The cars we loved.
Very few modern American cars can claim the fame of Chevrolet’s Camaro. Be you a punk, hipster or hillbilly, there was a Camaro for you. There was even one aimed at the urban sophisticates we now call Yuppies. The Camaro was such a fixture in ’80s youth culture, that songs like “My Bitchin’ Camaro” by The Dead Milkmen had become underground hits thanks to college radio and Saturday night parking lot rituals. For many, if you weren’t dreaming about a Mustang GT, you were obsessing about the Camaro Z28.
After Mustang fever cooled down, the Camaro/Firebird was the hottest low buck performance ticket going by 1982. The Mustang got a nearly 4 year head start in its quest for modernism, but for F body fans, the 3rd generation Camaro was worth the wait. Pack full of Camaro firsts, like a convenient hatch, 5 speed manual transmission and a new 4 cylinder option, the new design was easily one of the most attractive to come out of ’80s era GM. Another first, factory fuel injection placed the Camaro in a position to meet stringent EPA standards while providing expected power and performance. Meeting expectations was always the key to the Camaro’s (and to some extent the Firebird’s) success. By sticking to a proven formula for performance: V8 power and rear wheel drive, the muscle car survived the ’80s. While newly added 4 cylinder engines made base models sporty roundabouts, it was still the V8 powered Z28 (and Trans-Am) that got the public’s imagination racing.
Plenty of cars were ditching rear wheel for front wheel drive, often with improved fuel economy and more interior space at the expense of handling. The Camaro resisted the trend and in the process was rewarded with increasingly high sales. Never mind that what seemed like a sizable car on the outside had no more interior volume than today’s Civic, Camaro drivers usually had one passenger in the car anyway, although the middle aged man with the blonde up front was a popular stereotype of owners.
While not all that impressive its first year out on paper, the Z28’s V8 would climb in power from 165 to over 240 by 1992. One year the base V8 was rated for as little as 145hp. The jumps in power were mainly attributed to improvements in fuel management. A crude throttle body system was replaced by a Corvette inspired Crossfire system in 1983. By 1985 a new Tuned Port fuel injection system opened the door to a higher performing Z28 with the IROC option. The IROC cars would eventually spin-off into its own model, becoming the top Camaro until the Z28 and IROC models were combined in 1988. With power now well over the 200 mark, the Camaro would make up for its weight disadvantage with ever-increasing displacement in its race with the lighter Ford Mustang.
Another one of the Z28’s charms was that it was not designed for just straight line performance like the Camaros of old. The term “The Hugger” was a marketing ploy of the past, but the 3rd generation Z28 truly earned the nickname due to its high skid pad numbers and sub 8 second 0 to 60 times. Those kinds of numbers were bested only by the Corvette which had a fully independent suspension vs the Camaro Z28’s leaf spring with trailing arm rear setup. It was crude by the standards of the Nissan 300ZX or Porsche 924/944. It was a common American pont car trait of the time as the Mustang, and Firebird has similar live axle setups.
For all the technical and performance glitz (or lack thereof), the Camaro’s biggest attribute for most buyers was its looks. Distinctly American with European influences in just the right places, it was lower and longer than the Mustang. Whereas the Mustang looked like a stretched Escort, the Camaro could not be mistaken for a Cavalier and was peerless within GM (beyond the Firebird). The F body was never used by any of GM’s global divisions and remained a distinctly American phenomenon.
GM was careful to engineer everyday practicality into the looks equation. The large glass hatch back was useful, although the high floor reduced cargo capacity. Still, the Camaro looked fast, even when loaded with bags of groceries. A low slung stance was possible thanks to ground effects, the first full application on a GM production vehicle (the Trans-AM got a similar treatment in 1984). The wheel wells were nicely filled by 15 inch wheels that today would hardly qualify as low profile. In time the side wall shrank as the wheels grew larger, reaching 17 inches by 1991. The attractive 5 star aluminum wheels were so popular that they hung around in some form or another as an option into the ’90s.
The interior, while not winning any ergonomic awards was simple and straight forward with an angular boxy theme. A few revisions through the years improved fit and function, but the overall quality could be inconsistent. With options like T-tops and Delco Bose sound systems, the Z28 could have nearly all the bells and whistles associated with a Cadillac or Buick. It shared many parts with other GM cars, most notably the 4 speed automatic and 5 speed manual transmissions. Sales only began to dive as the model reached an over ripe age toward the end of its life cycle in the early ’90s. Changing accent colors on wheels and increasing the height of the spoiler could do only so much to boost sales of a design that was over a decade old.
To spruce things up, a special edition 25th anniversary car was planned that may have offered some insight into the next Z28, but it was never produced. With a 270 hp V8, ZF 6-speed transmission and appearance bits from the Trans-Am like black 16 inch wheels, it would have been one of the most sought after Camaro of the 3rd generation. Instead, the product planners opted for a Heritage package with some appearance bits (most notably racing stripes). All Camaro for 1992 received a 25th Anniversary badge regardless of package or trim. While not with a bang, the 3rd gen Z28 went out with some of its dignity intact. Two generations later and years since the last Z28, its been confirmed that the most famous of Camaro will be making a return in 2014.
The 3rd generation Camaro Z28 remains one of the most beloved Camaro for people under 50 who remember wanting one as teenagers. As market demographics shift more people will seek out their very own “Bitchin’ Camaros”. Already collectors are beginning to focus on the 3rd gen. Because they have been produced for so long, there are still plenty of good examples to be had. Like any used performance car, the Camaro is not immune to bad modifications and bouts of bad taste. fortunately, the would be tuner for a Camaro is a different breed altogether than one who might use a Civic or 240SX as their canvas. Even tuners of the Camaro Z28 recognize the beauty of the original car and often leave the questionable exterior modification to 4 cylinder Camaro Sport Coupe camp. It’s not unusual to see lesser Camaro with bolted-on Z28 parts like ground effects and wheels. It only proves that there’s nothing like a Bitchin’ Camaro (Z28).