It’s the dawn of a brand-new Camaro sports coupe, one of the most eagerly anticipated cars of the new model year. And why is the auto world licking its chops? Largely because it looks so much like the 1968-’69 models that are still considered the highwater mark by just about anyone who loves Camaros.
The original Camaro was Chevrolet’s “echo” car, a response to the hugely successful Ford Mustang that had arrived like a herd of wild horses three years earlier.
Other than some minor competition from the Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Marlin, the Mustang enjoyed outright ownership of the “Pony car” category . . . since it was the Pony car category. By the time General Motors introduced the Chevy Camaro and the related Pontiac Firebird in the fall of 1966, Ford had already moved more than 1.4 million Mustangs.
Work on the Camaro began in the summer of 1964, shortly after the first Mustang hit the market. To build it, Chevrolet borrowed a number of key suspension and chassis components from the Chevy II, just as Ford had done using its compact Falcon as the basis for the Mustang.
Size-wise, Chevy mimicked the Mustang’s long-hood, short-deck formula with most key Camaro dimensions closely matching those of the Ford.
The designers who styled the Camaro introduced a number of elements from new or existing Chevrolets. The 1965 Corvair’s clean, sweeping lines were adapted for the car’s fenders and trunk-lid area, and the hollowed-out dash was very similar to that of the 1968 Corvette.
The first Camaros consisted of a basic coupe and convertible along with luxury-oriented Rally Sport and performance-based Super Sport (SS) options. The RS included special wheels and trim bits along with a unique grille with hidden headlights. Both of these option packages could be combined to create an SS/RS version.
Power choices consisted of practically every engine in Chevrolet’s inventory, except the popular 283 cubic-inch V8. For starters, there was a 230 cubic-inch inline six-cylinder worth 140 horsepower as well as a 250 cubic-inch six-cylinder engine with 155.
But for real sport-level performance, there were two small-block V8s offered: a 327 that put out between 210 and 275 horsepower; and a 350 cubic-inch V8, rated at between 255 and 300 horses. For 1968 and ’69, the Camaro’s engine bay options grew to include the 325-horsepower 396-cubicinch V8 and the awesome Corvette-based 427 that produced a tarmac-tearing 425 horsepower.
Then there was the special Z-28 Camaro that was originally built for the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Group 2 sedan racing, eventually called the Trans Am racing series.
SCCA rules stipulated that cubic-inch displacement be limited to 305 cubic inches. To comply using their existing engine hardware, Chevy engineers basically adapted the crankshaft from the 283 motor and placed it inside a 327 engine block. The resulting displacement of 302.4 cubes was the result.
The Z-28’s valvetrain was updated for higher revs while a big Holley four-barrel carburetor and a super-slick close-ratio Muncie four-speed manual transmission were part of the package. There were also heavy-duty springs and shocks and power front disc brakes.
Although Chevrolet rated the Z-28 at 290 horsepower, it is widely assumed that the real figure was closer to 350 horses and that the lower rating was created to throw the competition off the scent and keep the auto insurance companies from charging sky-high premiums based on the car’s actual horsepower.
First-year production of the Z-28 maxed out at a mere 602 cars, making them some of the rarest among Camaro collectors. During Year Two, the numbers grew to 7,200 vehicles, and by the time the first-generation Camaro wrapped up in 1969, more than 19,000 Z-28s had been built.
Total Camaro production for the initial 1967 model year reached 221,000 units, less than half the 472,000 Mustangs that Ford sold in the same year.
On the track, however, the Camaro became the car to beat in Trans Am racing, eventually winning the championship in 1968-’69 with the late Mark Donohue behind the wheel.
The original Camaro represented the Golden Age of muscle and Pony cars, with their anything-goes engine options bolted to frames originally intended to handle conservative, low-powered compacts. Proof of success is shown with their immense popularity and collectibility today, not to mention the fact that it’s the inspiration for one of the most eagerly anticipated new cars 40 years later.
Jeff Melnychuk is Wheelbase Communications’ managing editor. He can be reached on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.