Camaro holds crucial place in performance car lore

The 1982 Chevrolet Camaro marked the launch of

The 1982 Chevrolet Camaro marked the launch of the third generation of the classic American sports car. (Credit: General Motors)

The calling card of the 1980s was techno music, big hair and tinsel-covered clothing. At the time we thought all was great, including the cars we drove.

Looking back at the old photos, it's hard to believed how we looked. It's even harder to believe that performance cars survived.

Although not particularly glorious, beautiful or fast, the 1982-'92 Camaro did its part to connect us with our performance past so that we could have the luxury of choosing from the plethora of performance vehicles of all shapes and sizes that exists today.

Without the Camaro and Mustang to pull us through until the 1990s came along, who knows where we might be today.

Coming off the back end of the 1970s, a decade of ever-tightening emissions and safety regulations and increasing insurance rates, "performance" was more of slogan than a fact of life. Chrysler was coming back from the financial brink and leaded gas was on the way out.

The fun times appeared to be almost over, at least if you were in the market for a new car.

However, there was a bright spot: the third-generation Camaro that reached the streets in January of 1982 seemed to promise a return to the kind of serious high-performance thrills that had made it so popular a decade earlier.

It was a showstopper back then, to be sure. With seductive styling, a wider and lower stance and rakish all-glass rear hatch, the new Camaro not only appeared fast, but made the Ford Mustang - its arch-nemesis since the late 1960s - look like a stubby econobox.

But with manufacturers' ears still ringing from the 1970s, the focus was on economical front-wheel-drive vehicles.

In fact, with a base 90-horsepower four-cylinder engine under the hood, looks were all the Camaro had. And the best you could get was a 165-horsepower 305-cubic-inch (5.0-liter) V8.

With easily 2.5 times the power from the same displacement today, looking back it seems almost silly. However, just like the big hair, the anemic V8 seemed like a good idea at the time. Moreover, and hair not withstanding, the technology just wasn't there to mass produce fuel-efficient and emissions-friendly performance cars.

Gradually, however, the competitive juices that flowed between GM and Ford for street and track supremacy would spark the development of ever increasing strength under the hood of the Camaro and its closely related Firebird cousin. They eventually began living up to their go-fast images, despite all the government and environmental hurdles thrown in their path.

The powertrain availability was a far cry from the original 1967-'69 first-generation, and early 1970-'72 second-generation models since they had yet to be affected by increasing emissions standards and skyrocketing insurance premiums for performance cars.

Despite that fact, the third-generation Camaro was actually a competent, well-balanced machine that hugged the road and at least sounded strong at higher revs. The Z28 in particular, with its beefier suspension, body skirts and wider rubber mounted onto five-spoke alloy wheels, was the choice of many buyers. Although not blindingly fast, it was about all the V8 fun you were going to have.

Over in the Mustang camp, the stout 5.0-liter V8 and the turbocharged four-cylinder SVO models kept the Camaro on the defensive. Ford recognized the direct threat the Camaro posed to its Ponycar supremacy and wasn't going to idly sit by and watch. Competition grew fierce and the winners were performance-hungry buyers who rejoiced in 1985 with the arrival of the hot new Camaro IROC-Z (an abbreviation for the International Race of Champions). It would be the Camaro's unofficial turning point.

The IROC pitted top drivers from different racing disciplines, head to head, in identically prepared cars. Camaro became IROC's car supplier in 1985, and, as a result, Chevrolet prepared a mild street-going model with a fuel-injected 215-horse 5.0-liter V8. Two years later, IROC-Z was available with the 5.7-liter (350 cubic-inch) V8 making 225 horsepower, a value that would eventually climb to 245 over the next few seasons. Along with the more potent V8, Chevrolet trotted out the Camaro Convertible, finally matching the Mustang in the fun-in-the-sun department.

By the close of the 1980s, the once-sensational-looking Camaro was beginning to appear dated. Rounded, edgeless sheetmetal and integrated headlights were in vogue and sales were beginning to soften.

Other problems, including a rough ride (especially Z28s and IROC-Zs), annoying squeaks and rattles plus leaks around the seams of the optional glass T-roof, were inherent in all third-generation Camaros as well as their Firebird cousins, right from the beginning.

In 1992, after 10 years on the market and the 25th anniversary of the brand, the Canadian production plant ended its run of the most successful - in terms of sales - series of Camaros in the history of the brand. A fourth-generation model arrived early in 1993 to carry the torch for another nine years before bowing out. After an eight-year drought with no Camaro, a new retro-inspired model arrived to do battle with the Mustang in early 2009.

Although dated in appearance and generally unappreciated today, in no small way the 1980s Camaro was one of the cars responsible for getting us through a decade-long performance drought. For that, we should all give thanks.

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