Cars such as the new Chevrolet Camaro, Ford Mustang, and Dodge Challenger promise to deliver a modern driving experience wrapped in sheetmetal that evokes the glory years of the first muscle car era. But if you're hankering for the throwback aesthetic in a package that delivers contemporary performance, there is another option: the Richard Childress Racing Series 3 Camaro.
The RCR Series 3 is essentially a brand-new 1969 Camaro that's built to hang with the fastest new cars on the road. Thirteen-inch Baer brakes, adjustable coil-over dampers, and modern BFGoodrich rubber - 245/40YR-18 in the front, 335/30YR-18 in the back - address the fact that stopping and turning weren't yet perfected in 1969. Neither was torsional rigidity, but the RCR Series 3 is built on a Dynacorn reproduction body shell that is stiffer than the General Motors original and is further buttressed by an optional six-point roll cage. So you don't get the sensation that the steering wheel, dashboard, and windshield are sliding around like rogue tectonic plates every time you hit a bump.
So far, so good, but why wouldn't you just buy a new Camaro - or an original one - instead of this rig? The answer lies under the hood. Although Chevy has formidable motivation in store for the latest Camaro, its LS3 V-8 still falls well short of a race-used NASCAR engine, which is the top option on the RCR's menu. Say you want Jeff Burton's motor from the Daytona 500. That's exactly what will end up in your car, albeit rebuilt with flat-top pistons to allow it to run on pump gas, a new carb with an electric choke, and a different cam to drop the horsepower and torque peaks out of the rpm stratosphere. But it's not exactly neutered. Brook Phillips, founder of Total Performance, Inc. (the company that builds the Series 3), says that the NASCAR engine produces a "conservative" 603 hp at 7000 rpm. "It'll still spin to 9000 rpm," Phillips says. "It just won't be making power up that high."
Unfortunately, the car I strap into outside the TPI facility in Wichita doesn't have the NASCAR engine, but it does have the midlevel ("Stage 2a") power option, a 580-hp, 427-cubic-inch V-8 that offers a near approximation of the race engine's performance, minus the provenance. With less than 3400 pounds to motivate (the car's body panels are carbon fiber), performance remains quite lively.
Stomping on the Series 3's gas pedal unleashes acceleration and a thunderclap from the exhaust that seem roughly on the level of a Corvette Z06. If you're a goon with the 1-2 upshift, the rear tires will spin, and through the first two gears you're keenly aware that you're on the edge of available traction. The Tremec six-speed transmission requires a definite shove from gear to gear, but you get the sense that you can shift as fast as you like without beating the synchros.
Phillips is a former racer, so he understands the importance of setup, and this classic-looking Camaro exhibits a very contemporary ride-and-handling balance. The steering is quick, and body motions feel buttoned-down, but there's an element of compliance in the suspension that means you don't wince at every approaching expansion joint. The new Challenger feels quite nautical by comparison.
The Series 3 provides a unique driving experience, because it's neither a car of this time nor of the past, but an amalgamation of both. Your eyes tell you it's old, but the seat of your pants and the lack of vintage-car groans and rattles tell you it's new.
One aspect of the Series 3 that's definitely not of this time is the price, which is more in step with the bygone days of 2007, when the average Goldman Sachs bonus was $600,000. The base car starts at $179,900, and the midlevel version costs $199,900. Springing for the NASCAR engine will cost you another $25,000. So although the RCR Series 3 (titled as a '69 and thus exempt from today's safety and emissions laws) is significantly pricier than the 2010 Camaro, it's significantly cheaper than the top '69 Camaros sold at the 2009 Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson auction, which went for $319,000 and $297,000, respectively.
With those kinds of prices for an original Camaro, potential Series 3 customers should seriously consider the race engine, despite the premium over the 427. If you've got the money for a $200,000 carbon-fiber Camaro, you may as well invest a little bit more to give it the one thing that can't be fabricated in a speed shop: history.