Curbside Classic & Driving Impressions: 1979 Camaro Z-28 – Nephew Aidan’s First Car

Four years ago, my then 13 year-old nephew Aidan waxed eloquently in his first post at CC about a Chevelle SS454 we had found on a walk near his house in San Mateo, CA. Now that he’s 17 and is a newly-licensed driver, it should not come as a big surprise that his first car is another vintage Chevy, a ’79 Camaro Z-28. On my recent visit there, I was eager to see it and check it out. That included a short drive to this park to shoot it, which was a trip in the way-back machine. Which is why Aidan bought it in the first place.

Aidan is really into vintage stuff, especially vinyl records, and his knowledge and enthusiasm got him a part time job at a local vinyl shop two years ago when he was 15. With his savings, he paid for half of this Camaro, his parents matching the other half. The purchase was a bit premature, as that was almost a year ago, and Aidan didn’t get his learner’s permit until last summer or so. So the Camaro was a driveway ornament for quite a while, but since he’s gotten his full license this past December, it’s now his ride to school and his girl friend’s house up in Pacifica.

Aidan pulled off the car cover, and started up the 350 (5.7 L) V8. While obviously not a genuine high performance engine, given the era it came from, it did emit some nice morning music from its exhaust; not exactly snarly, but a rumbling burble.

He got out and I slid back the seat, adjusted the steering wheel angle, and got myself comfortable. For a 40+ year old car, I have to say that wasn’t difficult, as the general seating position is reasonably good. It’s fairly low, but not excessively so. The realtively upright windshield makes it less claustrophobic than some new cars. As in our Acura TSX.

The steering wheel is covered in an odd rubbery string-like material. Emulating a vintage racing wheel, I assume, but I’d rather forgotten about this. I suspect it was a short-lived fad. The two main gauges (speedo and tach) are very legible, but the others, including the gas gauge, are absurdly tiny and hard to read.

Dropping the rather primitive shifter into Drive and giving the throttle a nudge brought very familiar sensations: the classic Chevy 350/350 experience, as in millions of all kinds of Chevys from Corvettes to motorhomes. Plenty of torque low down, and smooth shifts that came soon with an easy throttle application. The Z-28 came with a somewhat shorter 3.42 axle ratio compared to the regular 350 Camaro.

The Z-28 350 was rated at all of 5hp more than the regular LM-1 350, meaning 175 hp (net). And that’s at a very modest 3800 rpm, a number that seems absurdly low from a modern perspective. Well, this was still the depths of the Malaise Era. 0-60 times were around 9-10 seconds, so Aidan will not want to get into any red light drags except maybe with with elderly Corollas and such. But that’s not his thing anyway. He just likes the idea of a vintage car, although the Camaro’s carburator’s propensity to stall out occasionally in an intersection is a bit annoying, as is the lack of a modern audio system. And a few other conveniences.

This Camaro is showing 94k miles on the odometer, and I suspect that’s likely accurate, as it’s in pretty nice shape. But that’s not to say that it didn’t exhibit a few creaks and groans from those long doors going over some dips and bumps, as well as a few other signs proving that structural integrity has come a long way since 1979. In that regard, it did feel its age.

We didn’t have much time as Aidan had to be at work soon, so we took some shots and then we headed to the nearest car parts store where I bought him a funnel, a couple of cans of oil, and an air gauge. Apparently just the night before his GF’s dad checked the oil and found it to be three quarts low, and replenished them. Aidan isn’t really a “car guy”, but he’s going to have to get in the habit of checking oil and other fluids if he’s going keep the 350 alive and happy.

Looks like the previous owner added an MSN electronic ignition (update: looks like it’s just an MSN cap for the stock HEI ignition).

My drive was very short, but it brought back memories of driving similar vintage Camaros back in the day. For their times, they steered and handled well. And they sold like hotcakes; 282k in 1979 alone, of which some 85k were Z-28s. The F Bodies were in their glory years.

I rather much prefer the clean original 1970-1972 front end, as this is sort of a cartoon version of that, but the 5 mile bumper era required drastic measures. But it’s a time capsule, and that’s what Aidan was looking for.