Second-Gen Camaro (1970–81): The one that had class
With the Camaro nameplate retiring soon, we’re honoring the beloved two-door with a series of love letters, fun lists, and memories you can follow along with here. Many performance cars, especially nowadays, aim for an anodyne version of perfection that only a few can afford. The Camaro is for the rest of us—and it’s always ready to party. Still, we can’t pretend the car we’re about to celebrate over the next week or so is perfect. That in mind, let down your hair and come with us for a deep dive into what, exactly, makes the second-gen Camaro so bitchin’.
In drag racing, first gear gets you off the line, but second gear wins the race, and everything can come down to how well you execute the shift. By 1970, after just three short model years of the original Camaro, GM was ready to reach for the shifter.
Sketching of the second gen began in 1966, right after the design work wrapped on the first Camaro. This time, Chevy Studio 3 chief Henry Haga and his counterpart at Pontiac, Bill Porter, were determined not to let family-car proportions hamper their work. The second gen was a clean break, with almost no design elements carrying over from the original. Haga’s team drew the cowl so low that GM engineering pushed back, grousing that there was no way to package the car’s heater, air conditioner, radio, and glove compartment within such a compressed space.
According to Chevy historian Michael Lamm, styling chief Bill Mitchell—a full-fledged GM vice president—was called in to settle things. Mitchell backed up his designers, holding that a low cowl was essential to the car’s sporty character and that it shouldn’t rise even a fraction of an inch. The gen-two Camaro thus became the designer’s Camaro.
The 1970 ½ Camaro, so-called because its arrival was delayed by labor unrest, was proportioned to look dramatically lower, longer, and sleeker, with a slipstream roofline and a much sexier stretch from the dash to the front axle, known as the dash-to-axle ratio. This despite the wheelbase and overall construction, a semi-unitized steel architecture with a bolt-on front subframe, remaining conceptually unchanged from the first gen.
For the face, inspiration came from the then-new 1968 Jaguar XJ6 making the auto show rounds, with its prominent rectangular grille bracketed by faired-in headlights and driving lights. A decision to do away with a quarter-window supposedly saved GM $18 per car, money plowed into better cabin insulation including a double-wall roof. However, besides hampering rear visibility, no quarter-window meant excessively long doors, which were better for accessing the rear seats but made a shimmy job out of exiting a Camaro parked in a garage or between cars.
A decision to give Pontiac almost entirely separate sheetmetal for the Firebird, including slightly different doors, likely killed the convertible as well as a proposed two-door wagon. Tooling up such niche spinoffs for both Chevy and Pontiac was deemed prohibitively expensive, so the F-body for the 1970s arrived as a hardtop coupe only, with T-tops arriving as an option in 1978.
Performance, as well as design, was a calling card—at least at first. Hot engines included a 360-hp small-block V-8 and a 396-cubic-inch V-8 with 375 horsepower. At least one equipped with the Chevelle’s famed LS6 454-cubic-inch V-8 roamed GM’s proving grounds.
The “designer’s Camaro” arrived just as sales in the segment were tanking. Inflation was raging, OPEC was rampaging, and GM was facing mounting costs for meeting new safety and emissions regulations. In its first year, the second gen sold barely 50 percent of what the ’69 had sold. A devastating six-month UAW strike at the Camaro’s Norwood, Ohio, plant in 1972 prompted GM to consider killing the F-body outright. Production was halted so long that 1100 partially assembled Camaros and Firebirds collecting dust in the plant had to be scrapped because their 1972 bumpers no longer met 1973 safety standards.
However, the car had friends in high places within GM and ducked the ax. The second-gen carried the Camaro flag on for an astounding 11 years even as competitors ballooned in size and then drastically shrank (Mustang) or disappeared altogether (AMX, Challenger, etc.). Indeed, the F-body survived long enough for the 1977 blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit to inject new life into the segment; the 272,000 sales of the aging 1978 Camaro beat that of any year of the first gen as well as finally—finally!—swamping that of the Mustang.
As in drag racing, the Camaro launched in first, but it won in second.