It may not have been first to market, but upon its introduction the Camaro seriously upped the ante in the then-just-erupting pony car wars – a TV ad which saw a 1967 SS hardtop emerge from a smoldering volcano, fit in perfectly with the context of the times. Like Ford’s Mustang, the Camaro featured an arm’s length list of options so buyers could make into a personal commuter car, fire-breathing drag racer, nimble sporty machine or something that was a combination of all three. Along with its sister Firebird, it weathered the tumultuous climate of the 1970s, selling in record numbers. In the 1980s, it spearheaded the renaissance in American-made performance cars. It fell on hard times roughly a decade ago, bowing out in 2002, but like all true legends, it didn’t die – instead, it began a path to rebirth. A new, fifth-generation concept was first seen in early 2006, finally emerging into a fully-fledged production car for the 2010 model year. Not surprisingly, it’s been the subject of much interest. But what is it actually like in person? More importantly, despite comments in the mainstream media, is it really a throwback or a performance car in tune with the 21st century? To find out, we decided to compare the latest SS version with its iconic 1967 ancestor 100 percent factory correct, pristine first year model, in order to give a real comparison about how far we have (or perhaps haven’t) come in the last 44 years.
1967 Camaro SS: A Fiery Creation
When Ford uncovered a new market with the Mustang, selling in excess of 680,000 cars in its first season, Chevrolet sat up and noticed. For a while, the division felt that its unconventional, rear-engined 1965 Corvair Corsa was a worthy competitor, but Chevrolet General manager, Elliot M. “Pete” Estes and his team were already at work on a true rival, a car that would share the Mustang’s conventional passenger car underpinnings (front engine, rear-drive), feature sporty two-door styling and offer a myriad of options, allowing buyers to essentially “customize” the car to their individual requirements. Code named “Panther”, the Camaro was officially unveiled to the press on September 12, 1966 and went on sale at the end of the month as a 1967 model. Compared to the Mustang, it featured smoother, arguably more modern styling, with “coke bottle” flanks that would come to define much of Detroit styling during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was offered in two body styles (hardtop coupe and convertible) with seven different engines, five different transmissions and a long list of Regular Production Options (RPO) to dress up or enhance just about every aspect of the car. Our Bolero Red featured example is a well-equipped car outfitted with a healthy number of options available on the order sheet that year. It features the L35 code SS package, which included the monster 396ci, 325hp Mark IV big block V-8, special badging, wraparound nose stripe and power dome hood with fake scoops, M40 Turbo Hydramatic 350, three-speed automatic trans (a mandatory option with L34), F41 special performance suspension, J52 power front disc brakes, C80 Positraction limited-slip rear differential, Z22 RS package (hidden headlights and special taillight lenses), along with P12 14 x 6-inch Rally wheels and Firestone D70-14 Wide Oval Super Sport redline tires. Other options of note include the Z23 special interior group, U17 instrumentation package, V01 heavy-duty radiator and D31 outside remote control mirror. You’ll also notice from the pictures that, somewhat unusually, it doesn’t feature the D55 center console (which required a floor mounted shifter – our car has it on the column), nor does it have power windows or air-conditioning.
Muscle and Style
At the time of its release, the Camaro looked decidedly modern next to the Mustang. In fact, it was so well received that Aston Martin designer William Towns borrowed many cues for the DBS and long-running V-8 models. Although it was built on its own F-body platform, much of the car’s engineering – including the front subframe, suspension, firewall and basic unit body design – was shared with the 1968-72 X-body Chevy Nova.
Our sample car is a restored convertible. Inside, there are acres of black vinyl, but the absence of a tachometer and center console, plus a column shift lever, make the car feel more like a full-size Chevy cruiser than a muscle-bound pony car. However, the deep gauge cluster and three-spoke wood steering wheel add a dash of sportiness in a late 1960s style. After a couple pumps of the gas pedal, twist the key and the L34 hydraulic lifter 396 crackles into life, gulping air and fuel through its Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor. By modern standards, it’s a little rough at idle, but tap the gas and it rumbles with a decent smoothness, though you can almost feel the engine rocking on the motor mounts as it bellows through the reproduction factory-style exhaust. Steering is feather light. Even at low speeds, you can use your index fingers to change direction, but it’s slow. The engine noise is fantastic, though the glass tends to rattle when you come to stop signs or traffic lights. As it warms up, you can feel the heat soaking into the cabin and a faint smell of rich fuel. Like many Detroit cars of the period you tend to peer over the dash, thanks to a high cowl. The bucket seats feel more like park benches coated in vinyl. You easily slide across them, and there’s very little in the way of support, especially lumbar. In a convertible like this, the best way to enjoy it is with the top and windows down. Pull up, put the car in park and press the button. The operation takes less than three minutes, but getting the windows down is a pain; each of them require the old-fashioned crank method.
Exposed to the outside world, driving this car takes on a new level of rawness. Punch the throttle and the pickup is instant. The car doesn’t feel as raw and as brutal as the 1969 Yenko featured in this issue, but the big 396 still has plenty of juice – more than 390 lb-ft by the time it’s spinning at 3000 revs – but it’s difficult to harness all that grunt in this car. Out back, the solid axle features a pair of single leaf springs with shocks mounted ahead of the axle and a single traction bar on the right side. Combined with the rock hard Wide Oval tires, the rear dances once a decent amount of throttle is applied. It’s no wonder the first mod on nearly every 1967 Camaro was a pair of aftermarket heavy-duty traction bars (Chevy addressed the problem for 1968 by adding stronger, multi-leaf springs, but it makes you wonder why the issue of wheel hop was seemingly overlooked – especially on 396 cars). As the speed increases, the big engine just keeps on pulling – the Camaro is getting hard to keep in a straight line and requires every ounce of concentration as the feather-light wheel and bias-ply rubber seemingly want to take their own path. High-speed corners are just short of frightening. With so much weight up front, the car wants to tuck its front tires under and plow wide – there’s almost no feedback through the steering, while out back it’s an all-singing, all-dancing symphony as the axle begins to skitter. But handling is not this car’s reason for being – if you wanted to go that route, you ordered RPO Z28 on the Camaro coupe, which just 602 people did for 1967. Power front disc brakes were becoming more commonplace on Detroit cars by the late 1960s, but they’re working overtime on anything more than a gentle slow down. A couple of hard stops are all it takes for fade to set in. The weight transfers like a jet catching an arrestor wire on an aircraft carrier. Down comes the nose, up comes the stern, and the rear tires almost get air beneath them.
But to criticize the 1967 Camaro SS 396 for its handling and braking is to ignore the point. This car, especially in convertible form, was built for cruising the boulevard on Saturday night and engaging in rolling grudge matches between city blocks while soaking in the warm summer breeze. And for that, in terms of sheer cool factor and charisma, it’s very hard to beat, even today.
2010 Camaro SS: Retro or Remade?
While there’s no mistaking that the current Mustang touches heavily on the style of its forebears from the 1965 to 1970 years, the 2010 Camaro SS beats to the sound of a different drum. Some say that it draws upon the 1969, but except for the gills on the quarter panels and perhaps just a little around the headlights, there’s barely any similarity. The curved fender openings speak more to the 1967-68 cars, but then again, the resemblance is faint at best, especially when you park the original and this car side by side. The blocky stature, side mirrors and overall styling, much of which remains intact from the original 2006 concept designed by Sangyup Lee, speak strongly of GM’s current design language.
Although our sample is the SS model, the only indicators to differentiate this from the base car are a subtle air scoop above the grille assembly, larger exhaust tips, slightly bigger wheels and discreet SS logos on the front and rear of the car – much unlike the 1967 version. Although both cars essentially incorporate steel unibody construction, the feel and weight of the doors and overall fit and finish (not to mention production methods) are worlds apart (though on our black 2010 SS, there was still noticeable orange peel in parts of the paint).
Compared to our 1967 original, which feels open and quaint inside, the 2010 is cozy and modern. It’s also refreshingly simple when compared with many contemporary cars. Some have criticized the cabin for its perceived poor visibility and cheap finish. While it isn’t going to match any high-end European jobs, it’s decent enough and far better than many GM interiors in recent years. Door panels that glow in the dark are a nice touch and further add a feeling of intimacy. The instrument cluster with the speedometer and tach split by a divider (in this case a digital display), are reminiscent more of a 1969 Camaro, but still thoroughly modern. The same goes for the auxiliary gauges mounted on the front of the console, ahead of the shifter – a cool and useful feature. The seats are light years removed from the low back, flat buckets found in the 1967. In this car, they’re nicely contoured, with excellent bolstering both for the legs and torso. Ours also featured six-way power adjustment and heaters, which proved welcome since the northern fall weather was starting to descend as we conducted our test. The HVAC and in-car entertainment controls are also relatively simple to operate, free of the complicated, multi-function screens and single command knob that is becoming all too common. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is solid, chunky and firm to the touch. Turn the key and the all-aluminum, fuel injected, coil on-plug, LS3 small-block V-8 cranks on the button. It’s fairly quiet and muted at idle, with none of the ruckus of the old cast-iron Mark IV 396. Blip the gas pedal a few times and it rumbles, but with much more finesse, and there’s no rocking and shaking going on. Our car features the Tremec six-speed manual gearbox. The handle is short, stubby and, like the wheel, coated in real leather. The outside mirrors are fairly small, and the new Camaro, like the original, has a fairly tall cowl, though it’s easy to get accustomed and we didn’t find any serious issues peering out.
Shifting gears at low speed is smooth and satisfying, except for one issue: the hated computer programmed first to fourth skip shift (a holdover from the old fourth generation 1994-02 cars designed to boost fuel economy). Change up from first gear at anything below 1500 rpm and the lever automatically jumps across the gate and into fourth gear, causing the engine to bog. Keep the revs around 2000 rpm and it’s so much better – direct first to second, third to fourth, fifth to sixth. The steering, in contrast to the 1967, is firm and taught. Tug the wheel and the car changes direction immediately, almost like on a slot track. With 426 horsepower on tap and 420 lb-ft of torque, the 6.2 liter pushrod V-8 has got plenty of grunt, but you don’t feel it in the same way – it’s more like a turbine building thrust than a thump in the chops. It’s easy to feel like you’re going fairly slow, but once you look at the speedometer and digital display you realize you’re doing 70 mph, yet the car is rock solid, and the steering is arrow straight.
With state-of-the-art fully independent suspension, including an active front stabilizer bar, dual ball front and tri-ball joint rear links, plus coil over shocks at the back, massive 20-inch wheels and 245/275 section modern performance radials (front/back), and a much wider track, there’s just no comparison when it comes to cornering ability. You can drive the new SS as fast as you like and as hard as you want through the corners without breaking a sweat. The chassis is so well set up by pony car standards that with just softer tires, performance brake pads and fluid, you’d be all set for seriously competitive club racing. The engine’s torque delivers well during back-road bashing, particularly in the mid and upper rpm ranges, and the shifts come sure and quick, whether up or down. However, for all its grandstanding ability, the car doesn’t feel that fast. To make matters worse, the exhaust often sounds raspy, barely indicating there’s a fire-breathing V-8 under that hood. With standard ABS and massive four-wheel disc brakes, including monster four-piston Brembo calipers at the front and 14-inch diameter rotors, braking is very strong. Despite the car weighing in at almost 3800 pounds at the curb, the anchors will stop the new SS from 60 mph in less than 115 feet and will do it multiple times without any issues. It’s a far cry from our 1967, which, even with its front disc/rear drum setup and 500 pounds less weight, takes roughly 50 feet longer, accompanied by a lot of bucking and rear wheel lock if you push hard.
Although it has been billed as an old-school muscle car, after driving a real 1960s classic, the 2010 SS feels like a modern thoroughbred. It’s decently put together, delivers fantastic all-around performance and offers levels of comfort and safety (including dual-stage front air bags, side cushions and curtain head airbags), not even fathomable 44 years ago. Also, with a premium sound system and Sirius/XM Satellite radio, plus traction and stability control, it truly is a Detroit performance car that you can drive every day. Better still, our tester stickered at just under $32,000 out the door, delivering tremendous bang for the buck, much like its predecessors of the late 1960s.
In many respects, it’s perhaps unfair to compare these two cars. Despite the fundamentals of a big engine up front, rear-drive, two-door bodies and a name, they actually have very little in common, and are worlds apart in technology and capability. There’s no question that in terms of cold, hard numbers the 2010 SS wins hands down. But the 1967, despite its slow steering, weak brakes and axle hop, has a raw character and charm that’s just missing from modern vehicles, the new SS included. For a daily driver and weekend track car, the 2010 SS is the only choice. But given that many Camaros today are purchased primarily as recreational cars to drive on nice days, when it comes to a sunny weekend afternoon and a time to go cruising, the 1967, despite its quirks, is, from our vantage point, the one you’d probably want to pull out of the garage first.