Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Madonna or Lady Gaga? The first love or the new flame? It’s in our nature to look in the rearview mirror, to measure the brightness of the present against the best of the past. It’s no different with car enthusiasts. For all the areas in which automobiles have improved—safety, performance, efficiency, reliability—they still live in the shadow of the past. The great thing about cars, though, is that we don’t have to rely solely on our memories. We’ll never know how twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jordan would have fared against twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James, but we can find well-kept classic cars—the icons that enthusiasts worship—and pit them against their modern equivalents. That’s just what we did with these matchups. It’s throttle cables versus direct injection. AM radios versus infotainment screens. Old-car patina versus new-car smell. So, was it really better then? Come back next Thursday for the next entry in this series.
We’re staring at the taillights of a 2014 Camaro SS 1LE through the green-tinted windshield of a 1971 Camaro SS as we drive along the Atlantic coast in Satellite Beach, Florida. For fifty years, pony cars like these have let middle-class Americans tap into a level of performance usually attached to a high price.
This ’71 is optioned with a 402-cubic-inch V-8, an automatic transmission, a Positraction rear end, and upgraded front and rear suspension components—serious hardware that bumped up the price almost $2000, to $5175. That was just within reach for Kevin McKeown, then a college dropout and eventually a Green Beret commander. He convinced his mother to cosign on the loan and has owned the sunflower yellow SS ever since.
The big-block ’71 Camaro looks and drives like it’s fresh from the showroom, which isn’t high praise. Acceleration is weak, impeded by a mild 3.42:1 final-drive ratio and a V-8 with 300 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, figures that seem to exist only in ink (indeed, the numbers dropped to 240 hp and 345 lb-ft in 1972, when Chevrolet switched from gross to net ratings). The body sways in slow-speed turns, even with the tighter suspension setup, and we can’t feel the front tires through the thin-rimmed steering wheel.
The 2014 Camaro SS 1LE has the same mission as the old SS, but its execution is dramatically different. Its 426-hp V-8 with 420 lb-ft of torque is responsive and punchy at all points in the rev range. The chassis, upgraded for the 1LE trim level with larger anti- roll bars, retuned dampers, and Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires, is planted and easily controlled in high-speed corners. The 1LE costs about half of what you’d spend on the pricey new Z/28 but is three-quarters the car. It would’ve been science fiction in 1971. If it had existed and cost only ten percent more than a base SS, we would’ve sold a kidney and two toes to get the extra cash.
It’s fantastic that pony cars still exist and that so much performance is available to enthusiasts at such a low cost. If the guy who bought an SS in the ’70s felt excited, the guy buying a 1LE today should be downright, straight-out stoked.
|1971 Chevrolet Camaro SS||2014 Chevrolet Camaro SS 1LE|
|Engine||6.6L V-8, 300 hp, 400 lb-ft||6.2L V-8, 426 hp, 420 lb-ft|
|Transmission||3-speed automatic||6-speed manual|
|Curb Weight||3300 lbs||3860 lbs|
|Price||$3261 ($18,800 after inflation)||$37,850|