(first posted 7/22/2015) Chevrolet’s 3rd generation Camaro needs little introduction, having been produced for 11 model years, with over 1.5 million cars made. However, this car is one of the lesser-remembered Camaros, the luxury-oriented Berlinetta. Yes, the Camaro had a luxury model, and this is it.
Before discussing the car itself, it may be helpful to explain the name. Chevy borrowed the term, berlinetta, from the Italian. It’s a term with no precise translation, but refers to a coupe, and is typically associated with various models of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Fiat. The Camaro bears little resemblance to its Italian namesakes.
The Berlinetta trim level was first offered in 1979, replacing the Type LT, and marketed as a more refined and luxurious Camaro. Its timing explains the reason a “luxury” model was ever offered at all. In the late 1970s, GM was faced with an aging 2nd generation Camaro, and the Malaise Era had thoroughly taken the fun out of the former muscle car, with underpowered engines and shoddy build quality. But while government regulations sapped performance from cars in that era, nothing sapped luxury – so Chevy created a new package to take the Camaro slightly upscale and generate some showroom interest. It was a cheap fix; most of the amenities offered on the Berlinetta were available as options elsewhere in the Camaro line. However, placed together in a new package, with minor trim pieces and new wheels to accentuate it, the Berlinetta did generate interest, and sales.
In 1979, 67,000 Berlinettas were sold – nearly a quarter of all Camaros. That number and proportion of sales would never be surpassed, but by the 2nd generation’s last year of 1981, 20,000 Berlinettas still found homes, and the trim level was popular enough to migrate over to the 3rd generation Camaro for 1982.
When introduced, the 3rd generation F-body cars (Camaro and its twin, the Pontiac Firebird) caused quite a splash. As is usual with new car introductions, the high-end Z28 grabbed most of the attention in the form of advertisements and press reviews. However, three trim levels were offered: the entry-level Sport Coupe, the high-performance Z28… and the Berlinetta.
Regardless of the trim level, GM nailed the looks for this car – the hatchback Camaro’s low, angular silhouette was a significant departure from the norm in the early 1980s, and turned out to be exactly what the sports coupe market was looking for. Its sales success ensured that the design would be emulated by other cars throughout the 1980s (notice the similarities between the Camaro and the later Dodge Daytona and Nissan 300ZX).
The F-cars were certainly not perfect, and were considered somewhat crudely built. As with many cars of its era, durability was often poor. But these factors did not hamper sales much. In its introductory year, the 3rd Generation Camaro achieved almost 190,000 sales, surging to 261,000 by 1984.
The base Sport Coupe (offered with a 4-, 6- or 8-cylinder engine) emphasized value, while the high-performance Z28 offered standard V-8 performance, a sport suspension and ground-effect lower-body extensions. In the middle was the Berlinetta, with a mid-range price and a standard V-6 , and optional V-8, engine.
GM stressed the luxury aspect of the Berlinetta, and called it a luxury grand touring car, although “luxury” may seem an exaggeration nowadays.
Differences from the Sport Coupe consisted of mostly comfort and convenience items. Standard features on Berlinettas included upgraded upholstery, door trim and headliner, more sound insulation, body-colored mirrors, and the 2.8-liter, 107-hp carbureted V-6 engine. Most of these items were still available as options on the cheaper Sport Coupe, but they all came packaged together in the Berlinetta, along with this model’s most distinctive attribute: gold trim. There was one technical specification unique to Berlinettas: a “smooth-ride suspension” to provide a more comfortable ride than the bone-jarring Z28 or Sport Coupe suspensions.
The Berlinetta was the least popular Camaro version offered. In 1982, 21% of Camaros were Berlinettas, but that proportion dropped in each of the following four years. In our featured year of 1983, 28,000 examples (18% of Camaro production) were made. By 1986, its final year, only 4,476 Berlinettas were produced, and the Berlinetta was discontinued after that point.
Berlinettas like this 1983 example are easy to identify due to their gold-painted finned alloy wheels, subtle gold pin striping around the wheel wells and above the lower accent color, and gold “berlinetta” (with a lower-case b) badges on the bumper, pillar and dashboard.
The tail light design was also slightly different, which this particular car illustrates well. This car has a Berlinetta right tail light (with a light-colored frame for the license plate light and a horizontal black stripe in the middle of the lights), but has the left tail light from a Sport Coupe. Berlinetta-specific replacement parts are likely tough to come by these days, which may account for the unmatched tail lights on this example.
This featured car is equipped with the standard V-6 engine and has many of the popular options of its day, such as automatic transmission, air conditioning, cassette stereo with “Extended Range Sound,” and cruise control. More unusual is the rear wiper, which was somewhat uncommon on the F-body cars, despite the vast expanse of rear glass area.
Not included on this car are power windows or locks, intermittent wipers, or a rear spoiler. While the red paint and camel interior appear well matched to the gold exterior trim, Berlinettas were available in all the 12 exterior and 6 interior colors as were other Camaros. This car probably carried a list price of about $11,500.
The large rear glass area led to a boon in one particular aftermarket specialty: rear window louvers. The louver market took off after the introduction of the 3rd generation F-bodies. Along with later sports coupes that mimicked the glass hatchback design, this car style enticed numerous aftermarket suppliers to sell louvers as a way of keeping these cars cooler.
In retrospect, the concept of a sports coupe-based “luxury grand touring car” such as the Berlinetta seems a bit peculiar. A sporty-looking car, but one with gold trim and more luxury – rather than sport – attributes would not be an easy sell today. But the Berlinetta was the product of a certain time, when performance and quality had waned, so “luxury” took their place. Chevy persevered with the Berlinetta through 1986 (it received a space-age electronic dashboard in 1984, which stirred interest in the car for a while), but in time, market conditions changed. No such luxury Camaro has been made since.
It is hard to imagine the current generation of Camaro – or any similar car – having a luxury variant, let alone one with just 107 horsepower. Maybe someday the concept of a car like the Camaro Berlinetta will make a resurgence. But until then, we can learn from the few examples remaining on the road just how different the car market was three decades ago.