Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians, and maniacal cabbies and panel vans, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it’s always a surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z28.
When I was a young’un in the wilds of Connecticut (they exist!), one of my favorite things to do was to take a bucket of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars into the woods and play for hours, Toy Story style. Epic car chases, massive pileups at Le Mans, off-roading tournaments – all unfolded in glorious 1:64 scale on the mossy grounds and glacial erratics of the Calvin and Hobbes-esque forest. And among my favorite subjects was this golden late ‘70s Z28, piloted by a getaway driver who probably shifted too much but always laid down some righteous rubber and made a spectacular jump to escape the cops. Of course, I had no knowledge of the malaise era, or even the word “malaise” at the time, so I didn’t know such things were quite difficult with 185 horsepower under the hood. And I was happy.
So you can probably imagine my delight when I stumbled across this beast resting in the East Village last week. By this point a few of you are probably thinking Man, is he talking about this redneck wanna-be muscle car? I can’t really blame you – the Camaro has one of the most bipolar production runs of any vehicle Detroit has ever crafted. The first generation, a somewhat hasty response by Chevy to the Mustang’s explosive popularity in the 1960s, is rightfully deified as a classic by the automotive res publica. The second generation, launched in 1970 (or 1970½ if that’s your style), started strong and faded fast, losing both power and fun to a decade of increased regulations. The third generation was even weaker, with the 1982 base model being powered by a 90 horsepower four-cylinder engine (which, my god). Power increased through the ‘80s, but the car became the province of drug dealers, mullets, and your sad uncle who couldn’t quite grow up (possibly all the same person). The 1990s saw the fourth generation, which went pretty fast for pretty cheap, but the car’s 30-year-old platform and low quality construction made it an otherwise unpleasant place to be. GM ended up killing it altogether in 2002, citing low sales and lower enthusiasm.
But hark! The Camaro rose again in 2009 on the Australian Zeta platform, which means that despite what you think about its looks or handling it is automatically the most exciting generation in forty years. So yes, given that checkered past it’s easy for everyone to find a Camaro they hate – but just as easy to find one (or more) they love. That’s why I don’t expect everyone to appreciate what we have here today, but for those who do, I think you’ll see it’s something special.
Longtime Chevy engineer Vince Piggins sketched out the idea for the Z28 in the summer of 1966, before the Camaro even launched, as a way to give the car a high performance image that would be, in his words, “superior to the Mustang’s.” Around that time the budding SCAA Trans-Am sedan race series, in which any production car with a backseat and an engine under the size limit could compete, was increasingly seen as a way for car manufacturers to show off their fastest cars. And it just so happens that Ford, running those magnificent Shelby Mustangs, won the manufacturer’s championship in 1966. Clearly, something had to be done, and Piggins was a man with a plan. He advocated for a stripped-down, practically race-ready model, his bosses liked what they heard, and less than six months later the first Z/28 optioned Camaros were rolling off the line. The lightened car was rocking a custom 302.4 cubic inch V8 that was factory rated at 290 horsepower, but anyone with a dyno machine could tell it was actually north of 350, and the engines in the raced cars were allegedly tuned to 450 freaking horsepower. It did not have air conditioning, but it did have vroom vroom racing stripes. Everyone loved the Z28, because, what’s not to love? The thing was a monster. Ford had one more year on top of the Trans-Am series in 1967, but in ’68 and ’69 a Z28 driven by goddamn Mark Donohue brought the trophies home to Chevy, although there was some controversy about him dropping acid before races – or wait, maybe it was that he dropped the car in acid in order to imperceptibly dissolve and lighten the body. We may never know.
The second generation Camaro was launched in 1970, and it briefly captured some of the magic that made its predecessor such a special car. It ditched the convertible option in favor of a new sloping roofline derivativeof the great Ferraris of the day, featured a new front end influenced by, I kid you not, the 1969 Jaguar XJ6, and added the four round taillights found on the Corvette. And with the exception of the base model 155 horsepower straight-six, the engine offerings were still impressive, as the Z28 was powered by a newly-designed LT-1 that put out 360 horses. But alas, all good things must end, and the next few years were rough for the ponycar market, Camaro in particular – rising insurance rates were hurting sales, new emissions and safety standards were sapping the car’s power, and production was nearly ended by two worker strikes at GM in 1971 and 1972. The Camaro itself remained popular, but executives at Chevy, whose heads must have been so far up their own asses that only their large intestines are privy to their exact reasons, started to question the wisdom of the Z28.
Despite all this, a planned facelift proceeded in 1974, giving the Camaro the sloping, pointed front end and recessed headlights seen on today’s example, and the Z28 was still part of the party. Sales were actually decent thanks to the Mustang’s continued slide into mediocrity, but the coffin Chevy had been building for their coolest Camaro was completed by that all-important final nail, the 1973-4 fuel crisis. The Z28 went out that year not with a bang but a whimper, its apparent swan song ruined by massive aluminum bumpers and optional gaudy oversized hood decals. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the bank – 1974 saw the mass extinction of nearly every other full size domestic muscle car, giving the Camaro and its stable mate the Firebird almost complete control of the market as they continued to fight the good fight. Power kept dropping in the second half of the decade, but not by as much as its competitors, and so the Camaro enjoyed record sales during this time.
The numbers were so good, in fact, that Chevy saw an opportunity to reintroduce the Z28 as a separate model, not just a performance package in 1977. Though the revived performance car only had 185 horsepower to work with, the handling was tweaked enough that it proved to be an instant hit. The Z28’s popularity helped propel Camaro production to over 200,000 units that year, and the car was rewarded with its first ever annual sales victory over the Mustang. Though the numbers dropped at the end of the second generation in the early eighties, 1979 saw over 84,000 Z28’s and 280,000 total Camaros produced, both records as well (the latter still stands to this day).
Given those figures, it’s not surprising that today’s example hails from that banner year, but what is surprising is its condition and what it says about the owner. It’s absolutely flawless – almost. The paint job, not an original color, looks great and is impeccably done. The aftermarket blacked-out tires and wheels seem brand new. The interior, which was all black and impossible to photograph in the low light, is actually flawless, with not a stitch out of place. But look a little closer, and tiny imperfections start to stand out. Some are intentional, like the well-worn tri-color Camaro badge and old door handles that look like they belong to a much older car, and some are unintentional, like the misaligned rear spoiler and ill-fitting hood. To me, all this suggests that this car was the lucky recipient of a bottom-up restoration, likely done by one person, by hand. Given how numerous these cars are, and fact that it costs more to restore a rough one than purchase a clean one, this had to be a true labor of love. This is someone’s baby, which means it demands respect, no matter what you may think about a malaisey muscle car.
Of course, a ground-up restoration makes it a little more difficult to determine this car’s age, so I’ve used some serious Encyclopedia Brown skills to figure it out. First, despite the lack of any Z28 badging, it has to be a Z28 because of the blacked-out headlight bezels and front spoiler. The lack of badging also makes sense because in 1979, the Z28 decal was painted above the grill instead of attached to it, meaning it was lost in the respray here. Also added in 1979 was the aforementioned front spoiler. But this car doesn’t have the hood from that year, which had a forward-facing hood scoop in a vaguely sexual shape – this one with the rear-facing scoop is from 1980. It also has the rear fender flares that were introduced in 1980. So what gives?
Well, two other things point to 1979 – the louvered side scoops on the front fenders, which were changed to a single tapered opening in 1980, and the taillights, which are missing the black plastic accent line through the middle that was also introduced in 1980. All that, plus addition of the louvered back window cover and aftermarket wheels, makes me think the owner probably added the hood and rear wheel flares because he liked the way they look. Nothing wrong with that. Oh, and seeing all these liberties he’s taken during the restoration, and how mean this thing looks, one would hope there is something far more sinister lurking underneath that hood.
The man whose face you see in the upper right corner of that picture is the bouncer at the bar this Camaro was parked in front of; as I was standing up from taking it, he stormed up to me and asked “What the fuck are you doing? C’mon man, why you taking pictures of my car?” I managed to not shit my pants and stammer something about writing a blog post before his face broke into a wide smile and he said “Aw, I’m just playin’ man. I WISH this was my car. But that’s what I’d do if it was!” But that’s the beauty of the Camaro – even in its darkest hours, it still inspires the kind of feverish devotion you don’t see surrounding many cars today, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that even the most despised models get more desirable as time creeps onward. You’ll see, in thirty years even the much-maligned fourth generation will be seen as a pleasing throwback to simpler times. Spotting this car took me right back to my childhood, admiring the straight lines and clean design of my Hot Wheels version, and I hope it brings up some fond memories of your own.