The Pony Car That Tried Harder

In 1962 just two years before Ford introduced the Mustang and helped create a new segment that would carry the “pony car” designation the same way that all self-stick bandages are called “Band-Aids,” the rental car firm Avis debuted a new slogan. “When you’re only No. 2,” the tagline read, “you try harder. Or else.” The campaign was a success, bringing the No. 2 brand to within shouting distance of market leader Hertz several times over the next 50 years.

Think of the Camaro as the Avis of pony cars: perpetually No. 2, but always trying just that little bit harder. It wasn’t a role General Motors was used to playing. The irony was that the Mustang was a low-tech, low-buck response to the Chevrolet Corvair Monza — but customers preferred the Ford’s iconic style to the Chevrolet’s technological sophistication. Nearly 700,000 Mustangs were sold before the 1966 model year. GM was going to need a pony of its own, and in short order.

The Camaro that made its debut in September 1966 was little more than a copy of the Mustang, right down to the “haunches” over the rear wheels. Yet it had a few significant advantages over the original. The styling was clean and crisp where the Mustang’s verged on the Baroque, particularly in 1968 and 1969. There was also an immediate emphasis on hard-edged performance, courtesy of the Z/28 and its solid-lifter 302-cid V-8, which could spin the tach all the way to a staggering 7,000 rpm.

In an era where customers often inherited their loyalty to Ford or Chevrolet and pursued it with a fierceness that bordered on piety, the first-generation Camaro was more than adequate in preventing GM loyalists from crossing the road to the Ford dealer. With the debut of the 1970 model, however, the Camaro came brilliantly into its own. A clean-sheet design unashamedly inspired by Pininfarina’s four-seat Ferraris, it traded the stolid, upright pony car template for a tumblehome-heavy carrozzeria aesthetic that somehow continued to look all-American in blue-and-white Z/28 form.

By 1973, the now-familiar combination of skyrocketing gasoline prices, EPA-mandated emissions controls, and the dreaded 5-mph bumpers had managed to knock most of the pony car competitors out of the game altogether. The Mustang swelled to a bloated parody of itself before enduring a reinvention on the Pinto platform. It was probably the right car for the times, but it had little of the joie de vivre that characterized the original.

Faced with the same set of challenges for the ’70s, the two GM divisions with an F-body chose widely divergent paths. Pontiac created a decidedly macho image for the Firebird Trans Am, keeping the 400-cubic-inch big-block that enabled the T/A 6.6 to pip the Corvette for quarter-mile honors more than once in the middle of the decade. Chevrolet took the Camaro upmarket with LT and Berlinetta variants and a restyle that featured a pointed nose and the now-famous wraparound rear window. Thus, a template was set that would persist for the next 25 years: The Camaro was the classy F-body, and the Firebird was the outrageous one.

Model year 1977 was the first time the Camaro outsold the Mustang, and it also marked the return of a Z/28 model. Still, public imagination was entirely preoccupied with the “screaming chicken” Trans Am as driven by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. For a country in the depths of what then-President Jimmy Carter called “malaise,” the hyper-outrageous Pontiac was the perfect antidote. It didn’t help that the downsized, Euro-style Fox-body Mustang arrived in 1979 to steal whatever mojo the Camaro had left by reclaiming sales leadership. It was probably the darkest hour in Camaro history up to this point, and it continued for three long years.

Dawn came with the debut of the smaller, lighter, sharper-looking third-generation Camaro in 1982. With it came a whole new identity for the Camaro: performance. Sure, the Firebird had yet another high-profile media presence in the form of the Knight Rider television show, but the Camaro captured the hearts of the car magazines and the SCCA racers. The new “Cross-Fire Injection” engine had slots on the hood that flipped up at full throttle. The suspension of the Z/28 produced unheard-of-for-pony-cars skidpad and slalom results. Compared to its Pontiac stablemate, the Camaro was shorter, lighter, tauter and more focused. The public took notice, catapulting the new car to the top of the sales charts.

In the years that followed, Chevrolet doubled down on the overall performance strategy. The High-Output five-liter was available with a five-speed manual, and advertisements showed a stopwatch along with the tagline, “This is the best time we’ve ever had.” The folks at Car and Driver had a great time with it too, and named the Z/28 their “Best-Handling American Car” in 1984, against the likes of the Mustang SVO, Fiero 2M4 and Corvette. The monochrome IROC-Z hammered home the performance point even further when it received the Corvette’s 350-cid V-8 in 1987.

All of a sudden, the Camaro was the coolest pony car, the choice of the cognoscenti, carrying the fight to the Porsche 944 and the Nissan 300ZX. All the kids knew that the Mustang GT and Pontiac Trans Am couldn’t quite keep up. Not in a straight line, and definitely not around a racetrack. The 1LE package, designed to give the Camaro the edge in SCCA racing, arrived in 1989 as the icing on the cake. The “five-point-oh” Mustang LX of the ’80s offered plenty of power at a lower cost, but it didn’t have the Camaro’s exotic proportions or raw capability.

When the fourth-generation car arrived for the 1993 model year, wearing styling derived from the Corvette Indy show car and featuring a sweet 275-horsepower LT1 350 under the hood, the Camaro’s transformation from Mustang copy to American supercar became complete. Long, low, sleek and hugely aggressive, the new Z/28 could run with anything short of a Porsche 911 Turbo. The Mustang that debuted for 1994 in response was tall, frumpy and oddly shaped. Most importantly, it was 60 horsepower short. Ford tried to knock the Camaro off its perch with a “Cobra” variant of the 5.0 in 1994 and then again two years later with a 32-valve, 305-horsepower successor. But these high-priced, limited-production models were no faster than the base Z/28 sitting in every Chevrolet showroom across America.

What happened next was the stuff of street-racing legend. For 1998, the Camaro received the new LS1 aluminum V-8 from the C5 Corvette. It was rated at 350 horsepower in the Corvette and 305 in the Camaro — but it was just smoke and mirrors. Before long, everybody knew that the LS1 Camaro had all the power of the Corvette. No Mustang could touch it. Sales were low, perhaps because the Mustang’s upright silhouette offered far more day-to-day utility, but everybody from SCCA autocrossers to the guys who ran for pink slips after midnight knew that the final fourth-generation Camaros were something truly special.

By the end of 2002, the Camaro stood alone as the quintessential four-seat American performance car. It was faster than anything that had ever borne the name before, particularly around a road course. It still looked fresh and unique, so GM’s decision to cancel the F-body appears unjustifiable in retrospect, but it was just one of several hard choices being made by the company at the time. Most of those choices were wrong, of course, and several led directly to the bailout and restructuring of 2008.

Ford’s “retro” Mustang of 2005 proved that pony cars could be profitable again. This time, it took GM a full five years to field an answer, with a similarly retro 2010-modelyear Camaro. There was nothing in the design to recall any of the cars built with that nameplate from 1970 to 2002. The wraparound rear window, the pointed nose, the supercar proportions were all gone, replaced by a stocky, upright two-door sedan featuring haunches over the rear wheels. It recalled a Camaro that only the Baby Boomers truly knew, and it relied on an existing platform that made it considerably larger and heavier than the Mustang against which it competed.

Yet even this relatively unadventurous car was “trying harder” in the best Camaro tradition. It offered more power than the Mustang in both V-6 and V-8 configurations. It had independent rear suspension and an impressively stiff unibody. From the debut of the model, the Camaro was faster than the Mustang around a racetrack, but the arrival of the Nürburgring-conquering supercharged ZL1 model took the fight to Porsche and Nissan, just like the third-generation cars had.

The final fifth-generation variant, the Z/28, was a love letter to the raw-performance fans who had supported the Camaro through the past 32 years. It matched the stellar 505-horsepower, 427-cid LS7 engine from the Corvette Z06 with a no-compromise chassis and unique race-compound tires. No Mustang ever built could touch it when the green flag flew. It might have looked retro, but the spirit of the fourth-generation Camaro SS was present and fully accounted for in the 2014 Z/28.

Ford’s decision to abandon the retro theme for the newest Mustang gave a lot of hope to those of us who wanted the sixth-generation Camaro to do the same. Those hopes weren’t realized. For better or worse, the new car is decidedly retro, albeit with a dose of futuristic aggression. The good news is that it’s a stunning performer, with class-leading power from three different engine packages, including a new-generation LT1 V-8 from the C7 Corvette Stingray.

This 2016 Camaro is lighter, more focused, and even faster than before. You could argue that it represents the best of both Camaro traditions. Just like the 1967 original, it’s a sleeker, more tasteful take on a Mustang. But it’s also a no-compromise sporting car like the 1982 Camaro and its successors. As such, it should meet the needs of the open-track-day crowd and the Woodward Dream Cruise clique equally well. Some of us would like it to be an American supercar, a sleek wedge aimed at the heart of Europe. Maybe that will come in the next installment. In the meantime, this sixth-generation Camaro is worthy of the name, and worthy of our affections. It’s still a pony car and still bound by the traditions of the first Mustang and the cars that followed. And, like the folks at Avis, it’s still trying just that little bit harder.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Win, place or SHOW

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *