Third-Gen Camaro (1982–92): The one that’s misunderstood

1992 Camaro Z28 25th Anniversary John Roe

With the Camaro nameplate retiring soon, we’re honoring the beloved two-door with a series of love letters, fun lists, and memories that you can follow 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 third-gen Camaro so bitchin’.

“For reasons that probably baffle those who witnessed the mullet’s first rodeo in the ’80s, the hairstyle has become an unlikely symbol of hot,” reported British GQ in March 2023. What better time, then, to reexamine the legacy of what might be the most misunderstood Camaro?

The third gen, produced from 1982 to 1992, is the one people are most likely to mock. It had the weakest engines, starting as low as 90 horsepower in base models; build quality ranged from suspect to depressing; and there’s the association with big hair and even bigger bravado.

Yet this Camaro might be the most ambitious and—wait for it—sophisticated of the bunch. Development commenced in the mid-1970s, the tail end of General Motors’ golden age. Despite nagging challenges from upstart imports and regulatory pressures, the company still commanded more than half of the American car market. Bill Mitchell and his acolytes still roamed the halls of the Warren Tech Center. “You could see that there was trouble ahead—the company was getting involved in front-wheel-drive cars they didn’t know how to do—but there were these pockets of great design,” recalled John Cafaro, who joined in 1977 as a designer for Chevrolet and retired in 2019 as the brand’s global design director. “One of them was the Pontiac Firebird studio, as well as the Camaro and Corvette studio.”

Camaro Third Generation blur art
The 1980s were the last decade when the Camaro (like many two-door coupes) was truly mainstream. Chevrolet sold more than 1.5 million examples, a feat that would not be outdone by future generations. GM

The ’82 Camaro, with its sharp creases and unadorned body panels, seemed to have as much in common with Giorgetto Giugiaro’s stylings of the period as they do the pony cars that preceded it. There was more than a hint of motorsport—Cafaro, who designed the Z28’s nose, drew inspiration from the slantnose Porsches that were dominating Daytona. It was a beautiful departure from the go-fast gimcrackery that had taken over performance cars in the late 1970s. Thanks in large part to its enormous glass hatch, it was more functional than any Camaro before or since—more than trivial given that 1980s car buyers used them to do things we now reserve for 2-ton crossovers. (The Camaro was also, in this era, the Chevrolet most likely to be purchased by a woman.)

The pressure to perform as an everyday commuter and the fuel crunches of the era left their mark on the car’s performance as well, and not entirely for worse. The third gen was nearly half a foot shorter than the car it replaced, not to mention lighter. To drive one even today is to be surprised by the sensitivity and the immediacy of its steering. “You really could embarrass the Corvettes in autocross if you wanted to,” remembered John Heinricy, who is probably best known for his role as director of GM’s performance division in the early 2000s. But in the 1980s, he was a production engineer for Chevrolet who spent his weekends racing F-bodies at events, including IMSA’s showroom-stock series of the period, the Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship.

It was those extracurricular efforts that bequeathed the perfect track-day Camaro. In an effort to upgrade the brakes, which Heinricy deemed “marginal” for racing, he helped slip a racing package into showrooms under the then-unused RPO (Regular Production Option) code 1LE. It included brake rotors lifted off Caprice police cars, an aluminum driveshaft, a baffled gas tank, and a suspension so stiff that Heinricy personally spoke with each customer to ensure they knew what they were getting into. “We really wanted the cars to race. We didn’t want them just to be bought as a street driver.”

The Ford fans will note that we’ve so far avoided talking about engines. Indeed, they stank, at least initially. A corporate decision to cap displacement at 305 cubic inches, as well as fumbling experiments with throttle-body injection (a half-measure between carburetion and full-on fuel injection), meant the Z28 limped out of the gate with 165 horsepower. It needed close to 10 seconds to hit 60 mph. The base car, with its Pontiac-sourced Iron Duke four-cylinder, needed double that.

Camaro Gen Engine Option on black
Eventually an optional 350 V-8 (1987 and later) made more power than the Mustang 5.0. GM

Those numbers, ignominious as they are, rapidly improved. By 1985, the top dog (now called an IROC-Z, a nod to Chevrolet’s participation in the International Race of Champions) could be had with a fuel-injected, 215-hp, 305-cubic-inch V-8. Two years later, the 350-cubic-inch small-block returned with 245 horsepower. Yet those anemic early ’80s cars, produced in the hundreds of thousands, left a bad taste in many enthusiasts’ mouths. The fact that a great deal of the survivors today look ready for a role in The Walking Dead doesn’t help.

Amid a wave of nostalgia for 1980s icons, including but not limited to mullets, these Camaros are at last on the rise. A third gen in perfect condition and the right specification—that is, a later IROC with a fuel-injected engine—can bring more than $40,000.

 

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Comments

    “He lives on my block, and drives an IROC.” – Wheatus, “Teenage Dirtbag”

    The above lyric encapsulates both the stigma and appeal of the third gen Camaro. It’s a car that’s a product of its time and I think there’s much to appreciate. Sure, a modern Miata will stomp a stock one in a straight line, but the IROC, with its “tuned port injection” 305 was quick for its time. In particular, you got a flood of torque right off of idle that made it feel quicker than the numbers suggest – perfect for doing donuts on your neighbour’s lawn. You got a hooligan-approved cockpit – the complement of round gauges and three-spoked (airbagless) steering wheel were mission appropriate. The view over the long nose is the opposite of what Honda was doing with the Prelude in the latter half of the 80s, and combined with the way the nose rose under power, made you feel like something special was happening when you stepped on the throttle.

    It’s not a car that I lust after, but I smile whenever I see one. It’s part of the automotive landscape whose time might have passed, but that makes it all the more interesting today. I appreciate it for what it is and would jump at the chance to take one for a spin.

    There were some weak optioned IROCs but after 1987 any performance optioned car would probably whoop a stock Miata in 0-60, 1/4 mile and on a track. Different classes of cars. If you haven’t driven an IROC in a while you’d be surprised to see the handling feels modern still and it can hold road impressively for such an old car. Mustangs couldn’t match the handling until the mid 90s. A performance optioned IROC would do 0-60 in under 6 seconds, 14.0 in the 1/4 mile and 0.9g on the skidpad… They may have started with 155hp-215hp versions at the low end but ended with 245hp versions at the end putting down old school muscle car times and beating Porsche 944s on tracks. A Miata might be more fun but that’s another story.

    There was no misunderstanding here. The Nova was gone so a new formula had to be made and it was to build a GT car.

    The F body of this gen taught Americans how to turn left and right. These cars handled better braked better and did not need a lot to add power.

    The true failure was the interior. As the F Bodfather often relayed about his F body programs was that most of the money went to the drive train and suspension and GM would run out of money by the time they looked in side. This is why your windows regulators would go bad.

    These were not bad cars on the high end they just made bad low end cars as gutted they were not anything special with an Iron Duke or the 2.8 V6 the Camaro team was forced to use.

    But they got FI before the Mustang and they had 5 lugs before Ford made you buy conversion kits to aff the extra lug. Once the Fairmont died they were forced to the do the same at Ford and go GT like car of better quality but higher price.

    The real trouble and confution will be the 4th gen. GM was going to do the GM< 80 FWD and AWD based car till Ford decided to call the new Mustang a Probe and keep what they had in the Fox body.

    This left GM to scramble for a new car that the design was based on the 2nd gen 1989 FIero GT that was canceled when the GM 80 that was to be built with it was canceled.

    Even the dash gauge panel of the Firebird was lifted from the Fiero and later used in the Camaro.

    The 4th then died as GM was going broke and the Camaro just did not have the money to redesign the platform for the new crash test. But then this is a whole different story.

    Sadly the Firebird of this gen became just a styling car as it really held little Pontiac in it. The 3.8 Turbo Pace car was the real stand out.

    The Camaro 3rd gen did dominate the Escort 24 hour show Room stock series and often drove their cars to the 24 of Nelson in Ohio. They would them beat the Porsche factory protype Turbo 944 cars and them drove back to Detroit.

    You need to do your research on General Motors. I was there in the 80’s, 90’s and all the way through to 2022. They were almost bankrupt in 1992 and did in 2008.

    In 2002 after strikes in 1996 and 1998 we were expanding into China, Europe and the home market was doing well. I remember cranking out lots of product and working many weekends.

    The reason the F-Body went away was due to crash standards and to reduce the footprint of the plants.

    “Even the dash gauge panel of the Firebird was lifted from the Fiero and later used in the Camaro.”

    As a 1989 Trans Am GTA owner of the era, I’m not sure where you got that information from, but it is wrong. The Firebird’s four-hole cutout gauge panel design was all new for that 1982 new 3rd-gen, two years before Pontiac introduced the Fiero, which had nothing in common in design layout with the Firebird. The Fiero had two round gauges for speedo and tach and then two small square ones between them for two other gauges (fuel, temp). Two more rectangle ones were for volts and oil pressure and placed in the center dash above the air vents and radio/HVAC control panels.

    Third gen Firebirds are quite clean aerodynamically with the hidden pop-up headlights. Just look how many have set records at Bonneville in stock exterior shape. It’s also one of few doorslammer cars that has broken 300 mph there, although not in stock exterior at those speeds obviously. The engine compartment can also fit up to big block Chevy engines, as many drag racers have used. Third gen Camaro is also fairly clean aero, but not as good as the Firebird.

    Bought a Z new in 83. Drove off the lot and discovered the tach was dead. Turned around and went to service where they removed it to “send out for repair.” No “we’ll get you a new one.” Hmm. Not a great start. But surprisingly, it had no additional problems, not even a leak from the t-tops everyone warned me would come. Oddly, I once drove up a snowy hill in Baltimore with probably two or three inches’ worth, passing a lot of stuck front-drive cars! On the other hand, when the tread got worn, it was not a happy car in the rain.
    I wasn’t a fan of the throttle body FI as it would occasionally hiccup and make you think the thing was going to die!

    Love these cars, the angular lines, great handling, with endless upgrade aftermarket support. I have an 83 and with a modern 500 HP LQ9 LS motor, 4L65E trans, upgraded disc brakes all around, and locker rear end, she not only handles well but scoots with alacrity.

    I really like the later IROC versions. In 1,2,&4th GM F bodies I prefer the Firebird looks over the Camaro. But n my opinion the IROC is a better looking car than a contemporary Firebird.

    These still look good. We almost bought one of these in 1985, but went with a Mustang GT instead, since we decided we wanted a convertible. Of course, later in the decade, the Camaro convertible came along.

    I bought a 1984 Z28 in 1991 & I still have it today. Never planned on driving it every day and didnt, but have enjoyed it immencly. These cars were not great daily drivers but are easy to make faster, mine currently has a 406 with close to 500HP. To me they are one of the better looking Camaros except for the 1970-73

    Got a 89 Camaro w/ t-tops for my first car in 1996. My dad didn’t think I needed v8, so it had 2.8L. I haven’t driven it much in 20yrs, but I’m in the middle of putting in LS1 4l60e. I’ve removed everything under car and engine bay and sprayed rust preventer and factory blue paint. I can’t wait to get back in it and cruise around like back in the day, she’ll just be a little faster 🙂

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