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Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

“If this storm hits, we’re screwed. I don’t mind the raindrops,” he said, “but what concerns me is getting the underside all messed up with dirt.”

Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

A Carolina Blue, 1969 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, the only one of its kind in existence, shone under the bright lights at Mecum Auctions in Indianapolis. It was rolling onto the auction block in just 48 hours – expected to fetch around $400,000 – so I could appreciate Mecum’s concerns. I looked at my watch. It read 8 a.m.: “When is this storm due to hit?” I asked.

Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

“Now, so you should probably get out there,” I was told. “By the way, where’s this brand-new Z/28 at?”
Few cars drew as much excitement as when Chevrolet announced the rebirth of its iconic moniker. That was over a year ago now, and yet production is only just beginning. Engineers have treated their new baby like a fine wine – requiring a seasoned mouthful of fillet and a slow decant to remove unwanted sediment. And this unhurried, methodical process worked, as I discovered for myself a handful of weeks ago at the Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. From behind the wheel, the 2014 Camaro Z/28 astonishes.

The ’69 Z/28, however, remains a machine many deem to be one of the greatest muscle cars of them all – a roaming billboard of red, white and blue; Hendrix embodied in metal. The fine folks atMecum Auctions allowed me to test-drive the legendary car, while I brought along its modern-day counterpart for comparison. It was set to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it would all be for nothing if I didn’t beat this blasted rain. 

Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

I trailed Mecum’s chief mechanic aboard a black golf cart – all the while inhaling the 69’s pungent fumes and humming “Lay Lady Lay” uncontrollably. We pulled over on a quiet road, and while I got myself settled behind the wheel, I was offered words of wisdom from the man that had tuned her up ready for auction: “Just baby the throttle, but keep the revs up,” he said. “Like any old car, she’s temperamental, but she runs real sweet.”

There’s something about an old V-8 that transports you back in time. It was Woodstock, Aug. 15, 1969. 500,000 unkempt youths, high on life, rocking to the likes of Jimi, Joplin, and The Who. The 302 cubic-inch motor roared, and I imagined Neil Armstrong’s giant leap, military jackets festooned in peace signs, and headbands shielding wild, unruly hair. Those that lived that glorious era were blissfully unaware that just a few years later – after skyrocketing fuel prices, insurance hikes and stifling EPA mandates – that era was about to end.

When the Z/28 returned in 1977, long gone was the 350 hp V-8, replaced by a lump maxing out at just 185 hp. Times had changed, and car culture has never been the same since. 

For 2014, Chevrolet promised to do justice to the original Z/28. A suitable 7.0-liter V-8 found its way under the hood, pushing 505 hp. Air conditioning and a stereo became a $1,500 option; carbon ceramic brakes arrived standard, as did special Multimatic dampers. The tires were near-slick race rubber, because the Z/28 was always intended to be a racecar for the street.

Named not after a wild horse or toothy fish, the Z/28 moniker was merely a production order number (RPO Z28, following the Camaro SS which was Z27). Vincent Piggins, a veteran Chevy engineer and the man behind the Hudson Hornet’s NASCAR championships from the ‘50s, was responsible for convincing company execs of the need for such a performance car.

In 1966, SCCA created the Trans-Am sedan class, aimed at the ’67 season. Piggins spoke with SCCA officials and confirmed Chevrolet’s involvement. Due to their rear seats, pony cars could qualify as "sedans," meaning all Piggins had to do was get his boss to see his vision. A 327 block featuring a 283 crank, providing a displacement of 302.4 to sneak under the SCCA’s 305 cubic inch limit, was all it took to score a green light.

The Z/28 was born, and as of January 1, 1967, the car began homologation with the FIA as a Group II racecar.
Shifting through the Rock Crusher 4-speed manual gearbox, using the Cross Ram induction and dual Holley four-barrel carburetors to maximize grunt, it’s said the 1969 Z/28 pushed 290 hp. In reality, it surpassed 350 hp. The steering felt vague on center, while at slow speeds, my shoulders ached as I manhandled the non-assisted wheel. We all lament over how electric power steering diminishes the feel you get through the tires, up the column, and into your fingertips. But the precision and speed of today’s racks make me think that much of that grievance is down to a lack of memory.

But I enjoyed the weight of the wheel, and the heavy clutch. When I came to the end of the short stretch of road I was permitted to drive on, I slipped the gear lever into reverse, requiring a few stabs and jiggles for it to engage. I then rolled my right ankle off the brake pedal and onto the throttle – in a desperate effort to keep the motor alive.

At first, with every stop, it stalled. But as my drive continued, I began to learn its quirks and nuances. I’d keep it in gear as long as I could, bobbling along at 3 mph. I engaged reverse before coming to a complete stop, and then moved my foot from the brake to the gas pedal while holding the car steady via the clutch (the pedals were too far apart for proper "heel and toe"). I depressed the gas pedal more swiftly so as to relieve the weary clutch from its duties, and by doing so, I eliminated the stall most every time. You needed to move fast in this car, and yet I envisaged every ’69 Z/28 being different, requiring an alternate strategy. I imagined it as a living, breathing organism. I imagined it as a friend. 

When slipping behind the wheel of the all-new Z/28, I immediately lurched off the line like a teenager driving for the first time. I was used to the '69's weighty clutch; my left leg was like a heavy metal anchor, too cumbersome to control. I then dabbed the brakes, only to narrowly miss smacking my head on the wheel. It appeared my right leg had suffered a similar curse.

A 2014 Z/28’s carbon brakes aren’t grabby; in fact they’re one of the best systems on any production car, helping make its $75,000 price tag a relative steal (note: “relative”). Never would one describe a 2014 Z/28 as comfortable; even Chevrolet says it’s not suited to the street. But after driving the ’69, which wasn't uncomfortable itself, the older brother felt very comfortable, somewhat docile, and yet still passionate and engaging at the same time.

Of course it wasn’t docile, but my senses had been tricked. I did wonder, however, why we have such an obsession with a Rolls-like ride quality and noise-proof interiors. We’re all spoiled, as if we wish to drive swathed in bubble wrap. It felt so refreshing to be in a modern-day car that was unruly, agitated and ferocious. This new Z/28 felt like a dying breed – one that must be treasured.

The V-8’s roar was familiar; the square dials on the dash, too, were reminiscent of those found in the ’69. It’s the first Z/28 in decades that I’ve cared for. And while it handles far more like a sports car than a traditional muscle car, you can feel that burliness within.

The ’69 was all brute strength. There was no finesse, or glamor. It was a car for blue-collar workers – the heart of America. This particular Z/28 was unrestored, bar a lick of paint in the early ‘90s. The first owner, Lyle Mader of Madison, S.D., spec’d out the car to $4,720.50. On June 20, 1969, it left the Norwood, Ohio, factory on route via train to Rapp Chevrolet in Marion, S.D. During a lengthy rest stop, thieves climbed aboard the train and spotted the baby blue Z/28, with its twin stripes flowing over the rear wing like a Yosemite waterfall. The Cross Ram induction was stolen, along with its 8-track tape player. The original, handwritten note from the shipping company to the dealership stating the crime is still in the glove compartment. By the time Mader took delivery, the dealership had of of course returned it to its intended state. And at Mecum Auctions, a new chapter in its history will be written.

Against all odds, the storm set to hit Indianapolis that day held off – perhaps a gift from the gods, or simply proof that meteorologists are rarely correct. I returned to base, parking the ’69 on its stand ready for sale, with no more than a drop of fuel left in the tank.

This test was not about performance, or speed, or whether old school tops new school. It was about celebrating a glorious era of motoring (and I include Hemi Cudas, GT350s, GTOs, and all the other greats in that statement). Cars like the 2014 Camaro Z/28 fight to keep that legacy alive. While those lucky enough to live it won’t ever forget.

That day, I got my fill of nostalgia. It was August 15, 1969. Hendrix was electrifying Woodstock. And I was in a Z/28, with not a care in the world.

source: motoramic
by Alex Lloyd


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