Fifty Years of Camaro

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Fifty Years of the Chevrolet Camaro

2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
2013 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Photo © Aaron Gold

In August 1966, Chevrolet revealed the first Camaro; for 2016, they will introduce an all-new version. Over the last fifty years, the Chevrolet Camaro has become more than an American icon -- it has become a microcosm of the American automotive industry, riding the peaks and wallowing in the troughs. Let's take a look back at the history of one of America'sbest-known cars.

Start: 1967 Chevrolet Camaro

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1967 Chevrolet Camaro - The very first one!

1967 Camaro Vin 10001
1967 Camaro Vin 10001. Photo © General Motors

This Camaro carries VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) 10001, and is the very first Camaro. Technically, it's not a production model; it was the first of 49 hand-assembled "pilot build" cars used for testing and evaluation. This particular Camaro was also used for the August 1966 public introduction of the Camaro.

Today, most pilot-build cars are unceremoniously sent to the crusher, but this one found its way to a Chevy dealer in Oklahoma and went through several owners before being converted to a drag racer in the '80s. Cory Lawson bought it in 2009 and restored it to as-new condition.

You might expect the first Camaro to showcase a V8, but you'd be wrong. Pop open the hood and you'll find a 230 cubic inch (3.8 liter) inline six with a three-speed column-shift manual transmission.

Next: 1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS Z28

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1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS Z28

1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS Z28
1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS Z28. Photo © Aaron Gold

1967 was the height of the muscle car craze, and the Camaro SS could be had with a 350 cubic inch (5.7L) or a 396 ci (6.5L) V8. But the really hot setup was the Z28, shown here, which was built to homologate the Camaro for SCCA Trans Am racing. The Z28 had its own 302 ci (4.9L) V8 (Trans Am rules limited engine size to 5.0 liters or 305 cubic inches); though it was rated for 290 HP, the actual figure was north of 350 (the theory being that it was underrated for insurance purposes). A beefed-up suspension and bigger brakes made this a true street-legal racing car, with only the stripes on the hood and trunk to differentiate it from other Camaros. Chevy built just 602 examples for the 1967 model year.

Next: 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

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1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Photo © General Motors

A General Motors edict officially banned Chevrolet from installing engines larger than 400 cubic inches in the Camaro. But dealers were already installing 427s in new Camaros, so Chevrolet managed to sneak in two sub-models via the order process for fleet vehicles, called Central Office Production Orders, or COPO. Two hundred Yenko SC Camaros with iron-block 427s, were created for Pennsylvania dealer Don Yenko. And sixty-nine cars were built with an aluminum-block 427, a model known as the ZL1. The 1969 ZL1 remains one of the most valuable and collectible of all classic Camaros.

Next: 1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

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1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Photo © General Motors

The second-generation Camaro, which debuted in 1970, is my personal favorite; I love the rounded styling and the clear family resemblance to other Chevrolets, including the Corvette and the Vega. The Z28 shown here featured the Corvette's 350 cubic inch LT-1 V8, tuned for 360 horsepower, and Camaros could be had with engines up to 402 cubic inches (though this engine was still labeled as a 396 to avoid GM's 400 cubic inch ceiling on smaller cars). Unfortunately, dark days were on the horizon: Emissions regulations would soon choke the raw power of those big Detroit V8s.

Next: 1974 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

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1974 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

1974 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1974 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Photo © General Motors

The Federal government's new 1974 bumper standards mandated that the bumpers absorb a 5 MPH impact without serious damage. Chevrolet's stylists were ready for the challenge: They elongated the Camaro by seven inches, bringing the bodywork out to meet the big steel bumpers. Though the Camaro had lost the trim, lightweight look of the 1970-73 cars, it still looked good. Emissions had choked the Z28's 350 V8 to 245 horsepower, but there was some good news: Chrysler was about to drop their Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger, and Ford had introduced a new compact Mustang based on the Pinto, so the Camaro's competition was greatly reduced.

Next: 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

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1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Photo © General Motors

Camaro got a new face for '78 courtesy of a molded urethane bumper that looked infinitely better than the big chrome steel bumpers used previously. The rear end got a similar treatment, along with wider taillights featuring European-style amber turn signals. Bright colors and tape-stripe packages replaced tire-smoking power as engine output continued to plummet: The 350 cubic inch V8 in the Z28 was now down to 170 hp, less than the four-cylinder engine in a modern-day Volkswagen Jetta.

Next: 1982 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta

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2982 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta
1982 Chevrolet Camaro Berlinetta. Photo © General Motors

As the 1980s dawned, America was rushing head-long into the techno age, and the Camaro was more than just dated; it was outright old-fashioned. GM responded with an all-new third-generation Camaro for 1982, a radical departure that featured crisp, angular lines. It was a sign of the times that the base engine was now an anemic 2.5 liter four-cylinder (mercifully, this inadequate engine was dropped after two years), with GM's new 60-degree 2.8 liter V6 as a popular option. The 350 gave way to a new 305 cubic inch (5.0 liter) V8, available with optional fuel injection. Horsepower was still pretty pathetic -- 145 hp for the carbureted 5.0 and 165 for the fuel injected version -- but critics praised the car for its much-improved handling.

Next: 1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

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1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z
1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z. Photo © General Motors

1985 saw the introduction of the IROC-Z, and there were signs of life under the hood: A 5-liter V8 with multi-port injection producing a credible (for the time) 215 horsepower. An upgraded suspension, rear disc brakes, and Good Year Gatorback tires (shared with the Corvette) gave the IROC track-worthy handling. Car & Driver Magazine put it on their Ten Best list -- no small feat at a time when imported cars were winning the hearts and minds of American drivers.

Next: 1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Convertible

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1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Convertible

1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28
1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. Photo © General Motors

Convertibles weren't easy to come by in the 1980s, but Chevy introduced a topless Camaro in 1987, and there have been convertibles nearly every year of Camaro production since (the exceptions being 1993 and 2010, the first years of the 4th- and 5th-generation cars respectively). This 1992 Z28 represents the last year for the fourth-generation car; the 5.0 liter V8 was now up to a Mustang-challenging 245 hp.

Next: 1993 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car

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1993 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car

1993 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car
1993 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car. Photo © General Motors

The fourth-generation Camaro made its debut in 1993. Styling-wise, it looked like a more aerodynamic version of the third-gen car, but this was a much more sophisticated Camaro, with a greatly improved suspension and composite material (rather than sheet metal) used in the roof panel, door skins, and trunk lid. The base engine was now a 160 hp V6, while the Z28 featured a 350 cubic inch (5.7L) LT1 engine producing 275 hp -- the most powerful Camaro engine since the early 1970s. Best yet, it could be had with a thoroughly modern 6-speed Borg-Warner manual transmission. The Camaro was the pace car at the Indy 500, as it had been in 1967 and 1982. This is one of the actual pace cars; 633 replicas were sold to the public. Chevrolet re-introduced a convertible in 1994; sales peaked at nearly 123,000 in 1995 before taking a nose-dive in '96.

Next: 1998 Chevrolet Camaro SS

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1998 Chevrolet Camaro SS

1998 Chevrolet Camaro SS
1998 Chevrolet Camaro SS. Photo © General Motors

Chevrolet introduced a redesigned Camaro in 1998, a time when GM's styling department seemed to be having a more-than-momentary lapse of reason. One notable addition was the new front clip with aero headlights -- only thirteen years after they were made legal in the US. While the Camaro might have looked odd, its performance creds were serious: The SS model shown here could be had with a 320 horsepower engine. Unfortunately, neither the new styling nor the powerful engines could reverse the Camaro's sales slump.

Next: 2002 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

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2002 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 -- The last one for a while

2002 Chevrolte Camaro Z28 Convertible
2002 Chevrolte Camaro Z28 Convertible. Photo © General Motors

By the turn of the millennium, Camaro sales had skidded to the point that General Motors could no longer justify the car's existence. Buyers had largely lost interest in big performance coupes. The car in our photo is was the very last Camaro built, a 310 hp Camaro Z28 convertible with a six-speed manual transmission. It went straight into the GM Heritage Collection. It would be nearly a decade before the Camaro returned to Chevrolet dealerships.

Next: 2006 Chevrolet Camaro Concept

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Chevrolet Camaro Concept

Chevrolet Camaro Concept
Chevrolet Camaro Concept. Photo © General Motors

At the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, Chevrolet debuted this concept of a new Camaro -- at nearly the same time that Chrysler showed off their Dodge Challenger concept. The Challenger was a clear homage to the original, while the contemporary Mustang was a modern design with retro cues. The Camaro concept was something unique: Inspired by the first-gen Camaro, to be sure, but a thoroughly modern design.

Next: 2010 Chevrolet Camaro

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2010 Chevrolet Camaro

2010 Chevrolet Camaro RS
2010 Chevrolet Camaro RS. Photo © Aaron Gold

When the production version of the fifth-generation Camaro arrived at dealerships in mid-2009, fans were pleased to see that it looked almost exactly like the 2006 concept car. And the engine choices were magnificent: A 304 horsepower V6 and a 426 (!) horsepower V8. At the time, I criticized the Camaro for its gloomy interior and slightly disconnected steering feel, but I put it on my Best New Cars of 2010 list because it was an outstanding performance value, with base models starting at $23k and V8 cars at $31k. And I was thoroughly impressed by the convertible version that bowed in 2011.

Next: 2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

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2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 front-left view
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Photo © Aaron Gold

For 2012, what may be the greatest name in Camaro-dom returned: The ZL1. And no tape-stripe package, this: The Camaro ZL1 featured a 580 horsepower supercharged 6.2 liter V8, a version of the engine found in the Corvette ZR1. And unlike muscle cars of the 1960s, this one had the suspension and handling ability to match its incredible engine. A convertible version followed in 2013. Incidentally, your author plays the smallest of parts in Camaro ZL1 history: I was the first non-GM employee to crash one.

2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 review

Next: 2016 Chevrolet Camaro

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2016 Chevrolet Camaro: The next generation

2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS front view
2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS. Photo © Aaron Gold

In 2015, Chevrolet revealed the next-generation 2016 Camaro -- smoother, trimmer, and smaller, but just as muscular as the 2010-2015 car. Let's take a turn behind the wheel in my 2016 Chevrolet Camaro review.

Back to the beginning: 1967 Chevrolet Camaro - The very first one!