Curbside Classic: 1970 Camaro – GM’s Greatest Hit #1 – Even Pininfarina Praised It

After being trapped six weeks in a 1971 time warp, I had the controls of the Curbside Classics time machine all set for the mid-eighties. But once again, fate interceded. Running some errands, I had my first encounter with no less than two 2010 Camaros. Then, on the way home, something called out to me as I tooled down Franklin Boulevard. I found it parked behind the old boarded-up Chevy dealer, and it had an important message for you and me: “beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the object itself.”

I needed to hear that, after trying to make aesthetic sense of the new Camaro. Which was going nowhere, until it hit me: the 2010 Camaro is the Pamela Anderson of automobiles: exaggerated proportions, desperately trying to evoke a (long distant) youthful past, cartoonish, crude, clumsy, and just plain stupid—Borat would love it (“you like?!”), although he would have a hell of a time trying to stuff over-stuffed Pamela into its tiny trunk.

The fact that Chevy picked the ’69 Camaro for its “inspiration” tells it all, because the gen-1 Camaro was a rushed, half-baked stylistic lightweight (Update: that applies more to the ’67 & ’68s). Yes, it was cheerful and youthfully innocent, kind of like the high-school Pamela. But it was hopelessly outclassed by the timelessly elegant, handsome, mature and universally praised 1970 version. Perhaps we should thank GM for leaving well enough alone, although I have a sinking feeling that if the Camaro revival doesn’t peter out quickly, its successor may well be a horrible pastiche of this 1970 Rally Sport.

I was never quite as stunned by a new car from Detroit as when I first saw the 1970 Camaro. One of the reasons was that Chevrolet managed to keep it a perfect secret right to the end: no spy shots in Popular Science or elsewhere. One day, I opened a magazine, and kazow!, that incredible front end was staring at me from a full-page ad. And such a complete break with its predecessor. Who saw that coming? It was quite the change from the three and a half years-long strip-tease we’ve just endured. Enough, Pamela, enough!

Obviously, Bill Mitchell had his Pontiac and Chevy design studios perusing old Pininfarina-designed Ferraris while they were fleshing out the 1970 F-body. If you’re going to crib, might as well go to the master. And when the master returns a compliment(which Pininfarina did) bask in it. But inspiration is one thing; to put it all together in a balanced, fresh, yet timeless way requires skill, time, encouragement and most of all, taste. Either you have it, or you don’t. Bill did, often enough.

The Camaro’s perpetual nemesis sure didn’t. Ford must been mighty nervous when the ’70 Camaro was released in February of that year. The Camaro’s ads even made references to it here. Because Ford’s ’71 Mustang, due six months later, was an ugly POS: overwrought, heavy, terrible visibility, cartoonish; umm . . . sounds familiar. And it was a sales bomb, as in the dirty kind. After a few more stumbles, Ford eventually got the formula down, and now sticks to it. Unlike Chevy, which couldn’t seem to ever find its way out of the trailer park since the 1970-1981 edition.

GM knew its ’67-’69 F-bodies were immature, which explains the lack of any stylistic carry-over. The 1964 Mustang caught GM totally asleep at the wheel, as usual. And its phenomenal instantaneous success meant rush, rush, rush. The two years it took to cram the ’67 Camaro and Firebird out the door showed.

So Bill Mitchell had Chevy and Pontiac studios working on a gen-2 F-body worthy of the Mark of Excellence right from the beginning. And, not surprisingly, it was the Pontiac studio that came up with the basic shape. But both versions received enough differentiation to make them each worthy of praise, interest and attention despite sharing the same basic body—kind of like Isabeli Fontana and Izabel Goulart. Take your pick; you can’t go wrong. Personally, I favor Isabeli and the Camaro.

This particular Rally Sport (which is actually quite likely a ’71 or ’72) is not exactly how I like my gen-2 Camaro dressed and made up: no two-tone paint job, please, and either Chevy Rally wheels, Z-28 stock wheels, or minilite type vintage mags. But then this is not a “garage queen”; it’s a regular driver, has numerous dings, and an interesting crude hood cut-out for the after-market air cleaner. I’ll gladly take this for a car parked on the street.

I could go on way too long talking about the elegant lines and proportions of this car. But the front end is brilliant; the contours of the hood and fenders as they drop to that protruding nose. And that unusual windshield compound curve with a hint of a dog leg. Nobody was doing that since 1961.

But my favorite part is that delicious front fender line as it tightly hugs the wheel and delicately nips and tucks into the head light. Unfortunately, that detail was ruined with the 5-mph bumpered 1974s.

The 1970 Camaro was anything but a poseur. It (not the Vega) set a new high for American passenger-car handling. The whole platform, and especially the suspension and steering were extensively re-engineered. The result was superb for its time. And not just in the race-track oriented way like the max-performance versions of Detroit’s pony cars, the previous Z-28 and Boss 302 Mustang. Ultra-stiff springs and a fast manual steering ratio are great on a smooth track, but in real world driving, especially on uneven surfaces, most muscle cars of the era were profoundly compromised.

Even the base version of the Camaro offered a level of balance, steering precision and feel, stout brakes, stiff body structure, and reasonable chassis compliance that finally brought US cars into world-class levels (of course, the ‘vette had been there since ’63). It was a huge step from the Falcon/Chevy II/Valiant based gen-1 pony cars. So good, that even at the end of its unusually long twelve year production run, the gen-2 Camaro was still being praised for its all-round handling competence, if not the performance from its de-smogged engines.

Chevrolet positioned the new Camaro much more as an all-round sports car/GT tourer than the ’67-’69 muscle/pony cars. You could still get a big-block 396 (actually a 402) SS Camaro, but it was no longer at the top of the horsepower pecking order. That would be the brilliant LT-1 powered Z-28. Whereas the previous Z-28 was a limited production Trans-Am race series homologation special, with a very peaky 302 engine, the new Z-28 essentially took the role of the old SS model. Even the THM autobox was finally welcome (if not preferred) in the Z.

The 1970 LT-1 350 cubic inch (5.7 liter) engine was the crowning glory of the Chevy small block V8, its ultimate evolution until the all-new LS-1 replaced it some twenty years later. All the goodies developed in the sixties for the Corvette were present and accounted for: four-bolt block, big-valve heads, solid-lifter cam, aluminum intake, 780cfm Holley, and that lumpy idle. It was rated at 360 hp (gross), but essentially the same parts in the smaller 327 used to be rated at 365 hp. It probably churned out at least 310 of today’s net horsepower. At 3150 lb., the Z-28 had a 10 lb/net hp ratio, resulting in a 0-60 of 5.8 seconds, and a ¼ mile of 14.2 @100 mph (C/D stats). Superb, for a small-block, non-understeering, great-handling car of the times (big-blocks need not apply).

And what has forty years of progress delivered? The porky 2010 Camaro has a slightly better 9.15 lb/hp ratio, and delivers the 0-60 in 5 seconds flat, and the ¼ mile in 13.5 @ 103 mph (Edmund’s stats). Stickier tires probably account for most of that. And GM’s sticky fingers account for the price difference. The 1970 Z-28 cost $3,412 ($18.7K adjusted) complete with the go-fast goodies. A new SS starts at $31K. In 1970, that was money well invested: Z-28s go for $40K-$80K today.

The timing of the gen-2 Camaro’s arrival was less than auspicious. The whole performance era was peaking and about to crash under the weight of insurance, smog-controls, and a change in attitudes, especially once the energy crisis hit. But it was exactly because of the gen-2 Camaro’s balance of qualities that allowed it survive, and actually prosper the whole decade, right through 1981. Well, it did almost die after the 1973 model year because the new 5-mph bumper and other safety regulations seemed like a huge obstacle especially in light of weak sales. But that’s the makings of another Curbside Classics.

For the brief golden period of 1970-1973, new Camaros graced us with their svelte elegance. And a few are still at it today, giving us a lasting lesson on how ugly and malformed way too many new cars are today. Raw attraction is all too often crude, hormonal, and indiscriminate; but true beauty is self-evident and timeless, like good art, a beautiful woman, or an inspired car.

As I got ready to leave, the Camaro had a parting thought for me: “Folks who can’t tell the difference between attraction and beauty should be held accountable for their bad taste.” Like getting stuffed into the trunk of a 2010 Camaro, perhaps, I suggested. “Yes,” it replied, “along with Pamela. That should teach them a lasting lesson.”