The cars we loved.
When I was a teen growing up in the ’80s the Camaro was seen as the ultimate hillbilly hot rod. It’s V8 power and rear wheel drive separated it from the girly, frugal metal coming from Japan and Europe. Chevrolet did very little to help steer away from that image, with it’s “Heartbeat of America” ad campaign that featured blue collar types (presumably in the Mid-West) at hoedowns with shiny Camaros in the background. In reality, Chevy made an attempt to capture the would be European car buyer with a more sophisticated version of the Camaro called the Berlinetta.
The term “Berlinetta” is Italian for fastback coupe. The Berlinetta model in the Camaro line had been around since the late 70’s, but more aptly applied to the second generation Camaro with its fastback hatch design. The Berlinetta’s luxury closely match that of the Chevrolet’s own Monte Carlo, but had sportier looks and handling (although they had similar engine options). First introduced in 1982, the Berlinetta was slotted midway between the easy finance 4 cylinder Sport Coupe and the insurance red flagged V8 powered Z28. It was a tasteful compromise between the look of its two trim mates.
Initially offered with either 2.8 L V6 from the Sport Coupe’s option group or the 5.0 L V8 from the Camaro. It came with a 4 speed automatic transmission and a special cloth interior. The Berlinetta’s live axel rear and McPherson front suspension was similar to the Z28’s but was tuned for a softer ride. With 107 to 150 hp, depending on which engine chosen, Berlinetta was no redneck rocket. In Chevrolet’s brochures, the Berlinetta featured middle class white people who presumably were college educated suburbanites on adventures that involved tennis rackets and 35mm cameras. This clearly wasn’t Jeffro’s Camaro or even the luxury oriented Type LTs of the past aimed as secretaries.
Visually the Berlinetta was distinguished from other Camaro by the addition of it’s own 14 inch finned aluminum wheels and tasteful gold accents. Although lacking the ground effects of the Z28, it had fog lights and wrap around band that ran along the lower half of the car. Inside was where the biggest difference was. The Camaro’s normally straight forward dash design became a control center with all the latest gadgets (very much like some Japanese cars of the period). The digital dash was similar to what would be offered in the new Corvette in 1984. Small improvements were made over the short life of the car like overdrive for the 4 speed automatic. Due to complaints, the dash, one of the Berlinetta’s most distinctive features was redesign to a more simplified look with digital readouts that were larger and more graphic in nature.
Sales of the Berlinetta peaked in 1984 with nearly 30,000 sold but always trailed the Z28 and base Sport Coupe. The cost of a fully loaded Berlinetta rivaled that of the Z28. Partly for this reason sales slowly declined until the plug was pulled on the model in 1987. Many of the high tech features of the Berlinetta made their way as options on the Z28, but presented in a more conventional format.
Meanwhile, sales of Chevrolet’s other luxury sport coupe the Monte Carlo was taking off. It even featured a “aerocoupe”design similar to the Camaro’s hatch in 1987/88, but smaller. In the end the market wanted its Camaro to be the rough-n-tough looking hillbilly hot rod it had always been.