As the 50th anniversary celebration winds down for the Chevrolet Camaro, it’s right back where it started: playing second wheel to Ford’s Mustang in the sales charts. Yet Camaro carves a distinct place in pony car Americana both past and present, renowned for stoplight sprints, countless first dates, and pacing the Indianapolis 500 nine times.
“Customers appreciate engine horsepower and better handling — and how it makes them feel inside,” said Todd Christensen, Camaro marketing manager. “There’s a lot of passion with Camaro owners that they bring into the Chevy brand.”
Camaro was launched for model year 1967 to counter Ford’s Mustang and give baby boomers something unique in Chevy showrooms.
Chevrolet already offered the Corvair, Chevelle and Corvette, but the Camaro was sportier than a Chevelle, more powerful than the Corvair and was affordable, unlike Corvette. It was quick too. Car and Driver ran a 1968 Z28 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, one-tenth quicker than a Mustang with the same-sized 302 cubic-inch engine.
Designers abandoned Coke-bottle styling with the second generation in 1970, conveying Camaro from the muscle car era, through disco, and into the Reagan administration.
Styling initially cribbed Ferrari with large egg-crate grilles and fastback rooflines, but added plastic bumpers and a lot more weight to comply with safety regulations. By 1980, V-8-powered Camaros ran 0-60 mph in 9.5 seconds.
Times had changed, but Camaro was relatively quick and looked handsome. Unlike Mustang, which evolved from a big muscle car to the ridiculous Mustang II — the Pinto-esque Shetland of pony cars — Camaro was unswerving.
“Among classic Camaros, I have come to appreciate the second-generation cars with their Ferrari-like front ends,” said Larry Edsall, author of “Camaro: A Legend Reborn.” “Camaro never went through a Mustang II phase.”
The smaller, sharper third-generation 1982 Camaro needed less fuel to be fun. Base models had four-cylinder engines, but the 235-horsepower IROC filled the dreams of teens’ minds and walls.
A sleek 1993 restyle eventually begat the 325-horsepower SS. Performance was back, but sales were kneecapped by SUV popularity, sending Camaro on hiatus after 2002. Sales were about one-third of Mustang.
The soul-searching took eight years, but when Tom Peters’ retro-modern fifth-generation debuted for 2010, sales surpassed Mustang’s (81,299 vs. 73,716). Buyers drew quick connections to the first-generation models and throttled engines as diverse as a 30-mpg V-6 or 580-horsepower supercharged V-8.
Camaros now handle as well as they accelerate and are loaded with technology like Bose audio, wireless phone charging, Wi-Fi hotspots, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
Camaro serves as Chevy’s affordable sport coupe with the turbo-four at $25,905, a junior Corvette in SS trim under $38,000, and all-out track beast ZL1 for $61,140. Choose the base turbo-four that achieves 31 mpg or the ZL1’s 650-horsepower supercharged V-8 that shoves it 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds.