Chevrolet’s response to the Ford Mustang’s release took more than two years to reach showrooms. When the Camaro finally arrived, however, it proved to be a formidable competitor. Fifty years later, through many mechanical and styling makeovers, the battle for pony car-class supremacy still rages. Here are the major milestones in the Camaro’s six generations of development:
Camaro joined the pony car club for 1967, bringing its own curvy style in coupe and convertible bodies and offering a smorgasbord of cosmetic, comfort and performance options. The most popular combination was a base coupe with a 327-cid small-block V-8 and a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission. But it was the selection of more muscular engines that established Camaro’s street cred: The SS package debuted a 350-inch small block, and 396-cube big blocks were available with up to 375 horsepower.
A regular production option known as RPO Z28, the Special Performance Package, included an exclusive 290-horse 302 and handling upgrades that made the Camaro eligible for the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Trans-Am road racing series. The SS and Z/28 could be combined with the popular Rally Sport package – essentially hidden headlights, different taillights and an upgraded interior.
The 1969 restyle, which carried over to the start of the 1970 model year, creased some of Camaro’s curves, and Chevy juggled its base V-8s. A Camaro had paced the Indy 500 in 1967 and again in 1969, when 3,675 replicas were made. Through its Central Office Production Order system, Chevy built about 200 COPO Camaros with the 425-horse 427-cid engine. Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania sold most of them, adorned with Yenko Supercar graphics. Another 69 COPOs were built with the ZL-1 aluminum 427.
The midyear introduction of the1970 Camaro brought a Euro-flavored fastback design inspired by the 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. The Rally Sport option’s split-bumper front end accentuated the similarity. Unfortunately, there was no convertible.
The second-generation Z28 used Corvette’s solid-lifter LT-1 350 engine, switching to the hydraulic-cam L82 for 1973. That year’s Type LT (Luxury Touring) emphasized comfort and could be combined with the Z28 or Rally Sport packages, or both. The SS stayed through 1972, with a choice of small-block or big-block engines.
Sales softened considerably in the early 1970s as sporty car sales faded, and were further hurt by a labor strike at GM in 1972 followed by a recession in 1973-75. Camaro sales rebounded in 1976, even as engine output bottomed. After a two-year hiatus, the Z28 returned in 1977 as a separate model, now with a mild 350-inch four-barrel engine. The luxury-image Berlinetta replaced the LT in 1979, when Camaro set its all-time sales record of 282,571.
The downsized 1982 Camaro shifted to a coil-spring rear suspension, and agility was a strong point. Most buyers passed on the dreadful 90-hp Iron Duke four-cylinder, selecting the small V-6 from Chevy’s Citation instead. The Z28 dazzled with handling but disappointed with the lackluster performance of its standard 145-horse 5-liter V-8 – and even with the optional 165-hp version using Cross Fire Injection.
An optional 190-horse 5-liter H.O. and 5-speed manual transmission redeemed the Z28 for 1983, followed in 1985 by a Tuned Port Injection option. Chevy’s sponsorship of the International Race of Champions series spawned the popular IROC-Z handling and styling package for the Z28, creating the most memorable of third-gen Camaros.
A convertible returned for 1987, as did the 350-cid V-8, now with port fuel injection. The obscure 1LE chassis package was aimed at SCCA Showroom Stock racers. The 1991-92 B4C Special Service Package for law enforcement agencies was essentially a Z28 in a plain RS body.
The fourth-generation Camaro might have been too sporty for its own good, with a rakish design that lacked its predecessor’s wide appeal. The Z28 was a scorcher, though, with a 275-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 and six-speed stick. A new SS joined it in 1996, and a 1998 restyle brought even hotter performance from the aluminum LS1. Still, sinking sales spurred Chevy to cancel the Camaro after 2002.
The resurrected Camaro inherited its platform from GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden, but took styling inspiration from its 1969 progenitor. Independent rear suspension refined the handling and ride, and even the base V-6 was a solid performer. The SS used a 426-horsepower 6.2-liter LS3. Performance peaked with a supercharged 580-horsepower ZL1 and $75,000 Z/28.
All-new once again, the 2016 Camaro dropped a few inches and 200 pounds, though its lines were barely differentiated from the fifth-generation cars. Engines range from a 275-horse turbocharged four-cylinder to the 455-horse LT1. A new ZL1, with the 650-horsepower supercharged engine from the Corvette Z06, can hit 193 mph.