25 Greatest Mustangs: The Camaro
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared as part of the 25 Greatest Mustangs cover story in the July/August issue of Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. You can find the other entries—all Mustangs—here. Zenlea, the resident Camaro loyalist on staff, petitioned us to give honorable mention to his precious F-body. We told him, “Sure, if you want to write it.” That may have been a mistake.]
A Camaro, amidst this holy consecration? I can picture the Blue Oval bros clutching their Carroll Shelby-signed glove-box doors. “But, but, the Mustang was first!” OK, it was first (hush, Mopar fans, the grown-ups are talking). The Camaro is a copy, with minor changes. Biologists call this evolution. Humans are copies of microbes that grew on rocks 3.7 billion years ago, but our species flew to the moon, whereas microbes retained stick axles until 2014.
And, sure, the Mustang sells better. That means something if you cede to the wisdom of the masses, in which case you’ll enjoy our next package: The 25 Greatest Crossovers of All Time. Hey, there might be a Mustang in it.
The reason the Camaro doesn’t sell as well is that it’s a sports car. Whereas the Mustang was conceived as a kind of cute joke—faux scoops to gussy up the Ford Falcon—the Camaro’s not kidding. Performance demands sacrifices. Soft-touch plastics? Nope. But would you like a small-block V-8? And sorry about that trunk, but here’s a tire that’ll out-stick a Ferrari 488’s on the Nürburgring.
When I was six, I closed the heavy door of my old man’s third-gen on my thumb. Every time I bend that thumb and it clicks, I marvel: Camaros are hardcore.
Hardcore, yet democratic. On this greatest list, I see lots of pricey one-offs and cars whose greatness rides on externalities, be it the genius of Ol’ Shel’, the glamour of Steve McQueen, or whatever it is people see in Vanilla Ice. My list of the 25 Greatest Camaros, which I will be submitting to McKeel Hagerty as soon as I’m done writing this, has its heroes—Don Yenko ring a bell?—but mostly, it’s workaday Camaros, like the fourth-gen that lived in our driveway around the time I got my license. It cost around $23,000 new and had a Corvette LS1 detuned (wink, wink) to 305 horsepower. Hell yeah, it had T-tops. To confidently beat Dad’s commuter car in a Stang, you were spending $55,845 on a Cobra R. Sorry, no T-tops.
Don’t resent the Camaro’s superiority—be grateful. Had the Camaro not trounced the Mustang in Trans-Am racing in 1968, there’d have been no Parnelli Jones-driven Boss 302 in 1969 and 1970. Were it not for the Camaro’s perseverance in the ’70s, Ford might not have been compelled to ditch the Mustang II for the Fox body. More recently, one wonders if Dearborn bean counters would have greenlit a track variant of the 2020 four-cylinder Mustang if Chevy hadn’t already created the kick-ass four-cylinder 1LE. The Camaro exists only because there’s a Mustang, true, but the Mustang improves primarily because there’s a Camaro.
My editors would like me to end on a unifying note. Something about how these rivals are really on the same side in the most important battle, which is against boredom and conformity. Sorry, can’t do that. Mustangs are awful. But I will say this: If the best Mustang is the Camaro, the best Camaro is actually the Firebird.