The smart athlete retires gracefully, at his peak – before he starts to slip and give off that “has-been” stink. To their credit, that’s what Chevrolet managers did when they discontinued the Z28 version of the popular Camaro sport coupe after the 1974 model year. True high-performance engines such as the 1970–1971 Z28’s solid lifter-equipped high-compression LT-1 V-8 (and the later L-82 350, also sourced from the Corvette) had been involuntarily retired by ever-tightening government regulations as well as by fading consumer demand in the wake of startling gas price hikes and shortages that made owning a 12 MPG muscle car as popular as the Herp at a swinger’s party.
So it was decided to allow the Z28 RPO (Regular Production Option) a dignified fade-away with its well-earned reputation still intact, rather than exploit the performance image of the older cars to sell new cars that had none. The Z28 would not have to do embarrassing commercials for Bengay – or have the tabloids dissect its marital problems. It would retire like Johnny Carson from The Tonight Show – with class.
For two model years—1975 and 1976—there was no Z28 option at all, conferring a sort of moral superiority on Chevrolet for not trying to slip the public a “roofie.” Other brands (notably Ford and its Mustang II) had been mercilessly exploiting the legacy of their once-proud performance cars of the 1960s to hawk their watered-down, non-alcoholic beer replacements. For awhile, “Z28” still meant something on the street – unlike “Cobra,” which by the mid-late 1970s had become synonymous with stripe-and-decal disco cruisers driven by guys wearing medallions and too-tight Vidal Sassoon jeans.
It didn’t last.
After two years of resisting the same temptation that had gotten the better of Ford, Chevy brought back the Z28 – but in name only, sort of like “New Coke.” The “all-new” 1977 Z28 was pretty much the old (1976) Z28 in every way that mattered.
It did not have a special high-performance engine, as it had in years past. Instead, it was motivated by the same low-output, low-compression LM1 350 V-8 used in grandma-destined Malibus and Novas – and exactly the same engine used in non-Z28 1975 and 1976 Camaros, right down to the emissions calibrated carburetor, cast-iron exhaust manifolds and single exhaust. Chevy advertised a special high-performance suspension but even that had been offered the year before as the optional F41 package on RS and Type LT Camaros. Ok, maybe it had been “tuned” a bit, but that hardly makes a Z28.
The “all new” 1977 Z28 was thus little better than a quick skin job. It didn’t even come with a fake hood scoop – just a decal that suggested one. Kind of like that spray-on stuff that suggests hair on a bald spot.
This same basic soft-cammed, low compression 350 4-barrel engine lasted through 1981 – by which time Chevy had at least bolted on a fiberglass “air induction” hood scoop and fitted the flabby Z with aluminum wheels instead of the heavy stamped steel Rally wheels that had been used in 1977 through 1979. In a bid to bleed away some sales from Pontiac’s highly successful Trans-Am, Chevy also added a chin spoiler, fender flares, and dummy air extractors on the front quarter panels after 1978 – but these features did little to make the car any faster. The fairly aggressive 3.73 rear axle ratio was one of the few legitimate performance pieces the car was allowed, but with so little horsepower available – and so much weight, nearly two tons of it – the performance gear set only served to limit the car’s top speed to around 110 MPH at the edge of the gutless V-8’s 5,000 rpm redline. This was 20 or 30miles per hour less than in the Z28’s heyday four or five years earlier – and less than a current year Prius hybrid is capable of achieving.
As toothless as the 1977-1981 Z28s were, they appeared to have dentures at least when the downsized “Third Generation” Camaros appeared in 1982. The 5.7 liter LM1 350 had been dropped entirely, replaced by an even smaller and weaker 5-liter 305 V-8 that in top “high output” form offered a meager 165horsepower, 25 less than the 1981 Z28’s 350 4-barrel engine.
These were dark and dismal years, and the Z28 never fully recovered, even though power and performance eventually came back in the mid-1990s. By then, however, it was too late to undo the damage of a decade’s worth of dragging the Z28’s memory through the mud. GM eventually cancelled the Camaro (and its corporate twin, the Pontiac Firebird) for good after the end of the 2002 model year.
The franchise was revived again in 2010 – this time, with performance to match the image. But the resurrection coincided with the worst economic belly flop since the Great Depression and the future of the Camaro is (once again) a question mark.
Five Fast Facts
Unlike the original 1967 Z28 and models through 1974, the 1977–1981 Z28s were mass produced – and used engines no different from those used in other Chevy vehicles. The 1977–1981 Z28s’ standard 350 V-8 could even be ordered as an option in other, non-Z28 Camaros- something which was never allowed with the 1967–1974 models.
Though Pontiac’s Trans-Am had stopped using exposed metal bumpers years earlier, the Z28 did not get a flexible “Enduro” nosepiece and tail section until the 1978 model year – four years after the ’Bird.
The 1977–1981 Z28 did not come with mufflers; to enhance the illusion of performance, the cars were fitted with twin “resonators” (basically echo chambers) and a Y-pipe aft of the catalytic converter to provide an approximation of that rumbly V-8 muscle car sound.
Beginning with the 1979 model year, all Z28s were fitted with 85miles per hour speedometers – a measure intended to discourage people from speeding. (It also gave the owner the possibility of burying the needle.)
The 1977–1981 Camaro Z28 was the last Z28 (and the last Camaro) to have an interior design substantially different from the Firebird’s, including different dashboard, instruments, door panels, center console, and seats.
Excerpted from “Automotive Atrocities” (MBI, 2004) http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Automotive+Atrocities&x=0&y=0