Sunday, August 22, 2010

2010 Midwest Camaro Fest continues tradition of excellence for 22 of Camaro's 43 years

The first production Camaro hit the streets 43 years ago. And for more than half that time, The Midwest Camaro Fest has been one of the biggest annual gatherings of the popular Ponycar in the country. Presented by the Camaro Club of Kansas City and sponsored by Superior Chevrolet, this has been the premiere show for Camaros for 22 years.

In response to the popularity of the Mustang starting in 1964 as a '65 model, the Camaro has been making its own history ever since the first car rolled off the assembly line. Chevrolet claimed the name Camaro meant “friend” or “pal” in French. And consumers quickly befriended the latest downsized entry from the Bowtie Brigade. Ponycar fever was at full-pitch in 1967, and people just couldn’t get enough of the new Camaro.

There was a Camaro to suit nearly every taste. The economy-minded or penny-pinched among us could opt for a base coupe with a 230-c.i. inline-six. From there, engines could be upgraded to everything from a bigger six, to a variety of small-block V8’s, right up to factory-built 396 big blocks. Not enough? Special factory orders or aftermarket enterprises spawned 427-c.i., 425-hp monsters by the end of the first generation run in 1969.

The Camaro was also available in a variety of trim models. A base coupe with homely full wheel covers and a bench seat might not have seemed very sporty, but the RS package added several appearance upgrades to transform that Camaro from ordinary to extraordinary. SS models continued the Chevrolet tradition of affordable performance. Click the Z/28 option code, and you could imagine yourself in a Trans Am Series race. Whatever you preference, whether it be beauty, brawn, or both, Camaro had you covered.

An all-new Camaro appeared late in the 1970 model year, and the swoopy fastback design was not only different than the Camaro it replaced, but it was a fair departure from the looks of the archrival Ford Mustang as well. Most people seem to go for the RS package with the split front bumpers during this time, but you could order a Camaro with everything from the base six to the gnarliest SS, split bumper or not.

The mid- to-late-‘70s were not a great time for performance cars in general, and Camaros were no exception. While Ford downsized the Mustang to almost comical proportions in the name of fuel economy during this time, Chevy opted to retain the Camaro’s basic formula, albeit with increasingly de-powered and pollution device-choked power plants.

Chevrolet modernized and updated the Camaro’s appearance during this time. Urethane bumpers, wraparound back windows, and a variety of decal and stripe packages kept Camaro hot, hip, and happenin’ during the swingin’ ‘70s, but under the hood, the story was a little less exciting. By 1975, the beefiest engine a Camaro could be ordered with only wheezed-out 155-hp. The Z/28 was on hiatus. It was a dark time in muscle car history.

Yet, in spite of the world around them, people still craved real performance. The extroverted Z/28 came back in ’77. Horsepower was slowly creeping higher. There was a dim light flickering at the end of a long tunnel. In fact, 1979 proved to be Camaro’s best sales year ever, with 282,571 units moving out the door.

The Camaro saw its biggest transformation to date in 1982. It was smaller, yet had more room. The all-new MacPherson strut suspension and balanced weight distribution made the Camaro handle like nothing else out there (OK, it did handle like the Firebird). This new platform paved the way for some real excitement in the Camaro lineup.

A big piece of that excitement came in 1985 with the introduction of the IROC package on the Z28 (now sans “/”). Named after the popular International Race of Champions racing series, IROC Camaros were available with a Tuned Port Injected, 350-c.i. small block producing 215-hp. So popular was this engine that it became the go-to setup in many-a-hot rod in this era. IROCs also were equipped with 16” wheels. This kind of exotica was unheard of on a car in this price range.

Camaro celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1992, and it also marked the last year for this generation of Camaro. To mark the occasion, some were fitted with the Heritage Stripe Package, which marked the one and only time that dual stripes were offered from the factory down the center of this generation Camaro.

The 1993 Camaro was a sensation. Virtually new from the ground-up, this car was a major leap in refinement and quality.

This Camaro also brought in the free-breathing LT1 engine. It is hard to imagine today how amazing this 350-c.i. V8 was at the time. Taken straight from the Corvette’s parts bin, the LT1 was good for a copious (at the time) 275-hp in the Camaro, and it provided more low-end torque than most people had experienced in a new car in 20-years. Plus, it managed all this while getting gas mileage in the mid-20s.

The convertible returned to the lineup in 1994, the 3800 V6 enhanced the base car in ’95, and the SS (produced for Chevrolet by SLP Engineering) came back in 1996. Chevrolet continued to improve and refine the popular Ponycar.

The last big change to the Camaro came in 1998. A new nose treatment with composite headlights concealed a new 346-c.i., aluminum LS1 V8. The lightweight LS1 was good for 305 high-winding horsepower.

The Camaro forged ahead until 2002, after which Chevrolet decided to pull the plug. Slow sales and limited funds marked the end of Chevrolet’s Ponycar efforts. Affordable performance seemed bleak at the General, but Camaro enthusiasts could not be silenced.

A new Camaro concept appeared at the North American International Auto Show in 2006, and people went wild over the bulging 1969-inspired muscle car. It took a few years of development, but it finally hit the streets in 2009 as a ’10 model. The 2010 Camaro basically skips the fastback design influence of every Camaro from 1970 on up to 2002. It looks more like the Camaro updated the 1969 notchback design during all those years.

Over the years, Camaro has been at the top of the heap, beaten into the ground, and left for dead. But somehow, this venerable nameplate always seems to resurrect itself better than ever.

Saturday's edition of the Midwest Camaro Fest featured some of the finest examples of the Camaro from every point in this long and storied history. Whether you prefer the pure muscle of the originals, the unapologetic excess from the disco era, or the brutal refinement of the current generation, there was no better place to relive each and every one of these cars than at this weekend's fastidiously organized event.

It's almost a shame that we have to wait another full year before the next Midwest Camaro Fest, but here is a photo slideshow from the 2010 event to hold you over.

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