Ad the late Rodney Dangerfield ever wanted a Chevy Camaro, he’d probably have grown a mullet and bought one built between 1982 and 1992. Neither as beloved as the classics of the 1960s and ’70s-not to mention most Ford Mustangs of its day-nor as fast as its successors, third-generation Camaros have become a stereotype for low class and bad taste. And yet, this oft-disparaged Camaro is arguably the most dramatic and ambitious in the history of a car that has often been more about reacting and catching up. It’s also the generation that enjoyed the most success vis-à-vis its archrival, outselling the Mustang in five of its eleven years on the market.
The third-gen Camaro arrived in 1982, two years late and a seeming millennium removed from its predecessor. Granted, it relied on the same basic combination of a live rear axle, rear-wheel drive, and available V-8 power. But it was also lighter and smaller and incorporated a relatively sophisticated strut-type front suspension into unibody construction. Even more significant was its exterior design. The traditional short-deck/long-hood styling disappeared in favor of a steeply raked front windshield and an all-glass rear hatch that offered real utility. It was a huge gamble for a risk-averse company, and it worked. Camaro sales shot up 50 percent in that first year, and technical editor Don Sherman, then writing for Car and Driver, deemed it “so gorgeous, grown men will blush.”
Alas, after two to three decades, surviving third-gen Camaros are more likely to give you tetanus than a blood rush to the head. That’s where Mike Rhudy comes in. The fifty-five-year-old contractor decided about fifteen years ago that it was time to start investing, and he specializes in one commodity: Camaros. He now maintains a rotating fleet of fifteen to twenty. “I knew the cars better than I did the stock market,” he shrugs. When he learned of our search for an unmolested third-gen example, he happily loaded his 1100-mile, all-original 1982 Z28 Indy Edition (one of about 6000) onto a trailer and drove all the way to Michigan from Kansas.
We never cease to be amazed by how kindly owners take to our thrashing their pampered rides. Rhudy is no exception. “You can beat this one up-it ain’t got enough horsepower for you to hurt it.” He does, however, point out that the Z28 is running on its original Goodyear Eagle GT fifteen-inch tires.
Turns out even that rubber is enough to contain the Z28. Whereas the real Indy 500 pace cars featured aluminum-block 350-cubic-inch engines, the best Camaro you could actually buy in 1982 had an emissions-choked 5.0-liter V-8 producing a tepid 165 hp. Making matters worse, the car weighed a piggish (for its time) 3400 pounds. Other flaws, including dubious paint matching and obvious interior cost cutting, are present and accounted for.
And yet, this is hardly an unpleasant vehicle. Free of the usual signs of hard living, the clean, even elegant shape stands the test of time. The car corners surprisingly well, with quick and precise recirculating-ball steering and good body control, even as we turn kick the back end loose. Although the Z28 requires about eight seconds to hit
60 mph, it makes all the right noises and shifts smoothly. The functional hood louvers provide a fun distraction as they open to feed the “cross-fire” intake.
Pleasant car, fatal flaw-and that’s how the story ends, right? Not quite. To its credit, General Motors never stopped tweaking its weak hero, ridding the gremlins even as sales gradually slid. Allow Rhudy to present exhibit B, a pristine 1992 Z28 with fewer than 5000 miles on the clock. The car now belongs to GM’s Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan, but as the previous owner and a part-time Camaro specialist for Chevy, Rhudy retains visitation rights — rights we happily abused.
This Z28 has sixteen-inch “Gatorback” Goodyear tires (also original), a beefier suspension, and more advanced fuel injection. But the interior hints at a more significant difference from the older car. No, not the goofy-looking air-bag-equipped steering wheel, but the lack of air-conditioning. Deleting A/C on a ’92 Z28 generally meant the 1LE option, which suggested that the buyer wanted to kick some ass. One of 1356 such cars built between 1989 and 1992, this über-third-gen car features four-wheel disc brakes (the ’82 has rear drums), a performance rear axle, stiffer dampers, a baffled fuel tank, an oil cooler, and an aluminum driveshaft-everything needed to go showroom-stock racing. Not surprisingly, the steering is heavier and more precise, and there’s less body roll at the price of a harsher ride. No T-tops means fewer rattles (and leaks). The biggest difference, though, is in throttle response. By 1987, Chevy realized that its tatty mouse motor wouldn’t cut it against Ford’s revitalized “five oh,” so it dropped in a slightly detuned Corvette V-8, standard practice to this day. In 1992, this 5.7-liter put out 245 hp and 345 lb-ft of torque, enough to hurtle the Camaro to 60 mph in less than six seconds. The four-speed automatic (no manual was offered with this engine) shifts into second gear so briskly that the back end breaks loose.
Ultimately, the injection of athleticism couldn’t quite restore the third-gen Camaro’s fortunes or its place in history. “They won’t go to ten times their original value like first-generation cars anytime soon,” concedes Rhudy. When Chevy finally rediscovered the winning combination of great design and strong performance in 2010, it chose to completely ignore the IROC era (as Z28s were renamed from 1988 through 1990) and instead drew a direct link to 1967. That’s too bad. If nothing else, the third-generation Camaro proved that there is life beyond retro. And for that, it deserves some respect.
5.0L OHV V-8, 145-230 hp, 235-290 lb-ft; 5.7L OHV V-8, 225-245 hp, 330-345 lb-ft
4- or 5-speed manual ,3- or 4-speed automatic
Strut-type, coil springs
Live axle, coil springs
Discs/drums or discs/discs
3400 lb (est.)
524,364 Z28s (and IROCs), including 14,196 convertibles — out of 1,528,561 total Camaros
$10,099 (1982); $16,055 (1992)
Beyond fulfilling the basic needs of the budget enthusiast — it’s cheap, plentiful, rear-wheel drive, and (in some iterations) fast — third-gen Camaros capture an era that now looks quite rosy. Skip over the $500 Craigslist specials and anything with fewer than eight cylinders and find a later car with no rust. For less than $10,000, you’ll have an attractive, quick car that you can either preserve as a weekend cruiser or cheaply modify to embarrass some new Camaros.