Retro-review: 1967-’69 Chevy Camaro

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Though nearly three years late to the field and playing catch-up from the start, the first Camaro more than made up for lost time with its good looks and power-happy triumvirate of trim lines: Rally Sport, Super Sport – and of course, Z28.

The Camaro’s development was midwifed by GM Design Chief Bill Mitchell, who in addition to his work on what became the ’67 Camaro also led the team that developed both the 1963 Sting Ray Corvette (based on the wild-looking Mako Shark show car) and the second-generation, ’65-69 Corvair.

Like the Mustang, the Camaro was a car that was offered with a long list of trim and options packages; this made it possible for buyers to custom-tailor their Camaro and make it their own. It also set things up for years-later, when unusual combinations of equipment made an already desirable car even more so.

The early Camaro was also very affordable, with a base price for the ’67 coupe of $2,466 – just under $16,000 in 2011 dollars. (A current-year Camaro coupe’s base price is $22,805.)

But unlike the baroque-looking Mustang, the 1967 Camaro’s lines were porpoise-like and smooth, with more curves than angles – and far less chrome. This gave buyers a real choice, not just a GM-built Mustang clone – and the public responded with enthusiasm. Chevy sold nearly a quarter-million Camaros that first year – a huge number for an all-new model – and sales continued to surge upward throughout the three model years the first generation Camaro was built (through 1969).

There were a number of “firsts” associated with the original Camaro – including the first production use of what became one of the longest-serving engines ever designed, the small block 350 (5.7 liters in modern vernacular). Based on the existing 327 CID V-8 , the 350 shared many features of that engine but used a larger bore, new design cylinder heads and was fed fuel by another soon-to-be-legend – the Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor. The 350, in various states of tune, remained in production without major changes to its fundamental design through the 1990s and even into the 21st century . The “Q-Jet,” as it became affectionately known, is regarded by many as one of the finest carburetors ever designed, achieving a level of precision fuel metering comparable to fuel injection. That it, too, survived in production until the late 1980s – and continues to be built today by aftermarket suppliers – is testament to the fundamental excellence of GM’s design.

That first “Turbo-Fire” 350 – rated at 295-hp – was first offered exclusively in the 1967 Camaro, where it served as the beating heart of the Camaro’s Super Sport (SS) package, a $211 option that also included stiffer springs and shocks, as well as D70-14 Firestone Wide Oval tires on Rally I steel wheels. A close ratio three or four-speed manual transmission and heavy-duty Turbo-hydramatic three-speed automatic were the transmission choices available in the SS. Buyers could also select a very attractive Rally Sport appearance package on top of the SS package; its signature feature was a pair of vacuum-operated “hideaway” headlight covers – plus “RS” badging and interior trim.

Bigger and badder was available, too – in the form of an optional “Turbo Jet” 396 big-block engine rated at 375 horsepower. It provided tire-frying torque and turned Chevy’s pony car into a no-holds-barred muscle car.

But the biggest news of all that first year was the appearance of an obscure option intended to let the Camaro compete in Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am racing – then a big deal both to the public and the automakers themselves, who actively supported race teams in order to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Regular Production Option (RPO) Z28 was little known outside of those racing circles – at first. “Z28” was never intended to be a separate model as such – just a way to package needful equipment for SCCA racing and make it legitimate for competition by selling a few street-legal examples to the general public, as SCCA rules required.

The original Z28 was thus conceived as a stripped-down racer – and a sleeper. The first-year Z28 did not even have “Z28” badges on its flanks. It was also shorn of weight adding non-essentials such as heavy carpeting and insualtion, air conditioning and power options. Quick-ratio steering gear, heavy-duty suspension, trunk-mounted spoiler, 4-speed gearbox and front-disc brakes (rear disc became available later) were also fitted to the car.

But a problem had to be dealt with. The new 5.7 liter 350 V-8 was too large for SCCA competition – which specified a maximum engine displacement of 5 liters. Chief Engineer Vince Piggins got around this by de-stroking the new 350, using the crankshaft from the old 283 V-8 in the 327 block to create a new (and soon-to-be-famous) 302 CID V-8, which became the early Z28’s heart and soul.

This engine was a true race engine, barely useable on the street (you could not order it with an automatic transmission and forget about AC). It featured a very aggressive solid lifter cam, big valve heads, hi-rise aluminum four barrel intake – with headers and a cold air intake system tossed in the trunk for installation by the customer, if so ordered. There were no mufflers – just “chambered” pipes that ripped holes in the sky whenever the driver goosed the gas pedal.

A dual four-barrel cross-ram system and cowl induction hood were among the dealer-available extras buyers could select. The 302 was rated at 290 horsepower – and race-prepped Z28s won 18 of 25 events during their first year of SCCA competition. Camaros subsequently won the SCCA class championship in both 1968 and 1969.

Just 602 of those first-year Z28s were sold to the public – making them among the rarest of all Camaros and highly desirable collectibles today.

In 1968 – as word got out – Z28 production increased geometrically, to 7,199 and from there to 20,302 for the ’69 season. By then, the Z28 package included highly noticeable graphics and emblems – and “Z28” had become a household word (at least among performance car enthusiasts).

The ’69’s styling was refreshed – including a new front clip/grille – but the mechanicals remained the same. Why mess with success?

Those first first three years of Camaro production assured the car’s place in the pantheon of automotive greatness. A ground-up restyle for the 1970 model year changed the car’s lines dramatically – and also mechanically. The Z28 lost its unique-to-Camaro 302 but gained a much more street-friendly (and still race-capable) LT-1 350 V-8, same as in the Corvette that year.

Buyer affection transferred seamlessly to the equally handsome next-generation cars, which in their turn became one of the few bright spots during the bleak days of the mid-late 1970s – when fast/fun cars of any kind were as hard to find in showrooms as a lap dance at the Vatican.

Camaro soldiered on through the 1early 1980s – with another successful restyle for the 1982 model year – but by the mid 1990s (and following a fourth and not-so-great restyle in 1993), interest in the cars began to wane and General Motors, for good or ill, decided to cancel Camaro semi-permanently (and Firebird, Camaro’s sister car, permanently) after the ’02 model year – leaving Ford’s Mustang as the sole survivor of the pony car era until GM resurrected Camaro in 2010.

But memories of those early Camaros still burns bright – an unforgettable car from an unforgettable time.

Throw it in the Woods?

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Good read- but the 350 is NOT a bored out 327. The small block did not have enough room to bore out the block any farther than the 4 inch bore they already had in the 327 (and still retain full circle water jackets). So, they stroked the 327 to get the addditional cubes. Because of this, the shorter stoke 327 will rev higher than a 350.

  2. My first job out of college in 1962 was at the Chevy Test Lab in Warren. Dyno row. Sorta like throwing a hog into a corn crib. I’ll spare the name-dropping.

    Anyhow, I later bought a ’67 plain vanilla Camaro. That didn’t last long. I needed a better tow car for my Formula Vee, so stuffing in a 427 and tweaking the suspension set me up quite nicely. Tow to the track at 120, race at 85. Helluva deal!

    Since the valves floated at 6,500, I always said the car was governored to 150. Open 3.36 rear end, so it wouldn’t come off the line all that well, but I never found anybody who could stay with me from 30 to 150. The stiffer suspension let me run the corners quite nicely. Just one problem with the car: Those drum brakes just didn’t cut it. But, going into 1st gear at 70 or so helped slow it down.

    I’d dearly love to have a Z28 with slant-plug heads and a modern six-speed. Oh: And Webers on top.


    • I put an OD 2004R behind the 455 in my ’76 Trans Am. This box has a really deep overdrive; even with 3.90 gears out back, the TA trundles along at just over 2,000 RPM at nearly 70. I think it could do 150-plus now. Not that I would even think of trying that with it the way it is (stock suspension and ancient BFG Radials). But it’s nice to know the possibility’s there!

  3. Had a ’69 Z-28 in high school. It was a bit unusual in that it had the deluxe “molded” interior, plus power steering. I remember you had to feather the clutch at take-off as it lacked up-front torque and was easily stalled, but when it passed 3500, oh, my!! I remember how refined it seemed, compared to my earlier ’67 Chevelle 396.

    Miss it. 🙁

    • At Barrett Jackson and similar speculator venues, early Z28s are selling for about what you’d pay to get a new Z06 Corvette… but I know which one I’d rather have…. and I bet you, too!

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