The cars we loved.
The Camaro has been one of those cars that has maintained a very loyal following. In a testament to its popularity, the second generation lasted for 12 years. That’s almost three generations of any Honda. Spawned during the height of the muscle car era, it had lost its way somewhat as the 80’s dawned. The Camaro had become old fashioned compared to Japanese and European competition, even its only real rival, the Mustang had become modernized by 1979. Although the F body was unique in that it was a rather big rear wheel drive car powered by big engines, its days seemed numbered. It looked as if the Z28 had run out of tricks, or so it seemed.
Chevy did a good job of rolling out gradual changes that changed the overall character of the Camaro as time went on. After finally dumping the metal bumpers in 1978, the Camaro had finally begun to exploit the benefits of the famed Endurea style bumpers first seen on the Firebird as early as 1970. Apparently, Camaro designers wanted the smooth front and rear bumper look much earlier in the 70’s, but at the insistence of John Delorean, GM director of design at the time, the Camaro would have to make due with aluminum bumpers.
The last of the aluminum bumper years also marks a steady decline in horsepower for the Camaro and the automotive industry in general. It had become so bad by 1975, that a Z28 was not offered (but the Trans-Am continued). This is when Camaro handling began to improve in lue of power gains. Things got better by 1977 as the Z28 model would return, but even then it was mostly a decal package with better handling.
Although not the most powerful or fastest of the second generation Camaros, the 80 and 81 model years represent the Camaro at it’s most evolved from a design standpoint . The 81’ model in particular previewed new technology that would be part of the third generation car of 1982.
The 1980 Z28 at first glance look a lot like the 79’ model. It even used the front ground effects from the previous year. Closer inspection reveals the final evolution of exterior details like a new simplified side vent and a exciting new graphics scheme (you had to love those stripes!). There was also a revised functional hood air scoop. The tail lights would receive a black stripe through the middle, similar to the design seen in the 82 model.
Under the hood the Z28 had been collapsing under the weight of emissions and EPA mandates. The largest engine option for the Z28, a 5.7 liter V8 only had 190 hp. In California, it had even less due to that states stringent emissions laws. In a car weighing almost 3500 lbs. that did not amount to that much tire scorching get up by Camaro heyday standards. Called the “Grabber” the Camaro had always been a great handler and had made steady improvements along those lines even as horsepower figures fluctuated.
The 81’ model looked like the 80’, but had substantial changes under the hood. Like a few other GM cars,the digital age had arrived in the form a central computer. The 81 Camaros would have the distinction of being the only second generation Camaros with a computer inside. Called the Computer Command Control (CCC), it monitored the cars emissions system by controlling the mixture in the carburetor. The CCC system also added the dreaded check engine light now commonly associated with modern cars. The electronic intervention did little to boost power, but it did marginally improve gas mileage, partly because it also controlled the torque block converter in the three speed automatic transmission. Power wise the Z28 had lost 15hp in the optional 5.7 liter, but now got highway gas mileage in the low 20’s. The standard engine for the Z28 was still the 5.0 liter V8 with 165 hp.
The model line also simplified. A reshuffling that begun in 1979 resulted in only three models by 1981: Z28, Berlinetta and the base Sport Coupe. Sales had begun to take a dive also, but were still substantial by fourth and fifth generation standards. The Camaro had long been criticized for being too big and too heavy. For a car so large, it had a rather small trunk and its interior looked dated regardless of the small attempts at modernization. Essentially, the interior with its cloth or vinyl seats was much like the Camaros of the 70’s. Some concessions to modernization appeared in the 81’ model like optional halogen headlights and standard power brakes. Still it was not enough to push sales to pre 80’s numbers. Customers simply waited until the new Camaro came along.
Those who opted to get the 81’s model got a unique car in that it was a preview to some of the new technologies of the 80’s. Z28’s from the late second generation are just now starting to get noticed, as prices for early glory days era (1969-71) models skyrocket. As with any Camaro, there are plenty of firms specializing in performance and restoration parts. Because sales were relatively high, the likelihood of finding roadworthy examples is good. If you’ve ever dreamed of owning a late second generation Z28 and come across one for sale – grab it! Anyone who was a kid when these cars were new is now at the point that they most certainly could afford one (economy permitting). As that target market between the ages of 40 to 55 start feeling nostalgic, it won’t be too long before the 80 and 81’ models become expensive and unobtainable like so many other muscle cars.