Avoidable Contact #120: Twice-told third-gen tales
The Kawasaki Z900 beneath me roared with seven thousand agitated revolutions per minute and I blasted down the line of stopped traffic on the 405 like Skywalker (well, maybe Porkins) in the Death Star’s trench, my handlebars forced into a manic oscillation by the colored mirror caps to either side of me as they frantically impinged on my airspace with the frequency of deranged and deadly tropical birds. This was not a strategy for long life or continued bipedal independence so I hauled on the front brake and went from triple digits to mere doubles—but not before coming up level with my desired prey.
It was a dirty white coupe that might once have had some suggestion of pearl effect to its paint. Long and low with golden tape stripes to match a subtle lowercase logo on the sail panels and deep-dish spoke wheels. The car’s long, almost Ferrari-esque nose terminated in sloped coves hiding two square sealed beams on each side. Between them: a similarly sloped panel with three small vents at the bottom, trimmed in matte black. It was a week in which I’d seen fifty Ferraris, a hundred Huracáns, and more McLarens than I could count, courtesy of the ninety-caliber events surrounding Monterey and Carmel. But this was my first and only 1983 Camaro Berlinetta of the trip, so it was worth scrunching up my eyes and twisting the throttle to get to it.
It has now been almost exactly forty years since the third-gen Camaro reshaped the American automotive scene, twenty-nine since the final examples of the 1992 RS and Z/28 were replaced in showrooms by the fancy, Corvette-Indy-lite fourth-gen cars. To put it in perspective, we are now as far away in time from those 1982 Indy Pace Cars as they were from the attack on Pearl Harbor. No wonder that they are rare on the roads today as the Stovebolt Six Chevies were in ’82. Possibly more so.
If ever there was an American car for which universal familiarity bred an unwarranted contempt, it was the third-gen Camaro. For over a decade, often in more-than-well-used condition, it was the weapon of choice for the disreputable, the dangerous, the low-future-time-oriented—and its reputation eventually sank to align with that of its final customers. The last person I knew who drove a third-gen to work on a regular basis was my friend Nikki, in 1998 or thereabouts. The car was a white-over-red six-cylinder ’89 RS or something of that nature. Nikki was nineteen years old, wore more makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker, and danced in the topless bar across the street from the biggest Ford dealer in Columbus, Ohio in order to feed her varied and sundry personal habits. Nobody was ever surprised by the fact that she drove a Camaro.
Nikki’s RS eventually found its way into the junkyard, courtesy of a drunk-driving incident. I imagine that kind of fate befell an unusually high number of third-gen cars. The ones that have survived tend to be SCCA trailer queens or lightly-restored examples of the IROC-Z and later Z/28 models, but every once in a while I’ll catch a glimpse of a four-cylinder Sport Coupe or V-6 Berlinetta. Those models were thick on the ground in the ’80s but they were also the first ones to be thrown away. Finding a good Iron-Duke-powered Camaro now is about as tough as coming up with a really solid 1981 Ford Escort, and for about the same reasons.
Now that the third-generation is rare on the streets, however, I think we can appreciate it a little better. Start with the styling, which was utterly fantastical, the closest thing to a popular-priced spaceship you could buy. The contemporaneous Fox Mustang was a tidy and unambitious subcompact pony with an upright seating position, great sightlines, and an obvious interior resemblance to the Fairmont sedan from which it obtained its platform dimensions; the Camaro was none of these things. The essentially bespoke platform placed the driver at a hip point more reminiscent of a Corvette than a Chevette. The hood stretched to the horizon while the massive rear window, supposedly the largest piece of complex-curved automotive glass ever put in production, offered a funhouse view of distant police cruisers and furious husbands through the rearview mirror.
Not only did it look like European exoticar royalty, it kind of performed that way. The first few years were unspectacular in the engine department , although the flip-up hood vents associated with the early Cross-Fire Injection 305s (aka CeaseFire) offered more drama than any 165-horse car had a right to boast, particularly when said throttle-body-injected engine was only allowed to gently twist a small-spindled four-speed automatic transmission sourced from elsewhere in the company. There was no way to get a clutch pedal with the most powerful engine.
For 1984, the 190-horsepower “High Output” five-liter was teamed with a five-speed manual for the most desired of early third-gen cars. By the third year of this platform, Chevrolet and Pontiac had developed entirely separate philosophies of suspension tuning; the Trans Am was a boulevardier but the Z/28 Camaro was an autocross terror, developing serious cornering grip to go with the newly-acquired power. Every kid on the street knew that the Camaro commanded more respect than the Firebird. It was the racer’s choice.
Chances are you know what happened next: the mighty IROC-Z, powered by a 350 V8 and capable of knocking on the door of 150 miles per hour. A light restyle, the first of two that would happen in the lifecycle, softened the looks to go with the new monochrome color scheme. The Berlinetta trim, always meant to be a sort of luxury take on Camaro ownership at a slightly-lower-than-Z/28-cost, went away. The RS arrived; the Sport Coupe left. By the final year, it was a two-car lineup, RS and Z/28, most of them going out the door with small-block, port-fuel-injected V-8s.
Very few cars could run with an IROC-Z on the street. Most Porsches short of a 911 Turbo or 964 would almost immediately find themselves staring at the wide-band, tri-color lamps whose form paid tribute to the 1980-1981 predecessors but adorned an aero-vogue Kamm-cutoff tail instead of the previous car’s gently sloping rear quarters. Was a five-liter Mustang faster? It depends on the Mustang, and the Camaro, and the venue. In general, the 350-powered Camaros could dominate any “5.0,” but they had a tragic flaw: If you wanted the 5.7-liter, you had to take an automatic, and that never changed.
While the Trans Am gained new motivation from a limited-edition model with the turbo V-6 from a Buick Grand National, the Camaro kept the V-8s but debuted a “1LE” model aimed at law enforcement (so they said) and SCCA club racers (so they meant). It had enhanced brakes and suspension, ruled the roost everywhere from Watkins Glen to Laguna Seca. The final Z/28s had polished flat-spoke “sixteens” and even more aero aggressiveness.
And then they were gone, swept aside by an instantly contemptuous public in favor of the astounding 1993 fourth-gen with its Corvette-spec LT1, six-speed manual, and supercar-challenging pace. Values fell and the newer RS models began to join their four-cylinder, vented-nose Sport Coupe predecessors in the buy-here-pay-here lots. The third-generation car became the official car of people with a chip on their shoulder and little to lose, a position it maintained until the vast majority of them were in the junkyards.
On today’s streets, a 1982 Camaro looks like an IMSA GT4 car in a sea of crossovers, pickup trucks, big utility vehicles. It is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Ferrari F12berlinetta (see! they even used the name!) with its feet-out, ground-hugging seating position and steeply-raked windshield. The modern sixth-generation Camaro looks more obviously muscular but it’s just a chunky retro take on the 1968 model, it doesn’t have the third-gen’s unique Italianate appeal. These Camaros were the closest a working man could come to a bedroom-poster car.
I’m following a few Instagram pages devoted to restored and survivor third-gen Camaros. As you’d expect, they tend to be the Z/28 and IROC-Z models, with a smattering of RSes. The Sport Coupe and Berlinetta are almost entirely absent. Finding a good one would be next to impossible, and it would cost you just as much to restore as a V-8 car, all so you could run … eighteen-second quarter-miles? Sit around at the local Main Street stoplight until someone pulls up in a … Vanagon?
Better hope they don’t have a WRX swap.
That doesn’t mean I won’t risk my life, literally, to see a good Sport Coupe or Berlinetta close-up. Like that white one in California traffic. It was eerily reminiscent of one I remember from 1987, a white ’83 owned by a girl named Becky. She was dating my friend, but she liked me as well, and sometimes she’d pick me up for a drive to nowhere in particular. The Berlinetta had a camel-colored cloth interior. We would lightly kiss and nuzzle across the broad transmission tunnel with its PRNDL shifter and already-disintegrating switches.
Becky drove as if she were exempt from the possibility of death. Her white-letter radials alternately screamed and screeched their way around my neighborhood, the streets near her home, the McDonald’s drive-thru. Ross Bentley would have approved of the way she followed an accepted principle of competition driving: Either be fully on the gas or fully on the brake, no coasting. She extended this philosophy even to the midcorner, beyond the imaginings of Ross Bentley or Ayrton Senna. The tired 2.8-liter would groan up to about five grand before clunking through a reluctant automatic shift. Ahead of us, mothers would throw their children to one side while shoving their grocery carts in the other direction. Becky would laugh.
“My Camaro is a big-block,” she told me. “The other two sparkplugs are in the back.” Because she was beautiful and because she would wear a bikini in front of me, I simply nodded my head. “The louvers are from an ’81,” she said. Lying was as necessary to her as breathing. If I asked her where she’d been, I knew she would tell me anything but the truth.
One day in 1989 she arrived at my house in a nearly-new black IROC-Z with the 350 and the four-speed automatic. “This is my new car,” she said. Her driving style, applied to this considerably more capable Camaro, was astoundingly dangerous. She drove me past my brother’s elementary school as the speedo needle wobbled at the 85 mark. A fifty-year-old woman in a cardigan on the sidewalk raised her middle finger in our direction; instantly she was a dot in the funhouse rear window.
In a dusty pull-off at the edge of the river she climbed over the transmission tunnel and kissed me. Her motion dislodged a box of cigarettes from the driver’s visor. It wasn’t her brand of smokes. I raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, the IROC belongs to a friend,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about him, he’s like thirty years old.” We laughed at the idea of being thirty. When she dropped me off at my house I could feel a permanent wave of thrilling vibration coursing through my body. An older girl (she was 19, I was 17) with the most amazing car I could imagine. It felt like the start of something life-changing, but then Becky simply disappeared from my life, moved in with the old man, left no forwarding address.
I didn’t attend her funeral, years later. Didn’t know it had happened.
This is what I was chasing on the 405, elbows in and braced for impact: I wanted to see the Berlinetta up close. Thought I might see her, somehow. Dreamed of her blonde, close-cropped hair, her freckled face, the careless way she flicked her ashes or bent a car into a corner at double the posted limit. Of course that wasn’t the case. It was a kind-looking man about my age, careful and attentive in the way he scanned traffic. Knew what he had. Knew that I knew, as well. He smiled. Maybe there was a Becky in his past. Or maybe he was just dreaming his own dream, of some time in his own distant memory, a story like mine, and like the trim of every 1983 Berlinetta, woven clean through with tiny but unforgettable threads of gold.