Crucial Cars: Chevrolet Camaro

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, Gearhead’s Garage puts the spotlight on Chevrolet’s iconic sport coupe, the Camaro.

1969 Camaro SS350 with RS package

1969 Camaro SS350 with RS package

Back when the Chevrolet Camaro debuted, the Beatles were making albums, color TV was a new novelty and the Vietnam war was escalating. Chevy’s sleek new number, an answer to Ford’s super successful Mustang launched a few years prior, came onto the groovy scene to get its slice of the “pony car” pie. In the nearly half century since, the Camaro has stayed true to its roots by providing enthusiasts with an abundance of styling and performance at an affordable price.

Right back at you Ford
Ford’s Mustang, launched in the spring of 1964, was an immediate smash success. It introduced a new automotive segment that became known as the pony car — an affordable, relatively compact sporty coupe with long hood and short rear deck proportions. Loosely based on Chevrolet’s compact Nova, the Camaro was introduced for 1967. And so began a rivalry that continues to this day, one as fierce as the Yankees versus the Red Sox, or Coke versus Pepsi.

Available in both coupe and convertible body styles, the Camaro could be had with a wide array of powertrains. One could have anything from a 230 cubic-inch, 140-horsepower straight six on up to a storming 396 cube V8 cranking out 375 hp. Transmissions consisted of two- and three-speed automatics as well as three- and four-speed manuals.

The trim levels similarly ran the gamut and included the base Camaro, the fancy RS (Rally Sport) with its hidden headlights and added interior/exterior garnishment, the muscular SS that could be had in either SS350 or SS396 guise, and then there was the Z/28. Getting its name from the actual option code, the Z/28 was a street-legal road race machine sporting a firmer suspension and a high-output 302 cube V8 matched exclusively to a four-speed stick. Seriously underrated at 290 hp, the high-revving 302 made more like 350-375 horses. The Z/28 was a rare sight for that first year, as only 602 were built.

The next year saw minimal changes. Visually, the easiest way to tell a ’68 from a ’67 is the lack of the triangular vent windows which gave a slightly sleeker look to the ’68. The 1969 Camaro is for many enthusiasts the one to have. Although essentially the same as its other first-generation brothers under the skin, the ’69’s more aggressive styling boasted flared character lines that came off the front and rear wheel wells, giving an impression of speed and power that the upper versions could easily back up.

Throughout this first generation there were also several rare, ultra high performance versions. Specially ordered through the COPO (Central Office Production Order) program via dealers such as Yenko and Berger, these Camaros had beefy 427 V8s rated at a conservative 425 horsepower. The top dog was the Camaro ZL1, of which just 69 were built for 1969. A ZL1 also featured a 427 V8, but in this case it was of exotic all-aluminum construction, yielding a big block brute that barely weighed any more than a 327 V8.

Following a tough act

The second-generation Camaro debuted as a 1970 ½ model. Taking the long hood/short deck aesthetic to a new level, Chevy definitely had the looks nailed. Initially available in base, RS, SS and Z/28 versions, this Camaro could be packed with power, as the Z/28 came with a high-output 350 rated at 360 hp, while the top SS 396 (actually now displacing 402 cubes) again made 375.

Sadly, as with all other car makers, Chevrolet’s engine output started to slide as the mid-’70s hit due to tightening emissions standards. Indeed, the SS was dropped from the lineup after ’72 while the Z/28 went on hiatus for ’75 and ’76 seemingly out of shame, to return in mid-’77 with just 170 hp from its 350 V8. Still, these cars provided some driving fun by way of their quick, relatively agile handling and rumbling exhausts. Thankfully, engine output started to creep up as the 1980s hit, with the ’80 Z28 making 190 hp. Styling got increasingly flashy, culminating in the ’80 (and ’81) Z28 which seemed inspired by its Pontiac Trans Am cousin, what with bigger graphics, an Air Induction hood scoop, functional fender vents and wheel flares.

Less weight, more power

1981 Camaro Z28

1981 Camaro Z28

The third generation of the Camaro spanned 1982 through 1992. Through these years, one could choose a base Camaro, a luxury-themed Berlinetta (later the LT) or the performance-oriented Z28 and later, IROC-Z. Downsized, this Camaro was also up to 500 pounds lighter than the one before, and also heralded the debut of fuel injection and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Now that technology and engineering savvy allowed engines to efficiently meet emissions standards, output climbed through the decade. The 1982 Camaro’s power lineup started with an anemic, 90-hp four-cylinder engine, moved up through a 2.8-liter, 112-hp V6 and topped out with a 5.0-liter (305 cubic-inch) V8, rated at 145 hp, or with available Cross-fire fuel injection, 165 hp. Midway through 1983, a 190 hp “High Output” 5.0 liter became available, while two years later a 5.0-liter with Tuned Port Injection debuted, making 215 hp. Named for the International Race of Champions (which used identically-prepped Camaros), the Camaro IROC-Z also debuted for 1985 sporting huge for the time 16-inch wheels, a track-tuned suspension and, unlike the Z28, a monotone paint scheme along with tasteful “IROC-Z” bodyside graphics.

1988 Camaro IROC-Z

1988 Camaro IROC-Z

Literally big news came around for 1987, when a 5.7-liter (350 for you old-schoolers) V8 once again became available in a Camaro, now with tuned port injection and 225 horses. Sadly, it could only be hooked up to the automatic gearbox, but by now the 5.0 TPI engine could be had with a five-speed manual, the latter being the enthusiasts’ choice. The next year, the Z28 was dropped, essentially being replaced by the IROC-Z due to the latter’s massive popularity.

Other than the V6 growing from 2.8- to 3.1 liters (now at a respectable 140 hp) and the debut of a driver side airbag, not much changed until 1991, when the IROC-Z was dropped due to Dodge getting the race contract. And so, the Z28 returned once again to the lineup, now with an IROC-Z-like monochrome body treatment, color-keyed alloy wheels and taller rear deck spoiler. The 5.7-liter TPI engine now thumped out a stout 245 horsepower. Although 1992 marked the 25th anniversary of the Camaro, celebration was limited to a badge on the dash and the availability of a commemorative package consisting chiefly of dual hood/deck stripes.

With Part Two of this installment, we’ll cover the fourth-, fifth- and upcoming sixth-generation Camaros.

A number of Camaro enthusiast sites provide advice as well as classifieds for cars and parts for sale. You may want to check out Camaro Forums and Camaro Source. Furthermore, acceleration times can be found on

Whether you want to maintain an original Camaro in factory-spec condition or modify one from the power-starved era into a true muscle machine, Advance Auto Parts is here to help with plenty of high quality parts.

The great debate: Camaro vs. Mustang vs. Challenger

Let me cut right to the chase: the great thing about classic muscle cars was how damn honest they were. What you saw was what you got. These things were built for speed, but they weren’t trying to be all fancy about it like a Ferrari. Take a common man’s car, drop in a big ol’ V8, and lay some rubber. Then add some muscle car parts if you got bored. That’s all there was to it. I still can’t get enough of ‘em.

Now look at what we’re dealing with these days. You’ve got traction control to keep our tires from spinning. Computer screens in the dashboard, because God forbid we have to sit somewhere for a while without some gadget to stare at. And don’t get me started on all these safety standards that keep getting in the way. Hell, you can’t even hang your arm out the window anymore because the doorsill’s too high.

But stop the presses, because they got these so-called modern muscle cars nowadays, right? Chevrolet Camaro SS, Dodge Challenger R/T, Ford Mustang GT. All-American coupes with big V8s, just like the classic muscle cars we drove back in the day.

Well, I got to wondering whether they could make an old gearhead smile, so I went down to the dealerships to find the best muscle car on the market. Manual transmission, windows down, foot to the floor. Put these things through their paces. Not that anyone’s asking for my opinion, but here’s how I figure they stack up.

3. 2013 Chevrolet Camaro SS

Chevy CamaroTo me, there’s not much that’s “retro” about this Chevy. Yeah, you can get a four-pack of gauges inside like the old cars had, but from the outside, the 2013 Camaro looks like a Hot Wheels car my son played with growing up. The original ‘60s Camaro was beautiful. This one’s a cartoon character.

Don’t get me wrong, the power’s still there. Big time. Wood the throttle and you’ve got 426 horses to play with. The exhaust sounds like it can barely breathe, but you can still find plenty of muscle car parts in 2013. I’m thinking a nice cat-back Flowmaster would do the trick.

But you’d still have to crane your neck to see out of this thing. Visibility’s terrible, and the doorsill is at my shoulder. Wham bam, no thank you, ma’am.

2. 2013 Dodge Challenger R/T

Dodge Challenger Muscle CarNow we’re talkin’. This thing’s huge, just like Challengers used to be. It sounds great right from the factory; love that V8 burble out the back like old school muscle cars. The ride’s super smooth, unlike the overly stiff Camaro. You can even fit adults in the back, and there’s plenty of room for their stuff in the trunk.

So why isn’t it number one? Simple: I like a car that I can toss around a little. Just think about the movie Bullitt. Remember how McQueen was in a fastback Mustang, and the guys chasing him were in a Dodge that took up half the road? I don’t need to tell you which car had the upper hand. The new Challenger’s an honest muscle car, that’s for sure, but I want something that’s at home in tight corners, too.

1. 2013 Ford Mustang GT

Ford Mustang GTI keep telling people I’ll never buy a new car again, but tell you what, this modern Mustang muscle car had me thinking twice. You gotta hear the noises this V8 makes, first of all. They say that Ford did something funny with the intake to make it sound better, and you know what, I don’t even care. I could listen to this thing run toward redline all day.

But the best thing about the 2013 Mustang muscle car is that it’s a sports car, too. See, even the sportiest Mustang muscle car from the ‘60s was happiest when the road was straight. But this new one, my goodness, it’ll go around a corner with the best of ‘em. It’s smaller than the other two, so that helps, and the visibility’s better as well.

Truth is, the Mustang’s still got an electronic throttle, electric power steering, and a whole bunch of other unnecessary stuff that gets between me and the road. Those are rental car parts, not muscle car parts. I don’t think this Ford could ever really win my heart.

But if you ask me what’s the best muscle car today for getting an old car guy’s heart pumping, the answer’s clear. Now that I’ve driven one, I’ll always give a nod of respect when I see a new Mustang GT drive by.


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