It is just over 50 years since the launch of the 1967 Chevrolet Camaro.
As American as apple pie, the Camaro is one of the few automotive nameplates emblematic enough to sustain a standalone brand. The model could survive on its own just like the Ford Mustang and the Porsche 911. We can’t say the same thing about the Equinox or the Cruze.
It wasn’t always that way; the Camaro nearly went extinct during the 1970s. Join us as we explore the ups and downs of its illustrious production run, from its beginnings as a Mustang fighter rushed to the market to the 650hp model Chevrolet sells 50 years later.
Chevrolet Corvair Monza (1961)
Launched to curious stares in 1959, the rear-engined Corvair represented Chevrolet’s unexpected response to compact European economy cars like the Volkswagen Beetle. It began moving upscale when Chevrolet expanded the line-up with a model named Monza based on the Corvair coupe.
For a sportier flair, the Monza received a four-speed manual transmission controlled via a floor-mounted shifter and front bucket seats, among other performance-oriented equipment. Naysayers predicted it would fail, but it became wildly popular among younger buyers with a need for speed. Chevrolet later upped the ante with a convertible Monza named Spyder and an optional turbocharged flat-six engine rated at 150hp.
Chevrolet Super Nova concept (1964)
Nothing stays secret for very long in the automotive industry. Confidential information about Ford’s then-upcoming Mustang reached Chevrolet offices in Detroit through obscure channels. The auto-maker fired first by introducing a concept named Super Nova at the 1964 edition of the New York Auto Show, just a few days before its Dearborn-based rival unveiled the Mustang at the World’s Fair in New York.
The Super Nova wore a highly-futuristic design with the typical long-hood, short-deck proportions of a sporty coupe. The sleek-looking body hid proven underpinnings borrowed from the Chevy II. Chevrolet decided not to give the Super Nova the proverbial green light for production out of fear it would overlap with the Chevelle.
Ford Mustang (1964)
Ford developed the original Mustang to flatten the Corvair Monza. Product planners immediately ruled out adopting the Chevrolet’s contentious rear-engined configuration so they created a scaled-down, Falcon-based muscle car instead of a Porsche for racers who couldn’t spend German car money.
Rival auto-makers predicted the Mustang would fall flat on its head because there was zero demand for it. They landed wide of the mark. Boosted by what was then the largest advertising campaign ever allocated to a single model, the Mustang was met with a frenzy only matched today by Apple and Tesla products. Ford sold 22,000 cars in the 24 hours following the car’s introduction.
Chevrolet Camaro (fall 1966)
The Mustang’s popularity caught General Motors completely off-guard. It asked its Chevrolet division to come up with a competitor as fast as possible. The original Camaro arrived on dealer lots in the fall of 1966 as a 1967 model, meaning it went from a simple sketch to a production car in roughly two years.
The original Camaro, by the numbers
The Camaro cost US$2466 (US$18,630 today) when it went on sale. Engine choices ranged from a 3.8-liter straight-six that made 140hp to a 5.7-liter V8 rated at 295hp. Clearly, it was a league above the Corvair in the performance department. Rear-wheel drive and a manual transmission came standard, and buyers could order an automatic gearbox at an extra cost.
Chevrolet sold 220,000 examples during the model’s first year on the market, a robust figure that nonetheless fell well short of the Mustang. Assembly took place in America for the local market and in Switzerland for the European market.
Chevrolet Camaro Convertible (1967)
Chevrolet quickly chopped off the Camaro’s roof to corner the Mustang in every market segment. The convertible model commanded a small premium over the coupe, and demand from buyers was much lower, but it became an important image-boosting model. It served as the pace car during the 1967 Indianapolis 500, giving Chevrolet a golden opportunity to parade its newest model in front of thousands of power-hungry fans.
Pontiac Firebird (1967)
As General Motors’ designated performance brand, Pontiac confidently asked permission to turn the 1964 Banshee concept into a production model. Executives turned down the company’s request, citing the possibility that the Banshee would encroach on the Corvette’s territory. Pontiac received the Firebird, its own version of the Camaro, as a consolation prize. Production began in early 1967.
A la carte muscle car
Longer than a Tolkien novel, the Camaro’s list of options included three main equipment packages named Rally Sport (RS), Super Sport (SS) and Z/28, respectively.
RS models received hidden headlights and model-specific trim pieces but no major mechanical modifications. SS cars came with a 295hp engine, an upgraded suspension plus SS-only decals and badges. Built for racing, the Z/28 package bundled a 290hp engine, a four-speed manual transmission, bigger wheels and a pair of racing stripes.
The first nip-and-tuck (1969)
In the 1960s, American auto-makers updated their cars’ sheet metal much more frequently than they do today. Chevrolet gave the Camaro a minor nip-and-tuck for the 1969 model year. It looked sportier than earlier the earlier model thanks in part to a V-shaped indent in the grill and additional creases in the body. The RS, SS and Z/28 packages remained.
COPO ZL-1 (1969)
The Camaro quickly made a name for itself on the race track, notably in the Trans Am and Can-Am series. Illinois Chevrolet dealer Fred Gibbs convinced the Central Office Production Order (COPO) to approve limited production of a street-legal Camaro powered by the aluminum ZL-1 V8 engine normally reserved for race cars. The ZL-1-engined Camaro cost about twice as much as a standard car so Gibbs had a difficult time finding a home for the 50 examples he ordered. He sold 13, traded a few more to other dealers across America and sent the rest back to Chevrolet.
Chevrolet built only 69 examples of the COPO ZL-1, so original aluminum-block cars are among the most sought-after Camaro variants ever built. Today, clean examples with a well-documented history sell for over US$500,000.
The second-generation Camaro (1970)
The second-generation Camaro arrived in February of 1970. Longer and wider than its predecessor, it adopted a brand-new look characterized by a smaller, taller grille that no longer encompassed the headlights, a two-part front bumper and a pair of round tail lights inspired by the ones that equipped the Chevelle. Chevrolet chose not to offer a convertible variant of the second-generation model.
The early 1970s were a tumultuous time for GM. Workers at its Norwood, Ohio, factory picketed for 174 straight days in 1972, leaving over a thousand incomplete Camaros lingering on the assembly line. Cost factors prevented Chevrolet from updating the cars to meet 1973 safety standards so the entire batch ended up scrapped.
Huge pump-price hikes in 1973 lulled demand for high-performance cars in America, and emissions regulations requiring the use of a catalytic converter pushed power outputs down towards the 100hp mark. GM executives seriously considered canceling the Camaro and the Firebird in response to the numerous setbacks they faced.
The Camaro gets a controversial new look (1974)
In 1974, pressure to make the Camaro compliant with new collision regulations in America forced designers to give the coupe a controversial front end with a sloping, plow-like grille and a bumper big enough to sit on. The following model year brought a wrap-around rear window. Chevrolet axed the Z/28 package in 1975 because the high-output V8 couldn’t meet emissions regulations.
An unexpected reprieve
Several factors came together to help the Camaro stay alive. First, Ford’s second-generation Mustang moved to the Pinto platform as officials scrambled to build smaller, more efficient cars. Appropriately named Mustang II, it no longer competed against the Camaro. Ford chose to abandon the segment until the late 1970s.
At the other end of the spectrum, the formerly Mustang-based Mercury Cougar moved up a notch on the market to become a bigger, more luxurious model. It also left the Camaro’s competitive set. AMC’s Javelin and Plymouth’s Barracuda fell victim to the oil embargo and retired after 1974. The Camaro and the Firebird it continued sharing its platform with suddenly found themselves in a class of their own.
Wind-in-your-hair motoring, 2.0 (1978)
Bloated and under-powered, the Camaro was no longer one of the most exciting cars in America. Chevrolet knew buyers wanted a convertible, but re-engineering the second-generation model with a soft top would have been an overly costly and complicated process, especially considering the coupe was near the end of its life cycle.
As a compromise, Chevrolet glanced at the Corvette playbook and added a removable T-top option to the Camaro in 1978. Motorists could take off the two glass roof panels in a pinch and store them in the trunk. Pontiac offered the same solution on its Firebird.
All-new for the 1980s
Chevrolet unveiled the third-generation Camaro in 1981. Visually, it broke all ties with the past by adopting a more chiseled design with deeply recessed headlights and a more aerodynamic silhouette.
GM still hadn’t figured out how to build engines that satisfied enthusiasts and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) equally. In 1981, the base Camaro used a 2.5-liter four-cylinder named Iron Duke that wheezed out a mere 90hp. Buyers after more grunt (so anyone with a pulse) could step up to a 2.8-liter V6 rated at a lackadaisical 112hp. The Z/28 model got a carbureted 5.0-liter V8 that made 145hp, a figure almost on par with the original Camaro’s base engine.
Pace car once again
To get buyers excited about the all-new Camaro, Chevrolet secured a deal to provide the pace car for the 1982 Indianapolis 500. It ran into a problem all-too-predictable: the Camaro wasn’t fast enough for pace car duty, even when equipped with the top-spec V8, so Chevrolet secretly modified the pace car with a fuel-injected 5.7-liter V8 rated at 250hp. The limited-edition model introduced after the race settled for the standard car’s V8, however.
Camaro IROC (1985)
Performance began returning to the Camaro line-up in the middle of the 1980s. Launched as a tribute to the International Race of Champions, the IROC model built on the Z/28 package with an upgraded suspension, edition-specific visual tweaks and a fuel-injected V8 that made 215hp. It marked the end of the détente in the horsepower war between Ford, who had returned to the segment, and Chevrolet.
Convertible, take two
In 1987, the convertible body style returned to the Camaro line-up after an 18-year hiatus. 1987 also brought a 225hp 5.7-liter V8 that finally gave the third-generation model the kind of power it deserved. Chevrolet dropped the four-cylinder Iron Duke engine that same year, too. No one missed it.
1990s: American muscle
An all-new Camaro made its debut in January of 1993. The design team started with a blank sheet of paper and came up with a contemporary-looking coupe that was still recognizable as a Camaro. Body panels made using composite materials helped keep its weight down to a reasonable 1470kg, and a 275hp V8 engine was available from launch. This time, the Camaro required no upgrades to serve as the pace car during the Indianapolis 500.
35th Anniversary Edition
Chevrolet gave the fourth-generation Camaro a discreet mid-cycle update in 1999. It included design tweaks on both ends, an all-aluminum 5.7-liter V8 that made 305hp and a range-topping SS model with 320hp under the hood. Exhibiting true muscle car ethos, the Camaro was quick in a straight line but a handful to handle on a twisty road.
An SS-based limited-edition model celebrated the nameplate’s 35th anniversary in 2002. Offered as a coupe with a T-top or a convertible, the commemorative car stood out with a bright red paint job accented by a pair of stripes plus black and gray leather seats. About 3400 buyers selected the package.
Towards extinction once more
Camaro sales dropped sharply around the turn of the millennium, and many feared the muscle car segment was again headed for extinction. Chevrolet ended Camaro production in August of 2002 without a replacement ready to take the torch, a spooky first in the nameplate’s 35-year history. Pontiac pulled the plug on the Firebird (which was, as always, heavily based on the Camaro) at the same time.
Camaro Concept (2006)
Chevrolet re-assured enthusiasts when it unveiled the Camaro Concept at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show. The 400hp coupe stood out with a heritage-laced design that channeled styling cues borrowed from the 1969 model, marking the nameplate’s first foray into retro territory. The Camaro Convertible Concept shown a year later in Detroit brought the design study a step closer to production.
The 21st century Camaro
“As evidence that we’re not completely brain-dead, GM will build the Chevy Camaro [concept],” announced then-CEO Rick Wagoner in 2006. However, the company soon found itself in dire financial straits, filed for bankruptcy and received a bail-out from the American government. The ordeal pushed back the launch of the fifth-generation Camaro until 2010.
With concept car-inspired looks and coke bottle styling, the coupe landed with either a 321hp V6 or a 426hp V8. There was no T-top option this time around, but the coupe was joined by a true convertible model in 2011. The fifth-generation Camaro was so popular that Chevrolet delayed production of the export model to meet demand at home.
Chevrolet stuffed more power into the fifth-generation Camaro than ever before in the nameplate’s history. The 2012 ZL1 model packed a supercharged 6.2-liter V8 with 580hp, while the Z/28 returned in 2014 as a stripped-out track car with a 7.0-liter, 505hp V8 borrowed from the mighty Corvette Z06.
Currently in production, the sixth-generation Camaro made its debut in May of 2015. Using an evolution of the rear-wheel drive platform that underpins Cadillac’s ATS and CTS models allowed engineers to shed a considerable amount of weight. In turn, the diet paved the way for a four-cylinder engine to return to the line-up for the first time since Chevrolet axed the woeful Iron Duke. The turbocharged unit makes 275hp. Six- and eight-cylinder engines are also available.
Pricing starts at US$25,905. The Camaro has remained a relatively affordable performance car throughout its production run. The difference is that today’s model finally handles as well as it goes.
The most extreme Camaro ever built by the factory for street use is the 2018 ZL1 1LE. Its supercharged V8 engine sends 650hp to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. Ticking the 1LE box also adds a body kit with carbon fiber components and an adjustable suspension, among other goodies.
The modern-day ZL1 stays true its roots even beyond the spec sheet. It starts at $63,795 before piling on the 1LE package, a figure that makes it over twice as expensive as the entry-level Camaro.