Nobody, least of all Ford, expected General Motors to take the success of the Ford Mustang lying down. Still, it took two and a half years for the General to field its challenger, the Chevrolet Camaro, and despite the Camaro’s fresh styling, a broad selection of engines, and a blinding array of options, the Mustang outsold it two to one.
If they couldn’t beat the Mustang on the showroom floor, Chevrolet decided, they would at least beat it at the track. GM was not officially in racing, but that didn’t stop Chevrolet engineers from concocting a fearsome homologation special to qualify their new baby for Trans-Am competition: the Camaro Z/28. This is the story of the 1967-1969 Chevrolet Camaro and Z/28.
In retrospect, the fact that it took GM as long as it did to produce the Camaro (and its Pontiac sibling, the Firebird) is somewhat puzzling. GM knew about the Mustang long before it debuted and Chevrolet stylists had actually been playing with four-seat “personal car” designs since at least 1958. In 1962, Chevrolet styling chief Irv Rybicki had proposed building one such design on the platform of the compact Chevy II/Nova. At the New York Auto Show in early 1964, Chevrolet had shown a prototype of a Nova-based personal car, appropriately called Super Nova. Despite all those antecedents, the car that became the Camaro wasn’t approved for production until August 1964, four months after the Mustang’s spectacular bow.
Why? When Chevrolet General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen vetoed Rybicki’s personal-car concept back in 1962, he declared that Chevrolet didn’t need yet another car. At the time, Chevy had the full-sized Chevrolet, the Corvette, the rear-engined, air-cooled Corvair, and the compact Chevy II, and the division was busily readying the midsize Chevelle/Malibu for a 1964 debut. There were limits to even Chevrolet’s development and marketing budget, especially for something management didn’t see as a volume product.
At the time, Knudsen also assumed that Chevrolet’s existing models, particularly the Corvair, would be more than a match for any new small Ford. The Corvair Monza, introduced late in 1960, had uncovered a decent-size market for sporty performance in a smaller package. Chevrolet sold 218,728 Monzas in 1962 and they’d recently added a turbocharged version called Spyder, one of the world’s first turbocharged production cars. Stylist Ron Hill had just penned a sleek new Corvair design for the 1965 model year that looked to be a sure winner.
When the Mustang proved to be an instant success, Knudsen realized he had made a mistake, but it wasn’t until Mustang sales topped the six-figure mark that GM’s upper management was convinced. For all its lovely, Italianate good looks, the new Corvair was no match for the competition from Dearborn, in part because the Covair’s top engine, the a 164 cu. in. (2,680 cc) turbocharged flat-six, had only 180 gross horsepower (134 kW) while the Mustang’s base 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) V8 offered 200 hp (149 kW). The Corvair was clearly over-matched and the public had cooled on its radical engineering, not helped by the growing controversy over the early Corvair’s handling.
PANTHER’S PAL: THE CHEVROLET CAMARO
Thanks to all these delays, Chevrolet’s Mustang-fighter, known internally as the F-body, did not go on sale until September 29, 1966, more than two years after the Mustang. The highly anticipated new car was originally supposed to be called Panther, which is how it was usually described in contemporary press previews. By the time Chevrolet general manager Pete Estes made the official announcement in mid-1966, it had become Camaro, which GM claimed meant “friend” or “pal” in French. Estes said that the Camaro name was chosen to honor the tradition of beginning Chevrolet model names with the letter C — which was a little odd considering that the Chevrolet Impala was then the best-selling car in the world.
The real reason was that GM’s upper management had gotten nervous about the aggressive connotations of the Panther name; a similar bout of cold feet would lead the Pontiac version, the Banshee, to be renamed Firebird.
Like the Chevy II, the Chevrolet Camaro had a semi-unitized structure. A front subframe carrying the engine and front suspension was bolted at the cowl to a unitized passenger compartment with the two sections isolated by thick rubber ‘biscuits’ to absorb vibration. The idea was to achieve some of the space and weight advantages of unitary construction while isolating passengers from noise and ride harshness. The Camaro was indeed somewhat smoother and quieter than its unibody Ford rival, but the cost was extra weight. The Camaro weighed more than 150 pounds (68 kg) more than a comparably equipped Mustang, even though the Camaro was only slightly larger: 1 inch (25 mm) longer, 1.6 inches wider (41 mm), and 0.6 inches (15 mm) lower.
The Camaro had a long hood and a short deck, but didn’t otherwise look like the Mustang; Chevrolet stylists had been unimpressed with the Mustang’s boxy styling. From some angles, the Camaro resembled a more muscular evolution of the Corvair — not surprising, given that they were products of the same design studio. Contemporary critics generally liked the Camaro’s styling better than the Mustang’s, finding the latter old-fashioned, but the Mustang’s conservative looks probably helped to sell it to a range of buyers who found the Camaro a little too racy.
BIG BLOCKS AND SMALL
The 1967 Chevrolet Camaro’s performance was very similar to that of the contemporary Mustang. The Camaro’s V8 engines were bigger — 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) and 396 cu. in. (6,488 cc) versus 289 cu. in. (4,728 cc) and 390 cu. in. (6,391 cc) for the Mustang — but their rated outputs were remarkably similar and because the Camaro was heavier than the Mustang, the Chevrolet had little if any performance advantage.
Camaros with automatic transmission were further handicapped by Chevrolet’s aging two-speed Powerglide, which was far less flexible than the three-speed automatics offered by the Mustang and Plymouth’s Barracuda. (The big-block Camaro SS396 was offered with the three-speed Turbo Hydramatic, but a three-speed automatic wasn’t available on lesser Camaros until 1969.)
Chevrolet would have had the hardware and the know-how to make a hotter Camaro, but GM in those days had set draconian limits on power and performance. In 1967, no GM car other than the Corvette was permitted to have more than one advertised horsepower per 10 pounds (33.8 W/kg) of curb weight. Compacts and intermediates were prohibited from using engines bigger than 400 cubic inches (6.6 liters). Some performance-minded dealers offered Camaros with the bigger 427 cu. in. (6,996 cc) V8, occasionally with some sub rosa help from sympathetic Chevrolet engineers, but most of the meanest first-generation Camaros were not official factory offerings.
There was one exception, and that was the Camaro Z/28.
CHEVROLET TRANS AM
In 1966, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) created a new racing class: the Trans American Group II Sedan Racing series, better known as Trans Am. The Mustang had won the series in the first year, running against an assortment of Plymouth Barracudas and Valiants. There had been no challenger from Chevrolet and Chevrolet engineer Vince Piggins wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
Vince Piggins had joined Chevrolet in the mid-fifties after a stint at Hudson, where he helped to develop the Hudson Hornets that dominated NASCAR in the early 1950s. By the mid-sixties, he was manager of product performance in Chevrolet’s Engineering division. Officially, that meant he was responsible for performance and economy testing; unofficially, it meant he was in charge of developing high-performance parts for Chevy cars.
Piggins was in an awkward position in the mid-sixties, trying to develop performance equipment in a corporation where “performance” was something of a dirty word. Back in 1957, GM had signed on to an agreement of the Automobile Manufacturing Association (AMA) that called for a ban on the promotion of speed or participation in racing. Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac had defied the ban until January 1963, when GM chairman Frederic Donner issued a stern memo ordering all division heads to immediately cease all racing activity. New corporate policies were laid down to restrict power and displacement. Even aggressive or suggestive advertising could result in a warning memo or a threatening phone call from the 14th floor.
Despite those restrictions, Piggins created a covert racing development team within his department, including engineers Herb Fishel, Bill Howell, Paul Prior, John Pierce, and Ron Sperry. They continued to develop parts for competition, labeling them “heavy-duty” or “off-highway” to obfuscate their real purpose.
Piggins had wanted to develop the Camaro’s performance image and the Trans-Am series was exactly what he had been looking for. He proposed to Pete Estes that they develop a version of the Camaro that would fit the Trans-Am requirements, which specified cars of wheelbase no greater than 116 inches (2,946 mm) and engines of no more than 305 cubic inches (5,000 cc).
CHEVROLET CAMARO Z/28
The Chevrolet Camaro was the right size for Trans Am, but the missing piece was the engine. At that time, Chevy’s small-block “mouse motor” was offered in three sizes: 283 cu. in. (4,638 cc), 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc), and the new 350 cu. in. (5,733 cc) version, a Camaro exclusive in 1967. The 283 was really too small to develop enough horsepower for Trans Am, while the 327 and 350 exceeded the displacement limit.
Piggins built a development ‘mule’ powered by the 283, but while giving Pete Estes a demonstration ride one day, he proposed creating a new engine specifically for Trans Am by combining the bore of the 327/350 with the stroke of the 283. The combination would yield 302 cu. in. (4,942 cc), just under the limit, while the short stroke would give the engine excellent high-rev potential.
Pete Estes had recently come to Chevrolet from Pontiac, where he had signed off on the creation of the GTO, so he understood what a Chevrolet Trans Am competitor could be worth from a marketing standpoint. He gave Piggins the go-ahead.
There was a lot of argument about what to call the Camaro’s special racing homologation model, a question that was finally settled by simply using the Regular Production Option code for the engine, RPO Z28. The Z/28 package was a $400.25 option for Camaro hardtops only; it was not available on convertibles. The package included twin paint stripes, a faster steering ratio, 15-inch (381 mm) Rally wheels with 7.35 x 15 tires, the stiff F41 heavy-duty suspension, and a heavy-duty 12-bolt differential. RPO Z28 had to be ordered with power-assisted front disc brakes and a close-ratio four-speed manual transmission, which added an additional $300 or so to the bill. Buyers could specify almost any other Camaro option, with the exceptions of air conditioning and automatic transmission.
The Turbofire 302, as it was called, used the cylinder heads of the Corvette’s optional L79 engine with big valves (2.02-inch (51.3mm) intake, 1.60-inch (40.6mm) exhaust) and heavy-duty valve springs. Solid lifters and a long-duration cam — which Chevrolet advertised as having 346° total duration with 0.46 in. (11.70 mm) lift and 118 degrees of overlap — provided lots of top-end power. En even hotter cam was available over the dealer parts counter, although it was not really suitable for street use.
Chevrolet rated the 302 at 290 horsepower (216 kW) at 5800 rpm and 290 lb-ft (392 N-m) of torque at 4200 rpm, theoretically making it slightly less powerful than the cheaper SS350’s 350 cu. in. (5,733 cc) L48 engine, which claimed 295 hp (220 kW). While that rating was a convenient fiction, it was definitely not accurate. Although the 302’s radical cam timing meant that it was weak under 3,000 rpm, it could be wound out to 7,000 rpm and its actual gross horsepower was probably closer to 380 (283 kW). With its dearth of low-end grunt, the 302 was no drag racer, but it was just the thing for road racing.
The 1967 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 went on sale in December of 1966. Only 602 were sold, most of them through performance-oriented dealerships like Yenko and Nickey Chevrolet. That total wasn’t technically enough to qualify for SCCA Group II, which demanded at least 1,000 cars, but Piggins arranged to have the regular SS350 Camaro (which sold more than 30,000 units) homologated for SCCA’s Group I racing and convinced officials to base the Z/28’s homologation on the total sales of both cars. Realizing that Chevrolet’s participation would make the Trans Am series a lot more marketable to racing fans, SCCA officials agreed.
There was no official Chevrolet Trans Am team; officially, Roger Penske’s racing Camaro, sponsored by Sunoco and driven by Mark Donohue, was a private effort, although a more accurate term might be privateer. Penske did not receive any money from Chevrolet, but his team did receive considerable technical support from the factory, limited somewhat by the fact that Chevrolet, unlike Ford, did not have an official competition budget. Still, the extent of Chevrolet’s commitment was evidenced by the fact that midway through the 1967 Trans-Am series, Chevrolet provided a special set of lightweight Camaro body panels for Donohue’s car, made using extremely thin steel. “Not in racing,” indeed.
The rule-bending wasn’t limited to the Chevrolet side. According to writer John Phillips’ account, when the thinner body panels were wrecked in a crash during a practice session, Penske and Donohue concocted their own replacement, a car that is still known — and notorious — as “The Lightweight.” The Lightweight was a second 1967 Camaro that Penske had obtained at his own expense, which he and Donohue allegedly had acid-dipped by an aircraft manufacturer, an effective if illegal (and rather dangerous) way to reduce its weight.
The Lightweight Camaro won two of the four remaining races in the 1967 season, but suspicious competitors tipped off SCCA officials that something was amiss. Tech inspectors weighed the Lightweight and found that it was about 250 lb (113 kg) below the legal minimum weight. The SCCA threatened to overturn Donohue’s victory in the Seattle race, but Penske allegedly warned that if they did, Chevy might withdraw its support from Trans Am entirely, a serious commercial blow to the series. The victory was allowed to stand, but Penske was told the Lightweight would never be allowed to race again.
For the 1968 series, Penske and Donohue built a new, legal 1968 Camaro. According to Phillips, the new car was once again acid-dipped, which was still illegal, but Penske then added ballast to bring it back to the legal minimum weight, allowing them to at least better distribute the weight to benefit the car’s overall balance.
After the new car lost its first race with a blown cylinder head, Penske and Donohue decided — reportedly under pressure from Chevrolet, which was very eager for a Camaro victory in the 1968 series — to run two cars. According to Phillips, they retrieved the 1967 Lightweight, refitted it with 1968 Camaro taillights and grille, and painted it identically to the legal 1968 car. They then allegedly sent the 1968 car through tech inspection twice, wearing different numbers each time, which allowed the Lightweight to evade inspection entirely. Donohue proceeded to win 10 of the 12 races of the 1968 series, a record that would stand until 1997.
Penske and Donohue didn’t push their luck with the Lightweight in 1969, but they still won eight of the 12 races, earning Donohue a second Manufacturer’s Title — ironic given Chevrolet’s ostensible lack of involvement.
REQUIEM FOR A LIGHTWEIGHT
Penske and Donohue’s success did earn Chevrolet a lot of publicity, which helped to boost 1968 Camaro Z/28 sales to 7,199. The 1969 Camaro Z/28, which offered a host of new performance options, including the ZL2 “Cowl Induction” hood, an over-the-counter cross-ram intake for dual four-barrel carburetors (it couldn’t be factory installed, owing to corporate rules on multiple carburetion), and even four-wheel disc brakes, sold a whopping 20,302 copies, making it amazingly popular for such a hard-edged car.
All this success had a limited impact on overall Camaro sales. The Mustang outsold the first-gen Camaro by more than two to one in 1967, and although Camaro sales climbed slightly each year, it still couldn’t match its Ford rival.
When the Camaro was redesigned for the 1970 model year, the Camaro Z/28 returned, now using the 350 cubic inch (5,733 cc) LT-1 engine with a nominal 360 gross horsepower (269 kW). The new Camaro was heavier than the old, but the bigger engine offered much better low-end torque. The nouveau Z/28 it nearly matched its predecessor in outright speed and was easier to drive on the street, but was far less raw. Although the Z/28 Camaro would remain one of the hottest Chevrolet available until it was (temporarily) dropped in 1975, it was no longer a hairy semi-competition car. It wasn’t until the introduction of the fourth generation in 1992 that a factory Camaro would match the all-out performance of the first-gen Z/28.
Mark Donohue and Roger Penske defected to AMC in 1970, bringing American Motors the AMC Javelin‘s first Trans Am championship. However, 1970 would be the high water mark for Trans Am. After that, factory support faded away and the racing cars were no longer required to bear much resemblance to their street counterparts.
Mark Donohue continued to compete in other racing events, always with Penske. He had been very successful in Can-Am, and he also drove an AMC Matador on the NASCAR ovals, won the 1972 Indy 500, drove a Penske-owned McLaren in Formula One, and competed in the first International Race of Champions (IROC) series in 1973-1974. He was killed during a practice session for the Austrian Grand Prix in 1975. Roger Penske remains heavily involved in NASCAR, IRL, and ALMS, and owns a variety of auto dealerships as well as successful trucking and rental businesses.
The Lightweight Camaro’s career continued through 1972 in the hands of independent racers. After that, the car languished in storage until 1985, when it was restored to its original 1968 specifications. Since 1989, it has continued to dominate vintage racing events.
Vince Piggins remained at Chevrolet until his retirement in the early 1980s; he died in October 1985. Not all of Piggins’ employees found him easy to deal with, but those who were on his wavelength loved him. Given the corporate minefield he had to navigate and the shoestring budgets he generally had to work with, he was something of a miracle worker, warmly remembered by Chevrolet enthusiasts.
Piggins’ boss, Pete Estes, was succeeded as general manager by John DeLorean in 1969. Estes became a GM executive vice president in 1972 and president of General Motors in 1974. He retired in 1981 and died in March 1988.
The first-gen Camaro may not have been as popular as the Mustang when it was new, but that has not dimmed the ardor of modern collectors. Nice 1967-1969 Camaros command high prices and, like early Mustangs, are supported by a comprehensive array of reproduction parts.
As most of the world is aware, Chevrolet is preparing a new, fifth-generation Camaro, which at this point will probably be a 2010 model. [Author’s note: It went on sale in the spring of 2009.] It will no doubt be a lot faster than the original Z/28, but it’s unlikely that it will be anywhere near as racy.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on the Super Nova came from “Chevrolet Super Nova,” ClassicNovas.net, n.d., www.classicnovas. net, accessed 27 October 2007; and Steve Statham, Nova SS: Nova and Chevy II 1962-1979 (Muscle Car Color History) (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company, 1997), p. 40.
Information on the origins of the Camaro came from the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); Arch Brown, “SIA comparisonReport: 1967 Mustang versus 1967 Camaro,” Special Interest Autos #92 (March-April 1986), reprinted in The Hemmings Motor News Book of Mustangs: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, Second Edition, eds. Terry Ehrich and Richard A. Lentinello (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 54-61; John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, Revised 4th Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); John F. Katz, “1967 Chevrolet Camaro: Six Are Sufficient,” Special Interest Autos #166 (July-August 1998), reprinted in The Hemmings Book of Postwar Chevrolets: driveReports from Special Interest Autos magazine, ed. Terry Ehrich (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2001), pp. 102-109; and Randy Leffingwell, Darwin Holmstrom, and David Newhardt, Muscle: America’s Legendary Performance Cars (St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks, 2006), pp. 161-167.
Some technical details on the Camaro and Z/28 came from Rich Fields and the Camaro Research Group, eds., “Camaro Research Group FAQ List,” CRG, 1998-2008, www.camaros. org, accessed 28 October 2007.
Additional background on Vince Piggins came from George Mattar, “Vince Piggins,” Hemmings Muscle Machines July 2005.
Information on the Lightweight came from “1967 Sunoco Camaro: ‘The Lightweight,'” Prisma Collection, n.d., www.prismacars. com, accessed 28 October 2007; John Phillips, “The Lightweight,” Car and Driver Vol. 39, No. 10 (April 1994), pp. 164-172; and the Wikipedia® entry for Mark Donohue (en.wikipedia. org/ wiki/Mark_Donohue, accessed 28 October 2007). We have since been told that Donohue’s 1974 book The Unfair Advantage, co-written with Paul Van Valkenberg, contains a more detailed account of the development and racing career of the Lightweight, but we did not have access to that book prior to publication and we have not yet read it.
Period road tests consulted for this article included “1967 report: Camaro: ’67’s Most Anticipated Car,” Hot Rod November 1966; Steven Kelly, “Camaro by Chevrolet,” Motor Trend December 1966; “Two Chevrolet Camaros: SS 350 and Big Six — Both have Virtue and Plenty of Performance,” Car Life March 1967; “Engineering the Camaro,” Car Craft January 1968; “Camaro Z-28: As near as Chevrolet can come to being in racing without being in racing,” Road & Track June 1968; “Camaro Z/28: A pint-size engine with the heart of a tiger gives it a Supercar’s performance and sports car’s handling,” Car Life July 1968; Eric Dahlquist, “Camaro Two-Step,” Motor Trend July 1968; “Camaro,” Road Test February 1969; and David Bean, “Professionals at Work: Watch the Penske Team build a Trans-Am winner, step by legal, painstaking step,” Car Life January 1970, all of which are reprinted in Camaro Muscle Portfolio 1967-1973, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books Ltd., 1992); and “Mustang, Barracuda & Camaro: A review and evaluation of three sporty-but-sensible American cars,” Road & Track March 1967, reprinted in Barracuda Muscle Portfolio 1964-1974, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, Surrey: Brooklands Books, Ltd., 1995).