Where the Z/28 Legacy Began

The original Z/28 Camaro of 1967 was barely recognizable aside from the stripes on its hood and rear deck, though enthusiasts might spot the 15-inch Corvette wheels or hear the tick-tick of the solid-lifter camshaft.
The original Z/28 Camaro of 1967 was barely recognizable aside from the stripes on its hood and rear deck, though enthusiasts might spot the 15-inch Corvette wheels or hear the tick-tick of the solid-lifter camshaft.

Carmakers often resurrect popular model names, but only rarely do they reinstate the character that made the original so memorable. It does happen — the 2014 Corvette Stingray seems to have it — and early reports say that Chevrolet’s Camaro Z/28 revival is faithful to its take-no-prisoners ancestor.

When it was introduced in the fall of 1966 as General Motors’ answer to Ford’s hugely successful Mustang, the Camaro catered to the muscle car market with models packing Chevy’s new 350-cubic-inch small-block V8 and a 396-inch big block. But months later, the automotive press was gushing over another high-performance variant, not mentioned in advertising or brochures, that was mainly identifiable by a pair of wide stripes on the hood and trunk lid, the rattle of a solid-lifter camshaft and the rumble of its exhaust.

This was the first Z/28.

The designation came from Chevy’s regular production option code, Z28, for the Special Performance Package. There was nothing meaningful about the code; it was just a number in the ordering guide. The significance — and the car’s special qualities — were in the engine that anchored the package.

Chevy’s manager of product performance, Vince Piggins, wanted the Camaro to compete with the Mustang in the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am series, started in 1966 for production-based two-door models. The Mustang, with its V8 engine, ran in the class for engines over 2 liters. Though it seemed a natural for the made-for-pony cars Trans-Am series, the Camaro initially faced a roadblock. Rules for its class restricted engines to 5 liters, or 305 cubic inches, but the Camaro’s smallest V8 was a 327. Bill Howell, who manufactures aftermarket fuel injection systems for G.M. engines, worked then at Chevrolet and recalled how the solution came about.

“Chevrolet always had a wide catalog of interchangeable parts that racers could buy in the dealerships,” Mr. Howell said in a telephone interview.

He explained that USAC Sprint Car racers would install the crankshaft from Chevy’s 283-cubic-inch V8, which had a 3-inch piston stroke, into the 327 block, which used a 4-inch cylinder bore. The result was a 302-inch displacement whose short stroke fostered high-revving performance.

“It was a known combination, but it took Vince to push it through to get Chevy to adopt it,” Mr. Howell said.

Mr. Piggins’s team filled the 302 with choice parts: high-compression pistons, large-valve cylinder heads from the Corvette’s fuel-injected 327 and a Holley 4-barrel carburetor on an aluminum intake manifold. The 302 could rev to 7,000 r.p.m., incredible for an American V8 at the time.

The Z28 option package, which cost $358, also included heavy-duty suspension, quicker steering, 15-inch Corvette wheels with wide tires and dual exhausts with “deep tone” mufflers. The buyer was also required to order the close-ratio 4-speed manual transmission and upgraded brakes, adding another $400 to the price. Power-boosting options included tubular exhaust headers and a special intake plenum that ducted air from the base of the windshield into the carburetor. Those parts had to be installed by the dealer or customer.

Just 602 of the 221,000 1967 Camaros sold had the package.

When the model’s badge appeared on the 1968 car it contained a slash mark — Z/28 — which was dropped in later years. Perhaps it is a mark of the new car’s authenticity that the slash has been restored.

The Z/28 punched well above its displacement class, with an unruly demeanor that appealed to ardent car enthusiasts. But it was high-strung and could be a handful to drive and maintain — hardly commuter-friendly. Underscoring that point, automatic transmissions and air-conditioning were not available.

Chevy finally advertised the package for 1968, pushing sales to 7,199. With the racing legends Roger Penske managing and Mark Donohue driving, the Camaro won the Trans-Am championship in 1968 and again in 1969, when Z/28 sales hit 19,014.

The 302 was used only in the 1967-69 Z/28. For 1970, a redesigned second-generation Camaro was fitted with a 350 cubic-inch engine, the LT-1, rated 360 horsepower. By the late-1970s, performance had softened considerably and more comforts crept in, yet sales skyrocketed.

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