Though the first generation Camaro made a big performance splash with its big-block 396 cubic inch V8, it reached legendary status via Chevrolet’s COPO program which allowed the Camaro to be ordered in the late-1960s with a multitude of big-block 427 cubic-inch V8s. When the second generation Camaro arrived in the middle of the 1970 model year, it was quite apparent Chevrolet was moving the Camaro in a different direction. For 1970, the 427 was replaced by the larger displacement big-block 454 cubic-inch V8. Unfortunately this engine wasn’t available in the Camaro – not even through the COPO program. For big-block 1970 Camaro buyers, Chevrolet only offered the 350 horsepower (L34) and 375 horsepower (L78) 396 V8s. Ironically these engines had a true displacement of 402 cubic inches, Chevrolet had slightly increased the 396’s bore size from 4.096 inches to 4.125 inches. Though L34 and L78 engines provided plenty of firepower, Chevrolet downplayed them. Chevrolet instead spent its effort touting the 360 horsepower small-block LT-1 350 cubic-inch V8. The LT-1 could only be had with the 1970 Camaro Z28 – one of the most balanced muscle cars of its era.
On the surface it may have appeared Chevrolet was insane, after-all most of the Camaro’s competition had their top performance motors, V8s displacing 400 or more cubic inches. Chevrolet was in fact innovative, it saw the future. It understood a good performance car must not only have great straight line acceleration prowess but also great steering and handling manners. Chevrolet understood that a
heavy big-block V8 added unnecessary extra weight to the front end of a performance car, making fine-tuning the handling a much more difficult endeavor. Not to mention shaving a couple hundred pounds off the weight in the engine bay, created a lighter car – in other words removing pounds is equal to adding horsepower.
Chevrolet producing a high horsepower lower displacement V8 powered car with good handling, wasn’t born out of ingenuity but more out of necessity. Chevrolet after the release of the 1967 Camaro wanted to be competitive in the engine displacement restricted Trans Am racing circuit. The result was the 1967-1969 Camaro Z28, a light agile performance car with a small-displacement small-block 302 cubic-inch V8 which produced 290 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque. True horsepower was more than this advertised figure. The 302 was a high-revving engine which was made for the oval race track but it was the Z28’s F41 handling package that made the Z28 one of the best cars for the oval track during this era. The F41 provided standard front disc brakes and a handling suspension that made the Z28 one of the best handling cars in the late-1960s.
When the boxy first generation Camaro styling was replaced by sleek European sports car type styling for 1970, the Camaro not only looked like a much faster car even when standing still, it had a revised platform that was ready to bring the Camaro to next performance level. When the Z28 package returned for 1970, Chevrolet could have carried over the 302 V8 from 1969 and the 1970 Camaro Z28 would have been a serious performance car. Chevrolet had something more special in mind – 48 more cubic inches of displacement. It replaced the 302 with an all new small-block LT-1 350 cubic-inch V8. Where the 302 had a 4.0-inch bore and 3.0-inch stroke, the LT-1 350 retained the 4.0-inch bore but had a longer 3.48-inch stroke.
The LT-1 was one of Chevrolet’s most revered legendary V8 engines. The magic number that all muscle cars during the golden era tried to aspire to was the “1 horsepower per cubic inch” mark. Very few of the most powerful muscle cars during this era obtained this goal. Even the mightiest of muscle cars such as the 450 horsepower LS6 454 powered 1970 Chevelle SS fell short of this goal. The LT-1 powered 1970 Camaro Z28 made this mark with having a factory rating of 360 gross horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque. But it gets even better, the 1970 Corvette when equipped with the same LT-1 V8 had a factory rating of 370 gross horsepower. Yet it gets much better, this engine was rated by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) at 425 gross horsepower. NHRA knew Chevrolet was fudging the figures and had to rate this motor at 425 horsepower for its events in order to keep its races on the level. In summary the LT-1 even with its high factory horsepower rating, Chevrolet was underrating its power by 13-15%. With the 1970 Z28, Chevrolet was essentially giving its customers a honest-to-goodness racing motor. The LT-1 had a performance camshaft, solid lifters, a very high 11.0:1 compression ratio, a 780 cfm Holley 4-bbl carburetor, a free-flow aluminum intake, free-flow exhaust manifolds, and a low restriction dual exhaust system. The LT-1 on the streets was like a caged lion, seemly trapped and docile but still had the potential at any moment to leap out of its cage after its prey. The 1970 Z28 was capable of 14-second 1/4 mile times at around 100-102 mph. For a 3,600-lb car with early-1970s time period F60-15 tires this was quite a feat. The LT-1 powered Z28 could mix it up with the best of the large displacement muscle cars even though it had a medium displacement engine. Worth noting, the Z28 was standard with a 3.73 rear axle ratio (a 4.10 was optional). The Z28 was standard with a 4-speed manual transmission, a TH400 3-speed automatic was optional.
Even though the Z28 had a high-revving ultra performance engine, just like the previous Z28 models, it was a well balanced machine with phenomenal steering and handling for its day provided by its standard F41 handling package. Braking was far superior than most of its competitors, Car and Driver magazine obtained an impressive 228 foot stopping distance from a 80-0 mph test.
The party would only last for 1970, the LT-1 would have a massive compression drop to 9.0:1 for 1971 in order to accommodate a federal mandate that all new cars starting in 1972 run on unleaded gas. The gross horsepower rating dropped to 330 and the torque to 360 lb-ft. The LT-1 would return again for 1972, it was now rated at 255 net horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. Things were not as bad as they seemed since this horsepower figure was calculated in the more stringent “net” instead of “gross” standard. The 1972 LT-1 produced the same 330 gross horsepower as the 1971 LT-1. The Z28 would return for 1973 but the LT-1 would not.
The body styling of the 1970 Z28 was nothing short of revolutionary. It had a long hood, a semi-fastback roof line, and was low to the ground. The styling was some of Bill Mitchell’s best work. It can be best described as an Americanized version of a Ferrari. The Camaro was standard with a thin full length front chrome bumper. If the optional RS package was ordered the front bumper was replaced by two small chrome bumperettes and the horizontal front parking lights were replaced by round units which were more stylish. The RS package was $168.55 which was a bargain considering how much more attractive it made an already appealing car face appear.
To add to the Z28’s appeal Chevrolet included as standard a set of large twin stripes which transversed the hood, trunk lid, and trunk lid spoiler. If a buyer didn’t like the strips, a buyer could delete the package on the order sheet. Four round rear taillights were a new addition to the Camaro for 1970, they were recessed giving the rear of the Camaro a modern stylish tough look. Unfortunately Chevrolet would drop this taillight design for 1974. Worth noting, there were two deck lid spoilers found on the 1970 Z28, one had a short height the other was the taller height spoiler. A front chin spoiler was also part of the Z28 package.
Inside the cabin, there were standard bucket seats and an attractive dash layout and gauge cluster. It was leagues better than the previous year Z28. The interior was modern for its time and its basic shape and layout lasted until the end of the 1981 model year. Yet the interior was all business, it was spartan, you weren’t going to find a lot of optional power and luxury options here. Buyers were going to have to wait almost a decade for that type of opulence in a Camaro.
The Z28 may have provided great performance in a sleek attractive package, but what was so special was it provided a lot of performance value for the American dollar. The base price of a V8 powered Camaro was $2,839. Add to that $572.95 for the Z28 performance package and a few other options and you still were well under $4,000. Even if you loaded up a Z28 with options and you hit the $4,000 mark that still was a bargain. $4,000 in 1970 dollars is equivalent to just under $25,000 in 2016 dollars. The funny thing is Chevrolet is still providing fantastic performance for the dollar 46 years later here in 2016. A base 2016 Camaro equipped with a 275 net horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque turbo 4-cylinder does the 1/4 mile run in 14 seconds just like the the 1970 Z28. A base 2016 Camaro has a starting price of $25,700. The only shortcoming of the base 2016 Camaro is its lack of the beautiful V8 sounds emanating from under the hood and tail pipes.
The Z28 by the late-1970s had transitioned from a race track inspired performance car into a Pontiac Trans Am competitor which was laden with spoilers, air dams, lots of flashy graphics, and a responsive smog-controlled V8. Who could blame Chevrolet for pushing the Z28 into primetime (and phasing out the SS for a few decades), 84,877 Z28s were produced for 1979 which was a 1,000 % increase over 1970 production. The Z28 name may have gotten watered down along the way until its movement in recent years back to a high pedestal. There’s no doubt that the Z28 which had the perfect mix of pure muscle car, race car, and well balanced performance touring car for a reasonable price was the 1970 Z28.
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