Chevrolet Camaro Essential History
When Ford introduced the seminal Mustang in 1964, Chevrolet did not immediately identify it as a threat, dismissing it as old-fashioned and countering with a turbocharged version of the Corvair. But then Mustang sales caught fire, particularly with young buyers, and Chevy knew it had made a mistake. The division initiated a crash program to develop the Camaro.
Fortunately, Chevrolet had done some preliminary work on a small personal luxury car based on the Chevy II Nova. By piggybacking on the development of the 1968 Nova, Chevrolet was able to rush the Camaro into production in 1966 as a 1967 model. It immediately became the Mustang’s lead competitor, trailed by the closely-related Pontiac Firebird (also introduced in 1967), Plymouth Barracuda (1964, though not competitive until ’67), AMC Javelin (1968), and latecomer Dodge Challenger (1970).
The first-generation Camaro, available as both a coupe and a convertible, had a classic blocky shape that has aged well. Engine choices included inline sixes of 230 and 250 cubic inch displacement (3.8 and 3.9 liters) and V-8s of 327, 350, and 396 cid (5.6, 5.0, 5.7, and 6.5 liters) with various carburetor configurations. Horsepower ranged from 140 to 325 hp. The chassis setup was typical of the time, with a coil-sprung A-arm front suspension and a leaf-sprung live rear axle, with the unitized body featuring a separate front subframe to provide the stiffness that the Nova architecture lacked. Chevrolet built the first-generation Camaro with minor styling changes through 1969, with the 307 (5.0L) V-8 replacing the 327 in the middle of that year.
General Motors policy prohibited installation of engines larger than 400 cid in smaller cars, but as several dealers (most notably Don Yenko) were swapping in 427 (7.0-liter) V-8s, Chevrolet offered 427-equipped Camaros in 1969 as a special order through the Central Office Production Order (COPO) system.
Chevrolet started developing the second-generation Camaro almost as soon as the ’67 went on sale, with the intention of building a car with world-class handling and styling. The complexity of its rounded sheet metal presented new engineering and production challenges, and Chevrolet delayed the introduction of the new car until Friday, February 13th, 1970. (This Camaro is often labeled as a “1970½”, though Chevrolet never used this designation.) The 230 cid six was gone, a victim of the new Camaro’s heavier weight, as was the 302, as Trans Am rules no longer required a 5-liter engine. The big-block 396 was enlarged to 402 cid (6.6 liter), though it retained its 396 badging, and other engine sizes carried over. This was the only generation of the Camaro not available as a convertible.
Chevrolet continued to offer Rally Sport (RS), Super Sport (SS), and Z-28 packages, the latter now powered by a 360-hp 350. Performance car sales were declining, and in 1973 Chevrolet dropped the big-block engine and replaced the RS with the Type LT, which stood for Luxury Touring.
The Camaro was restyled in 1974 to meet new Federal bumper standards. It was one of the few bumper designs of the era that looked handsome and well integrated, though it grew the Camaro’s length by 7 inches. The engine lineup was down to the 250 I-6 and the 350 V-8. By this time Chrysler and AMC’s pony cars had been discontinued and the Mustang had been downsized to the Pinto-based Mustang II. That left the Camaro (and Firebird) as the only domestic cars of their kind on the market, and sales rose rapidly through the end of the decade. A new 305 cid (5.0 liter) V-8 was added in 1976, and the Z28 was dropped for 1975 only to reappear in 1977.
The Camaro was restyled again in 1978, gaining body-color plastic bumpers and an optional T-top, and was sold in Sport Coupe, Type LT, Z28 and Rally Sport trims, with the Berlinetta replacing the LT for 1979. In 1980, a new 229 cid (3.8 liter) V-6 replaced the 250 straight six. After peaking in 1979, sales entered a swan dive, dropping 50% between 1979 and 1981.
Chevrolet unveiled the third-generation Camaro for the 1982 model year with clean, squared-off styling and three models: Sport Coupe, Berlinetta and Z28, the latter selected as MotorTrend‘s 1982 Car of the Year. Engine choices were the 2.5-liter “Iron Duke” 4-cylinder (dropped after 1985), a 2.8-liter V-6, and a 5.0 liter (305 cid) V-8 with optional fuel injection. Once again, sales soared.
Chevrolet introduced the IROC-Z in 1985. In 1987 the convertible and the 5.7L (350 cid) V-8 returned, now with fuel injection and 225 hp. A facelifted model was introduced in 1991, when the IROC model was dropped as the International Race of Champions switched to Dodge Daytonas.
A new fourth-generation Camaro coupe made its debut for 1993. The new car had a heavily revised suspension, though it retained the live rear axle. Two models were offered, a base car with a 3.4 liter V-6 engine and the Z28 with a 275 hp “Gen II” 5.7-liter V-8. A convertible followed for 1994 and a Buick-sourced 3.8-liter V-6 replaced the 3.4 in 1996. For 1998, the Camaro got new front-end styling with aerodynamic headlights, and the Gen II 5.7 was replaced by the aluminum 5.7-liter (346 cid) V-8 from the new C5 Corvette. Sales dwindled, and after years of only minor changes, production was halted in the summer of 2002. The Camaro had come to an end—or so it was thought.
The success of Ford’s new-for-2005 Mustang led GM to reconsider the Camaro, and at the 2006 Detroit auto show it revealed a new concept that paid homage to the 1969 Camaro. Public reaction was overwhelmingly positive and GM announced that a production version was in the works. Development survived the economic downturn, GM’s bankruptcy, and the failure of Pontiac’s Holden-based GTO (with which the new car would share its underpinnings).
The fifth-generation Camaro cope debuted for the 2010 model year, once again with V-6 or V-8 power. The convertible appeared in 2011, followed in 2012 by the 580-hp supercharged ZL-1. The Camaro was facelifted in 2014, when the Z/28 package was re-introduced.
The sixth-generation Camaro was introduced as a 2016 model. Though similar in appearance, it was smaller, lighter, and more agile than the car it replaced. Engine choices included a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making this the first four-cylinder Camaro in thirty years. 2017 saw the return of the supercharged ZL1 as well as the track-oriented 1LE and base LS models. Along with the turbo four, the Camaro offered a 3.6-liter V-6 and 6.2-liter V-8 in naturally aspirated and supercharged forms. Styling was refreshed in 2018, and the Camaro remains in production to this day.
Chevrolet Camaro Highlights
The Pontiac Firebird was mechanically similar to the Chevrolet Camaro, but in keeping with GM tradition—in the late 1960s, at least—the division used its own powertrains. The 230- and 250-cid sixes were similar to Chevy’s engines but had unique blocks and overhead camshafts. The 326 (5.3 liter), 350 and 400 (6.6L) V-8s were Pontiac designs. The second-generation Firebirds used Chevrolet sixes and began borrowing V-8s from Oldsmobile in 1977 and Chevrolet in 1978. It wasn’t until the 3rd generation (1982) that the Firebird adopted an all-“corporate” engine lineup.
The legendary Camaro was also the launching pad for a legendary engine: Chevy’s small-block 350 (5.7 liter) V-8. Designed as an emissions-friendly alternative to the 327, the 350 would become a GM mainstay for 30 years. It was phased out for cars (including the Camaro) after 1992, replaced by a “Generation II” engine of similar displacement, but GM used the Gen I 350 in trucks, vans, and cop cars through 1996.
GM president Ed Cole, looking to rein in runaway model proliferation at Chevrolet, wanted to use the upcoming bumper standards as an excuse to kill the Camaro in 1973. A group of enthusiasts inside the company teamed up with a small contingent of dealers, who travelled to Detroit and offered to buy the entire production run if GM kept the Camaro. The lobbying worked and the Camaro remained in production. The decision was the right one: Camaro sales soared in the mid-to-late ’70s, peaking in 1979.
Just as Ford developed the Mustang II from the Pinto, there were rumors that Chevrolet would build a downsized Camaro based on the Vega. Chevrolet did indeed create such a car, but it was not a Camaro replacement. The Monza was marketed from 1975 through 1980.
The third-gen Camaro’s compound-curved rear window was the largest piece of automotive glass produced to date.
Chevrolet considered front-wheel-drive for both the third- and fourth-gen Camaros. The company stuck with rear-wheel drive for the third-gen, as the FWD architecture of the time would not support a V-8 engine. A front-drive Camaro project called GM-80 was well on its way for the fourth generation, but poor sales of the Ford Probe, itself a proposed front-drive replacement for the Mustang, led General Motors to drop the idea.
Chevrolet Camaro Buying Tips
Some Camaro models are very collectible (and very valuable), and when buying one of these cars it’s important to check the VIN, engine ID, and fender tags to verify the car’s originality. For particularly rare or valuable models, the car should be authenticated.
Camaros were often driven vigorously, so when buying a newer model, look for traditional signs of abuse: Body work, uneven tire repair, and damage to wheels or suspension components, among other things.
Many of the late 2nd-gen and early 3rd-gen Camaros used carburetors with complex emissions controls, which caused tuning and driving problems even when new. These cars are still subject to emissions requirements in some states that require original smog equipment to remain intact. Check your state’s emissions laws and consider either a pre-smog or fuel-injected car.