The History of the Camaro

Ford Mustang aficionados will be quick to tell you that the Camaro – and it’s sister car, the Pontiac Firebird –  was just another blatant ripoff of the iconic pony car, and they’re not wrong – but that doesn’t mean the Chevy Camaro was ever a poorly thought out idea. This bare bones dedication to the compact sports car segment has bred its own character over the years, at times making the Mustang and its other competitors blush.

Just as the Mustang was designed with the Ford Falcon in mind, the Camaro was designed and built based on the Chevrolet Nova. Beginning in 1967, the Camaro was a reimagined Nova in the sense that it was more robust than its predecessor,  engineered as a unibody chassis with a separate steel rail subframe for the front end. It featured independent front suspension from day one, and was typical of the times in featuring drum brakes and leaf spring suspension in the rear. Like it’s big brother the Corvette, the Camaro began its journey with a modest 230 cubic inch straight-6 engine pushing out 140 horsepower to a 3-speed transmission.

The first Camaro was lean and aggressive, and made available optional convertible models as well as RS and SS packages which ramped up power to 155 horsepower, or a 210 horsepower 327 cubic inch V8. For the Chevy fans that had crushing Mustangs on their mind – a mean 275 horsepower version of that same 327 was available, its increased power due to a four-barrel carb and a higher compression ratio. The SS, or SuperSport model also offered a 360 cubic inch motor – Chevy’s first – rated at 295 horsepower. Following its family tree, a Camaro paced the Indy 500 in 1967, like many a Corvette before it.

Like the Corvette Grandsport, a super version of the Camaro was created in 1969 – the COPO or Central Office Production Orders 9560 and the 9561, the latter featured a massive 427 cubic inch cast iron V8 borrowed from the Corvette making 425 horsepower. Even rarer was the all aluminum 9560 which at its heart boasted a 425 horse ZL-1 engine, of which only 69 were built.


Second Generation

The second iteration of the Camaro would be available untouched for the next 12 years. While still modelled after the Nova, its styling was influenced by the Ferrari’s of the day and was bigger, heavier, and no longer featured a convertible model. Like many sports cars of the 70’s and 80’s, the Camaro would be locked in a stranglehold of emissions regulations, reducing its power output, and a fuel crisis. Familiar still were the engine options, with the RS and SS models returning to their 302 cubic inch V8 used in the first Z28’s. But now, the high compression models were easy to drive in everyday traffic, felt less pent-up and angry, and could even be called smooth. The last of the beefy V8’s was clocked at 5.8 seconds to 60 MPH.

Power soonafter plummeted. The inline-6 model now just made 100 horses and the LT-1only produced 255 horsepower.

1975 through 1977 saw few changes aesthetically, with a new rear window, an aluminum panel in between the tail lights, and offerings like power brakes and cruise control. They even killed the Z28 package. The 1975 model sold well, despite the lack of evolution and unimpressive power ratings, so the 1977 Camaro carried on without making many new changes either. The Z28 model returned in 1977 with an emphasis on handling and performance and when Ford revealed a monstrous second iteration of the Mustang in 1977 the Camaro outsold the Stang for the first time.

1979 would be the most popular model yet, with a new trim line called the Berlinetta. The biggest changes were to the instrument cluster and sold 282,571 Camaros during this year – a number that would never be topped.


Round 3 – Present Day

The 1980’s and 1990’s were built with the standard front subframe that had followed the Camaro since the beginning, but now came with factory fuel-injection and an interest in fuel economy. New models also received options like 4-cylinder motors, 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual transmissions, 16 inch wheels and hatchback body styles.

Base models were devastatingly underpowered, rated at a wimpy 90 horsepower version of the 2.5L ‘Iron Duke’ four cylinder, a 112 horsepower V6, or a 5.0L V8 rated at 145 horsepower. Inh 1983, the 3.0L Z28 package got a new engine, the L69 with a Corvette-spec camshaft a healthy four-carb and a revised exhaust system that pumped out 190 horsepower to a 5-speed manual transmission. 1984 saw the introduction of digital instrument clusters.

In ‘85, the namesake IROC-Z was introduced, with the 5.0L rethought to push out 215 horsepower – but could only be purchased with a 4-speed auto. Big engines didn’t return to the Camaro until 1987 with a 5.7L and a convertible option.

After 2000, the Camaro project dragged its heels into the new millennium, leaving production in 2003 until 2010 with the reimagined return of the Camaro. Retro styling from 1969 and a “coke bottle profile” helped a V6 version came with 304 horsepower through a 3.6L offering, and the big bad SS came with a 426 horsepower 6-speed manual transmission, or a 400 horsepower 6-speed auto. The new car ran the quarter mile in 13 seconds flat, and became its own car – leaving any borrowing from other models, Nova or Corvette in the past.