The Golden Age of Racing
For muscle car fans, the mid 60s were a golden time propelled by the all out racing competition between Detroit’s auto makers. Racing created a parade of cars that every year got faster, handled better, and delivered more pure driving pleasure. By the mid 60s, the car wars were being fought on every front. Buyers could choose from racing full sized cars, lightweight intermediates with massive engines, or the new wave of stylish sporty cars led by the Mustang. Keith Maney elaborates: “The Chevrolet Camaro came about in response to the overwhelming success of the Mustang. Ford had a tremendous head start By the time the first Camaro came out in 1967, Ford had already sold over a million Mustangs. So they had to play catch up in a hurry.”
The Camaro rolled out at the beginning of the 1967 model year. Its styling was in keeping with the long hood, short deck pony car format. But unlike the Mustang, the Camaro was designed, from day one, to accommodate any engine in Chevrolet’s inventory. This ability to wrap Chevy’s largest engines in such a light package made the Camaro an instant muscle car. Keith Maney goes on: “A buyer could walk into a Chevrolet dealer, order a Camaro and just get a tremendous variety of options. Everything from in-line six cylinder engines to screaming big blocks to Z28s. Custom interiors. Basically anything: you name it, you could get it in a Camaro first generation.
“The Super Sport Camaros with the big block engines grabbed all the headlines in the auto press that year. But Chevrolet had something else in mind for the Camaro. Very quietly in a move practically unnoticed but the sports car racers, Chevy announced an option to the basic Camaro which offered a number of heavy duty handling components. This package also included a new engine: the 290 horse power 302 small block. The whole thing was called special performance package Z28 and it was created for one purpose: to beat the Mustang on the race track.
The Z28 – More Race Car Than Street Car
The Z28 was more race car than street car. The way it accelerated, cornered, and stopped made it the perfect car to go after the Mustang, which, at the moment was at the top of the Trans Am racing series. The Mustang had won the Trans Am championship in 1966 without any real competition. In 1967, the all new Z28 team of Roger Penske entered the fray and won three races. Mustang took the title again that year but the Camaro team now knew how to play the game.
During the next two seasons, as the Trans Am series became increasingly popular, the Z28 blew everyone else away. Chevy’s little factory race car dominated the series: holding off a huge effort from second place Ford and full assaults from Dodge, Plymouth, and American Motors. Meanwhile, out on the streets, the Z28 had been discovered. Muscle car fans were delighted to find a Camaro that sold for slightly more than a SS 350, ran a 1/4 mile within two tenths of an SS 396 and went around corners like a Corvette. “It’s a pretty neat little car,” says Mike Smith of Gregory, Michigan, “in an era where bigger and bigger blocks were the norm. It was kind of a throw back. A real sophisticated little small block that ran real high.”
Today, more than 30 years later, the Z28 is still a great ride. Whether it’s on the race track or the street, the Z28 gives its drivers the thrill of all out performance every time they slide in behind the wheel.
Chevrolet Joins the Pony Car Phenomenon
For a while, it looked like Chevrolet was going to ignore the pony car phenomenon. Chevrolet already made America’s best loved sports car: the Corvette. They also had a sporty little compact car: the Chevy II Nova that ran like a jack rabbit when equipped with a high performance 327. They even had an engineering breakthrough car: the Corvair, which was as sporty as anything from Europe. All these models, in addition to the Impalas and Chevelles, the darlings of the muscle car crowd, made Chevrolet’s line up pretty full.
But the pony car thing was here whether Chevy wanted to play or not. So, within six months of the Mustang’s introduction, Chevy got busy. Their design centered around a one piece unitized body with a separate front sub frame, which allowed the engineers to optimize the car’s front suspension. And since this front sub frame cradled the engine, it was designed so that anything from the 155 horse power six cylinder engine to the mighty 450 horse power 427 could be interchanged. A fact that was immediately apparent to street rodders and racers everywhere.
Keith Maney details Chevrolet’s new debut: “The most noticeable styling elements like the spoilers were actually developed by Chevrolet engineering for use on the race track. This is actually a case where the spoilers and the scoops and all those things really come from hardcore engineering to make the cars perform better.” With all the hoopla surrounding the car’s debut, including being chosen as the pace car for the 1967 Indie 500, the Camaro was a high visibility item. Still, though, the Mustang was outselling all other pony cars combined and some people at Chevrolet were convinced that this Trans Am racing thing had something to do with it.
So, within two months of the Camaro’s introduction, Chevy’s engineers were hard at work making the Camaro not just legal but competitive in Trans Am racing. Unfortunately, GM’s brass frowned on any kind of factory racing involvement. So, building a factory race car was, to say the least, politically incorrect. Keith Maney goes on: “GM, as a company, was not actively involved in racing. Therefore, all the development work that took place on these cars, a tremendous amount of development work done was somewhat clandestine.
But make no mistake, the idea here was to build as fast a car as possible and outrun Ford on the race track.” The centerpiece of a Z28 option was the all new 302 small block. The 302′s bore and stroke of 4″ by 3″ meant this little engine would be a screamer. Into it, Chevy poured TRW 11-1 pistons, forged rods, a 485 lift solid cam shaft, bigger push rods, a Holley 780 on an aluminum intake manifold, and the Corvette cylinder heads with 202 intake valves. The advertised horse power was 290 at 5800 RPMs. Keith Maney explains: “The 302 engine was actually rated at 290 horse power by Chevrolet. By the time you put headers on it, open exhaust, the over the counter cam shaft, some of the other pieces, you actually make 450-460 horse power .”
All these trick high performance parts were available for a package price of $358. It was another $400 in mandatory options that a buyer had to check off such as the Muncie M21 close ratio four speed trans, quick ratio steering, and power disc brakes. But still, the Z28′s bargain basement price was the deal of the century. The first Zs went into production in December 1966 and by the end of 1967, they had made 602 of the little jewels. Out on the track, the Camaro team won three races and were very quietly becoming Trans Am’s super team. In 1968, the Camaro team would own Trans Am racing.
The 1968 Chevrolet Camaro
Chevrolet was delighted with the Camaro’s first year sales. Over 200,000 Camaros went home in the hands of lucky buyers in 1967 making it one of Chevrolet’s most successful new car introductions ever. So, rather than re-invent a pretty nice wheel, Chevy merely corrected some handling problems and made the usual minor trim changes on the ’68 models. One of the few shortcomings of the ’67 Camaro were its single leaf rear springs. So, for ’68, Chevy replaced these with much stiffer multi leaf units and it staggered the rear shocks to help control axle hop on acceleration. After the strong showing that Penske Camaro had made in ’67, the Z28 was starting to get some good press.
People were starting to talk about this little Camaro in terms once reserved for the Corvette. Chevy decided to make the Z28 a little more dressy in ’68. Z28 identification badges were added and front and rear spoilers became available this year. A huge favorite with the street car, the Z’s front to rear racing stripes were also continued in ’68. Again in ’68, the screaming little 302 engine was the piece that made it all work. Keith Maney explains: “The SCCA changed the rules in 1968 to allow multiple carburation. In response, Chevrolet designed this 1968 cross ram two four barrel intake manifold. It’s more commonly seen on ’69 models but it was indeed available on 69s over the counter” Now, with some seat time on the Z28, the Penske team began feeding information back to Chevy engineering on ways to improve the car. Stronger spindles and a larger front sway bar were developed. And, in a move designed to help the racers, Chevy now offered optional four wheel disc brakes, which gave the Z28 performance equal to the Corvette. Keith Maney talks about the SCCA: “One of the rules mandated that everything that was on the race car had to be available to the general public. Now, to a street car that was great. All the cam shaft design. All the exhaust design, all the special parts generated by the Z28 program were as close as your local Chevrolet parts dealer.”
From the first green flag of the ’68 racing season, the Penske team took no prisoners. They ran away with the series championship, winning ten out of twelve races and winning eight of these in a row! Back in the corporate office tower, the GM executives applauded their little factory racer, despite their No Racing official policy. Also in ’68, a Z28 won the NHRA super stock championship in a final race between two Z28s. After such a fantastic year, you’d think that Chevy would relax and rest on their laurels. But that’s now how they play the game at Chevrolet. From 602 Z28s sold in 1967 to 4199 sold in 1968 and now Chevrolet division general manager Pete Estes predicted Chevy would sell over 25,000 Z28s in 1969. The actual figure would be closer to 20,000 by year end. But this optimism clearly indicates how much this little car had endeared itself to Chevy’s management in just two years. And why not? The Camaro was clearly one of the most popular cars Chevrolet had ever built and the Z28 was the most exciting Camaro, at least according to people who had driven one.
In its first two years, the Z had outperformed Chevy’s most optimistic sales forecasts, wiped the Trans Am tracks clean of Ford products, and had even cleaned up on the drag strips. So, now what? Well, if you’re Chevrolet in the late 60s, the only answer to that question is ‘Now, we improve it!’
Chevy Gives the Camaro a Face Lift
Chevy’s first face lift of the Camaro was a subtle work of art. From the fender lips to the sharper nose to the restyled rear quarters, it was enough of a makeover to keep Camaro fresh and exiting in its third year. The car was two inches longer and an inch and a half wider this year. And it wore it well. There were now three Z28 option packages. They ranged in price from $506, which included the front and rear spoilers, to $758, which added dealer installed exhaust headers, to $959, which added the cross ram induction set up to the other options. When combined with the other popular Camaro options, such as power steering, brakes, radio, and trim and interior groups, a Z28 could easily cost over $5000, making it one of the most expensive Camaros you could buy.
Under the hood, very little changed this year. In fact, there wasn’t much left to add except hardcore racing parts. There was a new go real fast solid lifter cam shaft, which provided 493 lift on the intake side and 512 on the exhaust and a new engine oil cooler. All Z28 engine blocks now had four bolt main bearings and thicker main webs. Keith Maney describes it: “Another thing you’ll notice is the ducted hood, which everyone calls the cal induction these days. It was RPO ZO2. The engine gets to breathe fresh air from the back of the hood.”
Going into its third year of Trans Am competition, the Z28 was the tough kid on the playground. But Ford was seething over its loss of the Trans Am manufacturer’s championship and they were planning a little ambush. To regain their dominance in Trans Am racing, the Boss 302 Mustang was built according to the Z28′s formula. Ford loaded this new car down with every factory high performance par tin the catalog, then put together a blue chip racing team. Ford’s team was headed by long time Nascar team owner, Bud Moore. Trans Am racing was due for some fireworks as the Penske team squared off against Moore. In its five year history, the Trans Am series had changed from silk scarf weekend racer beginnings into a bare knuckles brawl between corporate giants.
The 1969 season was going to be the shoot out at the OK corral between Ford and Chevrolet. Both the Camaro team and the Mustang team had done everything possible to give themselves an edge, but the cars were still practically identical in performance. Bud Moore recalls: “We were the first ones to come out with the lug nuts fastened to the wheel. I’ll never forget on the pit stop Roger Penske is sitting back with binoculars to see how we were putting those wheels and tires on. I’ll never forget that.” When the final checkered flag fell, the Penske Z28 had captured the championship again, winning by a narrow margin over the Boss 302 Mustang. “They had the best circuit in the world going with the top drivers from all over the world and Penske and them, Penske tore them up bad with the Camaro.”
The ’69 Z28 occupies a special place in American automotive history. It would take a truly spectacular car to replace it in Chevy’s lineup. And, as you might expect, that’s just what Chevy had waiting in the wings. Once again, Chevrolet had created a milestone automobile. Tony Rowe was a Camaro restorer who prefers the second generation body style. “It’s my favorite. By far, I think they’re the best body style, the best design, the best body contours, the interior roominess, much more than your third generation, your fourth generation, your first generation. Overall, your second generation is the more finer Camaro that GM produced: from ’70 to ’73.” Even though the new 350 cubic inch LT1 small block was rated at 70 horse power more than the 302, the Z28 didn’t repeat it’s Trans Am championship this year. With the Camaro super team now fielding AMC Javelins, there was no more backing from Chevrolet as in years past. The Mustang team cruised to an easy Trans Am title for Ford in 1970.
Muscle Cars Drop Off the Radar Screen
As the 70s progressed into the era of unleaded gas, one after another, the super cars from the muscle era dropped off the automotive radar screen. “Your horse power rating was 245 for that year,” says Tony Rowe, “which was a dramatic decrease from the years of 1970 and 1971. ’72 was a car rated at 255 horse power but the components inside the engine in the drive train were good quality parts.” On a few occasions, the Z’s future looked doubtful. But there have always been enough dedicated, loyal, and vocal car buyers who insisted that America wouldn’t be as much fun without the Z28. Thankfully, Chevrolet agreed and kept the Z28 alive through several designs. Each was a car for its times and each one was a cut above the ordinary like they always have been.