50 YEARS OF Camaro
FIFTY YEARS AGO THE BRAND-NEW CHEVROLET CA MAR O WON AMERICA’ S HEART, AND IT’S STILL GOT IT. FOLLOW THE CA MAR O’ SS TORY, FROM 1966 TO NOW…
On September 29, 1966, General Motors created a legend — well, that’s not entirely correct, but it was the date the Chevrolet Camaro was first released for sale to the general public. To understand the significance of that moment in time, we’ll need to warp back into the black-andwhite pages of the ’60s, and get a feel for the era.
Chevrolet released the mid-engined Corvair in 1960. Although the Corvair was firmly planted on the ‘economy’ end of the Chevrolet spectrum, the sportier and higher-spec Corvair Monza stole the show, pushing the USA’S domestic manufacturers towards more sporty and appealing models in a bid to crack a lucrative segment of the market. The gradual emergence of middle America’s younger vehicle buyers, with disposable income, saw cars with a more youthful, vibrant, flavour than the staid family wagons and utilitarian commercial vehicles permeating the market.
This slowly simmering mixture came to a boil in April 1964, when Ford released its all-new Mustang, changing the automotive market forever. The intelligent design of the Mustang, using many parts already in production for the Falcon and Fairlane models, allowed Ford to market the new ‘pony car’ at a very attractive price point. The 22,000 orders received on the first day were enough to put paid to Ford’s anticipation of first-year sales no greater than 100,000 units: it took the Mustang only three months to surpass 100,000 units. In fact, just 18 months later, the 1,000,000th Mustang would roll off the production line — the pony car market was in full swing, and things would never be the same.
You can be sure that GM executives were keeping a close eye on the Mustang and its unprecedented success, and they fronted up with a direct competitor on September 29, 1966. However, to employ that terrible cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and reports seem to suggest that Chevrolet had been working on a Mustang competitor as early as April 1965 — a secret car that, at the time, was nicknamed ‘Panther’ by the automotive press.
Imagine, then, the confusion among the 200odd North American automotive journalists who received the following telegram on June 21, 1966: “Please save noon of June 28 for important SEPAW meeting. Hope you can be on hand to help scratch a cat. Details will follow. [signed] John L. Cutter — Chevrolet Public Relations — SEPAW Secretary.” A second telegram followed the next day. It read:
“Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World [SEPAW] will hold [its] first and last meeting on June 28. (Insert city here) chapter will meet at (insert hotel name here) and join national 14-city telephone hookup with meeting in Detroit at which national president E.M Estes will preside. Please telephone acceptance to Frank Faraone, (Telephone #) Delaware 7-4601. [signed] John L. Cutter — Chevrolet Public Relations — SEPAW Secretary.”
All too puzzling, but the mystery behind these perplexing telegrams was uncovered no later than June 28, 1966 — a day of firsts in automotive history. It was the day of the world’s first, and last, SEPAW meeting. That meeting turned out to be a press conference held in real time across 14 cities, all connected over telephone lines — the first time ever that such an undertaking had been performed. More than 100 people were involved in connecting the 14 cities through more than 20,900km of telephone cabling, over 14,500km of microwave radio, and in excess of 6500km of coaxial cable — a phenomenal task for the era, but well worth it, considering the gravity of the announcement that was to take place. Yes, June 28, 1966 was a day of firsts, all of which were building up to the first-ever announcement of Chevrolet’s all-new Camaro.
The conference was headed by Chevrolet’s General Manager, EM ‘Pete’ Estes, who artfully dispelled the confusion around the SEPAW acronym, layer by layer, to drop the bombshell that Chevrolet’s Mustang competitor was a sure thing — a sure thing that would be introduced on September 29, 1966.
In the time between the Mustang’s release and the June 28 SEPAW conference, the North American automotive press had run rampant with rumours of a new Chevrolet to fill the uncontested pony car market. Estes’ mention of this — “As far back as April 8, 1965, a Detroit newspaper had headlines proclaiming that Chevrolet had a ‘Panther’ car to answer the horsey offering of a competitor” — made the intention of the SEPAW conference clearer. It was, first and foremost, to show that Chevrolet would release a new car only on its own terms.
“In the two years since then [the release of the Mustang], you gentlemen of the press, radio,
and television have literally designed, built, and marketed the Chevrolet ‘Panther’ to the point where we get irate letters from customers, plus phone calls demanding all specifications and price, so they can place orders!” Estes claimed, before confirming that Chevrolet would offer “What we feel is the last word in personal-sized cars”.
The meaning behind the Society for the Eradication of Panthers from the Automotive World had been made clear — the Panther was no more. No, Chevrolet’s new car would be the Camaro — a name chosen to represent “the comradeship of good friends … as a personal car should be to its owner”.
True to the promise made at that meeting, the all-new Chevrolet Camaro was released three months later — on the day that had been designated, September 29, 1966. As predicted by the myriad behind-the-scenes folk at Chevrolet, it was exactly the car that the company line-up needed to capitalize on the burgeoning ‘pony car’ market. The Mustang and Camaro have been locked in a tooth-and-nail battle for supremacy ever since, and 50 years after the birth of the original Camaro, they’re still at it.
First generation (1967–1969)
The all-new Camaro was a breath of fresh air for a car-buying market that had only just been awakened to the delights of a ‘personal car’ — a machine designed and bought not for practical reasons, like a common appliance, but to satisfy the desire to have a car as an extension of one’s personality. As tacky as that may sound, think of the state of the automotive market for mainstream America at the time — saturated with family haulers and commercial vehicles — and realize that cars like the Camaro and Mustang represented an idea of automotive freedom that average Americans had not known they could be a part of.
The first-generation Camaro was built upon GM’S existing F-body platform, available as an attractively designed hardtop coupe or convertible. A number of engines and trim packages were available, and this degree of personalization was undoubtedly part of the car’s success. From a mild base coupe powered by a 3.8-litre (230ci) straight six to a top-of-the-line 6.5-litre (396ci) big block–powered Camaro RS convertible, there was a Camaro to suit every person and every budget. First-year production tapped out at an incredible 220,900 — more than double the production figures of Chevrolet’s existing small car, the Chevy II [ Nova].
The first-gen Camaro remained relatively unchanged throughout its production run of 1967 to 1969, aside from distinctive aesthetic redesigns each year. More trim and engine options were added over the years, with the Z/28’s 4.9-litre (302ci) small block and the 1969 COPO Camaro’s all-alloy 7.0-litre (427ci) big block ZL1 among the most highly regarded.
An essentially race-ready vehicle, the Z/28 was an option package that included the highly strung 4.9-litre small block — known as the 302 — a Muncie fourspeed manual gearbox, and power-assisted front disc brakes. Designed specifically for competition in the Trans-am series, which mandated engine displacement no greater than 5.0 litres, this was essentially a roadgoing race engine. Power was advertised as 290hp (216kw) — though it is believed that this was severely understated, for
both insurance and racing homologation purposes, with estimates as high as 400hp (298kw) when the car was equipped with twin four-barrel carburettors, tubular headers, and a cowl-induction hood.
Features specific to the 302 included a range of high-performance modifications rarely seen outside the world of motor sport — a clear indicator of the Z/28’s racing intention. The fundamental engine was based upon a 4.6-litre (283ci) crankshaft, with three-inch stroke, in a 5.3-litre (327ci) engine block, with 102mm bore size. When the small block’s journal sizing increased in 1968, changes were made to the bottom end, most notably the new forged steel crankshaft. To this were added shot-peened, forged steel rods and forged pistons. This is still top-shelf stuff, so imagine how incredible it would have been in the late ’60s. On top of this, the engine ran the fabled ‘Duntov’ camshaft — a solid lifter, flat-tappet camshaft — as well as upgraded valvetrain gear, such as hardened pushrods, pushrod guide plates, and heavy-duty valve springs. Suffice it to say that the 1967 Camaro Z/28 performed admirably in that year’s Trans-am series, no doubt playing a key role in cementing the Camaro’s name as one of the world’s true sports car greats.
As far as legend is concerned, the all-alloy 7.3-litre (450ci) ZL1 big block of 1969 surpassed it. Developed for Can-am racing, the ZL1’S engine block was an all-alloy casting based on the existing big-block architecture — reducing weight significantly — and topped with unique gear, such as open-chamber alloy heads, an aggressive camshaft profile, and an alloy intake manifold specific to this motor.
Internal policy at GM prevented Chevrolet from offering an engine exceeding 6.55 litres (400ci) displacement in a Camaro, but the problem was not insurmountable. Two Central Office Production Order (COPO) numbers — 9560 and 9561 — were allocated to these special-edition Camaros, of which only 69 were manufactured, making this one of the rarest Chevrolets ever made.
Second generation (1970–1981)
The Camaro underwent a serious revision for the 1970 manufacturing year. Having a less rushed development, and a generous development budget due to the success of the first generation, the second-gen Camaro looked radically different, being longer, lower, and wider than its predecessor — that said, the convertible was also dropped from the range. With a sleek new fastback profile, clean rear end, and attractive front end with a clear European flavour, the second-gen Camaro sure looked the goods. It wasn’t just good looks, though — the doors were also wider, to improve rear seat access, and the suspension and chassis boasted improvements over the first-gen, yielding better road holding, driving dynamics, and sound insulation.
The Rally Sport package upgraded the fascia to the attractive quad-headlight front with iconic split bumpers, exposing the full grille. The base V8 engine was the 5.03-litre (307ci) small block, but the Camaro was not lacking in options, for either engines or accessories.
Unfortunately, the Camaro was hit pretty hard during this part of its life. In 1971, GM set out a company-wide mandate for all engines to run on lower-octane gasoline (low-lead or unleaded petrol), beginning a steady decline in the Camaro’s advertised power figures. This, plus substantial increases in insurance premiums for high-performance vehicles, marked the beginning of the end of the USA’S true factory muscle cars. On the production front, strike action by the United Automobile Workers put a dent in production, and pressure to meet the many new emissions, safety, and economy regulations put the Camaro’s future in question.
Fortunately, the plug was not pulled, but safety regulations that needed to be met was the next big factor in the reshaping of the second-gen Camaro — it was subject to another facelift in 1974, to meet National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards. Gone was the attractive and distinctly Camaro front end, replaced with a tapered nose cone and grille, recessed headlights, and a full-width wrap-around front bumper. It was still clearly a Camaro, but arguably, some of the Camaro’s charm
had been lost in the makeover.
In addition to the Camaro’s new aesthetic direction, the actual pony car market was hit hard in 1974, with the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries oil embargo hammering fuel-inefficient performance vehicles, yet the Camaro still thrived — this is most likely attributable to the demise of Chrysler’s competitors, and the removal of any kind of V8 engine option from the Ford Mustang line-up.
Sadly, things didn’t get any easier in the market — despite actual sales faring rather well — and power output continued to decline. The design changes continued, albeit on a minor scale, with the biggest aesthetic change for 1975 being the move to a wrap-around rear windscreen. In an interesting side note, radial tyres also became standard equipment on all Camaros — a reminder that 1975 was more than just a few years ago.
In 1977, the Camaro outsold the Ford Mustang for the first time. The remainder of the ’ 70s was a reasonably drama-free time for the Camaro, with increasing concessions towards fuel efficiency. This peaked in 1981 — which was the final manufacturing year for the second-gen Camaro — with the carburetted 5.7-litre (350ci) small block V8 gaining computerized emission controls through a number of diagnostic sensors — a sign of things to come.
Third generation (1982–1992)
The Camaro’s evolution continued into its third generation. Although these vehicles were less desirable than those of earlier generations, they were more than capable. The 1982 Camaro introduced a number of firsts to the line-up, including a liftback rear, 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine, and optional ‘Cross Fire Injection’ throttle-body fuel injection (TBI) on the 4.9-litre small-block V8.
The following year, the Camaro took another step forward, with an overdriven Borgwarner five-speed manual gearbox superseding the old four-speed unit, and an overdriven TH700R4 four-speed automatic transmission, replacing the antiquated three-speed.
A minor facelift followed in 1985, but the big talking point was the introduction of the IROC-Z — a special version that took its name from the International Race of Champions (IROC). This was essentially an optional package, which included an upgraded suspension and handling package, new wheels and decals, and the option for a Tuned Port Injection (TPI) system as used on the then-current C4 Corvette.
As seems to be the case with the Camaro, the mid-generation period was a bit slow, without much to report later on in the 1980s. However, the convertible option was reintroduced in 1987, for the first time since its discontinuation following the introduction of the second gen. The same year marked the Camaro’s 20th anniversary, and the new Camaro convertibles were treated as commemorative models.
The following year marked another revelation in the Camaro line-up, with all engines boasting electronic fuel injection. However, that was offset by the line-up
going through a weight-loss programme — not in a good way — with the cutting of all packages, to leave just the base Camaro and the IROC-Z. The delineation between base and top model meant much of the discontinued Z28’s equipment became standard fitment, or an available option, on the base Camaro coupe.
Following Chevrolet’s decision not to renew its contract with the IROC, 1990 was the last year for the Camaro IROC-Z. Instead, the Camaro Z28 made a return for the 1991 manufacturing year. The same year, in a bid to reduce unwanted noise, GM revised its manufacturing techniques, changing seam sealers and assembly procedures.
Fourth generation (1993–2002)
The fourth-generation Camaro was released in 1993, with the car once again being subjected to a thorough overhaul. The design was totally new, fresh, and exciting — that of a sleek sports car, with curves in all the right places. The Corvette’s fuelinjected 5.7-litre LT1 engine was standard in Z28 Camaros, along with the option of a Borgwarner T56 six-speed manual gearbox — this was one of the first production vehicles to be equipped with what would become one of the world’s most popular manual gearboxes in the passenger-car market.
The fourth-generation Camaro remained reasonably stable throughout its life, with mainly minor changes made between manufacturing years. The most notable of these occurred in 1998, when the then-new 5.7-litre LS1 engine replaced the LT1 to become the standard V8 engine in the Camaro line-up. This was the first Camaro to be produced with an all-alloy V8 engine since the COPO Camaros of 1969.
Sales and production numbers were in decline over this period, likely attributable to the saturation of the market with readily available alternatives from all over the world — the days of a ‘pony car’ market dominated by Mustangs, Camaros, and E-body Mopars were long gone. Production fell to an all-time low of 29,009 units in 2001, and the fourth-generation Camaro was discontinued in 2002.
Fifth generation (2009–2015)
It’s hard to keep a legend down, and Chevrolet clearly wasn’t prepared just to let the Camaro fade into obscurity. A new-generation concept was revealed in 2006, and this would make it to reality in 2009, based upon GM’S all-new Zeta platform pioneered by GM Holden’s development of the Ve-series Commodore.
Unlike its predecessor, the model wasn’t designed to look futuristic, instead it took its styling cues from the most successful Camaros of old — those of the late ’60s. Included in the design was a nod to the ‘Coke bottle’ hip line, as well as plenty of retro interior styling. The Camaro was well and truly back — not only did it look like a thoroughly modern successor to the first-gen original, but it could be had as a bona fide muscle car in the spirit of the original. The base six-cylinder model was still available, but so, too, was a 6.2-litre LS2 V8, good for over 298kw/400hp.
Not only that, but the build quality and driving dynamics were all at the standard needed for the Camaro to be a viable choice in an increasingly tough market.
In 2011, Chevrolet revealed a new Camaro ZL1, reviving the hallowed badge from its first generation. The fifthgeneration Camaro ZL1 was powered by a supercharged 6.2-litre LSA engine, good for 433kw/580hp, making it the most powerful production Camaro ever. It wasn’t just a whole lot of engine and nothing else, though — much of the standard Camaro was re-engineered for the ZL1, with all the elements conducive to all-round performance given a thorough once-over. The Camaro ZL1 was able to lap the Nürburgring in 7.41:27, placing its performance capability firmly in the territory of supercars costing several times as much.
The fifth-gen Camaro was an unquestionable success, birthing worldwide appeal for such cars in a market that is absolutely spoiled for choice. Of course, with the Ford Mustang already in production and the Dodge Challenger’s 2008 return — and in a similar style to the beloved first generation — it was like the glory days of the late ’60s and early ’ 70s all over again. Featuring throughout popular culture, and on the big screen in Hollywood, the all-american sports car was once again a desirable icon of automotive freedom — and not just in America — it was now up against the world.
Sixth generation (2015 to present)
The new Camaro was, once again, an all-new undertaking, this time based on GM’S new Alpha platform. The base model Camaro comes with a turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Ecotec engine, the first time a four-cylinder has been offered in a Camaro since the third-generation’s 2.5-litre four-cylinder in 1982. In stark contrast to that antiquated slug of a motor, the Ecotec is good for 205kw/275hp, and is rumoured to have been detuned to avoid direct competition with the higher-spec Camaro V6.
The 6.2-litre LT1 engine — not to be confused with the small block–based LT1 of the ’90s — is the standard engine option for V8-powered sixth-gen Camaros. Good for 339kw/455hp, the all-alloy engines produce ample power and torque, good fuel economy, and excellent reliability.
For Camaro buyers who need a little more firepower under the bonnet, Chevrolet is releasing a Camaro ZL1 in 2017. It is set to receive a supercharged 6.2-litre LT4 engine — the successor to the LS9 — with a power output claimed to be 477kw/640hp. The 2017 Camaro ZL1 will also receive a 10-speed automatic transmission as an option, or the tried and tested Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual box.