Why wasn’t the Camaro the king of the ‘60s?
According to people who are triple my age, 1969 was an incredible time to be around.
It's the year in which The Beatles had their last ever public performance, and it's also when the Boeing 747 made its debut. But there was also the Camaro Z/28 of that year, something which, even to this day, is overshadowed by one particular Ford.
Born in 1964, the Mustang is one of the most popular cars in history, with production numbers soaring past the 10-million-mark in 2018. Throughout its lifetime, it has continued to deliver performance, style, and comfort, all in one relatively cheap package. Two years after the world first saw the Mustang, Chevrolet unveiled their counterargument.
The Camaro came with a larger engine, bolder design, and more trim options, all because it had the sole purpose of beating the Mustang. It ended up doing just that - but it wasn’t as successful. In the ‘60s, the Mustang won the sales competition by a landslide. Camaro sales for that decade didn’t even amount to half of total Mustang sales. However, after Sporting Bears gave me a ride in their 1969 Camaro Z/28, I find myself wondering why the Ford saw more success.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THE Z/28 OPTION AND THE ‘69 MODEL-YEAR?
The Z/28 option was first introduced for the 1967 model year, and it gave consumers “virtually race-ready” cars. It came equipped with a 4.9-litre V8 engine producing 290 horsepower and 393 Nm of torque - according to Chevrolet. But it turns out that these Camaros weren’t actually producing 290 horsepower. Chevrolet wanted to lower insurance and allow the Z/28 to participate in more racing classes. For this reason, the manufacturer claimed that its car produced 290 horsepower when in reality, the car was producing 360-400 horsepower. In addition to this extra power, the Z/28 came with upgraded suspension, a four-speed manual transmission, and better front brakes.
Both visually and mechanically, the 1969 version is almost identical to its Z/28 predecessors. The only key difference is its all-new sheet metal body, which gives the car a much more athletic look.
After twisting its key, you are rewarded with one of the automotive industry’s most iconic soundtracks. It’s that typical raw and dirty sound, no turbochargers or superchargers, just pure American muscle. With all old-school muscle cars, their hearts are their engines - and the heart of this Camaro still beats today. This is because, 50+ years on, the base of this 302 cubic inch engine is still used in some Chevrolets.
I was so overwhelmed by the sound of the car that I didn't actually get a chance to properly look at the interior until we were cruising along a quiet backroad - and it's almost a bit empty. It lacks the colours and the intricate stitching you see in the Mustangs of its era. There isn't even a way to tell you're in a Camaro - aside from the singular badge on the glovebox. Moreover, the ride is rather firm - and everything just feels a bit drear and drab.
Originally, this was a bit of a flaw for me. The Camaro is supposed to be a car that makes you feel special, and this should be the case with the cabin - but then I realised how wrong I was. As we drove along, I realised that the Chevy's interior designers weren't trying to copy their competitors at Ford; they were trying to outsmart them.
Focus on the road ahead of you, rather than the pretty stitching on your door sill - that’s the main reason the car’s interior is as bland as it is. This focus also gives you the confidence to put your foot down.
HOW IT FEELS ON THE ROAD
I’ll say this now to prevent others from making the same mistake as I did: do not let this Camaro’s age fool you. It might be as old as James May, but it still punches out 360-400 horsepower - that’s about as much as a new BMW M2. Granted, the Camaro doesn’t deliver this power as quickly as the BMW, but it somehow feels faster.
You’re able to fully appreciate the V8 engine - not just the sound of it, but the unique - and almost forgotten - way in which it delivers power. Modern sports cars give their power through ridiculous transmissions which force you to spend more time changing gear than doing anything else. By contrast, the Camaro Z/28 feeds its power to the rear wheels via a 4-speed gearbox - giving you more than enough time in each gear to fully enjoy the experience.
As you go through each gear, the rate of acceleration feels as if it only increases - it almost feels dangerous. Higher revs in this car don’t feel like a sign of when to change gear; it’s a warning from the car telling you that you’re going too quickly. The firm suspension also lets you feel every part of the road surface, making for an even more exhilarating experience. This firm suspension setup also allows the Camaro to beat the Mustang in the bends - but only just.
The Camaro’s steering wheel doesn’t really feel connected to anything and moves about like a wooden fidget spinner. Moreover, as you climb to higher speeds, the car starts to move about - it doesn’t feel at all settled on the road. Factor in its 8-9 mpg, and the Camaro now becomes a car which you can’t really take out on longer journeys.
However, for me, none of this matters as the Camaro makes up for this in the looks department.
They say leave the best until last, and so here it is. I think that the Camaro is one of the best-looking cars to have ever been styled on American soil. The design isn’t really complicated, but it just works. For me, this allows the exterior to evoke the car’s truly special on-the-road personality: raw and simple.
The icing on the cake, however, isn’t the simplicity but the perfect proportions. I’m not too sure why, but there’s just something indescribably cool about having such a big engine in such a small package - it's like having your own around in a V8 golf buggy.
One thing you’ll notice when in the Camaro is its astonishing ability to make everyone stop and stare. Every single person walking down the street, or driving next to us looked at the car. Sporting Bears were also offering passenger rides in supercars such as the Lamborghini Aventador, but even they couldn’t match the level of attention which the Camaro received.
I don’t think they were looking at the Camaro because of its beautiful design. Instead, I think they were amazed at the car purely because of how sparse American muscle cars are on British roads. Even if you don’t know much about cars, you know what an American muscle car is - and you also know that 99% of them live across the pond.
Although I adore the first-generation Mustang, I much prefer the look of the Camaro. As mentioned, it has the perfect proportions, and it isn’t overcomplicated in design - it’s just perfect.
I've repeatedly mentioned how I prefer the Camaro over the Mustang in this article; however, I understand why the Ford has seen more success in its lifetime.
The Mustang is the same concept as the Camaro, except Ford decided to tone down the Mustang to make it more appealing to the general public. They gave it a pretty set of lights, some fancy leather, and comfortable suspension. By contrast, the Camaro received absolutely nothing; it’s a car without limits. To you or me, this may seem perfect - but to everyone else, it just seems pointless.
The Camaro is an absolute menace, reserved only for true petrolheads.