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We Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro

Camaro at 50: A look back at the design and performance that drives America’s attainable sports car

Barry Kluczyk Oct 25, 2016
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“Zeitgeist” is a German word that basically means “spirit of the times.” It is typically used to encapsulate someone’s or something’s effect on or reflection of the culture of the day. In that regard, the Chevrolet Camaro has represented the zeitgeist of American sports cars.

That’s a tall claim, but entirely accurate for a car that, from its original role as a Baby Boomer indulgence to its rebirth in the past decade as a 21st century sports car, has not only mirrored the evolution in the performance-car market but simultaneously reflected trends in design, marketing, and technology. In other words, it has been a car of its respective times rather than simply one in them.

Gen 1 – 1967-’69: An Icon is Born

There’s no denying the Camaro’s launch was a reaction to the stunning success of the Mustang. Even Ford didn’t anticipate how popular the Falcon-based sporty coupe would become, racing to its first million produced in less than two years—a feat almost impossible to duplicate today given the vastly more crowded market. Caught off guard, Chrysler, General Motors, and even AMC immediately launched crash “pony car” programs to counter the galloping Mustang.

Like the Mustang, GM based the Camaro and its Pontiac kissing cousin, the Firebird, on an existing platform—the Chevy II/Nova—to speed development time and reduce the capital investment. That strategy worked, and the Camaro was introduced about 2.5 years after the Mustang, but there were consequential compromises. The Chevy II platform wasn’t exactly the architecture for a sports car. Sure, from a muscle car perspective it was lightweight and compact, but because it was designed as a sedan, it carried upright proportions that even the slinky Camaro bodywork couldn’t entirely disguise.

Its chassis wasn’t exactly the foundation for carving corners with scalpel sharpness, either, but the Boomer buyers didn’t care. Upon its dealer launch on Sept. 29, 1966, they snapped up the Camaro like free Woodstock tickets, selling nearly 221,000 in the first year. And sure, the SS and RS models were there at the very beginning and the Z/28 got its start in 1967, but the sales numbers of the high-performance models were comparative drops in the bucket, as the car appealed to style-conscious young women as much as it did to horsepower-hungry men.

The Camaro was off to a strong start but few could have predicted the drastic and fundamental industry and cultural changes by the end of the 1960s that would profoundly affect the fledgling sports car’s future.

Chevrolet Camaro 2/29

Chevrolet’s “pony car” challenger was codenamed Panther during development. The name Camaro was reportedly influenced by a French term for friendship, but not used literally.

1967 Chevrolet Camaro 3/29

The Z/28 debuted in 1967 as a package designed to homologate the Camaro for SCCA’s popular Trans-Am series. Chevy built 602 that year—all with a high-winding 302 small-block.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro 4/29

Significant styling updates distinguished the 1969 Camaro, which grew fractionally in its exterior dimensions. Production increased to 243,085, including more than 31,000 SS models.

1969 Chevrolet Camaro 5/29

The 1969 Camaro served as the Indy 500 Pace Car—the second time in three years. Chevrolet produced 3,675 replica convertibles (order code Z11), all of them white with orange stripes and orange interiors.

Gen 2 – 1970-’81: Peak Camaro Achieved

It was late. Production of the second-generation Camaro didn’t begin in earnest until the very end of 1969—a fact often attributed to a labor strike but it was because the all-new car simply wasn’t ready. The big strike would come later, in 1972, at the Norwood, Ohio, plant, and nearly drive the Camaro out of production.

The wait for the second-generation was worth it. Where the first-gen Camaro was designed largely around existing architectural “hard points,” the second-gen was completely original, with a unitized body structure shared with no other vehicle, save for its corporate cousin, the Pontiac Firebird.

At a glance, the second-generation car looked longer, lower, and wider, with a seemingly longer wheelbase, but it was all an optical illusion of the car’s all-new proportions. The wheelbase remained at 108 inches, while the exterior length grew fractionally and the width increased about an inch over the ’69 model. More importantly, the cowl was lowered and the passenger compartment was pulled rearward on that 108-inch wheelbase, creating a sportier, almost slingshot-like proportion. The design also incorporated 8-inch-longer doors and the elimination of the rear quarter-windows, which added to the car’s perceptual length—and often made ingress and egress tough in tight parking quarters.

The second-generation Camaro was definitely lower than before and more importantly, incorporated wider front and rear tracks. That had a profound effect on the car’s road-holding capability, and the new Camaro was immediately hailed as a handler with few matches in America or Europe. The all-star International Race of Champions (IROC) series even ditched the Porsche 911 as the spec race car in favor of the Camaro in 1975.

Interestingly, the Camaro was never more popular than during the malaise era of the auto industry during the mid- and late-1970s. Although it was born in the muscle car era, the vast majority of the Camaro’s sales were for the non-performance models. Heck, the big-block disappeared after 1972 and the Z28 was even discontinued for a couple of years—1975-’76—as the public veered away sharply from performance models. Nevertheless, the Camaro still represented freedom and personalization regardless of how much power was under the hood. In fact, 1979—when the top V-8 offering in the Z28 wheezed out only a measly 175 hp—was the Camaro’s best sales year ever, selling a whopping 282,571 units. In 2015, that number would have placed the Camaro second behind only the big-selling Silverado pickup line in sales across all of General Motors. As it was, the 2015 Camaro rang up 77,502 sales—27 percent of 1979’s total.

1970 Chevrolet Camaro 6/29

Designed under the direction of legendary GM design chief Bill Mitchell, the sleek, timeless styling of the 1970 Camaro drew influence from Ferrari touring coupes.

1971 Chevrolet Camaro 7/29

Camaro sales began to slide in the early 1970s as buyers abandoned muscle cars. By 1971, production was less than half of 1969’s total. Only 68,000 were built in 1972, thanks to a labor strike.

1974 Chevrolet Camaro 8/29

Factory performance took a breather across the industry in the 1970s and the Z28 wasn’t spared. By 1974, the top engine was a 245hp 350, but the Z went on hiatus for the next two years.

1976 Chevrolet Camaro 9/29

In the absence of raw horsepower, many automakers relied on bold graphics for excitement in the mid-1970s. This is the 1976 Camaro Rally Sport.

1977 Chevrolet Camaro 10/29

The Z28 returned in 1977 with a focus on the Camaro’s inherent strength: handling. The special suspension package gave the car great moves, but there was only 185 hp under the hood.

1979 Chevrolet Camaro 11/29

The Camaro hit its high-water mark in 1979, when a whopping 282,571 were produced—including nearly 85,000 Z28 models.

Gen 3 – 1982-’92: I Want My MTV … And IROC-Z

If the second-generation Camaro represented the 1970s like macramé halter tops, brown leather jackets, and the Doobie Brothers, the third-generation car was the cultural equivalent of Member’s Only jackets, parachute pants, and a stack of Van Halen cassettes. And like the second-gen, its redesign was radical, groundbreaking, and influential.

With its angular lines, quad rectangular headlamps, and change to a hatchback body style, along with a circuit board-inspired instrument panel layout, Chevy designers again tapped into the design aesthetic of the day with uncanny precision. The 1982 Z28, which was named Motor Trend Car of the Year, was also the first mass-produced American car to feature ground effects.

Backing up its radical redesign was an all-new body structure and revamped suspension system that turned the Camaro into more of a true sports car. The wheelbase shrank 7 inches to 101 inches, while the overall width was reduced just over 1 inch—dimensions that gave the Camaro a wider stance and a nimbler feel in turns. Also contributing to the decidedly sportier driving feel was a modern strut-type front suspension and a rack-and-pinion steering system. By the end of the 1980s, the development of the 1LE handling package transformed the car into a bona fide road-racing contender. Camaro owners might have had their hands full with 5.0-liter Mustangs at the dragstrip, but those other pony cars lined up behind the Chevys on the road course—often piling into them when their disc/drum setups couldn’t match the stopping power of the Camaro’s four-wheel discs.

The third-generation also introduced the modern era of electronically controlled high performance with the Tuned Port Injection system that debuted on the Camaro shortly after its launch on the Corvette. It would be the start of a new run-up in performance that we’re still enjoying today, with a port-injection design that’s still the basic design of most modern gasoline engines.

Sales eroded during the third-generation, as the Camaro’s harder edge on performance drove some customers into softer cars. Nevertheless, you can’t think of the 1980s without conjuring an image of a red IROC-Z.

1982 Chevrolet Camaro 12/29

For the third-generation, the 1982 Camaro drove into the future with a radical redesign, all-new architecture, sophisticated suspension system, and features such as fuel injection on the Z28.

1982 Chevrolet Camaro 13/29

The ’82 Z28 was Indy’s Pace Car, but with only 165 horses on tap it didn’t have the power to lead the pack. A special 250hp 350 engine was built for track duty.

Camaro Interior 14/29

Lear Siegler Conteur interior packages, available from 1982-’86, added a decidedly brash appearance that reflected the styling trends of the era.

1985 Iroc Z Model Camaro 15/29

After a decade as the series spec race car, Chevrolet introduced the IROC-Z model in 1985. It became so popular the Z28 was again temporarily discontinued, this time between 1988 and 1990.

1991 Chevrolet Camaro 16/29

The Z28 returned in 1991 with a 245hp 350 engine. Despite power, braking, and handling advantages over the Mustang GT, it lagged with performance enthusiasts.

Gen 4 – 1993-’02: End of the Line

If there’s a lost generation in the Camaro’s history, it’s the fourth-generation. On paper, it had everything going for it: stronger and more robust than the previous generation, with greater horsepower in the Z28 than the Mustang GT. It also had a more refined front suspension that again drove it to the head of the class in handling capability. But for all its seeming advantages, there were flaws—both in design and timing. For one thing, the low-slung stance made entering and exiting the car a less-than-elegant exercise, and one that skirt-wearing women weren’t particularly keen about.

Consequently, the Camaro became too much of a sports car for casual customers looking for sporty, not necessarily track-ready. Sales were strong for the first couple of years, but by 1996 fourth-gen sales eroded by half and never recovered. It became a car for the true budget-performance aficionado but that wasn’t enough to sustain it, even with a contemporary design makeover and upgrade to the LS1 engine midway through the generation. The low point came in 2001 when only 29,000 Camaros were sold. That was partly due to an early start for the 2002 model year, but that model year’s output was still a meager 41,776—nearly 105,000 fewer units than the Mustang that year. Ouch.

From a performance standpoint, the Camaro was stronger than ever, but directionally it was lost. Faced with upcoming regulations that would have required a complete redesign, GM pulled the plug on the struggling muscle car, and production ended at the St. Therese, Quebec, plant in 2002. It was a watershed moment for an automotive and cultural icon.

1993 Indy Pace Car Camaro 17/29

With a very similar chassis design to the third-gen model and evolutionary styling, the fourth-generation Camaro—introduced for 1993—ratcheted up its performance capability with the 275hp LT1 350 engine. It also served again as the Indy Pace Car.

1996 Chevrolet Ss Camaro 18/29

The Camaro SS returned in 1996 thanks to the effort of specialty builder SLP. Using tried-and-true bolt-on performance tricks, it rekindled memories of the muscle car era and its popularity quickly mushroomed.

B4c Police Camaro 19/29

Chevrolet developed the B4C-code police package for the Camaro, using the Z28 drivetrain and additional, unique equipment. It was offered from 1991-’02.

2002 Chevrolet Camaros 20/29

As far as anyone knew, the Camaro’s final year was 2002. Sales had dropped precipitously as the aging car’s appeal narrowed to hard-core muscle car fans. The 1998-’02 LS1-powered cars are still revered for their performance.

Gen 5 – 2010-’15: Reborn and Ready to Rock

The relative few years between the fourth-generation Camaro’s demise and its 2009 resurrection as a 2010 model were like dog years in the auto industry. Much had changed and despite launching during the economic meltdown, the public was ready for a truly 21st century Camaro—especially when it leveraged the timeless style of the first-generation model.

Like the first-generation model, the fifth-gen was based on an existing architecture: the Holden platform that underpinned the Pontiac G8 and GTO. And also like the first-generation, some compromises were required to hang its “heritage”-themed design on the structure. Apart from compromised visibility through gun-slit side windows, no one complained, and the reborn Camaro found itself embraced by enthusiasts both young and old.

Chevrolet did a marvelous job managing the fifth-generation’s growth and popularity, with strategically introduced special editions and a succession of high-performance models such as the 1LE, ZL1, and Z/28. The track-only COPO Camaro race cars also rekindled the excitement of the good-old days.

Importantly, sales of the fifth-gen Camaro remained strong throughout its comparatively short model run of six years, beating out the Mustang from 2010 through 2014.

2010 Chevrolet Camaro 21/29

Clearly influenced by the 1969 model, the fifth-generation Camaro launched in 2009 as a 2010 model. It scratched an itch among enthusiasts, quickly catching and overtaking Mustang sales, doing so for five straight years.

2010 Transformers Edition Camaro 22/29

The fifth-gen Camaro’s cultural reach extended to the silver screen via the Transformers movie franchise. The popularity even prompted Chevrolet to offer a Transformers special-edition model in 2010.

2014 Chevrolet Copo Camaro 23/29

Chevrolet revived the legendary COPO moniker in the fifth-generation, offering limited-production, factory-built COPO Camaro race cars. Starting in 2012, 69 per year have been built—the same number of COPO-order ZL1 models built in 1969.

2014 Chevrolet Z 28 Camaro 24/29

The Z/28 returned in 2014 and, like the original in 1967, it was aimed squarely at road-course capability. It used a 505hp LS7 7.0-liter engine and authentic racing dampers.

Gen 6 – 2016+: The Best Yet

Michigan, assembly plant—and that’s a good thing because it’s a premium platform rooted in low mass and exceptional balance.

Lighter, stronger, and more powerful than the previous generation, the sixth-gen car also evolves the heritage styling theme, with sharper edges and more upscale elements. It’s instantly recognizable as a Camaro but there isn’t such an overt nod to the 1969 design that inspired the fifth-generation.

And when it comes to performance, the good-old days were never this good. The Camaro SS runs the quarter-mile in the mid-12s, while the base engine—a 2.0-liter turbo—offers more or comparable horsepower to any V-8 from 1971 to 1995. Further, Chevrolet will offer new 1LE packages for the SS and V-6 models in 2017, while the ZL1 returns with a 650-horsepower supercharged engine that rips from 0-60 mph in only 3.5 seconds and scorches the quarter-mile in a mere 11.4 seconds at 127 mph.

Dang. That’s fast. Light-speed fast—and it’s right off the showroom floor.

In all, it’s been a good run for the first 50 years—those few gap years notwithstanding. So, here’s to the next 50 years of fun for one of the most engaging and accessible sports cars ever.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro 25/29

Chevrolet teased the redesign of the sixth-generation Camaro with images of it wearing camouflage. It launched in 2015 as a 2016 model.

2016 Chevrolet Ss Camaro 26/29

The 2016+ Camaro SS is more than 220 pounds lighter than its predecessor and offers more power from its 455hp LT1 V-8, enabling 4-second 0-60 times and 12-second quarter-miles.

2017 Chevrolet 1le Camaro 27/29

The track-focused 1LE package returns for 2017 with unique suspension elements on the SS. A 1LE package will also be available on V-6 models, leveraging much of the SS suspension.

2017 Chevrolet Zl 1 Camaro 28/29

Also new for 2017 is the return of the max-performance ZL1, which uses a 650hp supercharged LT4 engine to drive 0-60 times down to 3.5 seconds and warp the quarter-mile in 11.4 seconds. It also offers a new 10-speed automatic transmission.

2017 Chevrolet Camaro Blue 29/29

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