I spent a couple of days this week driving a 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. We borrowed the car for a Rise & Drive video (which will go live soon), although for the first 30 minutes or so I rather wished we hadn't. The Corvette Z06-engined Camaro Z28 is one of those cars that puts you on the back foot even before you've fired it up. Apart from the fact it looks more menacing than a 19-year-old Mike Tyson, it also feels vast to sit in.
When you do get rolling the ride is almost unbearably stiff. With its steering wheel on the left, the Camaro feels about as happy on Britain's narrow, bumpy B-roads as a schooner on the Grand Union Canal. For the first 20 miles or so, I just wanted to get out and walk. But the car does come to you. I'll explain why in the video, but by the end of the loan was having more fun in the Z28 than I would have had in lots of modern European sports cars.
I've been trying to navigate my way out of a Z28-shaped internet rabbit hole ever since. Like so many iconic performance car nameplates, Z28 has its roots in motorsport. Porsche's GT3 is no more race-bred. It was first used at the end of 1966 on the first-generation Camaro as an optional upgrade package that turned the hefty muscle car into a thoroughbred racing machine. Z/28 (with a slash) was the Regular Production Option code and the soubriquet somehow stuck. The package included suspension upgrades, quicker steering, stickier tyres, stronger brakes, a four-speed manual transmission and plenty of engine modifications that lifted power from the 4.9-litre V8 to 290hp (that was the official figure anyway; the real number is said to be closer to 360hp).
So equipped, the Camaro went racing in North America's Trans-Am series and cleaned up with back-to-back titles in 1968 and '69. Perhaps the Z28's most famous outing this side of the Atlantic came at Crystal Palace in 1971. In the British Iberia Trophy race, Martin Thomas found himself locked in a battle for the ages against Mike Crabtree's Ford Escort RS1600 and Gerry Marshall's Vauxhall Viva GT. Many of you will have seen the video before, but this is a race that's worth re-watching every couple of years. We've embedded the Youtube clip below - if you haven't seen it already, set aside 16 minutes and 20 seconds and watch it now. A couple of small and nimble European machines dicing lap after lap with a brutish American monster, with lots of ballsy overtaking, not-for-show oversteer and Murray Walker's excitable commentary. It doesn't get any better.
So that's how life began for Chevrolet's Z28 designation. The following few decades would be far less edifying. Owing to the 1973 oil crisis and the EPA's unbelievably strict emissions regulations, all high-capacity American performance cars were suffocated half to death. The Camaro was not immune, but for whatever reason Chevrolet continued to produce supposedly sportier Z28 derivatives throughout the second, third and fourth Camaro generations. Having had as much as 360hp in 1971, the second-generation kicked out only 248hp just a couple of years later (some of which can be explained by newly introduced regulations that meant manufacturers had to quote power figures at the wheels rather than on a dyno).
Z28 was dropped as a Regular Production Option in 1975 but reappeared as a model derivative in its own right in 1977. It did so with a 5.7-litre V8 that developed a frankly hilarious 185hp. Never mind low compression ratios; the motor must have been missing a few spark plugs.
The third-generation Camaro Z28 was even more miserable. The 1982 version was scarcely powerful enough to get out of its own way with 145hp, that from a 5.0-litre engine. By the time the fourth-generation Camaro arrived in 1992, Z28 had long since ceased to stand for performance and motor racing prowess. It was merely another Camaro model line, like SS.
I know of no other once-celebrated performance car suffix that has been so willfully mistreated. Or abused, in fact. Both VW and Peugeot applied their GTI/GTi badges to cars that never deserved them. Alfa Romeo did heinous things with its Quadrifoglio/Cloverleaf designation earlier this decade (MiTo or Giulietta Quadrifoglio Verde anyone?), but I can't think of any that has been so badly treated as Z28. So tell me, what have I missed?