The Z28 option became the biggest conundrum in GM’s product history. This car was not affected by the engine size rules in the Donner Dictates but it was an absolute contradiction in almost every other way possible. It was a racing car masquerading as road car…. Period….Proudly built by Chevrolet in the midst of the…. “thou shalt not be exciting” blurb…… How did this happen??
Again the issue is about special people and again the same man who hung his reputation on the line for the GTO in the midst of restrictive corporate pressure, Estes, gave the go ahead for the Z28 project.
Instinctive engineering feel is something often taken for granted and we all know that decision making can be a laborious process of crossing t’s and dotting i’s when colourless business choices have to be made. It gets worse when one is required to convince equally colourless finance and admin jockeys of a good idea. In this case we have pure automotive genius mixed with the courage to do something against the very ethos of the corporate state. The two main players, Estes and Piggins made the call based on straightforward, ballsy, engineering inspired, car guy…. knowledge.
How do we know that?
Well not only was Piggins up for building a hot Camaro to prove that the Camaro had balls but he was going for Ford directly…..in their own back yard….racing. The value of having a man like Piggins in the business will never be understood by financial and administrator types and worse nor by many in pure engineering ……simply because corporates seldom understand enthusiasm and unique in-built talent. People like this are often referred to as Crazies ….But….What do you do with a talent that has racing experience, knows the parts catalogue backwards (the critical instinctive knowledge of what can be made to fit where) is a natural born engineer and is passionate about doing something spectacular. Our Chevrolet CEO of the period Elliot P Estes was a competent engine man himself …. So he let him have his way.
The 283cid Z28 prototype built by Piggins (not known as the Z in those early stages ) was driven by Estes in a proving ground test run in October of 1966, a month after the main Camaro launch. At that time, the legendary 302 engine did not exist as a factory spec, so the two simply created it and generated the works order for the build of the first 302 that day. Piggins had initiated the hot Camaro project (the detail of which which is eloquently covered in many on-line articles) and incredibly, the first dealer delivery of a complete production 302 engined Camaro Z28 happened just three months Later, in February of 1967. How spectacular was that?
Not only did they have to productionise the prototype but they had to build, test and approve the 302. Here’s the point of this compendium of facts:
Chevrolet had to make a statement to directly challenge the Mustang ….they did so but not through their marketing people and front line BS but through their prodigious engineering capability. The earlier efforts of stalwarts like Duntov, who’s 283 fuel injected Corvette mill formed the basis of the 302, came together over this short period (which included the winter break), to produce this iconic machine. It was ‘right’ straight out of the box and despite being an optioned performance car, carried a full GM warranty.
Where the GTO, option 382, is the holy grail of options in the catalogue….. option Z28 is to me a resounding message of courage, determination and proper car engineering.
The magic of this story is that the Z28 went on to do exactly what was required. In a rare 60’s Ford vs GM road course one-on-one, Chevrolet, with Piggins still required to operate in clandestine mode (he had appointing Penske, Donahue and co on the front line), clobbered the Blue Oval fair and square in Trans Am racing in1968/69.
The significance of this tends to be lost.
Ford had started this all back in ’64 and by the time the confrontation loomed, they were at the peak of their racing prowess in every conceivable avenue of motor sport. This included F1 with the DFV Engine, thru Sports cars with the GT40 and AC Cobras, saloons with Galaxies, Falcons, Cortinas and Escorts. Ford’s racing infrastructure, special part availability, personnel, 3 years of full-on race experience, specifically with the Mustang/Shelby connection, as well as the Total Performance Corporate backing…..it should have been a cake walk against the constrained GM team.
It wasn’t……I’ll put this as kindly as I can…Chevrolet engineering outsmarted Ford engineering whilst Ford were at the top of their racing game. Far more embarrassing was the simple fact that as far as mechanical design was concerned the Chevrolet attempt came mostly out of existing parts bins*…..Ford were hurried into two engine redesigns to do the job and by 1969 were just about chucking the kitchen sink at developments to recover lost ground.
The Point to all this? GM pulled out of the series after 1969 *, the job done in positioning the Camaro and still under ridiculous limitations from the executive. It therefore begs the question……what would have happened if GM had remained in the Game and decided to throw their own kitchen sink at motor sport and done so world wide?
The answer to this is somewhat rhetorical…..Sadly they did not, but a number of hardy souls around the world did it for them…..and that provides us with the opportunity to regale the tales of those brave souls who kept the flame alive.4
- Strictly speaking it was in fact Penske who terminated proceedings by wanting to run cars supported by an official works manufacturer. Whilst the tie-up with GM had been an undercover operation run with the support of GM and motivated by Vince Piggins, Pensky’s move to American Motors resulted in the second string prep of the Chevrolet entries from 1970, with GM still refusing to become officially involved.
More on this in the Z28/Can Am write up still to come….