The Chevrolet Camaro, born as a challenger to the Ford Mustang pony car that had rewritten the rules in the mid-’60s, was born in 1966. The working name for the Camaro had been “Panther” until GM boss Pete Estes settled for the French word that translated to “comrade”—Camaro. The Panther, though, was bred to be a natural-born pony eater.
That first-ever Camaro came to market with a choice of power, and the biggest and best was the legendary 6.2-litre V8 pushing out a mind-bending 350hp … in 1966. Just for comparison, there was no faster Lamborghini or Ferrari from 0-60mph (5.6 seconds) than the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1.
Success came quickly, and the brand was solidified in 1969 when the Camaro got an update in the body department off the back of a triumphant spell in Trans Am racing where it had enjoyed two astonishing years of successful fea
sting on Mustangs. The triumph of design and racing led to success on the sales floor with over 240,000 units shifted in 1969 alone.
That, sadly, was the Camaro’s high-water line, one that would not be matched for 50 years. From 1970, the brand began to suffer as Chevy’s unions and management went into a protracted era of industrial disputes, and the pony-car market was put to the sword by insurance premiums that went through the roof.
The 6.2-litre V8 was no longer available for the second generation, and the car’s lookscontinued to decline in order to meet new impact regulations. Worst of all, horsepowerwas down almost a third from the 1969 model. That trend
continued to plague the second generation Camaro, and by the time the last of the second gen’ Camaros had been produced in 1980, horsepower had dwindled to a gloomy 175hp. The panther had become fat, too, with safety features and luxury options, and was now a sedentary pussycat, happily slouched for a mid-afternoon snooze on a worn sofa.
The third generation Camaro that was unveiled in 1982 continued what was now a recurrent theme for the Camaro—lack of grunt. Even with the first supercharged engines, the most horsepower came from the lamentable small-block, 5-litre V8 ‘Cross-Fire Injection’ pushing out an anemic 165hp. The 1983 Chevrolet Camaro was doing 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds—compared to the first Camaro of 1966 that did 0-60 in 7.9, and the 1969 that did it in sub-6, these were miserable days indeed for the Camaro.
The brand soldiered on anyway, and in 1993, the fourth generation came with a whole new body (the chassis remained pretty much third generation) mated to a V8 capable of 250hp. Things were on the up, and by 1996, the Camaro would finally be back in the 300hp range for the first time since the 1960s. That year’s Camaro Z28 SS was actually able to match the 0-60mph time from 1969. Sales were sluggish, though, and by the turn of the century—with its chassis dating back to the ’80s—it seemed all but likely that the brand was about to be deep-sixed.
Then in 2010, Chevy announced that the Camaro was shaping up for a whole new generation, this almost 20 years since the fourth generation. For inspiration, Camaro went back to the 1969 model in terms of styling, and performance. That meant the return of the now-mythical 6.2-litre V8 capable of 426hp, and along for the ride came Brembo brakes, independent suspension, and a stiffer chassis.
Success followed and Chevy, in 2016, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Camaro brand, released the sixth generation Camaro that is coming to Project CARS 2: the new 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
Mind over matter—the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
The ZL1 has lapped the ’Ring in an official time of 7:29.60. That’s just four seconds slower than the fastest time ever laid down by the Ferrari Enzo. The marketing slogan, ‘mind over muscle’, is not just empty sales talk.
The ZL1 is the most powerful Camaro ever made. That power comes out of a supercharged 6.2-litre V8 now pushing out a whopping 650hp. Or 0-60mph in 3.3 seconds. Helpful when you want to humiliate a supercar or two light-to-light, but at the ’Ring, a few more gears are needed, particularly in a car that weighs around 1,800kgs. That’s where the mind comes in over the muscle.
The Camaro is far lighter and stiffer than any Camaro that has come before. The tyres are “Eagle F1 SuperCar” summer-only tyres (if you’re taking it out at the scanned Nordschleife in November, you have been warned!), the brakes are Brembo-made, and the adjustable suspension is the latest in high-tech’ GM gadgetry—the so-called Magnetic Ride Control that “reads” the road over 1,000 times per second. Or as Camaro put it, “As you plunge into a corner, a charge hits the patented suspension fluid, stiffening the suspension and reducing body roll instantaneously. This system helps you squeeze every bit of performance from the LT4 engine while keeping your Camaro planted during extreme cornering.”
The ZL1’s aero, meanwhile, has been track-tuned with a carbon-fibre composite hood crafted to lower aero’-lift, a three stanchion spoiler, and both a rear-wing and diffuser. Even the Chevrolet badge has even been hollowed out to increase airflow into the engine.
The 2017 Camaro is unboundedly the fastest Camaro Chevy have ever built. How fast? If a ’Ring lap is an indicator, Jalopnik have the ZL1 as faster than the Lamborghini Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera, Koenigsegg CCX, Ford Shelby GT350R, Porsche 911 GT2, Mercedes-AMG GT S, and McLaren 650S Spider. Yes, you read that right.
But is it the greatest Camaro ever built?
For that, it would need to take the mantle from the Project CARS 2-bound 1969 Trans Am Camaro.
Mark Donohue’s 1969 Trans Am Camaro—it’s time to fight the beast
The Trans Am series in the late ’60s to the early ’70s was a golden age for road racing in the US. The Big Three all came to play in the series, and they came with stock cars, big bucks, bigger ambitions, and absolutely massive American horsepower based on their pony cars. Mustang 302s, AMC Javelins, Dodge Challengers, Pontiac Trans Ams, Mercury Cougars, and, of course, the car that went on to define the Camaro brand—the Sunoco-blue Penske Camaro Z/28 coming to Project CARS 2.
The Unfair Advantage
The Penske Camaro project began almost as an afterthought when Roger Penske, in January 1967 and in his first full season as a team owner, asked his recently signed driver Mark Donohue to sort out a street Camaro for the upcoming Daytona race. A stock Camaro Z/28 4-speed, 5-litre V8 was duly bought out in the Midwest, and driven to the Penske shop in Pennsylvania for Donohue to begin prepping for race action.
Back then, prepping a street car for racing was a ‘simple’ affair—get rid of all the weight (seats, upholstery, radio, and so on), stick on a roll-bar, buy some big sticky tyres, and go winning.
Donohue set the car up stiff in order to deal with the banking at Daytona, but in testing at a frigid Bridgehampton, with ice on the track, Donohue quickly realized the Camaro was a handful. The car understeered, had no predictable handling and was, worst of all, bucking about so badly that he kept missing the pedals with his feet.
At Daytona, though, the car proved surprisingly fast out-of-the-box, leading from the off until the engine gave way. But at next race at Sebring, the car showed its true caliber. It was nowhere. Donohue qualified way back in the field, and ended the day with a massive shunt.
So it was back to freezing Bridgehampton and more testing, which soon revealed the cause of the handling issues—the spring rate Donohue had applied (1,200lb-per-inch) was far too stiff for the heavy Camaro, and the car was hitting the bumpstops. Donohue softened it all out for the next race, at Green Valley in Texas, and while the handling seemed better, the car still required his full attention with brakes that would last about ten laps before the pedal would end up on the floor; even before that, it required Donohue to begin pumping the pedal ages before he’d need to stamp on them, sometimes with both feet, to bleed off some speed.
At Bryar, the season’s half-way point, the Camaro broke an axle and Donohue had an enormous shunt with a car that had just been lightened to the tune of $15,000 (1967 currency) with new lightweight body panels. The bodywork was a total write-off. And it seemed as if the Camaro project was a write-off too.
Chevy is on the line
That’s when Chevrolet—concerned that their new Camaro was getting whooped every week by Ford Mustangs (even if Chevy, unlike Ford, weren’t directly involved in the race program)—invited Donohue to bring the Camaro to the General Motors’ Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan.
On GM’s ocean-sized test compound, Donohue drove the Camaro for hours on end while Chevy’s R&D team took notes. By the end of the session, they knew the Camaro was capable of 300lbs of downforce at 100mph and 50lbs of lift at the front. Useful, but Donohue was no closer to understanding how to get the bucking Camaro to handle any better.
With the next race scheduled for Marlboro, Donohue invited the Chevy guys down for some secret testing with the aim of getting a baseline for the springs. Chevrolet and their R&D man, Jim Musser, brought a host of springs down in a camouflaged truck that had its Michigan plates replaced by Pennsylvania ones to get into the pits without anyone being the wiser.
“The minute I drove it on soft springs, I knew everything was going to be all right,” Donohue recalled in his book, ‘The Unfair Advantage’. “We found the right rate by trial and error. The final answer turned out to be 550 pounds front and 180 pounds rear, less than half the spring rate we had started with at Daytona.”
While at Le Mans with the GT40s, Donohue then came up with the idea of strengthening the Camaro’s chassis by using a structural roll cage ala NASCAR, welded onto the structure to pass scrutineering as a ‘safety enhancement’. That, combined with a rear anti-roll bar that got rid of the understeer, completely transformed the Camaro.
Donohue would win the Marlboro race, and ended the season on a high, claiming two more wins from the remaining five races.
1968—the year of the Camaro
For 1968, Penske and Donohue would take the lessons learnt through 1967 and apply them to the Camaro. That included acid-dipped bodywork to save on weight, an ingenious vacuum-based system to extract brake pads (that needed changing on every pit stop), and a 302 V8 Traco-built, Chevy factory-tuned engine now kicking out 450 very loud horses at 6,500rpm—and 0-60mph in 5 blistering seconds. It would take Chevy another 40 years to match that performance again.
The acid-dipping also meant the car was underweight which offered Donohue the opportunity of using ballast in key areas to get rid of the inherent understeer.
The Camaro got even better when Donohue was invited out to Michigan again where Chevy’s R&D department had now developed an ingenious rig that could, for the first time, analyze a car’s total vehicle dynamics. That entailed running the Camaro at Chevy’s ‘Black Lake’ test track, with the Camaro wired up and sending signals to a nearby van. It was the dawn of telemetry in US motorsports.
Donohue soon realized the usefulness of telemetry when Chevy’s R&D engineer, Jim Musser, began lapping the test track faster than him by employing telemetry-based techniques around the turns.
Donohue paid attention to what Chevy referred to as the ‘friction circle’, which basically means speed comes from transitioning from braking to turning without passing through the centre of the circle. Trail-braking, in other words, or what Donohue referred to as the, “ ‘American technique’, as opposed to the ‘European technique’ of braking, cornering, and accelerating totally independently.”
Donohue went on to perfect that style of driving; getting deep into the turns on the brakes and using the grunt of the V8 to power-steer through, which is how you need to drive the car in-game.
The Camaro went on to win 10 of the 13 races that season, clinching Chevy’s first championship in Trans Am. In ’69, the Camaro made it two on the bounce and the legend of the Camaro was born.
Off the back of that success, Penske’s little racing team would go on to compete in NASCAR, IndyCar, endurance racing, Le Mans, and even Formula One where, on a damp day in 1975 for practice for the Austrian Grand Prix, Mark Donohue—who’d won the Indy 500 in 1972, retired in 1973 after his friend Swede Savage had been killed, and had been enticed back by Penske for a shot at Formula One glory—lost his life at the Österreichring.
By then, Penske was already at the forefront of US motorsports, where his team remains to this day, and the legend of the pony-eating Camaro was born.