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Tire-shredding Camaro is silent for now

April 11, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

For many of its 35 years, the Chevrolet Camaro practically ruled the streets and race tracks across America.

Victory, cheers and tire-shredding V-8 power have been replaced by silence. The Camaro is gone.

But why, when the last-generation (1993-2002) cars were considered by many to be the best Camaros ever made, did this happen? There are several answers, but the most important might not have anything to do with Chevrolet at all. The Ford Mustang, the car the Camaro was originally designed to beat, was a constant sales thorn in its side.

Arriving two-and-half-years after the Mustang, the Camaro spent the next three decades trying to grab its share of the spotlight, even though, for many of those years, the Camaro was a better performing car on the street.

Although the Camaro was perceived as a runner-up to the iconic Mustang for much of its existence, the brass at Chevrolet probably smelled a winner when their fourth-generation Camaro entered the fray in early 1993. Although the platform and rear suspension were carried over from the previous version, the styling was thoroughly up to date, with clean, flowing lines, an up-to-date interior and plenty of tire-blistering power.

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The Camaro's creators also tried paring down the weight by adopting plastic front fenders, doors, roof and rear deck-lid panels. Removable glass T-roof panels first introduced in the late 1970s remained an option.

The new Camaro was certainly priced right. For around $15,000, buyers could pick up a reasonably well-equipped base car that included a 160-horsepower 3.4-liter V-6. Plunk down an extra three grand and you were in control of the much more fearsome Z28, complete with a Corvette-based 275-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8, six-speed manual transmission (a five-speed automatic was optional), rumbling exhaust, bigger wheels and contrasting black roof.

Most new-car reviewers loved the Camaro's styling and the stick-like-glue handling capabilities and applauded the Z28 version's rapid response when the gas pedal was mashed to the floor. On the down side were the back-seat passenger space and the harsh ride.

Acceleration and handling testing also showed that the Z28 Camaro was capable of trouncing Ford's Mustang GT, not surprising since the Ford was hamstrung by a smaller engine that produced 40 less horsepower.

The Camaro coupe was joined by a hot convertible for 1994 that was head-and-shoulders above the previous ragtop. Both open- and fixed-roof (T-roof optional) models sold reasonably well, especially the Z28.

Sensing growing popularity, Chevrolet continued to play the performance card. By mid-'95 a larger standard-issue 3.8-liter V-6 delivered 200 horsepower while the Z28 rating was notched up to 285.

In short order, Chevrolet added an SS option package for Z28 buyers, consisting of wider wheels and tires, a firmer suspension and a functional hood scoop that increased the horsepower rating to an impressive 305, five more than the Corvette's base output that year. The SS goodies were actually developed by an outside source, Street Legal Performance (SLP), a company that had provided specialty accessories on previous Camaros.

For Z28 fans, the most important evolutionary change occurred under the hood for 1998 with the adoption of the Corvette's LS1 5.7-liter V-8 that gave the car a base power rating of 305. Buyers looking for more could count on the SS version's 320-horse output.

Some fresh body work, including a new nose, turned the Camaro into a more modern, but less-aggressive looking machine. However, the car was running into a brick wall as far as sales were concerned. Booming sport-utility-vehicle sales, an influx of import machinery and unwavering Mustang sales all played a part.

And for GM, operating a dedicated rear-drive production facility churning out only Camaros and Firebirds was becoming increasingly inefficient as all of its North American passenger-car plants were manufacturing front-wheel-drive vehicles.

GM was unwilling to commit to a replacement for the Camaro/Firebird, and the decision was made in 2000 to close the Canadian plant and orphan the cars that had tried and ultimately failed to blow the Mustang into the weeds.

Thirty five years of Camaro glory was replaced with mere memories while Ford readied its new 2005 Mustang, a throwback to the original.

Ironically, the last Camaro, a fully equipped 35th anniversary Z28, one of the quickest four-seater cars Chevrolet ever built, left the plant in the spring of 2002 to become one of GM's static museum pieces.

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

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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