Chevy’s little pony car was a winner, right from the very beginning. Through the years, Chevrolet has been responsible for some of the most exciting cars ever built in the United States. Thanks to some genuine car lovers from within its corporate ranks, the succession of just plain fun Chevys has been practically continuous, starting with legendary ’55 Bel Air. Chevrolet offered basic cars with long option lists that empowered their customers with the ability to tailor make their Chevys to suit their tastes. From mild to wild.
The 1967 Chevrolet Camaro
In 1967, Chevrolet introduced one of the most extensively researched, well designed and well engineered cars they ever brought to market. Whatever this little car did, it did well. Welcome to Chevrolet’s entry into the pony car market and one of the most popular cars ever built: the Camaro.
There was something new in the showrooms in 1967, in fact, there was a whole stampede of new cars hitting the market that year. The media called them pony cars. Ford invented the pony car back in 1964. And since then, the Mustang had been the big player. But in 1967 it was going to be a horse of a different color. The Camaro was Chevy’s long awaited answering shot to the Mustang. The Chevy F body design team had begun work on the Camaro in August of 1964 as soon as it was plain that the Mustang was going to be a world leader. Unlike the Mustang, which used the existing Falcon platform, most of the Camaro was designed from the ground up as a completely new vehicle.
“A lot of people think that the Camaro was just a fancied up Nova and while it’s true that they share a lot of the same bolt-on parts, the Camaro was a brand new idea.” Explains Tom Shaw of Musclecar Power Magazine.
This new idea would start with a totally new body. This car would have a wheel base of 108 inches and weigh in at just a shade over 3200 pounds. The look was definitely pony car with a long hood and short deck length, but it shared no body lines with any of Chevy’s other small sporty cars. The designers in the marketing department knew that in order to make a dent in the Mustang sales, the Camaro was going to have to look all new from every angle. Like the Mustang, it was going to have to look classy and expensive but be affordable. Chevy also decided from the very start that this little car needed to appeal to the widest possible consumer base. And the way you do that is give the car a huge option list. The Camaro was designed to be an exciting little package for just about everybody.
If you wanted a sporty car that got good mileage, order your Camaro with a 6 cylinder engine and the 3 speed transmission. If you’re in the market for a sports car, a Rally Sport with a 327 and 4 speed was just the thing. And if you wanted a muscle car, check the box marked Super Sport. Of course, this kind of flexibility doesn’t just happen. Chevy’s engineers had designed this into the car from day one. Chevy’s engineers had developed a completely new chassis and underbody for the Camaro that utilized a front sub-frame, carrying all the front suspension and engine-mounting hardware, bolted to a unit body tub. The unit body tub was less expensive to manufacture and lighter than a full frame car. Thanks to the front sub frame design, the car could use a conventional front suspension with upper and lower control arms and coil spring in between, which gave the Camaro much better handling and ride qualities. Most importantly, this layout permitted any power train combination in Chevy’s inventory to fit into the Camaro. Chevy’s designers did everything right. With this gorgeous body and the long option list, the Camaro was a car for everyone. And the car-buying public jumped all over it.
1967 was the most exciting year to date for the muscle car. The pony car had finally come of age. The Camaro was perfectly timed to hit the market right on this upsurge. Only two body styles were available for the Camaro: the Sport Coupe for $2466 and the Convertible which had a base price of $2704. For just $106 more, you could graduate from the 6 cylinder engine to the 327 V8. The Super Sport option would set you back another $105 dollars. And for this sum you got, in addition to the 295 horse 350, all the SS identification, V70 by 14 wide oval redline tires and the all important SS hood with the non-functional hood scoop inserts. Initially, the Super Sport Camaro’s most powerful engine option was the 295 horsepower small block 350. The SS 350 Camaro was a very respectable performer, capable of low 14 second quarter miles.
But in a textbook case of overkill, for an additional$263, your SS Camaro could’ve frolled off the dealer lot with a 325 horsepower 396. And for about double that amount, 375 horse 396. The rat motor, already becoming a legend in the SS Impalas and Chevelles was about to turn up the heat on a horsepower war that was already boiling. Back in 1967, every car maker was offering increased horsepower, more torque, and more cubic inches. The big dogs were taking over the streets and everybody else had better stay on the porch. This was not good news for the first generation pony cars, whose go fast image was being destroyed, every time they lined up against one of Detroit’s muscle bound intermediates.
“The pony car started out with a big wave of excitement and publicity, but the muscle cars really came on strong and began to overshadow these little small block Barracudas and Mustangs were performance cars but in a different vein. They emphasized handling and overall balance but the big block muscle cars really delivered a torque punch.” Elaborates Tom Shaw.
The rat motor debuted at the 1963 Daytona 500 as the Mark 2S 427. 563 Impalas ran in the 500 that year and none of them finished. But Junior Johnson’ car and the Smoky Unit car driven by Johnny Rutherford were capable of lapping the Daytona speedway at up to 8 miles an hour faster than the Holman-Moody Ford, which eventually won the race.
The two versions of the 396 offered in the ’67 SS Camaro with a hydraulic camshaft of 324 horsepower engine with a single Rochester quadrajet carburetor on a cast iron intake manifold. And a shut up and hang on 375 horsepower engine with 11 to 1 compression, a Holley carburetor on an aluminum intake manifold, solid lifter cab shaft and low restriction exhaust manifolds. With the 396 375, Camaro took the short route to the top of the muscle car status pool and the lines between muscle car and pony car were forever blurred. By the end of model year 1967, the Camaro had chocked up fantastic first year sales of over 220,000 cars. Chevy was poised to sail into 1968.
The 1968 Chevrolet Camaro
Camaro enjoyed another year of widespread popularity from the same basic body style in 1968. Its nose was slightly more pointed and there were a few other subtle differences like big, bold stripes along its side. But basically, Chevrolet chose not to fix the body style that very definitely wasn’t’ broken. Once again, the exterior looked the same, but there was big news under the hood.
Tom Shaw describes the year of the 1968 Chevrolet: “In ’68 there was good news and bad news. The good news was the appearance of the L89 option, which gave you aluminum cylinder heads. They were the same as the iron cylinder heads as far as torque size and valve size, but they shaved 40 pounds of weight off the overall package. The downside was that ’68 also was the first year where you began to see the air pump as a pollution control device.”
Style and comfort options were plentiful for the Camaro and Chevy grouped them together in convenient, inexpensive packages. There were style trim groups for $29 and interior trim groups for $11, which added things like chrome heel well moldings, body side stripes and chrome moldings for the grip rails. Chrome accents on the foot pedals and shiny windshield moldings. The custom interior group, which sold for $95, upgraded the Camaro’s standard, rather sparse base interior with accents on the seats and a 3-spoke steering wheel, all designed to impart a special upscale look and feel to the Camaro.
Camaro’s most popular option package was Rally Sport, which included all the style and trim options from the other groups along with lower body moldings and body accent stripes. The most noticeable item in the package was disappearing headlights, priced at a bargain basement $105, nearly 41,000 RS Camaros were built in 1968. When you added the DSS option package to the RS, you had another choice to make, but it was a very pleasant choice. You chose between the 295 horse 350 or any one of the 396s available that year. The 325 and the 375 horse versions from 1967 or the all new 350 horse version for 1968. The Super Sport option package included special SS badging, which replaced the RS fender badges, body side stripes, redline tires, dual exhausts and an all new SS hood for 1968., containing yet more imitation air intakes. If you’d already selected a few other little thingss like positraction, the heavy duty close ratio Muncy M22 4 speed, power disc brakes, and a high performance rear axle ratio, your Camaro was loaded with just about every performance and appearance option in Chevy’s catalog.
This is not to say that you were done optioning your Camaro at this point. No, Chevy’s comfort and convenience option list was so extensive that you could run the price of your Camaro into the mid $4000 range without breaking a sweat. But if you were on a budget, you could have a Camaro with just a 396 375 horse engine, a 4 speed, and a posi-rear without too much of the other frou frou, which is consistent with the original muscle car idea: putting the biggest engine in the lightest, lest expensive body. You didn’t have to look any father than the sales figures for Camaro in 1968 to see that the late sixties were intensively competitive years in the car business, particularly in the performance and youth markets. This was a real “What have you done for me lately?” market segment and in the second year of this body style, 235,000 lucky people d rove home in one. Coming into 1969, Chevrolet was ready with its first redesign of the Camaro.
The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro
The ’69 Camaro wasn’t so much a redesign as it was an extensive face lift. The car still used the same sub frame and floor plan but the body sides were completely different. Taking a page from an old Chevy styling department favorite, th ’56 Mercedes Benz 300 SL, the Camaro’s fender lifts were more pronounced and created a line running from the top of the front fender arch all the way to the rear of the car. “’69 had a lot of elements that came together int he Camaro. It was a purity of styling still with the first generation and the ’69 Camaros were all over the place. they were in every neighborhood at every drive in and there was also a proliferation of great engines available int his model, SS 396 and three different horsepower ratings, you could, if you knew how, you could get an iron 427, Yenko was scoring big with the SYC Super Camaro and the Camaro just seemed to touch the nerve. It was the right styling and the right engines at the right time in the market.” Says Tom Shaw.
Engine options for ’69 comprised a dazzling array of choices. There were two different 6 cylinder engines, four small blocks, or four different 396s. However, there was one engine that never made the option list, but the 1015 people who managed to get their hands on a ’69 Camaro with this engine were lucky people indeed. This is what Chevy called central office production order #9516. Everyone else called it Copo.
Muscle car enthusiast Pete Simpson of Glencoe, Ontario, talks about his 1968 Copo: “These cars, when you race ‘em, they’re just an amazing cars. They just rev so easily. The car loves to rev, wants to go 65, 170,000 RPM. You just sit there, mash it to the floor, hang on and, like I said, next thing you know you’re doing 108 miles an hour and you’re through the end traps. Back in 1968 I bought a Copo Nova that was sold in Canada and it was one of only two that was sold in Canada and the other one was crushed, so at that point I thought ‘Geez it would be great to have the Copo Camaro and the Copo Chevelle’ because they only made those three Copos, so I pursued the Copo Camaro, when they finally came out with it. The whole purpose or thought behind the ’69 Copo was to be a sleeper, if possible. There’s no outside engine identification on it whatsoever. It has plain hub caps with painted stamp steel wells. The idea was when you pulled up in the other lane, people would look over and say ‘Oh well, it’s just a little 350 car.’ ”
Probably the rarest of all first generation Camaros, though, is this car. This is one of 69 Copo Camaros made with a ZL1 all aluminum 427 cubic inch engine. Developed originally for Pan Am racing, ZL1 was absurdly rated at 430 horsepower, which no one believed. The steel sleeved aluminum block used the L89′s large rectangular port aluminum heads for a compression ratio of 12 to 1. It also featured a Holley 850 carburetor on the factory aluminum intake manifold and cast iron exhaust headers. The aluminum ZL1 weighed only a few pounds more than the cast iron small block 350 and was legal for a NHRA A stock and B stock competition. This engine in the Camaro sent shock waves through the competition.
“With the all aluminum ZL1 engine, the drag racers like Grumpy Jenkins had a field day with it. They jumped all over it. ’69 was a great year for Camaro drag racing and that’s just another reason that ’69 has to be considered one of the best Camaros ever.” Opines Tom Shaw.
The Legend of the Chevrolet Camaro Lives On
Among today’s car enthusiast’s the Camaro was even more popular than it was back in the last ’60′s. Younger enthusiasts find the car more exciting than many of today’s youth oriented cars. And for those who remember the muscle years, the passion still lives on. More super cars were created from the ’69 Camaro than any other like this 396 375 Indy pace car convertible, built especially for Pete Estes, the president of General Motors at the time. Or this Yenko super car. Or this one, built at Dana Chevrolet with a 427 435 horse L88 engine. Or this ’69 Camaro by Nicky Chevrolet.
Dan Hamelin of Ajax, Ontario remembers admiring muscle cars from near and far: “My dad, he used to bring me around a lot of his friends and I used to see muscle cars from ’69 to ’70 Chevelles to second generation Camaros again. I remember a good friend of his had bought one, a brown and white striped car and I just fell in love immediately with it.”
“It’s very dangerous ground to say that one muscle car was the greatest of all time. But if you were going to attempt it, you would have to consider the ’69 Camaro, which had the great SS 396 options, the aluminum head L89, you had the Copos, you had the Yenkos, plus you had an amazing production run that lasted into the ’70 model year.” To really tell the whole story of the first generation Camaro, it would take a lot longer than one blog post. The Super Sport 350s and 396s and even the Copo 427s are just a couple chapters in what could be a pretty long book. Camaro lovers will undoubtedly note that absent from this story has been a magnificent car: the Z28. And Z28 lovers will also tell you that it will take a while to tell that story, too. But we’ll try, next time!
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