Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival
Saturday June 2, 2018
The grand success of the first pony car—Ford’s Mustang—was a surprise to everyone, including Ford. Of course, Ford had high expectations, but the management of FoMoCo underestimated the demand for their new Falcon-based sports model. Chevrolet actually had a similar concept under development well before the Mustang galloped onto the scene. Their earliest vision of the car was based on the Chevy II, but with styling more like that of Buick’s Riviera. Management, though, did not put much emphasis on the project since they believed they had enough small cars for the marketplace with the Chevy II and Corvair. When the Mustang first became available GM management still believed their Corvair could compete with the new small Ford, but soon the truth became apparent and by late September 1966, Chevrolet’s entry into the pony car market emerged—the Camaro. Interestingly, the name was chosen late in the design stage; a running prototype had actually carried the moniker, Panther.
The Camaro matched the features that had made the Mustang highly successful in almost every detail. To keep production costs down, Chevrolet did what Ford had done on the Mustang program; they adapted as many components as possible from their compact Chevy II. Body styles were not completely matched with the Mustang, however. A 2+2 Camaro fastback did not get further than the mockup stage. As with the Mustang, engine options made it possible to order a Camaro with a variety of personalities that ranged from economizing to mild mannered and on up to racy.
Engine choices for the inaugural Camaro included the 140-horsepower, 230cid inline six, which was standard issue in the six-cylinder series, as well as an optional, more powerful 250cid six that provided an additional 15 horsepower. The V8 series got the standard 210-horsepower 327. Optional V8s included the 275-horsepower 327, 295-horsepower 350, and a 396 mill that provided a sizzling 375 horsepower via an 11.0:1 compression and four-barrel carb. Another engine that added excitement to the Camaro was the 302, dispensing 290 horsepower at a high winding 5,800rpm. This engine was available with the Z-28 option. An option called Super Sport, or SS, added the performance look to any 350 or 396-powered car. The package was comprised of special hood, red line tires, black grille, hood insulation, heavy-duty suspension, and SS emblems.
A floor shifted three-speed manual transmission was standard on all but the Z-28, while a four-speed tranny could be had at extra cost on all engines. There were also two automatic transmissions—the two-speed Powerglide, for the six-cylinder and 327-powered cars, and the Turbo HydraMatic for the 350 and 396 V8s.
The 1967 Camaros cut into Mustang sales a bit, but the new Chevy missed outselling the Mustang by the wide margin of over a quarter-million units. For the 1968 model year, however, the sales gap narrowed to just under 82,000. (Although the gap narrowed, the Mustang would continue to gallop ahead of the Camaro in sales until 1976.)
Though the new Camaro was well received by the public, the car was not without some flaws. The single leaf springs in back caused axle hop under hard acceleration, and the rear was subject to bottoming out under heavy loads due to a last minute change in the ride height. Braking via the standard drums also left something to be desired except under mild-mannered driving circumstances. Even the convertible’s 11-inch (vs. the coupe’s 9.5) drums were not really enough. Some drivers also viewed the 24:1 manual steering ratio on coupes as a bit too slow. Traction bars fitted to big-engine equipped cars early in ’67 reduced the problem of axle hop; the next year staggered shocks were added to eliminate it altogether. Increased rear suspension travel was another fix that dealt with the problem of bottoming out. The braking issue, however, would continue into the next generation Camaro. Power assisted drums were said to be of little help and that they made the brakes too pedal sensitive. (To be fair, though, less than adequate braking was virtually an industry-wide problem in the 1960s.) The optional disc brakes were more desirable. In fact, a little-known option for 1969 was four-wheel disc brakes (option code JL8); they were generally installed on the Z-28 yet were technically available on any model. The power steering option improved the slow manual steering via a 17.5:1 ratio and the N44-code quick steering option dropped this to 15.6:1.
Despite its minor shortcomings, the Camaro was seen to have more positives than negatives associated with it by most who evaluated the sporty car. In 1967 and again in 1969, the Camaro was chosen as the official pace cars for the Indianapolis 500. Motor Trend performed a road test on a 250 six-cylinder powered Camaro and reported that it “represents a great little integrated driving package,” and colorfully noted that the six “has enough torque to bowl over banana trees…” although Road & Track was not as impressed. They called the Camaro “a disappointment.” They believed Chevrolet had failed to surpass Ford’s Mustang, but they should have waited for the Z-28 before expressing their opinion. Of course the Z-28 Camaro is a story in itself.
After two model years, the Camaro was due for some noticeable restyling. Although the hood, roof and deck lid did not change appearance, the updated nose, fenders, quarters, and tail made the car appear to be different from every angle; yet the basic look was still present. The fresh exterior kept sales of the car steady. An interesting fact about sales of the 1969 Camaro is that the car was extended into the 1970 model year due to the late introduction (February 1970) of its second-generation replacement. In fact, some of the ‘69s were actually titled as 1970 models.
For 1969 one could order a base six-cylinder or V8 Camaro, or upgrade to the Super Sport (SS) with a 350 or 396 V8, the Rally Sport (RS), combine the previous two to make an SS/RS, or get a Indianapolis Pace Car replica which were SS/RS convertibles in white with orange striping. There was also a limited supply of pace-car style equipped coupes available. The ultimate was of course the Z-28 or the Z-28/RS. Some of the features of the SS, RS, and Z-28 could be ordered individually, but others were exclusive to the respective packages. The SS-350 package provided a 300-horsepower, 350 V8 with chrome accents, special hood with insulation, special three-speed manual transmission, sport striping, 14×7 wheels, F70x14 white letter tires, power disc brakes, bright fender louvers, and SS emblems. The SS-396 gave the buyer the 325-horsepower engine as well as the items included in the SS-350 option, plus a black accented grille. Rally Sports got a special grille with concealed headlights, striping, bright trim for the simulated quarter panel louvers, wheel lip moldings, and other accents. The Z-28 Special Performance Package provided a 350-horsepower 302, four-speed manual transmission, power disc brakes, 3.73:1 rear end, heavy-duty suspension, special exhaust system, heavy-duty radiator, quick steering ratio, E70x15 white letter tires mounted on 15×7 inch Rally wheels, and special emblems and striping.
While the Z-28 was the most impressive of the Camaros, it was also the most expensive. Most buyers chose one of the less costly alternatives. One particular 17-year-old buyer selected the base V8 model in March of 1969, and that is our feature car—a garnet red example still with its original owner, Dr. David Sloan of Tyler, Texas.
David was told that if he took classical piano lessons he would be allowed to get a new car when he was old enough. Evidently, he knew a good deal when he heard one. When that time came, he went to Louis Chevrolet in nearby Canton and found our feature car on the dealer’s lot. The Camaro, which was assembled at the Van Nuys, California plant, had some nice options including an AM radio, wheel covers, white vinyl top, console with floor shift, tinted glass, and sport striping.
The Chevy provided trouble-free transportation through his senior year of high school, college, and medical school in Galveston, Texas. Dr. Sloan had the car when he met and later married his wife. There are no doubt plenty of good memories associated with the car, so it is not surprising he has kept it for so long. His beautifully restored Camaro is now used for car shows and local cruise nights. That deal he made with his parents was the bargain of a lifetime!
Text and Photography By David Temple
© Car Collector Magazine, LLC.
(Click for more Car Collector Magazine articles)
Originally appeared in the April 2004 Issue
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