Feature Article from Hemmings Muscle Machines
November, 2011 - Mike McNessor - Photography by Jeff Koch
Fortunately, the Camaro is back and, by many accounts, better than ever. A proper Z/28, however, has yet to emerge to do battle with the incredible 2012 Mustang Boss 302 (as seen in HMM#96, September 2011).
Of course, this isn't the first time Chevrolet has sidelined the mighty Z. There was the Z/28 crisis of 1975, the IROC invasion of 1988 and then, as we've seen, the latest Z/28 deficit. Sigh. Such an iconic model designation, and so little respect from its maker. Rodney Dangerfield could relate.
Though first-generation Z/28s are highly respected among collectors today, the earliest Zs got off to a rocky start. An internal GM memo, circulated to GM district managers in January of 1968, shows that the rarity of the 1967 and 1968 cars might have had more to do with bungled production and a complete lack of sales support than anything else:
"Mr. E.M. Estes (AKA Elliot Marantette "Pete" Estes, then president of Chevrolet; he later became president of General Motors) has challenged the Sales Department to sell Z-28's (sic)," wrote Chevrolet Zone Merchandising Manager M.J. Streit. "This option was introduced a little over a year ago, and to date, the sales have not established any records, due primarily to the fact that there has never been satisfactory availability of this option. This option has been plagued from its very inception with stop orders, shortages and general confusion. Mr. Estes, last December, asked the sales department to sell 1,000 Z-28's (sic) per month, beginning in January. This objective has been broken down by regions and zones on the basis of their contribution to total Camaro sales. Mr. Estes has personally promised availability of this option beginning the latter part of December in sufficient volume to handle any orders the Sales Department is able to generate. The Distribution Department is scheduling 1,000 of these Camaros per month beginning in January and has advised they are flexible to accept upward revisions in the schedule."
And once 1,000 customers per month started flocking into Chevrolet dealers demanding Z/28s, Streit even offered some advice to salespeople about how best to order the car.
"This option is available on the Model 12437 Camaro and also requires that the M-21 four-speed, close-ratio transmission, together with powered disc brakes be ordered. The positraction rear axle is strongly recommended. For the street, the plenum air intake and the exhaust headers are not required or even desirable."
Curiously, the Z/28 isn't even mentioned in the 1968 Chevrolet Camaro brochure. The RS and SS are well represented, but there's nothing about Chevrolet's racy homologation special. By the same token, there's no mention of the 302 in the early brochure's powertrain lineup. Still, by the end of the model year, 7,199 copies of the unheralded factory-built road racer made it into the hands of aspiring Mark Donohues.
For those who were aware of the car, the 1968 Z/28 was indeed a winner. Car and Driver put Trans-Am challenger and all-around nice guy Sam Posey behind the wheel of a '68 Z and a '68 Mustang tunnel-port for a heads-up comparison. Though it was neck and neck, the Camaro squeaked out a win on the pre-Boss Mustang.
For the test, the Camaro was loaded with a cross-ram intake and cowl plenum air cleaner, plus "dealer installed" headers. It also was said to have been equipped with heavy-duty valve springs, breakerless ignition and a stouter-than-stock clutch.
The Mustang also had a dual-four-barrel intake, headers, an 8-quart oil capacity and dual-point distributor. When the smoke cleared, the Camaro edged out the Mustang in the quarter with a 13.77 at 107.39 MPH to the Mustang's 13.96 at 106.13 MPH. At Lime Rock, the Mustang got the nod as Posey covered the course in 1:08.8 vs. 1:09.2 with the Z.
"Both are easily the most exciting machines we've ever driven with price tags less than $10,000 and by far the best performing street cars ever," C/D's editors concluded. "But... the Camaro gets the nod. In acceleration, both cars were nearly equal with the Camaro slightly, but consistently faster. It wasn't much of a contest in the braking test with the Camaro stopping at a rate greater than one G. At Lime Rock, the Mustang was a marginal winner, but we suspect that with equal tires the Camaro would have been pretty strong because of its better brakes."
The Z/28's 302 engine was developed out of necessity--it had to conform to the SCCA's 5-liter displacement limit. Chevrolet's solution was to cross a 283 with a 327: The 283's 3-inch-stroke crankshaft was used with the 4-inch bore of a 327, yielding 302.4 cubic inches. As it was built with off-the-shelf parts, the 302 was economical to manufacture and, being a Chevrolet small-block, it would accept the full gamut of proven factory speed parts. There was the lumpy "Duntov 30-30" mechanical cam with .485 lift and 254 duration, 11:1 forged aluminum pistons, 2.02 heads with screw-in studs and guide plates, and an aluminum high-rise intake topped with a Holley four-barrel. The 302's factory rating was 290hp, but these engines typically produce more than 350hp at 6,000 RPM and 333-lbs.ft. of torque at 4,000 RPM. Where the engine really sings is in the upper RPM range and, when kept buzzing by a seasoned driver, the lightweight small-block can produce ample power to make a 3,100-pound Camaro a 1960s-vintage road course threat.
Our immaculate feature car belongs to Ed Montini of Gilbert, Arizona. Built in April of 1968, it has virtually no options except the Z/28 package, an AM radio and a 4.10:1 gear ratio. Just the basics here: no bright exterior trim, no accessory gauges or tachometer, the standard upholstery package and no factory spoilers.
Ed purchased the car completely restored in August of 2005 while scanning for prospects on Camaros.net.
"I have a pair of 1969 Zs and I thought a '68 Z would be a nice addition to the collection," he said. The unusual color, Corvette Bronze, happens to match a 1968 Camaro SS 396 that Ed owns--one of a handful that were ordered by Yenko Chevrolet but never converted into Yenko Super Cars.
"It was the color that sold it as much as anything," he said.
In 2000, with approximately 65,000 miles on the odometer, the Z/28 received an extensive five-year restoration. At the outset, there was rust in the quarters and on the tail pan, while the doors, front fenders, inner fenders, trunklid and hood were all in good shape. The trunk pan and floor pans were very solid, but the interior needed an overhaul. The car was a perfect candidate for a no-holds barred restoration, however. All of the major components were intact, though it was missing the correct heads, alternator brackets, alternator, fuel pump, original tires, trim rings and small items like correct nuts and bolts. The smog system was also missing.
Its documentation and ownership history were impressive, however, as over the years, the car retained its original Oklahoma title, original warranty book, original Protect-O-Plate, original broadcast sheet, and the original sales contract from McDonald Chevrolet in Sallisaw, Oklahoma.
During the restoration, the factory quarters were removed from the car, along with the tail pan and rear wheelhouses. Any sheetmetal that needed to be chemically stripped was removed, including the doors, fenders, hood, trunklid, and inner fenders. The quarter panels, tail pan, header panel, lower valance and a cowl pan were all replaced using NOS GM sheetmetal and spot-welded in place, replicating the factory process.
Inside, the carpet, front and rear seat covers, headliner and rear seat panels were replaced; Ssnake Oil Products reworked a set of standard seatbelts for the car.
The engine block was bored .030-inch and fitted with 11:1 pistons. A set of correct heads were treated to a valve job before the engine was balanced and assembled. The transmission and rear axle were also rebuilt and the driveshaft tube was replaced and balanced. The correct 10.5-inch clutch, pressure plate and throwout bearing were used when the drivetrain was reassembled. Finally, the carburetor and distributor were rebuilt before being reinstalled.
The Z's subframe was totally rebuilt, as was the steering box. Reproduction brake lines and hoses, as well as drive belts and battery cables were eventually installed. A set of correct rebuilt front brake calipers and rotors were used and the correct three-core Harrison radiator was re-cored and repainted.
Reusing and rebuilding the Z's original parts was a priority throughout this restoration. For instance, the windshield wiper motor and transmission that the car rolled out of the factory with were rebuilt and reinstalled, as was the original brake master cylinder.
As a result of all of this attention to detail, don't expect to see this Z screaming around Watkins Glen anytime soon. Ed drives the car sparingly, choosing instead to put miles on his 1969 Z. What we wanted to know, however, is how he thinks it stacks up against his big-block-powered Camaros.
"Both have the same body feel and steering control, but the Z feels surprisingly fast once the 302 is past 3,000 RPM--that's where it really wants to live. The 4.10 gears help, and it's like a rocket once you get it wound up."
His only complaint precisely echoes one that Sam Posey lodged against the Z back in 1968.
"The Muncie shifter is the sloppiest you've ever felt," he said. "You never know if you're in first, reverse or third."
Ed Montini's first-gen Camaro collection is impressive, consisting of '68 and '69 Yenkos, a pair of 1969 Z/28s and this month's feature '68 Z/28. "I'm 56 years old and my first car was a '69 Camaro SS 350," he said. "It was always one of those things; Camaros have always been in my blood."
In the hunt for the elusive '68 Z/28, Ed looked at 10 cars before finding this one.
"I was looking for a nice, well-documented 1968 Z/28. There are lots of them out there, but at least 90 percent lack documentation, and they are difficult to document. This car had the most paperwork I'd seen on a '68 Z/28. It was everything I was looking for."
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