Home » You Could Once Buy A Chevrolet Camaro With A 90 Horsepower Engine

You Could Once Buy A Chevrolet Camaro With A 90 Horsepower Engine

Camaro Glorious Garbage Topshot
ADVERTISEMENT

When the third-generation Camaro rolled around for the 1982 model year, fans were shocked. In the most affordable variant of what used to be the last chest-thumping cubes-over-brains pony car of the ’70s sat a four-cylinder engine generating just 90 horsepower. Sure, the new car looked great, still had an available small-block Chevrolet V8 on deck, and featured one of the coolest speedometers ever fitted to a car, but that base-spec powertrain was downright insulting.

While 90 horsepower is two more horsepower than a base-model 1982 Mustang could muster, early fox body Mustangs could weigh as little as 2,608 pounds. The Iron Duke (that’s the name of the engine; I’ll describe how this pathetic lump came about in a sec) Camaro weighed 2,864 pounds, and as a result, it had a substantially worse weight-to-power ratio than the Mustang. Nothing says sports coupe quite like 31.8 pounds per horsepower, right Chevrolet?

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

For the record, that’s a worse weight-to-power ratio than a 1983 Chevrolet Chevette, the cheap and cheerful chariot of pizza joints and small auto parts deliveries. Mind you, many younger readers didn’t get to experience the sloth of a Chevette firsthand, so let’s give more modern context. If we draw the Chevette’s subcompact lineage out to the modern day, we eventually arrive at the Chevrolet Sonic, a perfectly respectable subcompact car. Since the most powerful Sonic had a power-to-weight ratio of 21.9 pounds per horsepower, the Iron duke Camaro would be the equivalent of a 2011 Camaro having fewer than 176 horsepower while maintaining the same curb weight as the V6 car of the time. See a problem here? The word “performance” wasn’t anywhere in the Iron Duke Camaro’s vocabulary. What the hell happened?

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Standard Powertrains

The 1982 model year marked the first time a Camaro was available with a four-cylinder engine, and since GM’s attitude towards small cars at the time was something along the lines of “fuck ’em,” the General wasn’t playing with a full deck in the small-bore table game. In fact, Chevrolet only had two grown-in-Detroit four-cylinder engines at their disposal for the start of the 1982 model year. There was the 88-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Cavalier, and then there was a second economy engine.

ADVERTISEMENT

Iron Duke Engine Early 2

I’m talking about the Iron Puke, excuse me, Iron Duke 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that GM made by starting with a cost-cut premise and then doing the exact opposite. According to a 1977 SAE document titled “Pontiac’s New 2.5 Litre 4 Cylinder Engine” by John M. Sawruck, The General first considered a wide variety of solutions.

With the advent of the oil embargo in late 1973, General Motors recognized that future American automobiles would be radically different from those previously built. As part of the realignment of General Motors products, Pontiac Motor Division began to examine the potential for producing engines smaller than the 350 In3 – 400 In3 – 455 In3 V-8’s then being produced. Engines considered included:

(1) New, smaller V-8’s from 250 In3 to 381 In3.

(2) A 90 V-6 from one of the existing V-8’s.

(3) A 90 V-4 from one of the existing V-8’s.

(4) An in-line four (L-4) made from one-half of an existing V-8 in a fashion similar to that of the 1961 Tempest L-4.

(5) A S-4 which had cylinders 1, 4, 6, and 7 from one of the existing V-8’s.

(6) A new L-4.

(7) An in-line six version of a new L-4.

From there, engineers decided to look at what foreign GM brands were doing. If overseas branches were making their own four-cylinder engines, why not just bring those to America? Well, the engineers in Detroit liked the smoothness of the Brazilian-spec Chevrolet 153 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine used in the Opala so much that they decided to copy the same bore, stroke, and bore spacing wholesale. However, because of reasons only known to GM, those are just about the only things the American engineers took from the Brazilian design.

Iron Duke Engine Block 2

Alright, so after a great deal of anguish, we now have some basic characteristics. Are we going with at least one overhead cam? Are we getting daring and shooting for electronic fuel injection? Will this engine embody the pioneering spirit GM had in the ’60s? Absolutely not. Instead, GM set about developing what it called the “formula engine.” Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with open-wheel cars, but rather, a set of goals established by an internal team that go as follows, in the words of GM:

ADVERTISEMENT
  1. Minimize noise and vibration.
  2. Maximum usable power.
  3. Excellent durability.
  4. Excellent driveability.
  5. Excellent fuel economy.

That’s it. That’s the list right there. While this sounds promising at face value, some of the definitions and methods of achieving certain goals weren’t exactly groundbreaking, especially in the face of Japanese competition. With goal number one achieved by certain bore and stroke dimensions alone, let’s dive into objective number two. Here’s what GM had to say about “usable power”:

Usable power would be defined as power that would be available at lower engine speeds. This power assists in standing start accelerations, entering freeways, and when passing. This concept of small engine power differs greatly from that of most small engine manufacturers. Most small engines are tuned for high horsepower output at high rpm. It was felt that the Pontiac philosophy would result in a more pleasing vehicle, particularly in view of the 55 mph (88 kph) speed limit. Benefits would include the ability to use low numerical axle ratios which would result in lower engine speeds and less powertrain noise being generated.

Ah, I think the word they’re looking for is torque [Ed Note: If you mention RPM, like the document did, then it’s fine to say “power,” since power is the product of torque and RPM (divided by 5252). -DT]. While low-end grunt is what most drivers feel most of the time, merging and passing scenarios require a bit more flexibility. Because the Iron Duke wasn’t initially made to rev past 4,500 rpm, its power and torque curves never crossed.

Iron Duke Dyno Graph

Trade too much puff up top for low-end torque, and when a driver mashes their foot on the throttle to merge, they’ll get the sensation that the harder they push, the less quick the car feels. This is fine in a vehicle with no sporting pretense whatsoever, but in a rakish two-door? I don’t think so.

Camaro Sport Brochure 1

ADVERTISEMENT

Camaro Sport Brochure 2

1984 Chevrolet Camaro

Now, to the four-cylinder engine’s credit, it was a long-lasting engine in most applications. Sure, the Iron Duke Fiero didn’t launch with the correct dipstick, but we’ll gloss over that for now since 2.5-liter S-10s are still kicking about. It was also perfectly adequate around town in most applications. However, the goals of the Iron Duke were completely incompatible with the high-testosterone, low I.Q. goals of the Camaro. It was a fine engine for an S-10 or a Citation, but it just didn’t post the numbers needed for a relatively heavy sports coupe. It gives off the same aura as a bodybuilder struggling to open a pickle jar, an innate look of all show and no go.

Unsurprisingly, road tests of the Iron Duke Camaro are thin on the ground, although it’s not hard to gather others’ general thoughts. In an early Motorweek preview drive of the third-generation Camaro in V6 form, they noted “Off the line, our V6 car wasn’t too responsive. That makes you wonder about the four-cylinder as a practical alternative.” In a full road test of a 1982 Camaro, Motorweek then went on to say that “Although the base line Camaro can be had with a four-cylinder, we wouldn’t recommend it.” On a more glaring note, GM Parts Center notes that the Iron Duke Camaro “couldn’t go 0-60 in under 20 seconds,” and any result around that time is deeply unsporting.

Third Gen Camaro

ADVERTISEMENT

For 1986, the Iron Duke disappeared from the Camaro lineup, with GM’s LB8 2.8-liter V6 taking up the role of a base engine. While this wasn’t a rev-happy engine either, peak output of 135 horsepower and 165 lb.-ft. of torque represented a 46 percent horsepower increase and a 25 percent torque increase over the Iron Duke. Now that’s more like it. Then again, it’s not like the varsity football players cared. Their parents popped for the V8 anyway.

(Photo credits: Chevrolet, Pontiac)

Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.

Relatedbar

Got a hot tip? Send it to us here. Or check out the stories on our homepage.

ADVERTISEMENT
Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
90 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dhunt
Dhunt
14 days ago

My older brother’s first car was a 1984 camaro just like the title pic. He bought it from a semi sketchy lot. At the first oil change it was discovered the engine wasn’t a 2.8, but some crime against nature 4.3 mated to the same 5 speed. The car was gutsy, but unstable at both 45 and 85 mph.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
14 days ago

As a lifelong Pontiac fanboy – see profile pic – it has always baffled me how the Pontiac Motor Division could fire the first shot of the muscle car wars with the 1964 GTO; release probably the very last newly designed damn-near-full-race super-engine of the era with the 455 Super Duty in 1973, against all odds; sell the very last of the big-cube V8 pony cars with the 1979 Trans Am…

…and then make this, uh… this… THIS.

The General decided to poison Pontiac to death in 1979, and took thirty years to do the job.

JDE
JDE
14 days ago

81-83 was a rough time for performance.

1981 Ford Mustang Specs

Performance
EngineHPTorque
2.3L 4-cyl. 88 hp @ 4,600 RPM118 lb-ft @ 2,600 RPM
3.3L 6-cyl. 94 hp @ 4,000 RPM160 lb-ft @ 1,600 RPM
4.2L V8 120 hp @ 3,800 RPM190 lb-ft @ 2,200 RPM

Industrial_design_guy
Industrial_design_guy
15 days ago

It’s crazy to me how little power they were able to get out of those engines, really pathetic. BMW had a peppy little 4 banger in the e30’s that put out more horsepower than the V6.

JDE
JDE
14 days ago

what 1982 E30 4 are you thinking? The M10 was 74 to Maybe 108 HP

Industrial_design_guy
Industrial_design_guy
14 days ago
Reply to  JDE

No, I was thinking M42. Given that they put the V6 in as base engine in 86, and the M42 was in the e30 a few years later, it’s not an unreasonable comparison.

Last edited 14 days ago by Industrial_design_guy
Sean Hannay
Sean Hannay
10 days ago
Reply to  JDE

M10 was rated at 101 ho for the ‘84 and ‘85 US 318i

Hillbilly Ocean
Hillbilly Ocean
15 days ago

A fraternity brother had a Camaro with this engine; at least it was a manual gearbox. Breathtakingly agricultural.

JDE
JDE
14 days ago

I as surprised to see the 4 back in the day as well. I suppose the sportier look over am S 10 or similarly equipped FWD car of the time would be the benefit, well and I feel like the camaro with the hatch and fold down sea was in fact superior to the S10 for hauling space

Der Foo
Der Foo
15 days ago

 It was a fine engine for an S-10 or a Citation, but it just didn’t post the numbers needed for a relatively heavy sports coupe. 

No. Hell no! I drove an ’84 Citation and it was NOT “fine”. It wasn’t even half way fast, and I use the word “fast” cautiously. The idea of a low RPM engine is fine enough, but it assumes at that lower RPM there is something there to use. The engine barely got to 4500 RPM and vibrated like a moe foe. In the 7 years I was stuck with it, the thing went through a whole set of cooling system seals, many valve cover gaskets, stalled incessantly at stoplights, engine mounts and other smaller misc engine parts. Don’t get me started on the rest of the car. I sold it at just under 100K miles with that Iron Duke hammering out some heavy metal sounds internally. The only thing that didn’t give me any repair grief was the throttle body fuel injection (FI unit in place of a carburetor). The aforementioned engine stalling was due to a badly designed sensor components and computer system.

Last edited 15 days ago by Der Foo
Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
15 days ago

 If we draw the Chevette’s subcompact lineage out to the modern day, we eventually arrive at the Chevrolet Sonic, a perfectly respectable subcompact car. Since the most powerful Sonic had a power-to-weight ratio of 21.9 pounds per horsepower, the Iron duke Camaro would be the equivalent of a 2011 Camaro having fewer than 176 horsepower while maintaining the same curb weight as the V6 car of the time. See a problem here? 

Yes, I see the problem – this paragraph makes absolutely no sense.

Edit! We need an editor here!

Xpumpx
Xpumpx
15 days ago

Holy stereotypes, Batman!

AlfaRomasochist
AlfaRomasochist
15 days ago

My first “drivable” car – as distinguished from the crapbox Datsun Z-cars I could never get to pass emissions – was a 1982 Camaro with the carbureted 2.8 V6, with all of 102 HP and a 3 speed slushbox. I can’t imagine that the Iron Duke would be that much slower.

I used to drive to high school every day and race my buddy Randy in his Audi Fox. The hilarious part is that while we were going balls out nobody else had any idea we were racing…

Hamish48
Hamish48
15 days ago

In the day, this was called “all show, no go”.

AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
15 days ago

Hold the phone.
“A S-4 which had cylinders 1, 4, 6, and 7 from one of the existing V-8’s”
Way to bury the lede.
We need a story on this thing

Black Peter
Black Peter
15 days ago

My brain hurt after the statement “smaller” used in reference to a 381V8.. But yeah, the SBC is (facing the engine) Right to Left, front to rear, so 1 (FR) 2 (FL) 3 (second R) 4 (second L), so an engine using 1, 4, 6 and 7 uses the two middle cylinders of the right bank and the two outer cylinders of the left. How does that even work?!?!?

Last edited 15 days ago by Black Peter
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
AutoPartsGuyBuffalo
15 days ago
Reply to  Black Peter

How well does it balance? Or not, I suppose.
I tried a quick google, but all I could find was stuff for an Audi.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
14 days ago

They should have done what Jaguar Land Rover did to the AJ126 and just blocked off four cylinders (random ones for extra malaise points).

Last edited 14 days ago by Vetatur Fumare
Black Peter
Black Peter
14 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

Maybe that’s what it meant?

Mike F.
Mike F.
15 days ago

A 90 hp Camaro is pretty much the embodiment of Inglorious Garbage.

Sid Bridge
Sid Bridge
15 days ago

As a lover of 3rd-gen Camaros and Firebirds, I have always had a morbid curiosity about driving an Iron Duke Camaro. One day I will find one, pay the guy the $200 its not worth, and I will take one for this team.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
14 days ago
Reply to  Sid Bridge

I love underpowered and rare vehicles; an Iron Duke Camaro is pretty much the only Camaro I lust after. Another (un)holy grail is the European Ford Granada fitted with the 1.9-liter, 54hp, Indenor diesel engine.

They say never to meet your heroes; it might prove very true in my case.

Sarah Blikre
Sarah Blikre
12 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

I’m morbidly curious how an American Granada drives with the 70hp straight six.

Nicklab
Nicklab
10 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

The Iron Duke Camaro and egg crate grill Lima or Thriftpower Fox body are some weird dream cars for me

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
15 days ago

I don’t think they intended people to actually buy the 4 cyl. My mullet wielding teenage years were spent worshipping all things 3rd gen F-Body as they’d just hit the rock bottom of values and were the ultimate chariots of high school parking lots everywhere. And I never once saw one with the 2.5L. Not running or in junk yards or parts cars anywhere. I rocked an ’84 Firebird with transplanted Trans-Am body parts, a 4-bolt 350 wearing 5.0 HO heads, swapped TPI fuel injection, headers, true duals, and a 5-speed swap. No Iron Duke for me!

JMJR
JMJR
15 days ago

My father-in-law’s former boss had a Camaro with an Iron Duke in it. He had bought it as his first car back in the early ’90s and eventually put over 300,000 km (186k miles) on it. At some point the exhaust rotted out and it was impossible to find replacement parts because no one bothered supporting the Camaro with the crap engine…for obvious reasons.

Idiotking
Idiotking
15 days ago

The late 70’s/early 80’s were dark, dark times full of questionable decisions made by desperate people.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
14 days ago
Reply to  Idiotking

Cocaine is a helluva drug.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
15 days ago

The iron puke was so terrible, it was relegated to service duty in early model year LLV’s for the USPS. It did okay in that application where the high torque was desirable for toting around heavy crates of letters and packages, and actual acceleration was of no concern (however, some carriers driving them during the era might argue that it could have used a bit more hp)

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
15 days ago

I owned an Iron Duke Jeep Scrambler, and it sucked.
Being a teenager in the 1980s you really had to make an effort to like new cars.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
14 days ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

Or wish you had been born a decade or two earlier.

2manybikes
2manybikes
15 days ago

All this “the engineers decided X” language has me raising an eyebrow of “nah.” Executives decided X, or engineers’ options were curtailed to the point they were left with X, is more likely the case.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
15 days ago
Reply to  2manybikes

I was at a senior management presentation at the start of a new engine project. When the projected power and torque curves went up one of the senior managers stopped the presentation and said that this was the thing we kept doing wrong “we need to make the power curve the same as the torque curve so we get peak power at 2-3000rpm where you can use it”.

The guy had no idea that the two curves are based on the same data.

SK2807
SK2807
15 days ago

Wasn’t the 153 Inline 4 an American engine to begin with, not a Brazilian one? Pretty sure it was the base engine in the Nova (?) and had been around since the 60’s. So GM took an engine they already had, decided to build a better one and created a 151 Inline 4 lump of wasted effort instead.

Or they could’ve grabbed the Family II Inline 4, it was only being used around the same time by Vauxhall, Opel, Holden, etc. and was being built in multiple locations around the world.

Jim Zavist
Jim Zavist
15 days ago

At least the Camaro had aerodynamics on its side. I had an ’82 Scrambler with an Iron Duke and the aerodynamics of a brick. Yes, it was slow and gutless, as well.

Suds Sepanski
Suds Sepanski
15 days ago

I’ve I’m not mistaken, did they do the same thing with the Firebird? As an 18 year old working in an office for the first time I worked with a woman who owned what I called an “imitation Firebird” as it was a stripped down gutless wonder. But it was red! She said. I of course was full of myself driving my 1977 Camaro LT that at least had some home mods and a 305…sigh.
Amazingly, this same company had a 1982 Chevette that we used for computer tape runs for processing at a company “across the lake”. What it didn’t have was power. What it did have – I swear to god to this day – was the loudest AM radio I’ve ever heard in a car. That combined with Seattle’s awesome punk/wave lo-watt Am station KJET made for some awesome rides…

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
14 days ago
Reply to  Suds Sepanski

Oh, man – suddenly I want to run an errand in this thing while rocking out to my hometown’s version of the same thing, the mighty 5000-watt Rockin’ 56.

90
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x