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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

March 7, 1997

Teresa McNally is an attorney whose car was totally destroyed by a hit-and-run driver and she's now hassling with her insurance company over its value. Being a lawyer, she knows the legalities, but as a car enthusiast, there's an emotional factor involved that's hard to resolve. "I don't really want the money," she told me. "I want my old Z28 back."

Such is the mystique of the Chevrolet Camaro Z28.

Chevrolet got into the market niche for small American sports coupes rather late in the game by waiting until 1967 to introduce the Camaro. Ford had originated the concept with its Mustang in the middle of 1964 and all vehicles of that genre had to bear the stigma of being called "pony cars," alluding to the Mustang's equestrian name. We've described the development of the first Camaro in a previous feature, so it needn't be repeated, but the Z28 version rates a telling of its own.

In the middle of 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang as a cute family sporting coupe, but later discovered that there was marketing value in its performance image and racing victories. Chevrolet learned from this, and planned to roll out a performance version right alongside its more prosaic six-cylinder Camaro. Vincent Piggins had been a part of the racing development of the NASCAR Hudson Hornet in the '50s, then came to Chevrolet as an engineer in '56. His area of expertise with Chevrolet was in product development and he saw in the new SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Trans Am pony car racing series a perfect showplace for the soon-to-be-introduced Camaro. He convinced the Chevrolet hierarchy that it would be in its best interests to have a car ready for the '67 racing season.

Towards the end of 1966, Piggins had his prototype ready and it was a true from-the-parts-bin development. The suspension and driveline pieces had been in the Chevrolet catalog for a while, but in order to fit the existing SCCA international rule that the competing engines could be no larger than 5.0 liters, Piggins had to do some finagling. The engine block of his "production" racer came from Chevrolet's small-block 283 V8, while the crankshaft was from the larger 327 cubic-inch version. The resulting bore and stroke gave the Z28 302 cubic inches of displacement, or just under 5.0 liters. Heads, cams and carburetion from various Corvettes rounded out the package, and coming off the showroom floor, it's estimated that the '67 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 put out around 350 high-strung horses - although the factory only admitted to 290.

Unfortunately, the average person couldn't buy a Z28 at the beginning of 1967. The first production run went to various Chevrolet dealers around the country who possessed Trans Am racing involvements. Primary among these was Roger Penske, whose team driver Mark Donohue won the Trans Am series in both 1968 and 1969.

If the original Camaro of 1967 to 1969 was good, its successor, the so-called '70-1/2 model, was even better. That next Camaro had a body style that was altogether different and much more "European." I spotted a prototype being driven in commuter traffic one day on my way to work in 1970, and until I was able to pull up alongside, I was sure it was a Ferrari. The standard Camaro was good, and so was its Z28 derivative. It carried on the racing image that started with the first version, but had the advantage of not having to stick with the with the feisty 302 engine. Its standard V8 was the Corvette 350 detuned to 360 horsepower. The remainder of the new Z28 specifications were carried over from the previous car and its performance was great.

It enjoyed a few more years of stardom, but by 1972, the handwriting was on the wall for high power and high performance American cars. The horsepower of the Z28 dropped by over 100 points and in 1974, the Z28 designation was dropped entirely. It was resurrected again in 1977, but Chevrolet engineers were restricted to making the Z28 an outstanding handling package, without relying on blinding acceleration and top speed. They were hot sellers anyway.

Teresa McNalley's '78 model had only 185 horsepower, but she loved its class and style.

The next generation circa 1982 to 1992 saw GM corporate confusion change the name of the Z28 to the Camaro IROC-Z (to capitalize on the use of Camaros in the International Race Of Champions series) and its V8 powerplants alternated between 305 and 350 inches. The "official" Z28 label returned in 1992, along with a return of some impressive horsepower. Since the introduction of the current copy in '93, the available optional power once again reaches the magical 300 number.

The Chevrolet Z28 celebrates it 30th anniversary this year, a long time for a model name and a performance concept. Teresa McNally had to replace her wrecked '78 Z-28 with another vehicle and still laments the loss of her beloved mount. "It was like losing a friend," she said, "but I'd sure like to have a new one."

So the Z28 mystique can live on.