How old were you when you finally stopped referring to the Chevy Camaro as a “sports car”? What’s funny is that game show hosts and announcers still continue this practice today when revealing a shiny, new example on the stage as a potential prize. I was probably twelve or so when I had started to learn about differentiating between proper sports cars, GTs, pony cars, and other performance-oriented types of two-door passenger cars.
It was also around my adolescence that I had started to buy car magazines off the rack and had been gifted by my parents with my first copy of the “The Encyclopedia Of American Cars” from the editors of Consumer Guide. As I read and learned (over and over, until that tome was literally falling apart), some of my reactions might have been something like, “What do you mean, the Camaro isn’t a ‘sports car’? And that tiny Crosley Hotshot two-seater that looks barely street-legal and only slightly larger than a go-kart is considered the first, legitimate American sports car?” (For the record, I respect Powel Crosley’s vision, products, and legacy, profiled neatly here by Jeff Nelson.)
I spotted our red example in traffic a few blocks from Wrigley Field the day after the Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series. It seemed that nearly everyone in the north side was in a celebratory mood that day, and being as warm out as it was in November, in Chicago (in the mid-60s), it seemed there was also a parade of cool and interesting cars on display, of which this rockin’ IROC was just one.
Merriam-Webster defines a sports car as “a low, small, usually two-passenger automobile designed for quick response, easy maneuverability, and high-speed driving”. Definitions may vary, but taking this particular one into perspective, this Camaro does not exactly fit this description, being too wide, large, and heavy (with the late-arrival, V8 convertible version having a starting weight of roughly 3,400 pounds; the base V6 hatchback weighed 3,000 lbs.) to corner as nimbly as a genuine sports car, and also by having four seats. The third-generation Camaro, though, also never seemed to fit my mind’s idea of just a “pony car”, which I would have defined at that time as a compact, affordable, sporty coupe with its own sheetmetal and mostly based on a much more basic, workaday platform.
To me, the Fox-platform Mustang seemed much truer to the original pony car formula, lacking only some of the elegance and undisputed good looks of the original, though still a great-looking car in many of its model years. This generation of Camaro, however, looked less the same type of car as the Mustang than like a steel-and-plastic bodied, four-seat C4 Corvette, with lines, stance, and what I imagined to be a driving position that was similar to its Chevy flagship stablemate.
It’s still not an easy task for me to classify the current crop of performance-oriented vehicles, even with the traditional definitions and mnemonic devices I have learned up to this point. As far as the next generation in my family is concerned, I’ll take pride in sharing with them what I have learned over time about the classics. (One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is of playing with Matchbox cars with my then-four-year-old nephew, where he asked me if the purple AMC Gremlin he affectionately held in his palm was a “sports car”, with it seeming to be his favorite of the ’70s-era toy cars I had bought for him.) I also look forward to learning about the newer crop of cars from those kids as the automotive landscape and vehicular genres change as we move into the future.
Wrigleyville, Chicago, Illinois.
Thursday, November 3, 2016.
Related reading about the actual car:
- From Yohai71: Vintage Road Test: Camaro IROC-Z vs Mustang GT; and
- From Paul Niedermeyer: Classic Curbside Classic: 1989 Camaro RS – GM’s Deadly Sin #6 – 46 Trips To The Dealer In The First Year
Americans always make the basic mistake of confusing Sports Cars with Race Cars .
Clearly this Camaro isn’t a race car but it’s certainly a Sports Car even if I’d not have it for free .
One person’s not liking it doesn’t make a Sports Car not a Sports Care .
Good article and photos Joseph. I did not realize the IROC-Z was available as a Convertible.
I have always had a soft spot for the Chevrolet Camaro 1991 and prior models for the most part. I do like the new model 2017 as well.
I enjoy the simple sporty design of the Camaro. you sit low to the ground, the car had great sporty steering feel. Looking over the long hood was fun. Also the fact that you could purchase a base model for about $10K (in 1986). I loved the Alloy wheels and deep front end spoiler of this model. IMO the Camaro really was the affordable fun version of it’s big brother the Chevrolet Corvette. Which is what is was intended to be..
Sadly when these were popular I did not recall seeing many convertible versions on the street. It could be that I lived in Wisconsin at the time, so perhaps not many ordered the convertible option for the obvious reason. I think 15 years from now, this era Camaro will become a classic (upper trim levels like the Iroc, Convertible models, Z28, Anniversay editions, and official pace cars etc.
This car does have a huge following of fans. That consist mainly of everyday working blue collar middle America folks! the anti-yuppy crowd of the 80’s in other words!
My good friend in college, the son of a Ford executive, referred to Camaros as “Redneck Roadsters”. Oddly, he did not have a similar epithet for Mustangs. Add to that a roadster is usually a 2 seat car with no roll up windows or fixed top, so it is not a roadster. We tend to have names for cars that do not match the official meaning, yet most folks know when it fits and when it does not. When you see arguments over terms like hardtop, pillarless sedan, coupe, cabriolet, convertible, roadster, sedan delivery, pony car, muscle car, sleeper, or any other automotive descriptor, you are in the company of those who love cars. However, the masses fail to see the differences, so if it is called something, so it is, at least to them.
So true, all of this. Interestingly, your thoughts made me think of something else… Rarely have I encountered someone who was a fan of *both* the Mustangs and Camaros of the 80’s – probably because they were so different from each other. (That is, with the obvious Chevy vs. Ford rivalry notwithstanding. 🙂 )
Once terms like “four door coupe” and “sports sedan” became mainstream, I’ve given up on “proper” definitions. If one wants to describe anything that emphasizes speed OR handling (or both) as a “sports car” fine with me. Hell, Porsche makes SUVs. I remember when Cherokees, TravelAlls and Suburbans were just called “wagons”. When I first heard the term “sport utility” I though of Scouts,Blazers,CJs….
I was never much of a fan when these were more common, but it is hard to dislike a red convertible on a sunny day in November, especially when employed in the enjoyment of the Cubs World Series win.
I will leave the argument over what is and is not a sports car for those more invested in the topic. I am willing to be a little flexible on this. If a Golden Hawk can be a sports car, I don’t see why an IROC Z cannot be one too. 🙂
Yep, How about Corvair Monzas?
Somewhere I read all these Camaro convertibles were at best bestowed with a 305 as the 350 had too much torque and would flex the weakened chassis too much.
Despite that, these have grown on me as much as an F-body is capable; an ’89 IROC was the second car I navigated to over 100 mph.
For a warm November cruise, these would be hard to beat.
I think the problem is that what is truly a “sporty” car became known as a sports car. Let’s face it, a Camaro isn’t a luxury car, or a family car, etc. etc. etc. The only other category left would be sports car and it definitely fits the bill to me.
I think the convertible IROC was quite expensive back in the day, hence the rarity of them today. The only one I can remember vivdly in my neck of the woods was owned by an older couple. It was yellow with a black top. They must have had a getaway house up in Vermont because it had Vermont plates on it. I often saw that car traveling down towards the coastline, top down with them totally enjoying that ride. The CC effect is insane as I hadn’t thought about that yellow IROC convertible again until today. It had to be 25 years ago that I last saw that car. I now wonder where that car is, who owns it, and if it even still exists.
I’m not sure I ever really referred to any American cars as sports cars. As a kid in the 90s I used to call Ferrari and their ilk exotics, while I called virtually any American V8 car muscle cars, including the Corvette. Sports cars I actually had down in the puritan the sense of the definition, that being tiny British roadsters, as well as the Miata and Fiats and Alfa roadsters. To this day I still have a hard time calling a Corvette a sports car, which isn’t helped by the fact that for most of my life they’ve been the poor man’s supercar(formerly what I blankety referred to as exotic), not America’s Miata.
I think I became more conscious of categories in my teens, when I got more involved in the hobby and started talking to owners at car shows. Vette people always seemed to correct you if you said muscle car, and I’d constantly hear “pony car” thrown at non-Mustangs, quickly realizing those cars were in fact very similar to the Mustang in early generations. These third gen camaros, as well as the fourth gen, were definitely that grey area since, as you said, they *looked* more Corvetteish, while the Mustang always looked like a modified regular car. Weirdly of all cars you could make a case for being a sports car it might actually be this generation F- body, they were on a bespoke chassis – something the Mustang never had until 2005(albeit loosely derived off the DEW98) – were handlers and certainly looked sporty at every angle and proportion by the standards of what sports cars were in the 80s
If a “sports car” is defined in the traditional manner, then one could argue that the Crosley Hotshot (a roadster) was the only “production” postwar domestic that strictly fits. The original Corvette is disqualified,Not for it’s I-6, But for being Power Glide. The Thunderbird (though also a roadster) was more of a proto personal luxury car. Of course I’m not including any handmade or customs.
Until the mid-’50s, sports cars were mostly a British thing (the Italians made their fair share, too): powerful, nimble, light, stylish — and usually affordable.
The Corvette, which Europeans usually refer to as “the only American sports car”, and then the Japanese, especially the Honda S800 and the Toyota 2000 GT, got in on it.
There are a few other American sports cars: Nash-Healey, Cunningham, Tesla roadster… heck, I’ll even throw in the Corvair Monza. But I have to agree with Joseph: the Camaro is not what one would call a sports car.
The Corvair Monza is really a proto pony-car though, based on an existing regular sedan for the masses, which then ultimately leads to the Camaro. Where is the line drawn?
I have a hard time Calling both the Nash Healey and the Tesla roadster American givin the bulk of their underpinnings are Healey and Lotus respectively, same with the Shelby Cobra or Sunbeam Tiger for that matter. I always considered cars like these Anglo-American hybrids.
It’s hard to draw any line — how different is an Alfa Giulietta spider from an Alfa Giulietta saloon apart from the bodywork?
I think you have to count the Solstice and Sky as American sports cars. Small, 2 seats, both aiming to take a bite out of the Miata market. They may not have been perfect but I think they count. (And I’d gladly have a Solstice GXP, personally.)
And if you call “powerful” part of the criteria for sports car-dom then you have to disqualify pretty much all the MG products except for maybe the V8 B’s and the Twin Cam MGA. All the rest of them were saddled with rather weak Morris engines–yet most anyone would still call them a sports car!
And if powerful isn’t an actual criterion–does the Fiero count as an American Sports Car? Or does the T-car derived chassis rule it out?
Agreed about the Solstice / Sky — my list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive. The Fiero V6 would probably qualify too.
“Powerful” is a relative term. Relative to weight, especially, but also to chassis design. The MG V8 is, by many accounts, atrocious because the engine is too powerful for the car. the MG C is also usually rated as poor because the 3-litre lump in the front is too heavy. The 750cc Abarth or the 850cc Deutsch-Bonnet are examples of small, nimble sports cars.
Well, I’m no Miriam Webster, but my personal dictionary of automotive nomenclature would probably classify these as GT cars rather than Sports Cars. I maintain that a 2-door (essentially) 2-passenger vehicle (with or without “in-a-pinch” seating for 4) built with power, speed, handling prowess AND comfort in mind is best classified as a GT.
A “Sports Car” in my book will always be something akin to the Miata, the Triumphs and MGs we’re all familiar with, or similar soft top, 2 seat low slung glorified go-carts made to be tossed around on back roads.
“Sporty”, as I define it is a bit more of a gray area. I grew up at a time when my parents referred to cars like today’s featured Grand Am as “sporty”, meaning that they were probably not quite up to the task of being thrown through S curves and certainly didn’t fit the “Sports Car” or “GT” definition, but they were essentially enhanced everyday driver type vehicles with styling and feature content that gave them a more “sporting” look and feel.
Just my $.02, FWIW
“AND comfort in mind”
Somehow I’ve never been able to find a speck of genuine comfort in these cars. In fact, they strike me as specifically being deficient in that regard.
Which is why I’ve never associated the “GT” moniker with these. Traditionally, Grand Touring cars were ones in which a couple (and possibly a foursome) could cover long distances in Europe at high speed and with comfort. In absolute terms, the comfort of a 1930s European GT was probably less (in some regards) as this Camaro, but in relative terms, these Camaros were decidedly not what a well-heeled couple looking to make a fast trip from London to Monte Carlo would choose in the 1980s.
Touche’. I can see your point, for sure. But at a Chevy price point and with middle-american sensibilities in mind I guess I see these as “American GTs”. Maybe not a well heeled euro couple’s London-to-Monte Carlo cruiser, but probably a viable vessel for a middle class American couple to make a Kalamzoo-to-Milwaukee run.
Even at 45 years of age with a bad back I don’t find my 1981 Trans Am nascar uncomfortable to drive over long periods of time. Heck I do it all the time during the months of May to as late as November on a regular basis. About the only thing that is a bit difficult at times is entering and exiting the car but that is when my lower back is really suffering from pain which thankfully isn’t very much these days.
Now the 1982 edition of these cars is probably another story with a very stiff ride and narrower body and an even tighter back seat. Still my 60 year old manager absolutely loved driving his 1987 red Iroc Z san T-tops whenever there was no rain in the forecast. It was always a joke that if the sun was shining Harold would be showing up in the Iroc. He adored that car and kept it pristine up until his death a few years ago.
When I was young (say from the ages 6 to 15), early 1960’s to early 70’s, the definition of sports car seemed pretty strict: two seats, based on or at least available as a convertible, plus sporty characteristics. No Nash Metropolitans, but Corvettes, even PowerGilde, were OK. Certainly no pony cars, with some controversy about the GT350. I still remember in the mid-80’s at the Hertz counter at LaGuardia being told that I was the lucky recipient of an upgrade to a “sports car”. It turned out to be a Dodge Daytona 🙁
DMan, these are pretty much the same mnemonic devices I had used!
About the Daytona (and I’m smiling… I do actually like the Daytona), I’d like to think it was at least a Shelby Z or a Pacifica – but as a rental car, I’m sure it wasn’t. 🙂
Well, there once was a time when Camaros were billed as a family sports car:
I guess like all labels, “sports car” can be a flexible term. Compared to a 1970s brougham or a 2000s SUV, I think the featured IROC convertible would classify as a sports car in my book.
At least THAT Camaro made a legitimate attempt.
As for the subject of this thread, if a 350/700R-4, pull the drivetrain and put in something like a ’47 Fleetline or ’62 Chevy II.
If a 305…walk. away.
I’m not sure I agree. I, anyway, find the differences in types of cars interesting. Isn’t that the point of discussing such things in a forum like this one? I respect your opinion, though.
If those are the original wheels that is an 88-1990 Iroc.
Right you (and Matt K., below) are – thanks for pointing that out, Sean. Fixed it.
Saw this at a Mexican restaurant recently. I assume it belongs to an employee (or maybe the owner) as it was there when we got there and there when we left.
I prefer the Firebird of this gen f-body….. MOAR pop up headlights !
I love this red Camaro. I was in high school when the convertible made its return, and I loved how seamlessly its original fastback bodystyle visually handled the drop-top conversion.
As far as the definition “sports car”, some interesting viewpoints in this thread. I still own an almost thirty year old copy of “The Great Book Of Sports Cars” from the editors of Consumer Guide, owned since middle school. There’s a telling quote on the inside of its (now torn) dust jacket:
“Sports cars are like fine art: We may not always agree on what they are, but we know what we like.”
I had that book as well — the cover brought back instant memories. Between that book and Consumer Guide’s “New Complete Book of Collectible Cars,” I’d spend hours upon hours reading them.
Sadly, neither copy survived The Great Purge (i.e., when mom and dad moved)… but the memories linger on.
Ouch – that’s painful! The dust jacket says this book originally cost $100 in ’88, which equals roughly twice that today. Mine is so raggedy – I must have looked through it a hundred times, if not more.
I also remember being asked by my parents to get all my stuff out of their house before my big move to Chicago. Similarly, I had some tough choices to make in terms of what to keep and what to pitch.
I’m going through that right now–my parents have lived in the same house since ’91 but now that I’m a homeowner after many years of rentals, they’ve asked me to kindly remove the storage containers of my old stuff that have been gathering dust in their attic since my old room was repurposed. My house has no attic (one of the drawbacks of a cape), only a smallish storage room, so I’m having to pare things down somewhat aggressively as well. At least I get to make the decision myself what to keep and what to toss, though for a sentimental pack rat like myself it can be a little taxing.
As to the Camaro? Never liked these as a kid (I was team Mustang), and the one ride I had in one in college reinforced that preference. Like being in an uncomfortable black vinyl cave with an oppressive dashboard and wonky seating position. I’ve somewhat warmed to the styling as time wore on, as it now seems a nice example of early 80’s muscle, but I still have precisely zero desire to own one.
Definitely an 88-90, the 87 had a specific rear wing that continued all the way onto the door.
My wife had 3 of this generation Camaro, all bought new. One was an ’86 Z28 T Top, the ’88 was an IROC T Top, and the ’91 was a Z convertible. All were good cars and fun to drive, but they sure depreciated fast!
As to comfort on long trips, I drove them many miles with her as a passenger and found them reasonably comfortable with no complaints from either of us. Of course we were also younger then. However, I drive my ’09 Mustang and drove the ’03 before it on many long trips and have found them both comfortable and not particularly tiring. In fact, before retiring I would drive them 200+ miles on a typical work day. My consulting work trips this year have averaged 450 miles, so far.
Incidently, the window sticker on both these Mustangs referred to them as a “Sports Car”.