The Camaro: Chronicling 50 Years Of Chevy’s Automotive Icon

By Cameron Eittreim
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Although the Ford Mustang was responsible for igniting the pony car era, it wasn’t until the Chevrolet Camaro hit the market that things begin to heat up. The Camaro was a completely different beast. The lightweight vehicle was the epiphany of what a fun pony car should be, and the Camaro embodied this new generation. The Camaro is one of the longest-running nameplates in the automotive industry, and there has been a long-standing rivalry between the Mustang and the Camaro. The Camaro has remained the face of GM gearheads for the past five decades, always improving and adding new features that made the car even more exciting to drive than before.

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There were also quite a few rough patches in the Camaro’s development along the way. Questionable models such as the Berlinetta came into fruition, a Camaro that was weighed down by futuristic technology and not much else. And who could forget the downright awful “Iron Duke” four-cylinder engine that was introduced in the third generation of the Camaro? Decisions like these caused the Camaro to quietly fade into the sunset for the 2002 model year. But a resurgence in popularity has made the Camaro return faster and more advanced than ever. Read on as we take a look at the past 50 years of the Camaro, and click on any image to view a full gallery of the iconic automobile.

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It All Started With The Nova:

Believe it or not, GM was working on the F-Body platform for quite some time before the Mustang hit the market. But Ford was just a little wiser. GM got the 1965 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova to the market ahead of time. The Chevy II was the predecessor to the original Camaro and the car was based on it. The Nova, at this point, was far from a popular choice, and GM knew this. The problem with the Nova was that it was simply an answer to the Ford Falcon. The car lacked any unique qualities that would make it stand out from the Falcon.

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The unibody design was ahead of its time and went on to underpin the Camaro. The Chevy II is fondly remembered as being the Camaro that almost was. Had GM not decided to change the name to Camaro, we would have had the famous Nova versus Mustang rivalry instead. Many people who enjoy driving the Camaro would never know that it was born from the Nova and the two shared a lot of parts. It was just another example of the famous GM parts sharing that has followed all of their vehicles.

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The First Camaro Was Born:

The original Chevy Camaro broke the mold for what a pony car should be. For the mere price tag of $2466, you were able to get a V8-powered sports coupe. With a choice of four different small-block V8s, there was no shortage of engines to choose from. The big-block L78 with its 6.5 liters of power put the Mustang to shame early on. The initial design of the Camaro was contemporary and very reminiscent of the Corvette in terms of styling. The lightweight design allows the thing to be thrown around twists and turns with great abandonment. Drivers were in love with the Camaro from day one, and everything that made it a stellar choice.

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The first generation of the Camaro came in many different variations. There was the Yenko which was a special edition performance model. And there was the SS, which was GM’s own in-house performance version of the Camaro. You could also get bare-bones editions that were designed for the track, and these Camaros have a high price tag to this day. It’s hard to imagine where the pony car race would be right now had GM never put the Camaro into production. The Mustang was such a massive success at the time that GM had to do something drastic, with the Camaro being the perfect answer.

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The 1970s Were Rough:

Take a look back through history and you’ll be able to tell right away that the Camaro of the 70s was underpowered. This was because of increasing smog regulations and the fuel crisis that hit the country. All of a sudden, gas drinking sports coupes were falling out of favor, and fast. The Camaro was the first on the chopping block and it lost its wide array of powerful V8 engines from the previous generation. The second generation of the Camaro was notable for its more mainstream design and larger dimensions.

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In a lot of ways, this was a stellar generation for the Camaro. This was the final generation of the Z/28 for some time, which lead some enthusiasts to question GM at the time. The 1970s were a rough time for all domestic automakers. Ford was wrapped up in lawsuits regarding the Pinto, and let’s face it, the Pinto-based Mustang was a shame. Still, the Camaro and Firebird both carried on throughout this decade to produce some memorable vehicles. To this day, the split bumper Camaro has become one of the most highly regarded models. Collectors have gone far and wide to find this model and add it to their collection.

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A Luxury Camaro?

By the time the third generation Camaro rolled off the assembly line, the world had suffered through the gas crisis of the 70s. The third-generation Camaro incorporated a new carbureted 305 ci V8 engine. There was also one of the most notorious failures in the Camaro lineage that were the “Iron Duke” four-cylinder engine. This powerplant was universally panned by the automotive press for being underpowered. The curb weight of the new vehicle alone was too much for the paltry little engine to pull. GM was pulling out all the stops in the name of fuel efficiency but still it was a bad choice.

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Then there was the Berlinetta, the world’s first luxury Camaro. Take one look at this Camaro and you could tell that it was designed to be a bit of an upscale choice, from the flush alloy wheels to the more sedate front bumper. The Berlinetta was meant to appeal to a more upscale demographic. Inside, the interior was completely redone and featured a plethora of new technology that was ahead of its time. In addition to all of the leather appointments, there was also a digital dash, and the Berlinetta was the only Camaro to feature this. The problem is that the Berlinetta was severely underpowered and as such, the model never managed to find a firm footing on the market.

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The IROC-Z Was Born:

When you think of an Iconic Camaro model there is one that stands out more than anything. The IROC-Z is a powerful example of sports car design done right. From the ground effects to the powerful LT1 engine, the IROC-Z did everything right. The car was based on International Race Of Champions and this was GM’s answer to the long-defunct Z28 model. The IROC-Z featured notable enhancements over your run of the mill third-generation Camaro. This model helped to mend some of the fences that were broken with the awful Berlinetta.

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The IROC-Z is probably one of the most infamous cars of the 80s. When you think of pop culture from this period, the IROC-Z was the car that all the kids wanted. I remember my dad having a red one with T-Tops and I could never forget how cool that car was to look at. The IROC-Z has managed to hold its value extremely well over time. You can still expect to pay a pretty penny for one of these models. Although the IROC-Z wasn’t the most notable model of the third generation it still stands out as one of the most memorable.

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The 2002 35th Anniversary Edition Marked The End Of An Era:

By 2002, the sale of sports cars was lackluster at best. The market was moving more toward large pickup trucks and SUVs than ever before. The Camaros design had become stale and outdated, especially compared to the Mustang. GM decided it was time to end the production of the Camaro and Firebird for the 2002 model year. To celebrate the end of an era, the 35th Anniversary edition was launched as a numbered coupe and convertible. The rarest of these models featured special edition red paint with matching silver stripes. In addition to the standout paint job, there was also custom stitching end numbering on the interior.

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The fourth-generation Camaro which debuted in 1993 is often hailed as the best incarnation of the pony car. You got the same engine that was in the production Corvette for almost 30k less. Aside from the power advantage, the fourth generation Camaro also had memorable styling. This unique look of the car still holds stylish to this day and it has a cult-like following. The final years for the Camaro fourth generation introduced the world to some pretty unique color combinations. Had the market for sports cars stayed consistent, who knows what the future would have held for the Camaro around this period.

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The Return Of The Icon:

When GM axed the Camaro from the lineup for the 2002 model year, it sent shockwaves through the automotive press. The Camaro in itself was an integral part of the Chevy lineup. For over 35 years, the Camaro had provided drivers with sporty fun. The automotive community was in an uproar. GM teased a return of the Camaro around 2008 and then finally the Camaro was brought back into production to coincide with the release of the new ‘Transformers’ movie. The new generation Camaro was better than ever, featuring a retro-themed design very similar to the one the Mustang was sporting around this time.

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The Camaro has changed a lot since the inception of the new generation model. The powerplant has far improved with this generation. Camaros today are more powerful than ever before. The advanced new Corvette powerplants are partly to thank for this revolution and increased competition. The Camaro has managed to remain competitive in a crowded marketplace of sports cars. GM has introduced new product lines from time to time to keep the Camaro fresh, but the general premise is still there.

Citation: Car and Driver

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