Curbside Classic: 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 – Wherein The Author Finds An Interesting Camaro

Let’s just get this out there.  Camaros have never interested me.  They did not interest me in 1967, they did not interest me in 1977 and they have not interested me in modern times.  But in this car I have found the Camaro that interests me.  And I think it will interest you too.

We recently featured a nice original 79 Camaro that is serving as the first car for Paul Niedermeyer’s nephew Aiden.  There, a nice old car is chosen by a teen as his first car.  This Camaro’s story sort of dovetails with that one.  Here, we have an original car picked out new by the guy who still owns it.  Two nice Camaros, two great stories.

Before we get to the car itself, perhaps we should examine more closely my complicated relationship with the Camaro.  From the beginning until maybe 1972 or so I found them merely uninteresting.  Nobody I knew owned one, I can never recall having ridden in one, and my tastes went in other directions.

Beginning around 1973 or so my Camaro Disinterest Syndrome morphed into more of a Camaro Disgust Syndrome (which I sort of wrote about here).  Having added many years of seasoning to my psyche, I can now acknowledge that my dislike had little to do with the car itself.  It is true that I was not a Chevy Guy, but the cars were no better or worse than anything else being pumped out of the USA-1 Division of General Motors.

My dislike stemmed from the Camaro’s increasing popularity.  This may be hard for some of you to believe, but all my life I have been hard-wired to resist popular trends and fads.  Look up the word “Contrarian” in the dictionary and you might find my picture.  This was never more true than during my high school years.  I never owned a Pet Rock, I never watched Saturday Night Fever and I never listened to Frampton Comes Alive.  And I damned sure wasn’t going to take an interest in the car that every football player and prom queen dreamed of when they thought about cars.

This popularity wasn’t really the Camaro’s fault (I must acknowledge now).  The market had been changing.  Ford threw in the towel after 1973 and turned the Mustang into a Pinto Ghia.  The following year Chrysler just gave up completely on the E body Barracuda/Challenger.  Which is just as well because with what Chrysler was turning out in the late ’70s a new E body would have been frightening.

The Camaro was the unintended beneficiary of competitors abandoning the market, a temporary reduction in gasoline anxiety and a bazillion American dealers who were happy to fill a void that the young men of America demanded be filled.

So I watched the Camaro become the object of affection in much of my age group.  As time moved on and my age group moved on to Honda Civics and Datsun 4×4 pickups I watched the Camaro infiltrate every trailer park in America as it became the official vehicle of real-life Beavis & Buttheads.

So back to this car – what is it about this particular Camaro that interests me now?  Boiled down to basics, I would have to say that it is because I have changed.  And that this Camaro has not.

CC reader Glen Swisher Jr. bought this car brand new in 1978.  It was painted brown (Dark Camel, actually), a very popular color in the late ’70s.  Nobody restores Z-28s in brown today, but that doesn’t matter because this car has never needed to be restored and therefore carries some awesome late-70’s swag.

Glen was the rare guy who knew on that day in 1978 at Bob Baker Chevrolet that he had found a car that he loved.  1978 was the first year of this front end treatment which cleanly integrated the front bumper into the rest of the facia.  Some equate this style with the less appealing Camaros of 1980-81, but in 1978 it was the first real update that the front of the car had seen since 1974. The wrapped back window that appeared in 1976 remained.  I like both the front and rear treatments, and would argue that they combine for one of the most successful mid-cycle refreshes ever accomplished.

Every guy who gets a cool new car says that he will drive it forever.  But Glenn was one of those rare guys who has actually done it.  He has driven and enjoyed this Z, and has preserved it by driving other cars in the rough weather and road conditions that Indiana is known for.  He has cared well for this Z-car and to this day it has chalked up all of 58,000 miles.  This ’78 Z-28 is about as original as they come.

As I approach the age of sixty most of the emotional baggage that I carried around as a youth has been put down somewhere along the way.  Which allows me to look at this Camaro as a car and nothing else.

It is a car that GM (and more specifically, the Chevrolet Motor Division) got very, very right.  Hindsight tells us that GM was at its final periodic peak around that time, and for good reason.  Not only had Ford and Chrysler so horribly muffed both what they chose to build but also the way they managed to build many of them.  Chevrolet did what Chevrolet did so well back then – they brought something out and stuck with it as they made slow, steady improvements.  This car was the right car at the right time.  There may have been some dumb luck involved, but doesn’t dumb luck at least partly explain many breakout successes in the car business?

And a breakout success it was, with over 272,000 built in 1978 (nearly 55,000 of which were the range-topping Z-28.) To put this into perspective, in the industry’s previous all-time record sales year of 1973, the Camaro managed fewer than 97,000 units.  This car’s 1978 (and even higher 1979) sales figures are most impressive when seen in this light.

The 1978 model was also in sort of a sweet spot, as cars of the late 1970s go.  By 1978 Chevrolet’s engineers had mostly figured out the tough lessons in how to meet stringent emissions targets and the next big hurdle of CAFE-mandated increases in fuel mileage was still a year away.  Size (and power) matters, and Chevrolet was able to (for the most part) conquer these engineering conundrums that seemed to elude the suffering engineers at Ford and (especially) Chrysler.

An excellent Chevy 350 V8 with a Quadrajet carb, and the equally well-thought-of Turbo Hydramatic 350 transmission were mated to a suspension system as good as anything coming out of Detroit and an attractive and reasonably well-constructed body . . . well, isn’t this just another example of how GM managed to rule the automotive world in its the first sixty years or so?

I must now admit the truth, which is that I hated Camaros in 1978 simply because they were so damned good and successful and popular, while my own favorite car companies could not seem to avoid regular bouts of self-harm.

So, good for Glenn.  He was able to see something in 1978 that I was not able to see, and bought this car instead of, say, a Lean Burn-equipped Dodge Magnum that came with more compromises than a crooked politician.  Quite often something is popular because it is both appealing and good.  I can now join Glenn in appreciating the ’78 Camaro Z-28 as something in that category.

Further reading:

1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 and 1979 Ford Mustang Cobra – Two Right Answers To The Same Question (Aaron65)

1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 – Nephew Aiden’s First Car (With Driving Impressions) (Paul Niedermeyer)

1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 – Paradise Express (Joseph Dennis)

1980 Chevrolet Camaro & Camaro RS – The Object Of High School Dreams (Jim Grey) 

1980 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 – Compromised Expectations (Joseph Dennis)