The cars we loved.
The turbo was supposed to be the savior of the muscle car as the ’80s began, but it was a slow and cautious rollout that was not without its setbacks. The big three as they were had some form of turbo powered pony car on the market. Pontiac (1980), Ford (1983) and Chrysler (1984) all were selling some form of turbo car by 1985.
Where GM muscle was concerned Buick had a head start with the Regal personal luxury coupe that went back to the mid-70s. Pontiac followed closely in its trails with the 1980-81 Turbo Trans-Am. While many expected a turbocharged Camaro to mirror the efforts of the Pontaic Trans-Am, it just was not to be – direct from the factory at least.
GM had toyed around with the ideal of a turbo powered Camaro as far back as 1979. It created a prototype that had Corvette dusting performance. The only problem was that it would have be difficult to pass emissions standards as configured and GM was too busy figuring out how to tune its engines to work the EPA regulations. Soon, power sipping electronic engine management systems would end up in all its cars shortly – including the Camaro and Corvette.
The turbo Camaro was too good an ideal to let go so longtime Camaro tuner and officai performance partner Yenko would get the factory’s blessing to produce a limited edition turbo Camaro. The Cannonsburg, PA based dealer under the direction of Don Yenko first made a name for its self by tuning first gen Camaros in the ’60s.
Called the Z28 Yenko Turbo Z (not to be confused with Nissans Turbo Z or Dodge Turbo Daytona Z). The Yenko would take the emissions strangled 175 hp V8 from the ’81 Z28 and add a turbo from Turbo International that provided 7 psi of boost into the air inlets.
The turbocharger fitted to the Yenko Camaro was unique in that it was very efficient due to lack of a priorty valve, leading all fuel to be processed directly by the turbo. The result was minimal to no turbo lag, a problem with conventional turbo solutions of the time.
Yenko never made a habit of publishing horsepower numbers and with the Turbo Z they were no different. Despite the mystery, the Yenko Camaro could hold its own with any stock Corvette of the era. Casual estimates put its power figure in the 200 to 225 hp range. Besides outmuscling the typical Corvette, it was fitted with enough upgrades to become as luxurious and comfortable also.
A long list of features included leather seats and racing steering wheel, special decals and “Turbo Z” floor mats. The hard core performance nature of the Yenko Camaro dictated that some typical Camaro features like the cigarette lighter be removed to make way for extra gauges.
Many of the creature comforts like cruise control, air and cassette stereo remained however. Besides from the less than subtle graphics, the only way to distinguish a Turbo Z from any other Camaro would have been from its deep steam engine-like front spoiler. It’s easy to see why Chevy never toyed too much with the lower fascia on the Camaro, even as the Z28 became more aggressive looking. The tacked on look of the spoiler may have improved down force and possibly engine cooling, but it gave a boy racer vibe to an otherwise beautiful car.
To cope with the added speed, the Camaro’s suspension was boilstered with Koni shocks and stiffer anti roll and stabalizer bars. Custom modular wheels with then new Goodyear Wingfoot performance tires rounded out the Camaros already good handling. Hot Rod magazine called it the “Ultimate Camaro”. The few in the media who got a chance to test it likely agreed vs the lackluster stock Z28.
Yenko had spent nearly all of 1980 testing components with its 100 suppliers to insure that the Yenko Camaro would be as reliable as any F-body off the dealer’s lot. They even came with limited warranties backed by GM, in addition to Yenko’s. Yenko planned to sell as many as 200 cars from its McMurray, PA “Chevy Store” facility. In reality only 19 units were built, with each one being accounted for before leaving the factory. They were divided up into Stage I and II packages. Only 3 Stage II cars are said to have been built.
As collector items they are surely to appreciate in value. These were the last true Yenko Camaros built. In 2009 GM bought the rights to the Yenko name to use on a limited edition 2010 model. For any one looking for a turbocharged 3rd gen F-Body that was not a Trans-Am, the Yenko Camaro Turbo Z was the only game in town (with factory blessing).