At the end of the 1980s, two things happened in the American automotive market: organic, aerodynamic forms replaced angular bricks, and performance returned in earnest. It was prompted by the 375-horsepower, 175-mph Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, and Japanese golden-era models like the Acura NSX, high-wing Toyota Supra Turbo, and third-generation Mazda RX7.
The muscle car market had almost collapsed in the late ’70s as emissions regulations cut 350-cubic-inch V-8s to a wheezy 165 hp. The market recovered, but the 1987 IROC Camaro still generated only 220 hp in a hard-riding and dated body. As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, Japanese manufacturers continued to make smaller, faster cars while domestic automakers clung to V-8 engines and rear-wheel drive, and they saw their share of the market shrink.
By 1993, the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were overdue for a makeover, as the previous model’s lifetime for both cars stretched 10 model years. The fourth-generation GM sports cars were well-received by the press and public. In 10 years, nearly one million of them were sold—971,687, to be exact—633,196 Camaros and 338,491 Firebirds and Trans Ams. In its debut year the Camaro Z28 came with a 5.7-liter, 275-hp V-8 that laid down a 0-60 mph time of 5.3 seconds and a quarter mile time of 14 seconds flat, according to Car and Driver. With all that (for $17,269), serious American performance for the masses was officially back.
Obvious distinctions between the Camaro and Firebird were the Camaro’s four recessed square headlights, while the Firebird’s were retractable. The Camaro’s rear spoiler was built neatly into the rear fenders, while the Firebird’s spoiler was trunk mounted. Both had sharply sloped, 68-degree windshields and huge rear hatches with large glass.
Bodywork was state of the art; only the hood and rear quarters were steel—the roof, doors, hatch, and spoiler were formed out of chopped fiberglass and resin. The live rear axle and floor pan were unchanged, but 90 percent of the Camaro and Firebird were new. Throughout the run, both offered V-6 and V-8 engines. While 1993 models offered a 160-hp, 3.4-liter V-6, the 1996 the F-body carried a 200-hp, 3.8-liter V-6.
Both Camaro Z28, SS, and Firebird Formula and Trans Am were fitted with the 5.7-liter LT1 V-8 until the 1997 model year. The following year brought the all-aluminum LS1 V-8 from the Corvette, making 305 hp in base trim. The mid-cycle refresh also included new front and rear styling for the Camaro and Firebird, as well as updated interiors. V-6 Camaros and Firebirds came with Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed manual gearboxes, while V-8s were mated to a Borg-Warner T56 six-speed. A four-speed automatic (4L60 in 1993, 4L60E in later years) was optional for both engines.
As of this writing, prices for fourth-generation Camaros and Firebirds have generally seen the bottom of their cycle, but as the cars make the transition from used to collectible, certain limited models are already experiencing significant value growth, and they may not be bargains for much longer. Camaro offered an Indy Pace Car Replica in 1993, a convertible beginning in 1994, an SS starting in 1996, and a 30th Anniversary package for the Z/28 in 1997. With the 320-hp LS1 V-8, a 1999 Z28 SS could accelerate from 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds and 0-100 mph in 12.8 seconds (C/D), and it had a top speed of 160 mph.
Pontiac offered a 25th Anniversary Trans Am in 1994, and tuning-shop SLP (Street Legal Performance) Firehawk offerings were sold at Pontiac dealers throughout the run. The rarest of these birds is undoubtedly the 29 examples of 1997 Firehawks powered by the Corvette Grand Sport’s LT4 V-8.
Beyond special editions, the Camaro and Firebird/Trans Am market offers plenty of bargains. Inherent design faults have significantly influenced prices, and although V-6 cars offer better fuel economy, their performance is lackluster (with the exception of a few SLP models). In addition, V-6 engines can suffer from leaking intake manifolds and cylinder heads with catastrophic results. LT1 V-8 engines are notable for their reverse flow cooling system, which causes the oil (and therefore the engine) to run very hot. Synthetic oil is recommended, and an oil cooler is a thoughtful addition. LT1 engines are also known to leak oil at the rear intake manifold seal, due to a compromised gasket design. The LS1 engine fitted from 1998 is far superior, and 200,000 miles without any major failures is quite attainable.
The first view under the hood is alarming, as everything you need to access (except the alternator) is buried—the engine appears to be installed under the windshield. The Opti-spark II ignition module is located under the water pump, and any leak can be terminally expensive. The 4L60 transmission is fairly durable but expensive to overhaul, while the sturdy T56 six-speed gearbox is handicapped by a poorly designed hydraulic clutch. The clutch is slow to release, which is hard on synchromesh cogs and the 10-bolt differential, while the former is easily strained from mild engine tuning.
While the overall design of the Firebird and Camaro has worn well, the interiors have not. Look for splits in the dashboard, sagging headliners and visors, leaking T-tops, broken plastic switches, and a glovebox that won’t lock. The huge bump in the passenger-side floor is normal though, as it made room for the catalytic converter from 1993 to 1995. A dual-cat design was used from 1996 onward with the adoption of OBDII, but the floor stamping did not change.
Road testers commented on the relative quiet of the Camaro in 1993, but you’re most likely to notice the tire roar, thanks to an almost total absence of soundproofing, and the booming exhaust. That may not be a problem if you’re in high school, but the charm (not the noise, unfortunately) soon fades away.
Compared to the brutal styling of the current Camaro, the 1993-2002 Camaro and Firebird typify the graceful softness of ’90s design. They may conceal some common underpinnings as the previous model, but the impression is much more sophisticated and—of course—there’s much more power. Like the first generation of Camaro and Firebird, their elegance may have lasting appeal. Even if not, the financial risk as low. As when new, the 4th-generation F-body represents an American performance bargain.