Curbside Classic: 1970 Chevrolet Camaro RS – A Fresh Look

There is a nearby restaurant/bar that serves up a weekly steak special, and Mrs. JPC and I are found there from time to time.  Steak night is always a busy time for this place, so the parking lot is usually pretty packed, giving me a great field for car spotting.  More than once this year I have seen this black Camaro that always seems to, well, stake out this prime parking place right near the dining patio.

It is well known hereabouts that the Camaro and I have a complicated relationship.  I have come from a full-blown Camaro-hater to an admirer of certain, selected cars – such as the beautiful original I wrote up some time back.  But to come across a random Camaro out in the wild, one which causes me to stop and appreciate it – perhaps this marks the occasion upon which my Camaro Rehabilitation has been completed.

As I walked around the car taking pictures (something I did not do until the second or third time I saw it) a thought occurred to me: It was like I was looking at an early 2nd generation Camaro fresh, for the first time.  And I wondered just how many car-obsessed Americans of my age could say that?

I cannot say just why I never paid much attention to these in 1970 when they were new, other than that they were Chevrolets.  And Chevrolets simply were not part of my day-to-day experience.  The GM cars in my orbit were almost all Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs.  Any Chevys in the background tended to be Impalas or the occasional Malibu.  Besides, I was bored with the oh-so-common GM stuff yet endlessly fascinated by exotica from Ford and Chrysler.

And for some reason, 1970 cars were not well represented in my world either. My father got a Lincoln in 1970, a yellow Continental Mark III.  Neighbors brought home an Olds 88 that year and another neighbor took delivery of a new Firebird – a gold 6 cylinder with dog dish hubcaps.  I found that last one boring, and a big downgrade from the ’67 LeMans Sprint that it replaced.  There might have been a 1970 Chrysler Newport down the street, but it could just as well have been a 69 or a 71 because they all looked alike to me then.

And the Camaro was just not my kind of car.  I liked the big stuff.  The Mercury Monterey convertible in the brochure my father brought home when he was car shopping would have suited me just fine.  And to the extent that a pony car could capture my attention, the Mustang Mach 1 and the new Dodge Challenger/Plymouth Barracuda were moderately interesting.  But a Camaro?  Nah.  It is funny how fifty-something years can change a guy’s perspective.

I will confess that I had to do some digging to determine the year of this car.  Did you know that only the 1970 models said “Camaro by Chevrolet” on the rear nameplate?  Or that the ’70 was the last year before the goofy pictogram of the shining headlight that Chevy started putting on the light switch knob the following year?

And I wonder if Camaro fans get a little embarrassed by the emblem over the grille that looks like the kind of broughamish touch that belonged more on a Monte Carlo with fender skirts and color-keyed wheelcovers.

I knew that the split-bumper Rally Sport was different from the garden-variety Camaro (or the SS), but did not know the subtle differences between the early (70-71) and late (72-73) grilles.  I do now.




These did not sell all that well at first.  Did you know that the Mustang outsold the Camaro every year from 1970-73?  And not by a little, based on the production figures found online.  I knew at least one person who owned a big Mustang and two people who owned the 2nd gen Javelin AMX.  But nobody with an early Camaro.

I wondered, for example, if that cloth interior was authentic?  It might well be, as part of the Custom Interior Option.  And I do not recall ever seeing an early Camaro in black before.  Maybe this is because black was not listed as available in 1970.  Although special orders were not unheard of then.  However that black paint found its way onto this car, it really works, helping me to appreciate the car afresh.

The only other place this car appears to depart from the basic Chevrolet order sheet with its mysterious RPO numbers is in the wheels.  I like them.  They are certainly better than the standard equipment hubcap.

Or the PO1 wheel cover.

Or the PO2 wheel cover.

The ZJ6 Rally Wheel was attractive, but aren’t we a little tired of those?

And the owner clearly respects this Rally Sport too much to slap the Z28 wheels on it.

But really, I am just happy that it is not wearing those ubiquitous Rally Wheels with what I now know to be Derby Caps, bolted to something like 89.4% of existing Chevrolets built between 1926 and 1996.

And while vinyl roofs are not popular today, I also applaud the owner’s choice to go with this look that was enormously popular in 1970.  Those of you who were around then know how odd a bare steel roof looked on anything nicer than the very cheapest cars.  Love it or hate it, the vinyl roof was like large wheels and low profile tires on today’s vehicles – it’s hard to find a decent car or SUV without them.

What is really interesting is how Chevrolet tried bucking the trend, as vinyl roofs are virtually absent from the advertising and promotional photos they used for the new ’70 model.

The fender callout tells us that this car is not concealing a Power Thrift six or a crummy 307.  I like to think that this 350 breathes through a 4 bbl carb.  But then isn’t about every classic Chevy packing a 4 bbl 350 these days?  1970 was about the end of the line for the muscle era with detuning coming to a Chevrolet dealer near you for 1971.

Who, I now wondered, had any idea in 1970 that we were looking at the car that would come to define its segment?  Or that every competitor (save its Firebird twin) would be gone by 1975?  Could Chevrolet’s ad writers have been using a crystal ball?  Except for the fact that the 1974 Mustang II sold in numbers that dwarfed everything in the 1970-73 ponycar segment, anyway.

This was a fascinating car to contemplate all on its lonesome, without a screaming chicken or a coat of Panther Pink paint anywhere in sight.  Has there ever been another car that has been so successful over a long term that was imitated so seldom in the years since its debut?

Think about this: The 1965 Mustang (re)introduced the world to THE SHAPE – the long hood/short deck look that has been imitated almost without ceasing in the years since, right up to the present time when the Dodge Challenger continues to pay homage.  Even the modern Camaro looks back to this car’s predecessor – a rushed Mustang copy.

Another thought – this car was unsuccessful enough early in its run that there was no plan for a 3rd generation.  The Gen2 Camaro never hit 125,000 in annual production until Ford abandoned the segment for 1974.  Only after the car continued to build momentum was it given some significant updates, some of which have been more successful than others.  And did the success of the later iterations ruin the car for posterity as we began the long retreat from loud cladding and stripe packages?  These clean, elegant early cars seem to have been lost in everyone’s collective consciences.

In law there is an old Latin term – sui generis, which literally means “of its own kind”.  Unique, in other words.  This Camaro, it seems to me, is the automotive embodiment of that concept.  No other company has paid this car the tribute of imitation, including the car’s originator.

I concluded that I benefited quite a lot from taking a really, genuinely, fresh look at the fresh concept that was the 1970 Camaro.  A car that remains just as fresh today.


Further reading:

1970 Chevrolet Camaro – GM’s Greatest Hit (Paul Niedermeyer)

1970 Chevrolet Camaro – With Turbo Thrift 6 Power! (Tom Klockau)