Milestone: Chevrolet Camaro Turns 50

Making Mustang owners mad for half a century

How the Camaro got its name is a point of contention. Chevrolet developed the car under the guise of “Panther,” reportedly going so far as to order $100,000 worth of Panther badges. Before Chevy revealed the Camaro in June 1966, though, a couple hundred journalists participated in a conference call billed as the first and last meeting of the “Society for the Eradication of Panthers From the Automotive World.” During the call, Chevy boss Pete Estes put forth the potential Camaro name, saying it was a “small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.”

The Camaro, Chevy’s answer to Ford’s sensationally successful Mustang, went on sale in September 1966, and dealers had no trouble moving more than 220,000 of them in the first year. Consumers loved the car almost as much as racers did; the Z/28 endeavored to be a competition-ready Camaro available from the factory, with a criminally underrated 290-hp V-8 and upgraded brakes, suspension, and tires. The yellow-on-blue Penske-Donohue Z/28 dominated the 1968 and ’69 Trans-Am seasons.

The second-generation Camaro arrived in 1970, sporting a hard-edged design and an angular, quad-headlight face that dictated the model’s look for the rest of the decade. As the Mustang moved down market in the mid-’70s, offering pitiful power from mostly four- and six-cylinder engines, the Camaro had a somewhat uncontested rule over ponycar land. Sales began to climb, and the Camaro overtook the Mustang for the first time in 1977. The second-gen Camaro continued to evolve, eventually tessellating into the wacky 1978 edition covered in scoops, scallops, and bright decals.

The Camaro became known as a no-nonsense braggart with a tough attitude, and the third-generation model that landed in 1982 only strengthened its wicked appeal, thanks in part to the IROC-Z model and track-ready 1LE performance package. The ’82 Camaro carried a laundry list of firsts, including fuel injection and a five-speed manual transmission, and focused on chassis competence and composure as well as drag-strip credentials. The spearlike, fourth-generation car that followed in 1993 moved closer to the contemporary Corvette than the softer Mustang, but the car unfortunately didn’t resonate in the market. Amid weak sales, Chevy discontinued the Camaro in ’02, a year in which it had sales of only 41,776.

Eight years passed before the Camaro reemerged with a snappy, retro-but-modern design and impressive performance. Power for the SS came from a 6.2-liter V-8 lifted from the Corvette, and a badass ZL1 followed with magnetic suspension and 580 supercharged horsepower. The hardcore, track-focused Z/28 received carbon-ceramic brakes, model-specific racing tires, and a giant, naturally aspirated 7.0-liter V-8. Sales for the fifth-gen car started strong and stayed strong—around 100,000 cars annually—setting the stage for today’s sixth-gen Camaro. An all-new, much-improved chassis and a diverse lineup of powertrains now sit beneath the body with a recognizable shape almost as well known as the Camaro name.