder in 2009 when Chevy announced it was working on bringing the line back, and applause broke out in 2010 when it actually followed through. The fifth generation Camaro was marketed as a blast from an awesome past; as a gritty reboot on an old favorite. In fact, it was a different car. Not better or worse, but different, and it had some quirks.

    For starters, the whole body was redesigned. The 2010-15 models looked like somebody had cut the guts out of a light armored vehicle and sunk a 2+2 seating cabin into it, except the proportions were off, and the passenger compartment was falling into the frame. Slanted lights and a toothy grille promised crazy performance out of its stock V6 and V8 powerplants, the biggest of which was a five-speed manual with 426hp. Those are 1971 MOPAR numbers, right there, but something was off. The handling of the new Camaros was so loose, and the engines ran with such little torque, that it honestly felt anemic compared with the 315hp Mustangs that came out the same year. Critics – who are given to criticism – complained that Chevy had some drawing board work to do and sent them to it like a child to his bedroom. Sales of this generation were mediocre until the end of the line in 2015.

    1Finally

    Half a Century and a Lot of Miles: The Chevy Camaro at 50
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    In 2016, Camaros were knocking on the door of 50 years old and, like many 50-year-olds, the design team was rethinking its life. Unlike a human having a midlife crisis, however, Camaros didn’t leave their wives and buy a boat; they got smart and hard as nails instead.

    The 2016-whenever Camaros got styling exactly right, with great subtle curves in the side haunches that recall the legs of a hungry panther in the grass. Sloped hoods end in violently hungry-looking grilles, while angled glass windshields look like the car is pissed about speed limits in school zones. Under the hood, Chevy has gotten its act together and turbocharged its “economy” 2-liter. The 3.6-liter V6 is tight as a snare drum and has real guts, while the entry-level V8 pushes a satisfying 455hp through a pretty narrow port for lots of torque. Then there’s the LT4, which is basically a Corvette Z06 dropped into a frame that’s 30 percent lighter and ready to rock. The ZL1 even has an optional 10-speed automatic transmission that adjusts for every pebble in the road as if you were crawling over it naked.

    Nobody knows how many years the sixth generation Camaro will run, but by god, the old crook has some life in him yet.