COAL: 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 – My Second First Car

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28

I always say that I had two first cars. It doesn’t make sense logically, but I’ll defend that statement by saying that a): my first vehicle was a van not a car, and b): I didn’t get to pick out my first vehicle. When I sold my Dodge Maxivan I used the poor fuel mileage as an excuse. While that was certainly the case, I’m not sure I saved on fuel with its replacement, as the engine was only fractionally smaller but a lot harder to stay out of the throttle. But I did get to pick it, which qualifies it to be my other first car.


I had a thing for the second-generation Camaros, but somewhat unusually, I liked the later ones better with the molded bumpers. This was a happy happenstance as I couldn’t afford a decent early one anyway. But what I could afford is a really nice late example, so in a rare fit of intelligence, I went after the best example available. I really wanted a low mileage example with a manual gearbox which thinned the available options considerably. The car turned out to be a white-on-white 1978 model, which had two owners since new. Add the fact that the first owner only had it six months, it was about as close to the mythical “one caring owner” car as I could reasonably expect to find.

While the Z28 had been re-introduced in 1977, it took until 1978 for any proper performance and style upgrades to happen. Gone were the clunky steel impact bumpers; flush, body-colored urethane bumpers were fitted for a cleaner look. I’d call it one of the best solutions to the five-mph bumpers regulations. The rear tail lights also got a bit of an overhaul, and now sported three colors.

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Engine

Looking back at this filthy engine compartment makes me wince now, but I’ll again use my mechanical ignorance at the time as my excuse. In 1978 the Z28 came equipped with the 350cid  (5.7L) V8 topped with a four barrel QuadraJet carburetor. The power rating of 185hp @ 4000 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque @ 2400 rpm might seem a bit sad these days, but it was quite respectable for the era, and easily eclipsed anything the Mustang had to offer.

My motor was not completely stock, however. It featured an unknown aftermarket camshaft, headers and some nasty, rusty aftermarket chrome valve covers. It also had true dual exhausts instead of the factory cross over system, and sounded fantastic to my young ears. The rear axle had a 3.73 ratio with limited slip.

I never had it on the dyno, but it felt very healthy indeed; perhaps a little faster than the ’96 Mustang GT I owned later (but concurrently with the Z28). Unfortunately I punched a hole in the headers one week  into my ownership due to a protruding man hole cover on a street undergoing some road work. Oops; I guess it took me a bit to realize that I didn’t have van-levels of ground clearance anymore. You can see the very white replacement headers in the photo. They didn’t stay looking that clean for long.

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 Dash

The 1978 models were a bit of a transition as they featured the refreshed exterior but still stuck with the older style interior. My car looked really sharp inside with the white door panels and seats. It looked very like this, but sadly I didn’t take any photographs, so we’ll have to make do with this example from a car show. The four-speed Super T10 gearbox was a joy to use. Having to lift the knob to get reverse threw me the first couple times though.

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 rear

Every winter I stored it in my parent’s garage to keep the body in good shape. Here you can see the tail pipes taped up to avoid mice crawling in. I’d move it around every couple week to avoid flat spotting the tires … and of course spend just a little bit of quality time.

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 front

For the five years or so that I owned, it the Z28 it was very reliable. The one mishap involved my future wife who selected the wrong gear and over revved the engine. The fan belt came off, but unfortunately she and her father decided to leave the car on the median. When I attempted to retrieve it shortly after, it had been towed away. The car came out ok, but had a little bit of a valve tick at times afterwards. The only real repair was a failed alternator, which was also the first repair I attempted on my own. Armed with a Haynes manual and a cheap Canadian Tire socket set, I managed a successful repair. No one in my extended family did any of their own automotive work so I was on my own, but I came to realize that if I wanted drive a classic I either needed to learn to do its upkeep myself or be rich.

5422896107_17e6797f6dI’d bought the car at nineteen and managed to hang on to it all through university, but shortly after having our first child we were close to being able to afford our first home. We just needed a down payment, so with a heavy heart I knew what must be done, and put the Z28 up for sale. I got a lot of interest from the US, via a gen2 Camaro forum, but very little locally. Perhaps the car was merely an old car locally rather than a classic, or the stronger US demand could be explained by the four speed manual being relatively more rare down south. A gentleman from Atlanta flew in and drove it home, so there is little hope of seeing my first car again.