The all-new 2016 Chevrolet Camaro makes its debut on Saturday, May 16. To help us keep our excitement for the new car in check, we paged through the archives to pick out our favorite Camaro models; scroll down and let us know what you think of our selections. Come back to AutomobileMag.com on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern / 1:30 p.m. Pacific for a full story and photos detailing the new Camaro. — Ed.
The Camaro is a little bit like Lynyrd Skynyrd—and not just because the latter blares so often in the former. Critics deride it and reduce it to clichés, but when you review all the hits in its back catalog, you realize this is a great car. Cue up “Free Bird” as we salute the 10 best Camaros of all time.
1. The Original
This will bruise a few egos: Early Camaros are terrible to drive, heavy, and numb even by the standards of the day. But the 1967 Camaro enjoyed important advantages. The first was its smashing good looks. Under Bill Mitchell’s design leadership, the car was more elegant than it needed to be; its lines germinated from a mini-Riviera concept, and it shows. This is especially notable since Ford’s Mustang, following its sensational debut in 1964, was already becoming fat and cheap-looking. The availability of 81 factory options plus 41 dealer accessories was another strength, guaranteeing there was a Camaro for just about everyone.
2. Yenko Camaro
Chevrolet intended the Camaro to be more of a cute compact than a muscle car. Don Yenko, owner of a Pittsburgh area Chevrolet dealership, saw things differently. He flouted GM’s policy limiting engine displacement to 400 cubic inches (6.6L) in smaller cars by retrofitting 427-cubic-inch (7.0L) V-8s into a few of the Camaros. By 1969, he enjoyed enough corporate backing to order them this way from the factory, although he still had to slip them through a back door known as the Central Office Production Order (COPO). Oh, and sometime later, Paul Walker drove a Yenko (replica) onto a boat in “2 Fast 2 Furious.”
3. 1968 Camaro Z/28
A textbook example of how racing can benefit a car and a manufacturer. When GM execs wouldn’t let Chevrolet field a factory Trans-Am racing team, enthusiasts in the company outsourced to Roger Penske. Penske’s gifted engineers, including driver Mark Donohue, managed to transform the Camaro from a poky performer in 1967 into a track weapon that dominated the SCCA Trans-Am series in 1968 and 1969. Among the “innovations,” Chevrolet engineers homologated “heavy duty” suspension and brake components. Perhaps most significantly, winning races helped the Camaro roar out of the Mustang’s shadow.
4. 1969 Camaro ZL-1
The most exotic Camaro and, for a long time, the most powerful. Like other early big-block Camaros, Chevrolet worked quietly through dealerships. But this was another level of absurd — as in an aluminum, 427-cubic-inch (7.0L) V-8 derived from Chevrolet’s involvement with the Chaparral Can-Am racing team. It was rated at 430 hp and weighed some 160 pounds less than an iron-block 427. The result was one helluva quick car, as evidenced by the ZL-1 Camaro’s 1971 American Hot Rod Association Pro Stock championship win. Only 69 were sold — few people wanted to pay $4,000-plus for an engine option on a $2,727 car.
5. Early ’70s Camaro
General Motors, at the height of its powers, invested millions in this ambitious version. Mitchell styled the unadorned body after the Italian sports cars he adored and, even more than the first car, tacked away from competitors’ cheesy, bloated styling. This car felt more sophisticated, too, with a relaxed seating position and refined handling. Circumstances undermined all this work: A massive auto-worker strike in 1970 delayed production, and emissions regulations and the Arab oil embargo sapped power. Finally, new crash regulations spoiled the styling.
6. 1988-1992 Camaro 1LE
As we stare at the second-straight reprise of 1969 styling in the form of the sixth-generation Camaro, we credit these “IROC”-era cars for daring to be so different. The third generation also offered revelatory handling, having benefited from concurrent development of the fourth-generation Corvette. The best of the breed was the racing-ready Camaro Z28 1LE, offered from 1988 to 1992. Available with either a 305-cubic-inch (5.0L) or 350-cubic-inch (5.7L) V-8, it also incorporated stiffer dampers, a baffled fuel tank, an oil cooler, and an aluminum driveshaft. But the precursor to today’s best Camaro, the Z/28, lacked A/C.
7. 1998-2002 Camaro SS
Sales declined precipitously with the Camaro’s fourth generation, in part because no one wanted a small coupe during the height of the large SUV craze and in part because the car looked as bloated as Vegas gamblers after a buffet binge. But it offered unbeatable performance for its price, especially during its final years when less than $25,000 bought you an aluminum-block LS-1 V-8 conservatively rated at 305 to 325 hp, depending on specification. Used examples remain affordable, much to the chagrin of speculators who tucked away the “last Camaros” in 2002.
If you’ve ever driven around in a yellow fifth-generation Camaro and heard the breathless shrieks—“Bumblebee!”—you understand. The placement of the Camaro concept car in the 2007 movie “Transformers” was a stroke of marketing genius, building more anticipation and goodwill for the car than could any amount of advertising. More important, this Camaro attracts a sort of guileless affection, especially from children, that’s rarely directed toward cars in our
9. 2014 Camaro Z/28
Much like the original, the new Camaro that debuted for 2010 didn’t drive exceptionally well. It plowed through corners and felt heavier than it was. Chevrolet still sold more than 90,000 in the first 12 months of production, so buyers didn’t appear to care. But the engineers did care. The fifth-generation car has become better every year, to the point that the 2014 models have different steering wheels, different tires, and, in many versions, different suspension geometry than what debuted in 2010. The Z/28 is the culmination of all this effort, a Camaro that puts the fear of America into track-driving Porsche 911 owners.
10. Pontiac Firebird
Yes, the Firebird is one of the “greatest Camaros.” Fact is we’d be remiss in celebrating the Camaro without pouring one out for its longtime running mate. Disregard the ignominious later years, when the Firebird amounted to little more than an ugly body kit. Focus instead on the mid- to late 1970s, when it was America’s coolest car. Pontiac held on to high-performance engines longer than Chevrolet, offering a Super Duty 455-cubic-inch (7.5L) V-8 through 1975. When that gave out, Pontiac emphasized handling (along with decals and Burt Reynolds), providing precedent for the athletic Camaros we have today.
The 1969 ZL-1 cost $7,269, about $46,500 today. But it’s now worth about $500,000.
Most Popular Camaro:
282,571 Camaros were produced in 1979.
The 1982 four-cylinder Camaro made 90 hp. The Z28 mustered only 165 hp.
Chevrolet produced only 41,776 Camaros in 2002, the “last” year.