In 1970 Chevrolet sold 8,733 Camaro Z28 models, a car that was immediately praised upon release for its handling prowess and the high-winding capability of its LT-1 small-block. Thanks to 11:1 compression and a solid-lifter camshaft, the 350 was rated at a strong 360 gross horsepower.
Ten years later, Chevrolet was still building the second-generation Camaro, but it was a different car for a different market. Regulatory demands and cultural changes affected all aspects of the auto industry, and the Z28 wasn't spared. It still offered the 350 small-block, but output dropped to 190 net horses. And did Z28 sales drop commensurately? Not at all. They climbed to 45,137, more than five times what sales had been in 1970.
That the Z28 sold 516 percent as many units in 1980 as it did at the zenith of the muscle car years speaks volumes about how much the Camaro evolved during the 1970s and where it was going in the 1980s. It had only been about 15 years since the introduction of the Mustang created the ponycar segment, which scratched an itch the Baby Boomers didn't know they had. The segment was strong for the next two decades, until the Boomers started producing the Millennials and trading in their beloved Camaros for Dodge Caravans.
The sports coupe segment remained surprisingly resilient deep in the 1980s, led by the thoroughly modernized third-generation Camaro, which captured the whole 1980s zeitgeist. It ignited the passions of young Gen X enthusiasts, who were closing in on driving age, and even younger Millennials, who were still having Cheerios brushed out of their child seats.
With a noticeable uptick lately in the number of late-second- and third-generation Camaros popping up at events, on social media, and other venues, we thought the time was right to take a look at the Camaros the next generation of enthusiasts and collectors are coveting. One represents the very end of the classic era, and the other the beginning of the modern era of factory high performance.
1980 Z28: Satin Jacket Not Included
This car is owned by yours truly, the 47-year-old and solidly Gen X author. I bought it a couple of years ago after regretting the sale of a 1979 Trans Am. With its multicolor stripes and aggressive spoilers, it was one of those cars that burned into my brain as a child.
It is a very original, if not quite show-worthy, 54,000-mile car. The fact it was unmodified drove my interest because so few have survived that way. You also couldn't ask for a more disco-era combination than its Bright Yellow paint with black N90-code aluminum wheels. It is easy to imagine the original owner complementing it with a satin jacket with "CAMARO" spelled out vertically on the sleeves.
Yes, the styling strays into garish. You love it or you don't. You can blame it on the cultural impressions of youth, but I love it, even if I wouldn't otherwise cop to it (just like I'll never admit I turn up "Sister Christian" or an old Neil Diamond song when alone in the car). Interestingly, I've owned nearly 60 vehicles over the years, and none has generated the sort of response this Camaro has on the street. People are always pointing, waving, and asking questions about it.
The irony in the car's racy looks is its comparative lack of muscle to back them up. Thanks to a new fresh-air Air Induction system, the Corvette-derived LM1 350 engine was rated at a relatively stout 190 hp, a 15-horse jump over the previous year. That was the 49-state engine. In California, the Z28 was saddled with a wheezy 165hp 305. Pushing nearly 3,700 pounds, the LM1 drove the Z28 to mid-16-second e.t.'s, and that was with the four-speed manual box.
Mine has the Turbo 350 three-speed automatic, which is paired with a shorter 3.42 axle rather than the four-speed's 3.08 rearend. It is smooth and firm, but is also the car's Achilles heel. With the 3.42 axle and no overdrive, 65 mph is pretty much the practical speed limit, as the tach needle quivers unnervingly high. That means every little old lady in a Hyundai or Kia rockets past the Z28 on her way to the early bird buffet.
Nevertheless, the small-block's inherent low-rpm torque makes the car feel strong off the line, and it outpaces modern traffic between stoplights. Better still, it is a joy on twisty backroads. The second-gen architecture had its faults, but by the end of the run the engineers had refined the handling attributes very well. A lot of bloated modern cars don't slice through corners as confidently.
No, this car will never win the Pure Stock Muscle Car Drags, but that's not the point. It's an affordable, fun-to-drive Camaro that appeals to another generation of enthusiasts. That's my generation. I may regret turning up my collar and wearing neon sweaters, but I can't deny my affection for late-second-gen Z28s.
At a Glance
1980 Camaro Z28
Owned by: Barry Kluczyk
Restored by: Unrestored
Engine: 350ci/190hp LM1 V-8
Transmission: Turbo 350 automatic
Rearend: 10-bolt with 3.42 gears
Interior: Original black vinyl bucket seats
Wheels: 15x7 aluminum (N90)
Tires: 225/70R15 BFGoodrich Radial T/A
Special parts: Only 17 percent of 1980 Camaros equipped with N90 wheels
1989 IROC-Z: Hold the Mullet Jokes, Please
Jason Harding was born in the 1980s, straddling the border of Generation X and the Millennials. Not surprisingly, the cars that imprinted on his impressionable gray matter were the third- and fourth-generation F-Bodies. He is the marketing manager at Katech, and along with a seriously fast C7 Corvette Z06, he also has a Camaro stable that includes a 1993 Z28 Indy Pace Car, a tribute to the ZR1-powered Camaro concept Chevy built in 1991, and the red 1989 IROC-Z seen here.
"As a child of the 1980s, it was really the [third-generation] body style that always attracted me," he says. "My second car was a red IROC I had in high school, in 1999, and I put an LT1/T56 powertrain in it, teaching me a lot about cars. It's the car that always stayed with me, long after I sold it."
Sound familiar? We've conveyed similar experiences time and again from owners of classic muscle cars, only Jason's came 30 years later.
The IROC-Z was introduced in 1985 as Chevrolet's marketing tie-in for the International Race of Champions series that had been using Camaros for about decade. By the way: Jason's employer, Katech, supplied the engines for the IROC series when it switched to the third-generation body style in 1984.
To call the production model successful would be an understatement on par with suggesting Michael Jackson's Thriller moved a few copies. In its first year, the IROC-Z—ordered on the Z28 with option code B4Z—racked up more than 21,000 sales, representing nearly a third of the Z28's production. Sales exploded to more than 49,000 in 1986, accounting for more than half of all Z28s, and from there it crossed into cultural icon status. Chevrolet even dropped the Z28 model in 1988 because the IROC had trumped it.
During its run through 1990, the IROC-Z was offered with 305 and 350 Tuned Port Injection engines, as well as a carbureted 305 that was the base engine only in 1985. Externally, there wasn't anything obvious to distinguish a TPI 305 from its brawnier 350 big brother, but the 305 was offered with a five-speed manual and the 350 was not. Regardless, the 350-powered IROC—with the 700R-4 automatic—was good for mid-14-second e.t.'s. Not bad at all.
Jason's restored IROC was an original 305/five-speed model, but like so many of the cars over the years, the 305 was swapped for the 350. It still sports the factory TPI injection system (albeit polished) and other factory components, but with the larger-displacement long block.
The driving experience is a complete throwback to the 1980s, from the funky ergonomics to the engaging acceleration and handling that helped drive Detroit's performance renaissance. Fortunately, the ergonomic issues are more nostalgically amusing than structurally concerning. The seating position is low, low, low, with a monolithic black plastic dashboard rising in front of the occupants like the Berlin Wall before David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff climbed atop and sang it to pieces. The leather-wrapped shift knob is enormous by modern and even muscle-car-era standards, and there's not a cupholder to be found on the mile-wide center console.
Like the 1980 Z28, a lack of big horsepower in the IROC is covered mostly by the small-block's bottomless reserve of torque. The car feels strong and confident when accelerating, and it's easy to understand how enthusiasts in the day were intoxicated by its performance. The same goes for its handling prowess. The third-generation introduced a modern strut-type front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering, while a shorter wheelbase (101 inches versus 108 inches for the second-gen cars) and wide front and rear tracks greatly enhanced responsiveness, totally transforming its corner-attacking capability.
The IROC-Z ended with the dissolution of Chevrolet's ties with the racing series, which would use the Dodge Daytona after that and, later, the Pontiac Trans Am. The Camaro's namesake model was an icon of its day and remains a period classic, with the easy-driving capability of a modern car.
Let's drop the mullet jokes, OK?
At a Glance
1989 Camaro IROC-Z
Owned by: Jason Harding
Restored by: Previous owner
Engine: 350ci/225hp TPI V-8
Transmission: BorgWarner M39 5-speed
Rearend: 10-bolt with 3.42 gears and G80 Posi
Interior: Original black vinyl bucket seats
Wheels: 16x7 aluminum
Tires: 245/50ZR16 BFGoodrich g-Force TA KDWS
Special parts: Period 350 engine swap from original 305