End of the Gas-Engine Camaro Opens a New Door for Muscle Cars

From rubber-scented street races to the grass-roots drag strips and tracks of America, the Chevrolet Camaro never shied from a fight. But General Motors’ stalwart muscle car, first rushed to showrooms in 1966 to take on Ford’s phenomenally popular Mustang, could not outrun the onslaught of sport utility vehicles and the industry’s sprint to electrification.

G.M. announced last month that it would retire the Camaro in January, when a final 2024 model rolls off a Michigan assembly line. With Dodge closing up shop on its Charger and Challenger this year — even as it teases an electric muscle car — the Mustang is the sole surviving member of Detroit’s “pony car” band of coupes and convertibles.

“It is a bummer,” said Aaron Link, G.M.’s global vehicle performance manager. “The Camaro did everything we wanted it to do, but the car market is just shrinking.”

After a long Camaro hiatus, a retro-tinged 2010 comeback model, along with an equally nostalgic Mustang and Challenger, kicked off a new golden age of muscle cars that had enough power, handling and safety to shame any ’60s forebear. A star turn as Bumblebee, the shape-shifting Camaro in the Transformers franchise, introduced the Chevy to new buyers.

Yet two-door cars of all types have become especially hard to spot in tall seas of S.U.V.s. Many coupe models have been retired. These days, not even two in 100 American buyers choose a sports car. Just four models account for more than 70 percent of all sports-car sales: the Camaro, Corvette, Mustang and Challenger. Last year, the Camaro found 24,652 buyers, down from 129,000 in 2010 and a high of nearly 283,000 in 1979.

“The Camaro has become this incredibly sophisticated vehicle, and it’s a shame nobody is buying it,” said Eddie Alterman, chief brand officer of Hearst Autos and former editor in chief of Car and Driver magazine. That’s despite the current version’s notoriously constricted outward sight lines.

He added: “You almost admire how it’s so focused on driving dynamics that nothing else matters. The message is: Screw what’s behind you. What’s important is the next corner.”

The modern Camaro shares its “Alpha” platform with Cadillac’s best sports sedans, including G.M.’s groundbreaking magnetic suspensions, a technology now adopted by Ferrari, Audi and others. For top Camaros and Shelby Mustangs, the old “muscle car” term hardly applies: These are four-seat sports cars that can meet or beat any big-name European rival, including in the curves.

The Rise of Electric Vehicles

In 2017, the Camaro ZL1 1LE slayed more giants. The 650-horsepower showroom Camaro wound through Germany’s benchmark, 12.9-mile Nürburgring circuit in 7 minutes, 16 seconds. That topped several supercars costing three or four times its $69,995 price, including a Ferrari 488 GTB. In 2021, Elon Musk sent his best, 1,020-horsepower Tesla Model S Plaid to the ’ring and tweeted an unverified lap time: 14 seconds slower than the humble Chevy, an eternity on track, despite the Tesla’s enormous edge in electric horsepower.

The Camaro name isn’t bound for the junkyard, with G.M. executives broadly hinting it will return. But as the automaker vows to phase out internal combustion models by 2035, analysts say, any reconstituted Camaro will surely be an E.V. or a hybrid.

Mr. Alterman believes automakers can find a small, yet meaningful, place for distinctive, high-personality cars. “Everything else is a potato-shaped minivan surrogate, or a pickup truck,” he said.

If the Mustang was a playful ray of sunshine, the 1967 Camaro had a mean streak, especially in hopped-up V-8 editions. Pressed for the origin of the Camaro name, Pete Estes, the Chevy general manager at the time, quipped that it meant “a vicious animal that eats Mustangs.” A media blitz included a touring stage play (“Camaro!”) and a women’s clothing line.

Priced from $2,466, and $240 more for a convertible, the Chevy scored a hit with 221,000 sales, well off the Mustang’s 472,000. Just 602 of those were the Z/28 version, a virtual factory-built racecar from a Chevrolet that officially had no racing involvement. Most buyers had no clue this undercover ringer existed, but insiders could order one via a near-secret sequence of option selections that triggered Z/28 factory production.

With backdoor Chevy support, the team owner and newly retired Corvette racer Roger Penske and the driver Mark Donohue soon dominated the rollicking TransAm racecar series. Their first Penske Sunoco Z/28 went to a Pebble Beach auction in 2021 at an estimated value of $1.4 million to $2 million, but did not sell. A 1969 ZL1, a big-block V-8 unicorn that was one of only 69 built, fetched a Camaro-record $1.1 million at auction in 2021.

The beloved “tri-year” Camaros spanned 1967 to 1969, from the Summer of Love to Altamont. That’s where Mark Stielow comes in.

“That car changed my life,” Mr. Stielow said, the moment the Ford zealot drove his ’66 Mustang into enemy territory as a G.M. engineering intern in 1988. His allegiances shifted, despite his wrecking a pair of old Camaros via youthful exuberance — a common fate for Detroit’s ill-handling monsters of yore.

Now G.M.’s director of motorsports competition engineering, Mr. Stielow sums up the Chevy’s enduring appeal, as an egalitarian performance car with the options of more-practical engines or convertibles that drew female buyers as well.

“There was enough of a trunk and back seat to haul your junk in,” he said. “It could be your everyday car, your track car — the Swiss Army knife of muscle cars.”

The fruitful association has made Stielow a household name in hot rodding. In his spare time, Mr. Stielow’s fantastical, knee-weakening Camaro restorations — with names like “Tri-Tip” and “the Mule” — inspired an entire rodding movement called Pro Touring. Its disciples build and race American classics with modern mechanicals hidden beneath nostalgic skins.

Wearing his G.M. hat, Mr. Stielow is helping shepherd a new NASCAR Camaro to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a June run from “Garage 56,” LeMans’s annual invitation to a single car for an exhibition of new tech. It’s enough to make the French pop their corks: The modified Camaro stock car will be driven by Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR champion; Jenson Button, the British former Formula 1 champion; and Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time Le Mans winner.

Mr. Stielow and loyal originalists prefer pioneering models. To others, including the late Bill Mitchell, a onetime G.M. chief designer, the 1970 successor was the masterpiece, a designer’s car versus a committee creation. With its alluring tubular fenders and eggcrate grille, this radically new Camaro was heavily influenced by Ferrari 250 GTs.

“G.M. guys were totally obsessed with Ferraris of the time,” Mr. Alterman said.

Fast times couldn’t last. The first fuel-economy and emissions rules, and the 1973 oil embargo by Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, choked the life from muscle cars. By 1975, the Camaro’s strongest V-8 was a 155-horsepower peashooter.

If early Camaros were classic boomer rock, a third-generation model — sold from 1982 to 1992 — was ’80s hair metal, more meretricious flash and dubious accessories than performance chops. Indignities peaked with the ’82 “Iron Duke” Camaro, often cited as among the worst cars ever built, powered by a 90-horsepower four-cylinder engine. Even a Camaro IROC Z V-8 was a plasticized poseur.

Buyers didn’t mind, snapping up 262,000 Camaros in 1984. The Camaro had become a patron saint of convenience-store parking lots, homecoming dances and extralegal adolescent high jinks, from stoplight races to the odd lawn job. When Bruce Springsteen sang of roads haunted by “burned-out Chevrolets,” he surely had Camaros in mind more than its country-club sibling, the Corvette.

Not all cultural associations were kind. The Chevy’s somewhat jockish, lunkhead vibe was easy to lampoon, notably in the Dead Milkmen’s tart 1984 song, “Bitchin’ Camaro.”

A streamlined fourth-generation model for 1993 restored legitimacy, including via optional Corvette-based V-8s. Yet sales of those Camaros dwindled to 29,000 in 2001, and Chevy pulled the plug the next year.

Al Oppenheiser, the Camaro’s chief engineer, who now develops General Motors E.V.s, likes to say everyone has a Camaro story. Here is mine. No, it’s not the time my teenage pal Donnie wrecked his father’s Camaro on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, sending my head and a Burrito Supreme through the windshield. I walked away mostly unscathed. The burrito did not recover.

In 2017, I drove that stick-shift Camaro ZL1 1LE from Rick Hendrick’s NASCAR garage in North Carolina to Daytona, Fla. My fast-paced pilgrimage culminated in an audience with the four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon as he prepared to pace the Daytona 500 in history’s fastest Camaro. Mr. Gordon owned a previous-generation Camaro, but told me that the race would be his first go-round in the new ZL1.

“I can remember when 300 horsepower was big for a street car, and now we’re more than double that,” Mr. Gordon said. With the Chevy drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott in the front row behind his car, directly in his rearview mirror, Mr. Gordon’s competitive juices clearly flowed.

“This Camaro is capable of pacing the race if it went green,” he said with a wink.

The latest industry arms race, powered by batteries, finds some E.V.s zapping past 1,000 horsepower. In late March, I drove a fossil-fueled Corvette in California’s high desert, where Mr. Link, the G.M. development driver, has also been putting finishing touches on the first electrified Corvette. The 2024 E-Ray goes on sale later this year. With 655 hybrid horsepower, it already accelerates faster than any Corvette in a 70-year history.

Camaro fans may shed a tear at the close of an epic, thrilling chapter, but it appears more a cliffhanger. Whatever form a future electric Camaro takes, vintage muscle-car fans won’t know what hit them.

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