More than 45 years ago, Chevrolet introduced the Z/28 option package for its new Camaro, a package that included a high-revving 290-horsepower 302 V-8. It was designed to be competitive in the NASCAR Baby Grands and the Trans-Am series, which had a 5.0-liter, or 305-inch displacement limit.
Eventually, Chevy, Pontiac, Ford, Mercury, Plymouth, Dodge, and American Motors were all in the series up to their necks, and the racing was great. The street versions of all their Trans-Am entries are as collectible today as their big-block muscle car brethren—perhaps moreso.
That was a long time ago, and even with fussy carburetors, crappy 7-inch tires, buggy-spring suspension, and generally sloppy manufacturing, the original Z/28 was still pretty damn great (an original sold last year for $110,000).
Your author was among the very first journalists ever to drive a '67 Z/28, at Cecil Country Dragway in Maryland, and we were impressed at the car's willingness to rev and make midrange power from such a small engine.
Fast forward 47 years and multiple generations of car building and engine science, and you get the 2014 Camaro Z/28, the most capable all-around Camaro ever built. Camaro chief engineer Al Oppenheiser said at the media introduction in Building 100 at the GM Proving Grounds outside of Detroit, "The Z/28 is the icing on the cake for the fifth-generation Camaro. We were militant about not getting the name of the car out. People thought that the Jay Leno SEMA Show turbocharged V-6 was going to be the Z/28. Then they thought the ZL1 was the Z/28. It's got such a historic name, such a hallowed moniker, that we thought the name should come on an appropriate car."
He adds, "I've told our Camaro customers for years that we would never bring back the Z/28 unless we had a car worthy of the name. It's the car that everybody expected, but we're going to show you today that it's the car that no one expects. Now we are venturing off into the land of the GT-Rs, the 911s, and the Murcielagos, and we want this car to set the standard for what a sports-segment car can be. We want you to be able to drive to the track, go smoke everybody, and then drive it home."
The Z/28 is built around an aluminum LS7, Chevy's 427 cubic-inch naturally aspirated V-8 making 505 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 481 lb-ft at 4800 rpm. It's essentially the same engine as the Z06 Corvette, other than intake and exhaust plumbing to accommodate the Camaro body: 11:1 compression, titanium intake valves and connecting rods, CNC-ported heads, forged steel crank and main caps, fat cam profile, and hydroformed headers.
The Z/28's LS7 is also stuffed with Mahle pistons, Pankl coated connecting rods and premium GM parts, including Camaro's first-ever dry-sump oiling system, and a one-of-a-kind K&N air filtration system, installed in a Camaro body unlike any other. The Z/28 carries a total of 190 new and unique parts compared to an SS.
It gets power to the ground with a close-ratio Tremec TR6060 six-speed transmission with double-cone and triple-cone synchros on each gear for lightning shifts, feeding into a Torsen limited-slip differential with helical gears in it that allow individual ABS braking, no preload in corners, and rapid acceleration off the corners. Final drive ratio is 3.91:1. The engine, transmission and diff each have race-quality cooling systems
According to GM designer Tom Peters, who supervised the Z/28 body mods, the Z/28 body has been fitted with a new upper and lower grille assembly for air management, a very deep and very elaborate front spoiler with Gurney lips, an undertray that goes back beyond the engine, an air-extractor hood, wheel flares, side skirts, and a moveable rear spoiler. You won't mistake it for anything else. Chevrolet says the body generates 440 pounds of additional downforce at 150 mph compared to an SS.
Most of the magic in the Z/28 comes from its suspension, brakes, and tires. Front springs are 85 percent stiffer, and rear springs are 65 percent stiffer, with 25 percent stiffer lower trailing-link bushings for lateral stiffness. The lower arm link bushings are 50 percent stiffer up front, with 400 percent stiffer rear upper control arm bushings, with smaller, not larger stabilizer bars, down from 28 mm in front to 25 mm, and 27 mm to 25 mm at the rear. The Z/28 sits lower to the ground than an SS by 33 mm.
For the first time ever, a Chevrolet production car will be fitted with Multimatic DSSV shock units that use patented spool-valve technology instead of shim stacks for wheel control. It's the same Multimatic technology used by the Infiniti Red Bull Formula 1 team, the Acura LMP1 team in ALMS, every car in the German DTM series, and every car in the Ferrari Challenge series.
The Z/28 uses struts up front and aluminum coil/shock units at the rear. Each corner will have five-spoke black alloy wheels shod with gigantic Pirelli Trofeo S 305/30ZR-19. Yes, that's right, 305 front tires. Inside each wheel is a Brembo carbon ceramic brake system, with two-piece rotors, 394 x 36 mm front and 390 x 32 mm rear, with six-piston calipers front and four-piston calipers in the rear for consistent, hour-after-hour braking performance at the track, and lifetime durability of the rotors.
While the new Z/28 is completely street legal and meets all federal requirements, it is as simple as an anvil, and as light as they could make it. There's no noise insulation anywhere. It comes with lightweight rear seats because no one will ever sit in them. The front seats are Recaro lightweight racing seats. There is an AM radio with one speaker in the driver's door, and A/C is a stand-alone option. There are no floor or trunk mats. The 427 engine is 64 pounds lighter than an LSA V-8. The car comes in at 3837 pounds ready to race.
What will it do? For starters, it will generate at least 1.08g on the skidpad, maybe more in final trim. It now holds the lap record at GM's own race track at the Milford Proving Grounds, some .7 seconds quicker than the ZL1 version. And it's substantially quicker than the Mustang Shelby GT500, the Boss 302 Laguna Seca, and the Camaro 1LE package.
Oppenheiser says, "At the Nurburgring, every day at five o'clock, when we could start running, it started to rain. We put on a thousand miles at the Nurburgring, and every one of those laps was under eight minutes, which is incredible. Our fastest lap, 7:37.40, was in the rain, four seconds faster than the ZL1 was, and faster than the published times for the Porsche 911 S and the Lamborghini Murcielago."
He says, "I would put our drivers up against anybody. We ask them to go out in handbuillt cars with first-time suspension settings and first-time engine calibrations, and they are the first ones that need to have the balls to go wide-open-throttle through high-speed essees when nobody else has done it before. It takes a heroic effort in order to make the car what it is."
Where, when and how the new Z/28 Camaro will be raced remains to be seen, especially in light of the merger between the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and the Rolex Grand Am series, which has created the United Sports Car Championship with a new class and rules package for GT cars.
Oppenheiser says, "We're still working on which class and which sanctioning body the Z/28 might fall into. It's more for the weekend racer and private track user. We have the 1LE that runs in SCCA. We're working with Mark Kent and the Performance Group on that. The goal is to offer a track car that a guy can take anywhere and win."
We'd love to tell you what the new Z/28 is like to drive ourselves, but we can't. This time around, for lots of legal reasons, we were only passengers. In our case, we were driven around in the passenger Recaro by young Bill Wise, the vehicle performance engineer who developed the ride, handling and braking of the Z/28 on the Milford Road Course at the GM Proving Grounds.
Vehicle development boss described the course before we went out. "The Milford Road Course is a 2.9-mile road course, and we've taken sections of the best tracks in the world and replicated them here. The car is never in a steady-state mode here. It's always doing something that relies on the suspension system, the braking system, the horsepower or the tire grip."
The course has six major corners and some high-speed esses, some of which are duplicates of corners at the Spring Mountain track in Nevada, a 37-degree banked section, (for reference, Daytona is 31 degrees, Talladega 33 degrees), esses copied from the Nurburgring, substantial elevation changes, and not much straightaway, so that a test driver is turning, braking and accelerating constantly.
In testing, the engineers would run 22 laps, fill the car up with gas, check the tires, and go back out again until 24 hours of full-throttle driving had been accumulated, the equivalent of many, many racetrack sessions for the amateur racer.
In our case, we were given one hot lap in the right seat, and one cooldown lap, and the maneuvers that the new Z/28 can generate in terms of acceleration, braking force and cornering are so violent that Joe had us on the brink of barfing, and our neck hurt for two days after the event from the forces generated inside the car.
The most noticeable difference for us was that Wise was able to wait until a point well past the last braking marker (4-3-2-1) to apply the brakes, the Brembos are so powerful and repeatable. Chevrolet says the braking point has been extended by whopping 238 feet going down into Turn One.
It was a short, scary ride, and a close-to-hurling-chunks ride, but very educational in terms of what this car can do. Next time, we'll be behind the wheel. We won't see the first production car until the end of the first quarter of 2014. It will be available in a build of 3,000-4,000 units over the next couple of years, and is priced at $75,000, including gas guzzler tax and destination—about what you'd pay for a restored first-gen Z/28 at auction, probably less. Air conditioning and six speakers for the stereo are $1,150 extra.
For those who already have a new Camaro, there is some hope of technology transfer. Oppenheiser told us, "Now that we have all these awesome parts, we're working with our GM Performance Parts people to try to make them available for those SS owners who might want to upgrade their cars with some of these parts."