“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.