Chevrolet Camaro History

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Chevrolet's Camaro (and its sister "F-car," the Pontiac Firebird) was hardly an original notion — it was a blatant GM rip-off of the Ford Mustang. But just because it's stolen doesn't mean it's a bad idea.

Trivia to keep in mind: Every engine in every Camaro ever built by GM was of pushrod-actuated valve design. There's never been an overhead cam engine in a factory Camaro.

First Generation (1967-1970)

Just as the first Mustang was based on Ford's compact Falcon, so the first 1967 Camaro was based on Chevy's compact Nova. However, it was based on the upcoming redesigned '68 Nova and therefore more robust than a comparable '67 Nova.

The basic engineering of the Camaro was a unibody structure from the windshield and firewall back, with a separate steel rail subframe for everything up front. Double A-arms made up the independent front suspension while the solid rear axle was suspended by semi-elliptical leaf springs. As was typical of standard-equipped vehicles at the time, braking was by four drums, the steering was slow and manual, and Chevy's rugged 230-cubic-inch straight six poked out an optimistically rated 140 horsepower while twisting a three-speed manual transmission.

The base $2,466 '67 Camaro sport coupe was lean and aggressive, as was the convertible. Adding substance to that appearance was done either by picking or combining individual options or trim packages called RS and SS.

Buyers could opt for a larger 250-inch version of the six making 155 horsepower, a 210-horsepower 327-cubic-inch small-block V8 fed by a two-barrel carb, that same V8 with a four-barrel carb and a higher compression ratio was rated at 275 horsepower, or two versions of the 396-cubic-inch big-block V8 making either 325 or 375 horsepower. Those engines could be lashed to a series of wide- or short-ratio three- or four-speed manual transmissions, or one of two automatics: the slushy two-speed Powerglide or outstanding three-speed Turbobydramatic.

The Rally Sport (RS) appearance package brought deluxe interior trim and hidden headlights with it, and the high-performance Super Sport (SS) package had its own distinct decoration (including a domed hood with simulated vents, "bumble bee" stripes encircling the nose and the iconic SS badges), a heavy-duty suspension and larger D70-series tires on 14-inch wheels. Beyond that, the SS-350 model also offered a new 350-cubic-inch small-block V8 rated at 295 horsepower — Chevy's first 350. The Rally Sport and Super Sport packages could also be ordered together to form the most lavishly equipped Camaro of them all, the RS/SS. And it was an RS/SS convertible powered by a 396 that Chevy provided as pace car for the 1967 Indianapolis 500.

Almost outside the regular Camaro line was the race-oriented Z/28. Introduced in December 1966, the Z/28 was powered by a special high-compression 302-cubic-inch V8 whose displacement was achieved by matching the short-stroke crank of the 283-cubic-inch version with the big-bore block of the 327. Rated at 290 horsepower and built to rev, the radical powerplant was matched to a more aggressive suspension.

How did the first Camaro perform? Car Life magazine's test of an SS-350 had it completing the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds at 89 mph while Motor Trend reported that its SS-350 did the same trick in 15.4 seconds at 90 mph.

Thanks to "Astro Ventilation," General Motors eliminated the side vent wing windows on the 1968 Camaro and also added federally mandated side marker lights and a revised base grille). Mechanically, the most significant change was the adoption of staggered rear shocks (one in front of the rear axle, one behind) to counteract wheel hop under hard acceleration.

While the 1969 Camaro's structure and mechanical elements were virtually unchanged from the '68 model, new fenders, door skins, rear quarter-panels, grille and taillights gave the car a wider, lower appearance. A redesigned dash and more comfortable seats made it more livable, too. But it was the staggering array of available performance equipment that marks 1969 as the greatest model year for Camaros.

On the yawn side, a new low-performance 200-horsepower 307-cubic-inch small-block (a 327 crank in a 283 block) supplemented the low-performance 327 and a new 255-horsepower 350 replaced the better-performing 327. On the yeow side, Chevy produced its second Camaro Indianapolis 500 pace car and offered replicas of the white RS/SS convertible with orange stripes and orange houndstooth upholstery to the public (the actual pace car was powered by a 396, but most of the replicas had 350s). In addition, two radical Camaros were produced in extremely limited numbers under special Central Office Production Orders (COPO) 9560 and 9561.

The COPO 9561 was a basic Camaro sport coupe stuffed with 427 cubic inches of all-iron big-block making 425 horsepower. Most of the 1,015 COPO 9561s were delivered to Pennsylvania's Yenko Chevrolet for conversion into that dealership's signature Camaro. Even rarer was the COPO 9560 featuring the legendary all-aluminum ZL-1 427 also rated at 425 horsepower. Only 69 of the ZL-1s were built, and because of their rarity, tremendous output and relatively low weight, they are today considered the quickest and most valuable Camaros ever built.

Sales of the 1969 models extended into the winter of 1969 and early 1970; some of these lingering '69s may have been titled as 1970 models, leading to some confusion.

Second Generation (1970½-1981)

Though it didn't make it to market until February of 1970, the second-generation 1970½ Camaro would be in production 12 years. The second-generation Camaro's styling was inspired by Ferrari and was also bigger, heavier and no longer available as a convertible. And as the 1970s progressed, it would grow less powerful, succumbing to the pressures of tightening emissions regulations and a fuel crisis.

Still based on the Nova, the new Camaro was engineered much like its predecessor in that it still used a unibody structure with a front subframe, leaf springs in the back and A-arms up front for suspension. Those A-arms were freshly designed and the steering gear moved from the back to the front of the front axle, but otherwise the basic mechanical pieces were familiar.

Also familiar were most of the engines. The 155-horsepower 250-cubic-inch six was now the Camaro's base engine, followed by the who-cares 200-horsepower 307, the lowliest of V8 offerings. A 250-horsepower two-barrel 350 effectively replaced the 327. Order the SS package and the 350 earned a four-barrel carb and additional compression to reach 300 horsepower. Moreover, SS buyers could pay even more and get a 350- or 375-horsepower 396 big-block V8.

As before, the Camaro was offered with Rally Sport or Super Sport equipment or both. The Rally Sport package featured a unique front-end appearance with a split front bumper and a center grille cavity encircled in rubber. The SS again had heavier-duty suspension and the "SS" logos.

The star 1970½ Camaro was again the Z/28, now powered by a 360-horsepower high-compression "LT-1" 350. Unlike the high-revving 302 used in the first Z/28s, the LT-1 was easy-going in everyday traffic, still revved with enthusiasm and was now available with an automatic transmission. Car and Driver's test had the '70½ Z/28 ripping to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and running through the quarter-mile in 14.2 seconds at a full 100.3 mph, though the drivers still found it lacking in bottom-end power.

But the glory days of the LT-1 would last just that one year. With emissions regulations growing tougher, GM dropped compression ratios across the board for 1971 and also adopted "net" alongside "gross" power ratings for its engines (by '72, all engines were only net rated). For the 250-cubic inch inline six, the power rating dropped from 155-gross to 110-net horsepower. For the LT-1, the drop was a 30-horsepower plunge down to a 330 horsepower gross and 275 horsepower net. Otherwise, the '71 barely changed from the '70½ model; high-back bucket seats were new, and the rear spoiler on Z/28s was now a larger three-piece unit.

The 1972 Camaro changed mostly in the engine bay where the horsepower devastation continued. The LT-1 could now only poke out 255 horsepower (net) and the most robust big-block (still called a 396, but in reality a 402) was making just 240 net horsepower.

In 1973 the bumpers were slightly revised and the horsepower drain continued with the base six now making an utterly lame 100 net horsepower and the L82 only 245. The big-block was off the option sheet altogether. In place of the Super Sport was the "Type-LT" Camaro, which bundled a slew of luxury options into one cohesive package.

To meet new bumper regulations, the 1974 Camaro was redesigned with thick aluminum bumpers front and rear. The one-and-only grille (the Rally Sport option vanished) was now shovel-shaped and the rear taillights wrapped into the fenders. But there were no changes to the available engines and trim levels.

With unbelievable shortsightedness, Chevy killed the Z/28 and pared the engine selection down to just three catalyst-equipped lumps for 1975 — the 250-cubic-inch six now rated at 105 horsepower, a two-barrel 350 V8 making a pathetic 145 horsepower and a four-barrel version of the same engine rated at a meager 155 horsepower.

Distinguishing the '75 from '74 was a new rear window that wrapped down into the roof sail panels. Also new for '75 was a "Rally Sport" package that consisted of two-tone paint and some tape stripes.

For no apparent reason, the '75 Camaro sold well, so there were few changes to the 1976 model. An aluminum panel between the taillights was now used on the Type-LT, power brakes were finally standard and cruise control was a new option. The two-barrel 350 was killed in favor of an even-crummier two-barrel 305 producing 140 horsepower while the four-barrel 350 now whacked out a still-inexcusable 165 horsepower.

When the 1977 Camaro appeared, there were again few changes (intermittent wipers anyone?), but in the middle of the year, the Z/28 returned as a separate model whose concentration was now on handling and appearance. And the new Z/28 did handle well, even if it only had 170 horsepower aboard from the same 350 four-barrel V8 offered in other Camaros (up 5 horsepower from '76). The '77 Camaro was thoroughly lackluster, but with Ford foisting the hideous Mustang II upon America, for the first time, more Camaros (198,755) were sold than Mustangs (161,654).

Daring to mess (however lightly) with success, Chevrolet equipped the 1978 Camaro with a new nose that put the big bumpers under soft plastic. Five models were now offered (sport coupe, Rally Sport, Type-LT, Type-LT Rally Sport and Z/28), and translucent T-tops were a new option. The Z/28's full-disco body package (with front fender vents and a fake hoodscoop) was supported in '78 with a revised version of the 350 V8 now rated at a better-but-still-weak 185 horsepower.

Though almost a carryover from '78, the 1979 Camaro would prove the most popular one yet. The Type-LT vanished in favor of a new trim level called Berlinetta, but the engines were all unchanged, even though power ratings were rattled a bit in contending with emissions requirements (Z/28 output dropped to 175 horsepower for 49-state cars). The most substantial change to the '79 Camaro was a new instrument panel with more contemporary instrumentation and better control placement. Chevy sold a stunning 282,571 Camaros during the 1979 model year — a number it would never top.

Looking to improve fuel economy, Chevy mangled the Camaro's engine lineup for 1980 while leaving the rest of the car pretty much alone. A new 115-horsepower 229-cubic-inch V6 (basically a small-block V8 with a pair of cylinders hacked off) — or, in California, a 110-horsepower 231-cubic-inch V6 replaced the ancient inline six, and a new 267-cubic-inch two-barrel version of the small-block V8 debuted, rated at a laughable 120 horsepower. On the positive side, output of the Z/28's 350 grew to 190 horsepower, except in California where buyers got a 155-horsepower 305-cubic-inch V8 mated to a mandatory three-speed automatic. Caught in a fuel crisis, Camaro sales nose-dived to 152,005 during the 1980 model year.

The antiquated platform of the second-generation Camaro had run its course by the 1981 model year. With a new engine control computer aboard, all engines were now certified for all 50 states, but output on the Z/28's 350 dropped to 175 horsepower. The Rally Sport died (again) and the '81 Camaro lineup consisted of three well-defined models: base sport coupe, Berlinetta and Z/28. Those three model names would survive to see 1982, but not much else.

Third Generation (1982-1992)

Third-generation Camaros were the first built without front subframes or leaf-spring rear suspensions. Now the front end was held up with a modified MacPherson strut system, and the hind end relied on a long torque arm and coil springs. These were also the first Camaros with factory fuel injection, four-speed automatic transmissions, five-speed manual transmissions, four-cylinder engines, 16-inch wheels and hatchback bodies. In January 1982, the Camaro was, for the first time since 1967, truly all-new and slightly smaller.

But the 1982 engine selection was hardly scintillating. Base sport coupes started with a 90-horsepower version of GM's lethargic 2.5-liter "Iron Duke" four and could be optioned up to a 112-horse 2.8-liter V6 (base engine in the Berlinetta) or a four-barrel carbureted 5.0-liter (305-cubic-inch) small-block V8 rated at 145 horsepower. That V8 was the Z28's base powerplant; buyers could opt for a Z28 "Cross-Fire Injection" (throttle body-injected) version producing 165 horsepower. The carbureted V8 could be had with either a three-speed automatic or four-speed manual, but the injected engine was automatic only.

A Camaro paced the Indianapolis 500 again in 1982, and the silver and blue replicas of that car are probably the most attractive of the '82s. However, the T-top Z28 that actually paced the Memorial Day classic that year used a highly modified 350 (5.7-liter) V8 for motivation that wasn't available to the general public. Kind of sad, really.

The three-tier Camaro lineup continued into 1983 with minimal visual differences. However the Z28 got a nice power bump with the introduction of the "L69" engine option. With a Corvette-spec camshaft, revised exhaust and a healthy four-barrel carb, the 5.0-liter L69 "H.O." V8 was rated at 190 horsepower and could be backed by a new five-speed manual transmission.

For 1984, availability of the L69 improved on Z28s (the junky Cross-Fire engine died) and the four-speed "700R4" automatic was adopted by most Camaro models. Because anything digital was, of course, good, the Berlinetta sprouted a funkadelic digital instrument panel and overhead console this year, as well. The instrumentation was probably more entertaining than the V6 that powered most Berlinettas.

The great leap forward in third-generation Camaro performance came with the introduction of the 1985 IROC-Z, named after the International Race of Champions, which was contested with Camaros. The IROC featured big 16-inch five-spoke wheels and unique graphics. Carbureted versions of the 5.0-liter small-block V8 were still available, but the big improvement came with the fitment of Tuned Port Injection (TPI) to that engine to produce a flexible 215 horsepower. Sadly, the TPI engine could only be had with the four-speed automatic (in either the IROC or the regular Z28).

Beneath the Z28, the sport coupe and Berlinetta blustered through 1985 unchanged, except for a new fuel-injected version of the 2.8-liter V6 that now pushed out 135 horsepower.

The 1986 Camaros were easy to spot because of the goofy blister fitted atop their rear hatches to accommodate the federally mandated center high-mounted stop light (CHMSL). Beyond that, there was a new exhaust system for non-Z28 cars and a new basecoat/clearcoat two-stage paint system.

Big engines returned to the Camaro for 1987 with the good old 350 (5.7-liter) V8 making its way into IROC-Zs as an option. Capped with the TPI system, the 5.7 was rated at a full 225 horsepower — the highest horsepower in a Camaro in 13 years and with vastly better drivability. While the TPI 5.7 came only with the four-speed automatic, the TPI 5.0 liter was finally available with the five-speed manual.

Equally good news was the comeback of the Camaro convertible — the first Camaro convertible since 1969 — and the consignment of the four-cylinder engine to a well-deserved eternity in junkyard Hell. The high-output carbureted 5.0-liter V8 also disappeared, and a new 165 horsepower carbureted 5.0-liter V8 became the standard Z28 engine. Also gone from the '87 Camaro line were the Berlinetta (replaced with an "LT" option package), and, on any Camaro with a rear spoiler, that ugly CHMSL housing on the rear glass. The CHMSL was instead built into the spoiler and Chevy would simplify its own production for 1988 by making the rear spoiler standard on all Camaros.

So that brake light blister was gone entirely from the 1988 Camaro, but so was the Z28. Since Chevy had firmly established the IROC name, all high-performance '88 Camaros became IROCs. Base '88 Camaros, meanwhile, inherited the elegant 15-inch five-spoke wheels from the Z28, as well as the Z28's lower body skirting. Also, the Z28's 5.0-liter V8 was now optional on the sport coupe; it gained a throttle body fuel-injection system to make 170 horsepower.

The rarest and most intriguing '88 Camaro was the 1LE road racing package optional on the IROCs with both the 5.0- and 5.7-liter TPI engines. Featuring oversize disc brakes, an aluminum driveshaft and a well-tweaked suspension, the 1LE was built to win showroom stock road races.

Proving that no name is forever dead in the world of Camaros, the old "RS" (but not Rally Sport) designation returned for the 1989 model year. Looking much like an '85 Z28, the RS was a basically a trim package atop the base sport coupe and was powered by either the V6 or a throttle-body-injected 5.0-liter V8. Although the 5.7 TPI V8 now boasted 240 horsepower, about the only way to tell '89 IROCs from previous years is to look at the ignition key and see if has the "Pass-Key" theft deterrent resistor embedded in it.

The IROC breathed its last breath during the short 1990 model year, as Dodge picked up sponsorship of the International Race of Champions. The big changes that year were the growth of the base V6 from 2.8 to 3.1 liters, with a bump in output from 135 to 140 horsepower and the fitment of driver-side airbags to all models.

Chevy jump-started the 1991 model year by re-introducing the Z28 in the spring of 1990. Sure, the '91 Z28 got a tall rear wing, new lower body cladding, new phony hood scoops and new five-spoke wheels, but it was otherwise still an IROC and now the top engine was a 245 horsepower 5.7-liter TPI V8. All other '91 Camaros were pretty much '90 Camaros with revised ground effects that featured fake air inlets.

Law enforcement got its own Camaro in 1991 with the introduction of the Camaro B4C pursuit vehicle. Basically, a B4C was a Z28 that was badged as an RS and equipped with most of the good stuff developed for the 1LE race package. Very few B4Cs were ever produced.

With an all-new Camaro coming for 1993, the 1992 model was barely changed from '91. The big change was that they all sported a "25th Anniversary" badge on their instrument panels. Further, a $175 "Heritage Package" of stripes was offered for any '92 Camaro.

It was time for another new Camaro.

Fourth Generation (1993-2002)

While the 1993 fourth-generation Camaro was very much new, it was shy of all-new; much of the floor stamping and all of the rear suspension was shared with the third-generation car. But with plastic front fenders, a new short-arm/long-arm front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering and a sleek new profile, the '93 was new enough.

For '93, the Camaro lineup was pared to two models: base sport coupe powered by a 160-horsepower 3.4-liter version of GM's V6 and the Z28 with the Corvette's 5.7-liter LT1 small-block V8 underrated at 275 horsepower. Once again, the convertible was gone.

The black-roofed (no matter what the body color) '93 Z28 was a stunner. The LT1 was easily the most powerful small-block installed in the Camaro since its namesake, the 1970 LT-1, and, considering the move from gross to net power ratings, probably even more powerful than that legend. Behind it was either a four-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission and 16-inch wheels and tires; and four-wheel antilock disc brakes were standard. With Z28 prices starting under $17,000, the value was just amazing. The most desirable '93? Probably the black Z28 replicas of that year's Indy 500 pace car. These replicas were identical to the actual pace car which, in stark contrast to the '82, led the race with no mechanical changes.

As expected, the convertible Camaro returned with the 1994 model year. Designed and built by GM at the St. Therese, Quebec, plant where all F-cars were assembled, the '94 ragtop's chassis was significantly stiffer than the previous convertible's. Otherwise it's almost impossible to tell a '94 coupe from a '93 unless one opens up the automatic transmission and finds that it is the electronically controlled version of the 4L60.

While the 1995 Z28 received only minor changes (all-season tires and traction control were now available), the base Camaro added GM's "3800" 200-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 as an option. The 3800 was both significantly more powerful and refined than the 3400, and by 1996 would become the only V6 in Camaros.

With the adoption of the 3800 as standard power, the least powerful 1996 Camaro still had more power than the most powerful 1984 Camaro. Somewhat in celebration, the RS name reappeared on the V6 coupe as a spoiler and ground effects package. Meanwhile on the Z28 side, the V8's output jumped to 285 horsepower and SLP Engineering brought back the SS name by adding engine tweaks and 17-inch five-spoke wheels wrapped with P245/40ZR17 BFGoodrich Comp T/A tires. The SS, with its 305 horsepower rating was the first factory Camaro to break the 300 horsepower barrier since 1971, and the first of any year using net ratings.

To celebrate the Camaro's 30th anniversary, Chevy introduced a specially optioned white Z28 with orange stripes and orange houndstooth upholstery (evocative of the '69 Camaro pace car) for 1997. Otherwise, there were new "tri-color" taillamps for all models, and SLP produced an extremely limited run (106 cars) of 330-horsepower Corvette LT4 5.7-liter V8-powered Camaro Z28 SS models.

The fourth-generation Camaro's first (and only) extensive visual update came for 1998 with a new front fascia design. But the real news lay behind that face where the C5 Corvette's new-age all-aluminum small-block LS-1 V8 took up residence in the Z28. The 5.7-liter LS-1 was the first all-aluminum engine offered in a Camaro since the '69 ZL-1 and carried a thrilling 305-horsepower rating (base Camaros kept the 200-horsepower 3800 V6). GM took over production of the SS itself this year, as well, with the ram-air induction system boosting the LS-1 to 320 horsepower.

Except for electronic throttle control on V6 models, a new oil life monitor and a Torsen limited-slip differential, the 1999 Camaros were indistinguishable from the '98 models. In turn, the 2000 Camaros were pretty much the same as the '99s, except for radio controls integrated into the steering wheel, body-color sideview mirrors, some new interior fabrics and an optional 12-disc CD changer.

By 2001, it was obvious that the Camaro's days were numbered, and the only changes to the car were restyled 16-inch wheels, a new paint color and the unchanged LS-1's output rating to 310 horsepower in the Z28.

Grimly, the Camaro soldiered on into 2002. For the Camaro's last year in production, changes were, understandably, minimal. Z28s got a new power steering cooler, the sound systems were revised and V6 convertibles got the automatic transmission standard, but that's about it.

Chevrolet did celebrate the car's 35th year, however, with a special graphics package for the Z28 SS coupe and convertible. The flamboyant stripes and logos of the 35th Anniversary package were attractive in their own idiomatic way, but it was hardly the glorious send-off for which Camaro enthusiasts had hoped.

Grimly, the Camaro soldiered on into 2002. For the Camaro's last year in production, changes were, understandably, minimal. Z28s got a new power steering cooler, the sound systems were revised and V6 convertibles got the automatic transmission standard, but that's about it.

Chevrolet did celebrate the car's 35th year, however, with a special graphics package for the Z28 SS coupe and convertible. The flamboyant stripes and logos of the 35th Anniversary package were attractive in their own idiomatic way, but it was hardly the glorious send-off for which Camaro enthusiasts had hoped.

Fifth Generation (2010-Present)

After eight years of flying the Chevy flag at half-mast, Camaro enthusiasts had their prayers answered when Chevrolet brought back its road burner for 2010. Initially available only as a coupe in base LS, midlevel LT and V8-powered SS models, this is without a doubt the best Camaro to date. The retro styling borrows shamelessly from the 1969 Camaro, down to the cowl-induction-style hood, Coke bottle profile, cross-hatch grille and rear-quarter gills. Yet it's not a complete knock-off, as the 2010 has a huskier stance and is noticeably thicker in the rear haunches. The cockpit is mostly modern, with a few old-school touches thrown in such as a quartet of gauges located down low in front of the gearshifter. The latter isn't exactly an ergonomic success, but they pay homage to the optional setup of the late '60s. The available RS package (essentially an appearance package) adds bigger (20-inch) wheels, a rear spoiler, HID headlights and smoked taillights.

Unlike before, getting a V6 Camaro doesn't mean "plenty of show but not so much go." The LS and LT come packing 304 hp via a direct-injected, 3.6-liter V6. It also has a six-speed manual transmission (six-speed automatic optional), disc brakes all around, an independent rear suspension (a Camaro first) and 18-inch wheels. At a base price of around $23,000, the entry-level Camaro offers a heavy dose of performance that's light on the wallet. With 0-to-60 and quarter-mile times of 6.0 and 14.2 seconds, respectively, these are seriously rapid cars.

The big-dog SS has a 6.2-liter V8 with either 426 hp (with six-speed manual) or 400 hp (with six-speed automatic) as well as meatier Brembo disc brakes. With the ability to leap to 60 mph in 5 seconds and tear down the quarter-mile in 13 seconds flat, the SS will show its taillights to virtually any Camaro that came before, perhaps even the super rare ZL-1 of 1969. And in terms of unraveling a twisty road, the latest Camaro has no peer with its elders, thanks to a finely balanced and tuned chassis, the aforementioned independent rear end and quick, communicative steering.

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