The 1993 introduction of the fourth-gen Camaro rocked me right to the depths of my puny pre-teen core.
Really, it was just that one commercial — the one with the red Z/28 drifting sideways across wet asphalt in slow motion — that did it for me. Long, low, and packing 275 horsepower, the car came with a 6-speed manual transmission and a cup holder big enough to hold a Slurpee. The hook was deeply set.
The idea that Chevrolet was prepared to unleash an everyman’s rocketship on the general public got me all kinds of fired up. The entirety of my short life had been spent mired in the depths of the Great Performance Depression, but a new dawn was rising. When the Camaros started turning up in my hometown, I could spot one a mile away. Literally.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and here we are. Not only do I own a minivan, but I’ve also become the guy that let a sixth-generation Camaro ZL1 sneak up on him. All 650 horsepower of it. I’m not sure which is worse.
It was a Monday morning, and I was daydreaming about caffeine while I stood on the corner, staring off into space while waiting to cross the street. I was up and rolling a little earlier than I really wanted to be thanks to the nitro-fueled munchkins who live in my house, and, as a result, my faculties weren’t exactly firing in concert yet. Really, though, that shouldn’t be an excuse. That part of my brain — the part that’s always on the lookout for badass things — that part was on. Always is. And still, the new ZL1 snuck up on me.
Once I finally spotted it, my belated reaction surprised me. Mostly because I didn’t react at all.
Any reasonable car person, like 15-year-old me, would’ve immediately started throwing thumbs-ups and making inappropriately loud “Vroom-VROOM!” sounds while playing some bodacious Angus Young-style air-guitar. But as I eyeballed that triple-black mish-mash of plastic and spoilers and superhero-movie styling, deep in my guts, nothing moved. No flutter. No grumble. Nothing. Now, that supercharged LT4 sitting under the hood? I want that. The rest of it, though? Meh.
A couple of days later, same scenario. This time, it was a Go Mango Challenger SRT Demon — all hood scoops and fender flares and mass-marketed aggression. We’re talking 840 horsepower here! The only thing that moved inside of me was a desperate need for a sandwich.
I’m not sure what’s wrong with me. Maybe the marketing has finally worn me down. Maybe it’s the watered-down drive-by-wire and traction control and intelligent beep-boop touchscreens and whatever fluff is trending and viral at the moment. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the simple fact that I’m stumped by this one simple question: What could I possibly do to make one of those cars better?
Parts and sums
The fact that we’re living in a performance golden age is not lost on me, and I don’t in any way mean to sound unappreciative of the engineering marvels available to me in exchange for only a signature and fat monthly payment. The ZL1 and the Demon are both incredible cars that are representative of an era that may very well be reaching the pinnacle of internal-combustion-engine capability.
I’m invigorated by the technology and the componentry. Why then do I feel so disinterested in the sum of those parts? Maybe getting older has mellowed me out or taught me to relish a good challenge, but all I see when staring at a new ZL1 is a fantastic automobile that doesn’t need me in order for it to be interesting.
There’s a ’68 El Camino that I see driving by my office window at least twice a week. I see it often because I watch for it. And I watch for it not because it’s a beautiful restoration or a bubble-wrapped survivor, but because it’s miles from one and acres from the other. In fact, it’s probably the classic-car equivalent of the World’s Ugliest Dog.
It’s the kind of vehicle that looks like it can only be cranked by executing a specific sequence of events. The kind of car that would never allow itself to be stolen, if you know what I mean.
I love that the El Camino and its capitán look like they’ve not only been around the block, but like they’ve been around all the blocks — something I can only hope someone will someday say about me and my ’69 Chevelle.
Maybe I’ve been drinking the hot rod Kool-Aid for too long now, but, for me, ownership isn’t defined by signing a check. It’s not that I don’t like new, shiny stuff, because I do. It’s just that there’s a lot of old, faded junk that I find more interesting.
I appreciate cars like the ZL1 and the Demon because they drive the development that makes it possible for what was once considered ragged edge to now be everyday user-friendly. As a result, it’s never been easier to take something interesting and make it fast, reliable and safe, and I’m enamored with the idea of saving something old with the help of a little bit of new and, in the process, finding another piece of me.
When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to grow up so that I could buy one of those new Camaros. I never would’ve guessed that once I had done the growing up, all I would want to do is own an old one.
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