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First Camaros started pony car wars

March 14, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

When the 1967 Camaro was unveiled, Americans were fixated with its big performance numbers. Chevrolet, however, was fixated on another big "performance" number.

By that time, Ford had already sold 1.4 million Mustangs worth about $350 million. That's $350 million in 1967 currency. Based on the price of a new Mustang, today the sales would be about 10 times that dollar figure.

The only thing Chevrolet probably wished it had done differently with that first Camaro? To have built it three years sooner.

Other than a some minor competition from the Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Marlin, the Mustang enjoyed outright ownership of the "pony car" category - it was the Pony car category. By the time General Motors introduced the Chevy Camaro and sister-ship Pontiac Firebird in the fall of 1966, the Mustang was already a legend.

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Work on the Camaro began in the summer of 1964, shortly after the first Mustang hit the market. To build it, Chevrolet borrowed a number of key suspension and chassis components from the Chevy II, just as Ford had done using its compact Falcon as the basis for the Mustang.

Size-wise, Chevy mimicked the Mustang's long-hood, short-deck formula, with most key Camaro dimensions closely matching those of the Ford.

The designers who styled the Camaro introduced a number of elements from new or existing Chevrolets. The 1965 Corvair's clean, sweeping lines were adapted for the car's fenders and trunk-lid area, and the hollowed-out dash was very similar to that of the 1968 Corvette.

The first Camaros consisted of a basic coupe and convertible, along with luxury-oriented Rally Sport and performance-based Super Sport (SS) options. The RS included special wheels and trim bits along with a unique grille with hidden headlights. Both of these option packages could be combined to create an SS/RS version.

Power choices consisted of practically every engine in Chevrolet's inventory, except the popular 283-cubic-inch V-8. For starters, there was a 230-cubic-inch I-6 worth 140 horsepower as well as a 250 straight six that made 155 horsepower.

But for real sport-level performance, there were two small-block V-8s offered: a 327 that put out between 210 and 275 horsepower, as well as a 350-cubic-inch V-8, rated at between 255-300 horses. For 1968 and 1969, the Camaro's engine-bay options would grow to include the 396-cubic-inch V-8 with 325 horsepower, and the awesome Corvette-based 427 that produced a tarmac-tearing 425 ponies.

Then there was the special Z-28 Camaro that was originally built for the Sports Car Club of America's (SCCA) Group 2 sedan racing, eventually called the Trans Am racing series. SCCA rules stipulated that cubic-inch displacement be limited to 305 cubic inches.

To comply with their existing engine hardware, Chevy engineers basically adapted the crankshaft from the 283 motor and placed it inside a 327 engine block. The resulting displacement of 302.4 was the result.

The Z/28 also received mechanical valve lifters that allowed for higher revs, a big Holley four-barrel carburetor and a super-slick, close-ratio Muncie four-speed manual transmission. Heavy-duty springs and shocks and power front disc brakes were also part of the Z/28 package.

Although Chevrolet rated the Z/28 at 290 horsepower, the actual output was likely closer to 350. The lower rating was created to throw off the competition, as well as to keep the auto-insurance companies from charging sky-high premiums based on the car's actual horsepower.

First-year production of the Z/28 maxed out at a mere 602 cars, making them some of the rarest among Camaro collectors. In 1968, the numbers grew to 7,200 vehicles, and by the time the first-generation Camaro wrapped up in 1969, more than 19,000 Z/28 models had been built.

Total Camaro production for the initial 1967 model year reached a healthy 221,000 units although that was less than half the 472,000 Mustangs that Ford sold in the same year.

On the racetrack, however, the Camaro became the car to beat in Trans Am racing, eventually winning the championship in 1968 and 1969.

But that was just the beginning. The Mustang/Camaro wars - both on the track and in the showroom - waged on until the Camaro finally bowed out at the end of 2003.

Is the war finally over?

With a new Mustang for 2005, we might only have to wait a couple of years before it's 1967 all over again.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and automotive history writer.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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