The 1970-1981 Chevy Camaro: Dizzying Highs and Brutal Lows

1970 Chevrolet Camaro

1970 Chevrolet Camaro | Chevrolet

To some Chevy fans, the first-generation Camaro — especially the brawny 1969 model — will always be the greatest muscle car to ever wear the bowtie badge. But let’s be honest, the first Camaro was a rush job. Yes, it was introduced at the height of the muscle car era, looked great, and could make insane power for the time. But it lived fast and died young. It was around for just three model years. It never had the chance to get bloated, or watered down, or defanged by emissions equipment. That honor, unfortunately, fell to the second-generation car. And despite some incredible highlights, that Camaro is largely remembered for its many, many lows.

Like it or not, the Camaro story begins on April 17, 1964, when Ford debuted the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair. Chrysler had its Plymouth Barracuda to go up against it, and Chevy had … nothing. The Corvair Monza may have helped kickstart the market for affordable sporty compacts a few years before, but it couldn’t compete with the Mustang’s long hood and short deck, long options list, and — most importantly — available V8 performance. Starting with the Chevy II/Nova, Chevy developed an all-new platform for its Mustang fighter, and in September 1966, less than two-and-a-half years after Ford’s ponycar made its debut — an astonishingly quick time to develop a car from scratch — Chevy unveiled the Camaro.

1967 Chevrolet Camaro SS

1967 Chevrolet Camaro SS | Chevrolet

The Camaro (and its platform-mate, the Pontiac Firebird) was met with favorable reviews upon release, but the Mustang still outsold the Chevy by more than two to one. Before 1967 was out, Chevy had already made the second-generation Camaro a priority, with an even larger budget than the first car, and its target release date set for 1970.

1970 Chevrolet Camaro RS

1970 Chevrolet Camaro RS | Chevrolet

The Camaro already had the reputation of being sportier than the Mustang, but Chevy wanted to widen the gap even further. On direct orders from GM styling chief Bill Mitchell, the Chevy (and to a lesser extent, Pontiac) design studios were ordered to study both the upcoming C3 Corvette and Pininfarina-designed Ferrari GT cars. It wasn’t every day that GM brass ordered Chevy’s engineers and design team to build a budget Ferrari, and they were more than willing to take on the challenge.

The Camaro would still be an affordable sporty coupe in base trim, but Chevy wanted to make sure build quality was superb. It needed to out-handle the aging Mustang (with sales still up, no replacement was in sight yet), and it built the car to handle an obscene amount of power. Chevy was able to get all that out of the new Camaro, and the Ferrari-inspired looks, in time for the launch date. But there were complications.

1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 coupe

1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 coupe | Chevrolet

The new sheetmetal was exotic for Detroit. So exotic, in fact, that GM’s Fisher Body plants had difficulty designing reliable tooling to make the body panels. That, and the labor disputes between GM and the U.A.W. put Chevy in the awkward position of pushing the launch of its 1970 model well into that year. But when it finally pulled the wraps off the car that February, it all seemed to be worth it. 

1970 Chevrolet Camaro

1970 Chevrolet Camaro | Chevrolet

In 1970, there was nothing coming out of Detroit quite like the new Camaro. While Ford and Chrysler were settling in with long, smooth, almost tubular designs for their muscle cars, the new Chevy was curvaceous, muscular, and complex. With split bumpers and a wide grille up front, it did look more Italian than anything to come from an American automaker. And with its quad taillights and extreme fastback, it bore more than a passing resemblance to the Corvette. It could back those looks up with power too.

The base engine was a 155 horsepower 250 cubic inch inline-six, but from there, the Camaro was all power. Mated to either a four-speed manual or three-speed TH400 automatic, power came from the 350-horse 396 V8, or the 360 horse, 350 cubic inch LT-1. As advertised, the new Camaro looked great, had fantastic brakes and a stiff chassis, and could go like hell.

1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

1970 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 | Chevrolet

Car and Driver’s first test of the 1970 Z/28 summed up just how advanced the car felt at the time:

The world’s menu of powerful GT cars contains a few selections of uncom­mon merit. Almost invariably they are European, frequently Italian in descent, few in numbers and high in price—the precious gems of the car builder’s art. There is nothing precious about the Ca­maro Z/28, Chevrolet will stamp them out like the government does cupro-nickel quarters, but it is an automobile of un­common merit. It would be every bit as much at home on the narrow, twisting streets of Monte Carlo or in the courtyard of a villa overlooking the Mediterranean as it is on Interstate 80. It’s a Camaro like none before.

Chevy had delivered as promised on its second-generation car. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last. 

1971 Chevrolet Camaro SS 396

1971 Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 | Chevrolet

The year the new Camaro was introduced, Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, which would ban leaded gasoline by 1975. That meant drastically lowering the compression ratios of its engines, and losing some high-performance powerplants like the LT-1 altogether. In fact, GM announced that they would begin transitioning all its engines to make them compatible with unleaded gas by the 1971 model year in January 1970, a month before the new Camaro debuted.

By 1971, power in the Z/28 was already down a worrying 40 horsepower, and it would only get worse. Power would continue to decline, and in 1974, the Camaro would need to comply with the new 5 mile per hour bumper laws, cluttering its tasteful front and rear ends with large, heavy steel beams. Chevy tried its best to camouflage the new appendages, but it just ended up adding 7 inches, and even more weight to a performance car that was already drastically down on power. After the disastrous federally mandated additions, GM thought about dropping the Camaro altogether.

1976 Chevrolet Camaro Sport Coupe

1976 Chevrolet Camaro Sport Coupe | Chevrolet

But then a funny thing happened: Sales began to take off. By 1975, the Mustang had been reborn as the Pinto-based Mustang II compact, AMC had ditched the Javelin, Chrysler had dropped the Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda, and the Dodge Charger had become a personal luxury coupe. The muscle car was effectively dead, and the Camaro and Firebird were the only game left in town. What’s more, their relaxed tuning made the cars more palatable to a larger audience than ever before.

1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 | Chevrolet

For all intents and purposes, the 1975 model is the nadir of the Chevy Camaro. There have been slower versions (the Iron Duke inline-four models of the 1980s), but for ’75, the hottest V8-powered cars put out just 155 horsepower. Still, nearly 150,000 versions were sold that year. That number would remain steady through the end of the decade.

The second-generation Camaro met its end at the ripe old age of 11 in 1981. Once an all-American take on a European GT, the final cars were long, bloated, monochrome boulevard cruisers, usually weighed down with garish graphics and body kits, a velour interior, and T-tops. Despite being a shadow of its former self performance-wise, the car was far more popular than when it was at the top of its game. Chevy sold just over of 120,000 Camaros in 1970. In 1979, it sold nearly 283,000 of them. In its final year, 126,000 of them found a home.

Second-generation Camaro design analysis

Second-generation Camaro design analysis | Chevrolet

But to muscle car fans, virtually everything that went wrong with the Camaro went wrong between 1970 and 1981. It got fat. It got slow. And it went from being beautiful to being downright grotesque. In its original state, the second-generation car had an incredible amount of potential, and one that it came close to fulfilling until 1973. Today, those early second-generation cars are prized as some of the greatest cars of the muscle car era. But they just don’t have the cachet that the ’67 to ’69 cars do. No matter how good they were, they still have the specter of unleaded gas, 5 mile per hour bumpers, T-tops, 8-tracks, and velour hovering over them. It’s an understatement to say that we’re glad the Camaro is still with us today. But we can’t help but think history would be a lot kinder to Chevy’s second-generation muscle car if it had never gone through such an awkward adolescence.