In 1964, Chevrolet and General Motors were prepared to take the World’s Fair by storm. At the GM pavilion, fairgoers could stroll down “The Avenue of Progress,” an exhibition showcasing all the products that GM was building to create a Jetsons-like future. The centerpiece was a modified Stingray Corvette, resplendent in candy apple red and chrome leg pipes. It was supposed to be the belle of the ball, the ultimate object of automotive desire. Unfortunately for GM, it wasn’t to be.
Across the grounds at the Ford Pavilion, GM’s biggest rival unveiled the Mustang, setting off an automotive craze unlike anything the world had ever seen. On the first day alone, Ford took 22,000 orders for its sporty coupe, and Chevy was left in the lurch. Like Chrysler and American Motors, Chevy was left scrambling to field a Mustang competitor.
On September 29, 1966, after Ford had already sold 1 million Mustangs, Chevrolet officially introduced the Camaro, a sporty coupe designed to beat the Mustang at its own game. When asked what the name meant, Chevy spokesmen replied that it was found in an old French-English dictionary and meant “friend” or “comrade.” Ford famously shot back, saying it found a Spanish dictionary that defined Camaro as “a small, shrimp-like creature.”
And with that, the greatest automotive rivalry in history was born. Bigger than Ferrari versus Lamborghini, or Corvette versus Porsche 911, the battle between the Camaro and the Mustang for affordable performance supremacy has played out in every town in America for nearly 50 years, and it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Despite offering the iconic RS, SS, and Z/28 trim levels, the original Camaro was better at competing with inline-six-powered and luxury-optioned Mustangs than the fire-breathing Shelby GT500s or 390-cubic-inch V8 muscle cars. But by 1969, Chevy was crazy enough to offer — on special request — a race-prepped Camaro with a 427-cubic-inch V8, purposely underrated at 430 horsepower. known as the ZL-1. With simple tuning, the car could produce an astronomical 500 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful Camaros of all time.
By 1970, Chevy was ready to introduce a next-generation model, and the 1970.5 Camaro was more sophisticated than the older car in nearly every way. Unfortunately, the good times were short-lived for the next-generation car. Emissions standards, safety regulations, and the 1973 oil crisis spelled the end of the muscle car era, and soon the Camaro was a shadow of its former self.
By 1975, the Mustang had been redesigned as a subcompact, Chrysler had discontinued its muscle cars, and the Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were the only ’60s-era muscle cars left. But it was a hollow victory, as it was now weighed down with ungainly chrome federal regulation bumpers, a grotesque fiberglass nose, and a once-mighty V8 struggling to produce more than 150 horsepower.
As the 1980s dawned, the Camaro was still a strong seller — it had its best-selling year in 1979 — but had become bogged down by sluggish engines, bulbous body kits, and garish appearance packages. A new design came in 1982, and with its angular styling, improved performance, and great handling, it became the de facto muscle car of the 1980s. Reviewing the car in 1983, Motor Trend said the Camaro “can devour roads (or racetracks) of any description with a kind of swooping grace that instills a calm security in the occupants.”
A rounder Camaro bowed in 1992, just as Chevy remembered how to get horsepower from its big engines. By the end of the decade, a bigger Camaro SS was behaving like the ’60s never ended, drawing up to 325 horsepower from its LS-1 V8. But sales were dropping off, and by 2002, Chevy discontinued its pony car after 35 years in production.
But the Camaro wouldn’t stay down for long. In 2004, Ford introduced a retro-styled model that recalled its 1960s heyday. In 2006, Chevy shot back with its own retro-styled Camaro concept, based on the 1969 design. The car went into production in 2009, and since then, the Big Three have been locked in a horsepower battle that has reached heights unseen since before the moon landing.
Six years into this next-generation horsepower war, the all-new Mustang is a major success for Ford, the Dodge Challenger Hellcat’s 707 horsepower has set a new mark for affordable horsepower, and while the Camaro — especially the fire-breathing Z/28 — can still hold its own, it’s beginning to show its age. The much-anticipated new model will need to handle everything from the competent EcoBoost Mustang to the tire-scorching Hellcat.
But if any car can balance performance with affordability, it’s the Camaro, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon. After Ford’s famous “shrimp creature” comment in the ’60s, Chevy shot back with a statement that declared, “A Camaro is a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.” Five decades on, Chevy’s still hungry, and it has some big game to chase.