Chevrolet Camaro - Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review - Muscle Car

Chevrolet Camaro – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review

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Elise

Written by Elise

29th September 2020

Chevrolet Camaro – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review
Blog   >    Car Models   >   Chevrolet Camaro – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review

Chevrolet Camaro – Classic Muscle Car 2020 Review

By Chris Williams

How does one review a legend such as the Camaro? Do I nit-pick, gossip and belittle, or do I gush and lick its tyres? 

The best approach is to praise the demigod, yet show its human qualities. The fact is that this fifty-four-year-old machine of an American muscle car has indeed become a god among petrol heads. But for every person who worships the Camaro the way a fisherman might tend his best nets, there are those bedecked in purple robes that pour fuel libations to metal deities with bigger, better nets and automatic transmission. (Or manual transmission. Not that fish care.)

Thus, a war of relentless scorn is waged against the Camaro and its followers. But religious conflicts aside, the Camaro has had a remarkable life. 

The Mustang Headache

Since Ford released its Mustang in 1964, General Motors had to come up with a competitor. The Mustang was on fire; when launched, it landed on the covers of both Newsweek and Time magazines. In its first two years before any competitors came along, Ford had sold millions of Mustangs. 

With the Mustang merrily screeching around on the parapet, General Motors finally emerged from the trenches in September 1966 in the form of the Chevrolet Camaro

First Generation (’67-’69)

Longer and wider than the 1966 Ford Mustangs, the Camaro meant business. Using a couple of six-cylinder units and even a 327ci V8, the Camaro was unquestionably a performance car. But GM wasn’t done yet. The new Camaro also sported a new engine: the SS 350ci V8. The SS could go head to head with the GT390 Mustang in a sprint to 60mph which was jolly impressive.

But GM still wasn’t finished. After a few months of being on the market, Chevrolet rolled out an even bigger 396ci engine for the SS Camaro. Tuned to 375bhp the SS 396 Camaro could scrabble from 0-62mph in a smudge over six seconds. And it did scrabble because the SS 396, and to a lesser extent the SS 350, crossed the line between sports car and muscle car. 

Trying to control the Camaro’s big block power outputs with leaf springs at the rear was like trying to extinguish a kitchen fire with a damp tea bag. Although good sprinters, the ’67 big block Camaros were far from sports cars, but in fairness nor were the big block Mustangs. Nevertheless, the Mustang still dominated the 1967 sales race with almost 500,000 sales, which the Camaro could not match even half of.

Z/28

Caption: '67 728 Chevy Camaro
’67 728 Chevy Camaro

Chevrolet had an answer to the handling issue with the Z/28 as well. Like the Ford RS200 or Ferrari 288 GTO, the Z/28 was Chevrolet’s homologation car for racing. Specifically, the American Trans-Am series. 

The Z/28 was all about the track. It had a new 302ci V8 with practically all of its 290bhp only available above 4000rpm. Additionally, there were some much-needed suspension and brake upgrades as well as faster steering. 

Chevrolet had now equipped themselves with a full-throttle fire extinguisher. The results spoke for themselves: the Z/28 won the Trans-Am Championship in 1968 and 1969, as well as first in class at the 1968 12 Hours of Sebring. 

ZL1

In 1969, the Chevy Camaro was thrust back into its muscle car jumpsuit with the ZL1. Forget handling and forget sophistication: the ZL1 Camaro was all about the drag strip.

Looking to the Super Stock classes of drag racing, Chevrolet took a handful of ’69 SS Camaros and fitted them with effectively the same 427ci V8 used in the Chaparral Can Am car. The result? Predictable. The ZL1 came with a formal power rating of around 430bhp, but in reality they were chucking out well over 500. 0-62mph took around 4 seconds. Imagine buying a car and discovering it had a hundred horsepower more than you thought? That’d be a surprise in a Fiat 500.    

Second Generation (’70-’81)

Caption: 1970 Camaro
1970 Camaro

The new decade ushered in a very fresh face of Camaro. It was longer, wider, and lower than the old model; not to mention the radically different design. Up front, the spear tip grille and wide eyes combined with the fastback rear end were far more aggressive, and far more distinctive.     

Chevrolet clearly agreed. The brochure for the 1970 Camaro began with this: “If you think a sports car is a family sedan with performance bolt-ons, put this catalogue back where you found it.”

I will always admire the fact that when the second-generation Camaro was launched, GM asserted you had to be worthy of the Camaro, not the other way round. 

In terms of specs, not too much had changed. Beyond the base models, the Z/28 had a bigger 350ci V8 engine with 360bhp; the SS Camaros could have a 350ci or 402ci (badged as a 396) as before with 300 and 350 bhp respectively. 

Underneath was a different story. Mercifully, Chevrolet had made some improvements. Rear suspension in the big-block SS 396 Chevrolet was tweaked along with the addition of an anti-roll bar so the beast could handle the oomph with a little more grace. 

The Z/28 got its handling suspension setup too and was certainly the Camaro of choice for anyone wanting anything close to a sports car. The fact it also had the most powerful engine was almost just a bonus. 

With its new cosmetics and fettled internals, the Camaro hit the streets and racetracks everywhere. In 1973, Frank Gardner won the British Touring Car Championship in his Z/28.

Knockout

Caption: 1975 Camaro

From 1973, things started to go awry. First to take a punch to the face were the power figures. New SAE power ratings, combined with the oil crisis and new emissions standards meant that the SS big blocks disappeared altogether; the engines that remained took a big power hit. The 250 six-cylinder had a measly 100bhp, the 307 V8 only 115bhp. Even the 350 in the Z28 was reduced to an embarrassing 245bhp. 

And things weren’t over for the Camaro. New safety standards were introduced in the States from 1973 which resulted in subsequent Camaros being burdened with fat, unsightly aluminium bumpers. 

The second-generation Camaro began with promise, but only enjoyed three years before going down the gurgler. By 1975 the Z28 had gone from the menu. In 1975 the most you could get from your factory Camaro was 155bhp. 

Even so, curiously Chevrolet still managed to sell over 140,000 Camaros that year, and in 1977 the Z28 came back, at which point for the first time the Camaro outsold even the Mustang! Beggaring belief compared to earlier years, throughout the seventies the Camaro sold well while remaining largely terrible. 

Third Generation (’82-’92)

1984 Camaro

Generation three of the Camaro is probably the most contentious. Beginning with the styling – a hatchback – which in terms of credibility is not great for a muscle car. And yet, the ’82 Camaro looked alright. Then underneath there was some crucial developments. Coil springs at the rear, anti-roll bars, and fuel injection. Granted, the power outputs were comparatively pathetic, but most of the modern tech and sports car handling was there. Which really made it a pity that the performance was not. 

In terms of characteristics, then, the third-generation Camaro was at complete odds with the usual muscle car ethos; it even went to France, racing at Le Mans in 1982, coming second in its class! The same Camaro came first in its class in the 1984 Daytona 24 and won the 12 Hours of Sebring the same year.

Then in 1985 came a special version of the Z28 called the IROC-Z. The IROC-Z was named after the International Race of Champions, whose significance was much like the World Series in baseball – an international title actually took place only in America. Despite the somewhat hollow name, the IROC-Z was a good car and finally broke the 200bhp mark, where 0-62mph took 6.5 seconds. 

Slowly but surely, the Camaro was edging its way back to performance.

Fourth Generation (’93-’02)

Caption: 1999 Camaro

The 1990s were a decade of radical advancements for cars, and one in which the Camaro simply looked old. Subaru and Mitsubishi took on-road performance to a whole new dimension with sophisticated four-wheel-drive and turbochargers; meanwhile, BMW’s M5 showed how fast large cars could really go, both in a straight line and around the Nürburgring. Next to them, the Camaro with its live rear axle simply looked out of place.   

On a personal note, my experience of the fourth-generation Camaro was certainly novel. Comfortable in a straight line, but woe betide anyone who dared try going round a corner. All soft and wallowing, it was like riding a V8 walrus. 

Performance returned to the Camaro somewhat in the fourth generation but it was too little too late. And nor was it a looker. All those soft edges and rounded corners made the Camaro more like a toddler’s play toy than an aggressive muscle car. Chevrolet pulled out the Camaro badge altogether in 2002. 

Fifth Generation (2010-’15)

Caption: 2010 Camaro  

However, Chevrolet then brought out a proper Camaro.

Updated. Upgraded. Fierce. 

Realizing that there were better ways of building sporty cars, Chevrolet sought help from their colleagues Downunder at Holden. Seeking help from Australians about sophistication seemed a little odd even at the time, but the Australian division of General Motors (responsible for other small miracles like the Pontiac GTO) knew their stuff: the new Camaro was released with fully independent suspension and a 6.2 litre V8 engine that boasted 426bhp

The change certainly gave the 2010 Mustang a hiding on paper, though little real-world advantage. 0-62mp in the Camaro took 4.9 seconds, while the 2010 Mustang with 90bhp less took just over 5 seconds. Car and Driver tested the two against each other when new and decided that the Mustang still came out on top. 

Fortunately, the Camaro made up for the performance drawbacks with bold styling. It wasn’t hard for the fifth-generation Camaro to look more aggressive than its predecessor – a blade of grass looked more aggressive than its predecessor. But the Camaro was all sharp angles and a mean ‘what are you looking at?’ stare. It certainly beat the Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger in that respect. 

Back home in New Zealand, I remember plenty of people importing fifth-generation Camaros; any that appeared on the road always got a second glance and a lot of smiles. Even though in reality Bumblebee may not have been able to beat the Decepticon Mustang, he certainly looked the part, and for the movies that’s all that mattered.

When the fifth-generation Camaro came out, the muscle car horsepower race that had been dormant for so long went berserk. Ford had Shelby, Dodge used its SRT name, and Chevrolet brought back all its old badges. In 2012, the ZL1 came back with 580bhp and in 2014 the Z28 clawed out of the grave too, sporting a 7-litre V8. 

Sixth Generation (2016-present)

Caption: 2016 Camaro

The horsepower race continued in a similar fashion, but given that power figures had become so monstrous, Chevrolet added some tech. In the same way that ballistic missiles have guidance systems rather than a person with remote control, Chevrolet now uses aerodynamics, magnetic suspension, and multitudes of hardcore software to contain the 650bhp that gets pumped out from its top models. 

In fact, the Camaro has since become quite the track weapon. In 2017 the top dog ZL1 1LE Camaro whizzed around the Nürburgring in 7 minutes 16 seconds – a mere three seconds off a Porsche 918.

Fantastic though the lap time was, the crowning glory of the modern Camaro came from Hennessey. There have been numerous Camaro tunings over the decades but quite apart from the 1000bhp, Hennessey put quite possibly the best name on a car: The Exorcist. Then in late 2019 along came The Resurrection: a 1200bhp Hennessey Camaro. These two are, quite frankly, nuts. But dare anyone tell a muscle car fan there’s such a thing as too much horsepower?

Summary 

Like any surviving muscle car, the Camaro’s history is chequered. It looked its best in the early seventies and in terms of relative performance was arguably at its peak at that time too. However, with the help of Hennessey these days, the Camaro once again is embracing the absurdity of unhinged power. That is after all the nub and quintessence of muscle cars.  And long may it last.  

Author: Chris Williams


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