For most enthusiasts, the answer to the question “What is the best third-generation Camaro?” is probably the IROC-Z. It’s a good answer, with the IROC-Z laying down up to 245 ponies to its rear wheels from a 350 cubic-inch V8. However, for just a brief moment of the third-gen Camaro’s life, you were able to buy an even hotter Camaro. Well, you were able to so long as you knew the correct boxes to check to trigger a secret trim level. The 1988 to 1992 Chevy Camaro 1LE was a car that tossed creature comforts in the trash for racing parts, and General Motors thought the car was so hardcore that only racing teams should have been able to buy them.
Last time on Holy Grails, we took a look at a rare spec of pickup truck that so many of our readers love. The 2005 to 2009 Dodge Power Wagon took the third-generation Ram and filled it to the brim with awesome off-roading parts. This was a truck that came from the factory on 33-inch tires, had front and rear lockers plus a limited-slip rear, a burly V8 engine, an electronic disconnecting front antiroll bar, a 12,000-pound winch, feet of skid plates, and oh yeah, you could even have it with a manual transmission. This was a truck made to go just about anywhere while still maintaining the capability to drag a house along for the ride.
This week, we are moving away from mouthwatering trucks and back to obscure versions of otherwise common cars. For this one, we’re headed to the 1980s. The decade began with bummers like emissions-choked V8s that struggled to surpass 200 horsepower but ended with some real bangers. The Buick Reatta was originally a product of the late 1980s, as was the Lexus LS 400. We also saw the second-generation Mazda RX-7, the Mazda Miata, and the incredible Porsche 959. Don’t forget other hits such as the AMC Eagle, the AMG Hammer, the BMW M3, and the Audi Quattro.
The Chevrolet Camaro also saw a grand update in the early 1980s. Chevy’s pony car shed its 1970s looks for a sleeker, more aerodynamic figure. This body would later be the home of a hot racing special.
Some Camaro History: Thank You, Ford Mustang
In 1964, Ford captured lightning in a bottle when it released the Mustang during the World’s Fair in 1964 (above). The vehicle rolled out to instant critical acclaim and buyers lined up to have their own. Ford expected to sell 100,000 Mustangs in its first year, but the vehicle was such an overnight hit that Ford sold 22,000 units on the very first day. The pony car was born and other automakers were put on notice.
At first, Chevy’s best opponent to the Mustang was the Corvair, but as Hemmings writes, it didn’t take long for Chevy to figure out the Corvair wasn’t a pony car. In August 1964, word was that General Motors would have a proper Mustang competitor. GM Design Vice President William L. Mitchell oversaw the design, which was worked on by chief designer Henry C. Haga, Dave Holls, and executive designers Charles M. Jordan and Irvin W. Rybicki.
However, since the Camaro would borrow the architecture from the then-upcoming 1968 Chevy II, engineers had to work with some constraints from the Chevy II. After all, the Chevy II was going to be the volume seller of the pair. Sharing tooling with the Chevy II meant the designers of the Camaro had to work with a tall cowl and a short span between the dashboard and the front axle.
Hemmings notes that most of the Camaro’s work from the drawing board to clay model was done at Haga’s Chevrolet Studio Two. This studio was also responsible for works like the 1965 Corvair, the 1968 Corvette, and the Super Nova concept car. These would end up influencing the first Camaro designs. Hemmings also explains that the Camaro was styled using General Motors’ fluid design philosophy. Basically, designers would take heavy wire frame and bend it into the basic shape of the vehicle they were looking to make. Thin canvas would then be draped over the wire frame before compressed air was blown in. The resulting shape was said to be more natural.
According to MotorTrend, when the Camaro was announced in 1966, Chevrolet General Manager Pete Estes called up magazines and newspapers from 14 different markets. A couple hundred journalists joined a conference that was dubbed the first and the last meeting of the “Society for the Eradication of Panthers From the Automotive World.” In this call, Estes finally ended the rumor that Chevy’s Mustang competitor would be called the Panther.
As Automotive News writes, Estes called the new car the Camaro, which was a word reportedly taken from Heath’s French and English Dictionary as a word that translated to “friend” or “comrade.” GM also told reporters that a Camaro was “a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs.” Though, as Car and Driver notes, French friends of the magazine had never heard of the term before. Neither does translation software even today. Car and Driver did find “Camaro” in a Spanish-English dictionary, where it was defined as a “gratuity, a shrimp or something very much like something else.”
The Camaro went into production in 1966 as a 1967. It would be available as a coupe or as a convertible and during its first generation, buyers were able to score Camaros with engines as large as 427 cubic inch V8s and with power outputs as high as 430 HP. Hemmings notes that the Camaro’s designers even thought of different variations of the Camaro such as a fastback, a two-seat convertible, and a two-door wagon. Unfortunately, they were limited to just the coupe and four-place convertible body styles. A Camaro wagon? Sign me up!
An American Revolution
Today’s grail comes from the third generation of the Camaro, launched in 1982. This pony car was a radical departure from its predecessors. The third-gen Camaro ditched the classic European grand tourer-inspired shape and its bulbous headlights for a sleek, aerodynamic body put through wind tunnel testing. The new Camaro looked high-tech and futuristic.
As Hemmings writes, the new Camaro was 10 inches smaller than the second generation and with a coefficient of drag as low as .369. Its Pontiac Firebird Trans Am sibling did even better with a .32 coefficient of drag with optional aluminum wheels or .299 with optional aero wheels. Back then, General Motors claimed the Trans Am was the most slippery car it ever put on the road.
In a press release, Chevrolet notes some of the advancements brought on by the third-generation Camaro. Chevy explains that the low-slung, blocky front end enhances downforce and for the first time, you could buy your Camaro as a hatchback. Also innovative for the time was the car’s ground effects, which Chevy says was the first mass-produced American car to utilize an aero-enhancing body kit. The automaker continues that the third-gen Camaro’s rear window was novel as well, as it utilized new glass production technology to achieve its signature shape.
The third-gen Camaro also brought more advancements under the skin. It rode on a sophisticated coil spring suspension, engines had options for fuel injection, and the vehicle rode on a lighter unibody. Inside, drivers had the option to command their vehicles with futuristic gauges.
At launch, the Camaro’s base engine was a 2.5-liter Iron Duke four making just 90 ponies. The top engine was a 5.0-liter V8 making 165 HP with GM’s infamous Cross-Fire injection. If you got that same engine with a carburetor, power went down to 145 HP.
For many people, the best third-generation Camaro was probably the IROC-Z. The International Race of Champions pitted racers of different disciplines against each other and the champion of said racing series was often behind the wheel of a racecar with a NASCAR chassis, a 450 HP V8, and the body of a Camaro.
The IROC-Z, while nowhere near as potent as the real racers, celebrated the Camaro’s prowess at the International Race of Champions and buyers were absolutely enamored. I’m willing to bet more than one teenager had an IROC-Z poster in their bedroom while growing up.
Offered as an option package of the Z/28, the IROC-Z had a lowered suspension, Delco-Bilstein shocks, larger sway bars, and a tubular steering brace that tied the structure of the vehicle together, strengthening the chassis, and took stress off of the steering gearbox’s mount. Power came from a range of engines from a high output 305 cubic inch V8 that made 190 HP to a 305 cubic inch V8 that made 215 HP. Later, the IROC-Z would gain a 350 cubic inch V8 borrowed from the Corvette making up to 245 HP depending on year.
Yet, the IROC-Z was not the best third-generation Camaro. That distinction would go to the sort of secret 1LE. This was suggested by Joe The Drummer, who might have given us the longest explanation yet for a Grail nomination:
I’m sure I’m not the first to submit this one, but I feel like I have to, in praise of my beloved F-body. Apparently back in the 80s, as Tuned Port Injection offered the first rays of performance hope to shine on General Motors since leaded fuel, a team of engineers at Chevy wanted to offer a stout option for SCCA racers and the like, a parts-bin factory racing special the likes of which hadn’t been offered since the fabled COPO cars of the 60s and early 70s. Naturally, Chevy itself didn’t care for the idea, so they buried the option under layers of order form kung fu, meaning that you had to select certain options in order to “fool” the system into building you one, much like an Easter egg in a video game. Why has nothing good ever come easy from GM?
If you ordered a 1988-90 IROC-Z or a 1991-92 Z28 (after Chevrolet’s IROC tie-in had lapsed) and checked RPO G92, you got the “Performance Rear Axle” upgrade, with positraction and taller gears. The secret was to then delete air conditioning, which would literally trick the ordering system into adding the 1LE package, which added:
– Stiffer springs and struts
– Thicker front and rear sway bars
– Heavy-duty disc brakes, spindles, and wheel bearings
– Aluminum drive shaft
– A baffled fuel tank to prevent fuel starvation under hard cornering
That’s right – to get the hottest Camaro that Chevy would build at the factory, you had to know a secret that would glitch the RPO system into building you one, which was by design. Chevrolet thought this combination was too hairy for the street, and actively discouraged people from buying it – after all, The General gonna General.
The 1LE package got better each year over the 5 years it was offered, but every year, it required this sort of ridiculous secret handshake to make it happen in the first place; in its first run in 1988, they made only four units. As the secret got out (the Popular Hot Rodding article on the subject around 1990ish that taught me this secret, among other similar articles, probably helped a lot), more people ordered it, and by its final year in 1992, Chevy built 705 of them – which is still more 1LEs than they made in the first four years combined. The total production across its entire run was only 1,360 cars, out of over 400,000 Camaros built across all trim levels.
There’s nothing about a third-gen IROC-Z or Z28 that says “sleeper,” but a 1LE surely would have been, since there would be no way to tell a 1LE car from the outside, unless you looked through the window at the climate controls. If you saw a lack of air conditioning suggested there, then you were looking at the hottest production Camaro that could be had during its third generation. And being a native southerner, I can certainly understand why deleting air conditioning would be too high a price for the added performance, if your Z was your daily driver and not a track toy, so I’m sure that factor alone helped keep production numbers low. Otherwise, other than barely noticeable outside cues such as “fog lamp delete” in later years, the only way to know that’s what you were looking at was to see the build sheet, or have the driver spill the beans – a 1LE Camaro still kept its secrets even after it was built, until it got out on the track.
From what I’ve been able to tell, Joe The Drummer hit the nail on the head. According to MotorTrend, the 1LE was the work of GM engineer John Heinricy, GM brake parts engineer Phil Minch, Camaro chief engineer Chuck Hughes, and powertrain manager Ray Canale. Apparently, the idea of a track-ready Camaro began in Canada in 1985 with the Canadian Players Challenge racing series. Camaros ran all out for 30 to 45 minutes straight without stopping. Aside from wheels, tires, and shocks, those Camaros were stock. Unfortunately, during the series, it was discovered that the Camaro’s brakes couldn’t handle non-stop racing. GM of Canada reportedly began exploring a solution.
Here on our side of the border, the Sports Car Club of America’s Showroom Stock series was gaining popularity and the Camaro was reportedly losing to the competition. Heinricy and crew wanted to show that the Camaro was still competitive in Showroom Stock racing. To achieve this, the engineers created the most hardcore version of the third-generation Camaro.
Minch figured out that the Camaro shared the Caprice’s wheel bearings, and thus could use that car’s 12-inch brakes. Minch, Hughes, and Canale later discovered that the car needed new calipers, so they grabbed some from the Corvette parts bin. The development cars were taken racing, where they began stopping and cornering so well that the cars stalled during braking, so the fuel tank was redesigned as well.
Reportedly, the resulting car was so raucous that General Motors didn’t deem it safe for public consumption. The 1988 Camaro 1LE was meant for the race team looking for something to take to the track, not for daily drivers. Thus, the car was hidden behind what was essentially a secret handshake in the ordering system.
To order a Camaro 1LE, you had to order an IROC-Z with the 305 cubic inch V8 or the 350 cubic inch V8. Next, you had to check the box for RPO G92 Performance Rear Axle. This netted you 3.42:1 rear axle gearing for manual cars and 3.23:1 rear gearing for automatics. This is followed by the G80 Positraction rear end. To trigger the 1LE package, you then had to delete air-conditioning. In 1989, if you worked out your Konami Code correctly, the price of the G92 Performance Rear Axle Package would jump from $466 ($1,181 today) to $675 ($1,711 today). And that’s a big if, as Chevy never marketed the vehicle. You basically had to be a member of the Sports Car Club of America or the International Motor Sports Association and still know the cheat code.
The price difference covered the 1LE parts thrown into your performance car stew. The 1LE gained those larger brakes from the Caprice, the finned aluminum brake calipers from the Corvette, an aluminum drive shaft, a new proportioning valve, a shorter fifth gear, that baffled fuel tank, jounce bumpers, a stiffer suspension, and a fog light delete. The 1LE even went so far as to mount the spare tire to an aluminum wheel. The great thing about the 1LE is that even though it was meant for racers, the car was still street-legal. However, don’t expect to be coddled as the 1LE’s suspension was reportedly punishing, plus you didn’t get cruise control or T-Tops for your troubles, either. Of course, the lack of air-conditioning probably made the 1LE a non-starter down south. I hope you don’t like listening to the radio, either, because those were deleted in many examples along with power seats, power locks, and power windows.
Really, the 1LE was a stripper model made to do just one thing: Go fast. In 1990 you got it for the price of $16,000 ($38,559 today) and the lack of those options meant the car weighed just 3,100 pounds. For reference, base Camaros with a V6 were $10,995 ($26,497 today) in 1990. Power was unchanged, with the biggest punch coming from the 350, which made 245 HP at its peak.
While I could not find a period review of the Camaro 1LE, I did find a contemporary review from Road & Track:
Driven today, the 1988 1LE package feels Neolithic, with the suspension compliance of a pool table and a rock crusher of a shift lever. But there’s power, and unmistakable race-car soul. There’s also no denying the benefits aspiring pros saw from the factory fixes. The 1LE Camaros became the hot setup, not only for the Players Challenge and Firehawk championships, but the SCCA’s Showroom Stock GT class as well.
A total of four 1LEs were sold in 1988. In 1989, the number jumped to 111 units. By 1990, the 350 V8 was making 245 HP and just 62 people bought a 1LE that year. In 1991, the IROC-Z was discontinued after the International Race of Champions moved to the Dodge Daytona. The 1LE became a package offered with the Z/28 with a whole 478 getting delivered that year. During the third-gen Camaro’s final year, the secret was out and Chevy moved 705 1LEs. The numbers vary slightly depending on the source, but the figures usually end up with 1,360 total 1LEs getting sold between 1988 and 1992. In comparison, Chevy moved 460,948 Camaros in the same span of time. The 1LE almost qualifies as a Grail in the literal sense!
Amazingly, I did find one of these for sale. Here’s a 1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 1LE for sale at a Volkswagen dealer for $58,994. This car has been around at least four auctions and two dealerships. For that price, you’re getting a 305 V8 with 205 HP, so it’s not the most powerful version. Is it worth that much? I’m not sure, but what I can tell you is if you’re looking for a classic Camaro that could even come close to being called a sleeper, this is the ticket.
Do you know of or own a car, bus, motorcycle, or something else worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or drop it down in the comments!
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