Capsule History: Chevrolet Camaro LS1

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Though the Mustang and Camaro will forever be linked in the public imagination as “ponycars”, the truth is that only twice in history has the Camaro been explicitly aimed at the Mustang. The first time, of course, was at its introduction; the Mustang had caught the General napping and the first-gen Camaro was a simple “me-too” response to that success, as craven in its copying as the Russian faux-Concorde that would debut two years later.

With the arrival of the 1970 model, however, Chevrolet charted a drastically different path for its “ponycar”. The shape of the original split-bumper car could have originated from an Italian styling house, so much so that Andreas Pininfarina himself publicly stated his admiration for the design. It was clean, classic and unique. By contrast, Ford looked to the past for inspiration with the Mustang II, slathering the small Pinto-based car with retro cues, and then looked to Europe for guidance with Jack Telnack’s 1979 Fox Mustang.

The Camaro’s next redesign, in 1982, turned it into a sleek, futuristic spaceship of a car, and with that the battle lines were drawn. Where the Mustang would always be smaller, sedan-derived, and Baroque in style, the Camaro would become an ever-more-aggressive wedge, a naked statement of heartland American performance. Chevrolet pursued an aggressive series of upgrades—the 5.0 High Output, Tuned Port Injection, and the final 5.7 TPI—designed to stay one critical step ahead of Ford.

Between 1993 and 1994, there was an “all-change” period in the ponycar world. Ford’s new(ish) Mustang was another retro pastiche, a rather ungainly, high-shouldered sedan with more weight and no more power. The Camaro, by contrast, became what some would call a bona fide supercar, taking its styling directly from the “Corvette Indy” concept and its LT1 engine from the Corvette itself.

In one fell swoop, Chevrolet achieved permanent ascendancy in the performance war. Nothing short of a Porsche — or a Corvette — could touch an LT1 Camaro in full song. I drove an early-production ’94 through the hills of Kentucky lo these many years ago and was absolutely crushed by the speed and power. Coupled to a six-speed manual, the original fourth-gen F-body was easily the most capable vehicle ever offered at that price level.

Wouldn’t you know, the SN95 Mustang outsold it from Day One. The general public preferred the friendly accessibility of the Ford to the rocketship performance and Countach-esque seating position of the Chevrolet. The men from GM had backed the wrong horse. As young buyers moved to import brands in record numbers, the market for these increasingly expensive and difficult-to-insure ponycars shifted back to the same men who had purchased them a decade or two previous. Those men didn’t want a road-going rocketship. They wanted to sit up straight and enjoy themselves.

GM’s response was typically bizarre: they restyled the Camaro a bit and dropped in the LS1 aluminum V8 from the then-new C5 Corvette. This simply emphasized the model’s existing virtues — speed, power, supercar proportions — while doing nothing about the problems that led to the Mustang’s runaway sales victory. The good news: for the first time since the Trans Am SD-455, you could buy a thirteen-second car for a working man’s wage. The bad news: nobody wanted to.

The Camaro I’m driving in the header picture is the Trackbird Engineering “Street Modified 2” LS1 Z28. Ordered for SCCA competition as a completely bare-bones, no-option car in the final months of Camaro production, it was then reworked from the ground up for the demands of competitive autocross on 315-section R-compound tires. The result was a car capable of slaughtering modern icons such as the Subaru STi or Mitsubishi Evolution. Exiting a sweeping turn at well over 1.5 g, feeling the small-block Chevy pulling forward like Apollo’s own chariot, tucked deep within the dismal plastic bathtub that passed for an interior in those cars, it was simply extraordinary.

The LS1-powered Camaro was discontinued with no clear successor. Obsessed with trucks, profits, and urban markets, always afraid to cannibalize the Corvette, GM simply didn’t care enough to continue. Nor did the consumer. Presented with the choice between a 350-horsepower (although always underrated in advertising to preserve the Vette) rocketship Camaro and a 260-horsepower dumpy New Edge Mustang, they chose the Mustang in droves.

If the customer liked the New Edge, they loved the 2005 retro ’Stang. Although still incapable of matching the 1998 Camaro’s performance, the new Mustang had retro character in spades and looked like a million bucks driving down the street. The man in that street had spoken, and GM decided to listen. The revolution of 1970 — the decision to embrace the future and create a unique identity — was done. From now on, starting in 2010, the Camaro would, once again, be nothing but another imitation pony.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Ktm Ktm on Jun 22, 2009

    Your 1977 Corvette had 180 hp because they choked it with a small carb. A simple carb upgrade would have resulted in significant power increase. It had 5.7L of displacement but was only allowed to breath through a straw.

  • Run4TheShadows Run4TheShadows on Jul 04, 2009

    I'm definitely part of the younger generation and I have to say, for me, Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, and Challenger are the only cars that matter. To say that "the younger people have moved on" is false, I wouldn't buy an import in a million years. Sure imports have come a long way over the years, but they are all business and zero charm.

  • 6-speed Pomodoro I had summer and winter tires for a car years ago. What a pain in the butt. You've permanently got a stack of tires hogging space in the garage and you've got to swap them yourself twice a year, because you can't fit a spare set of tires in a sportscar to pay someone else to swap 'em.I'd rather just put DWS06's on everything. But I haven't had a sportscar in 8 years, so maybe that's a terrible idea.
  • ShitHead It kicked on one time for me when a car abruptly turned into my lane. Worked as advertised. I was already about to lean into the brake as I was into the horn.
  • Theflyersfan I look at that front and I have to believe that BMW and Genesis designers look at that and go "wow...that's a little much." Rest of the car looks really good - they nailed the evolution of the previous design quite well. They didn't have to reinvent the wheel - when people want a Mustang, I don't think they are going to cross-shop because they know what they want.
  • Theflyersfan Winters go on around Halloween and Summers go on in late March or early April. However, there were some very cold mornings right after the summers went on that had me skidding a bit due to no grip! I do enough (ahem) spirited driving on empty hilly/mountain roads to justify a set of sticky rubber, and winters are a must as while there isn't much snow where I am (three dustings of snow this entire winter), I head to areas that get a bit more snow and winter tires turns that light, RWD car into a snow beast!
  • SCE to AUX My B5.5 was terrible, but maybe the bugs have been worked out of this one.