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