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
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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.

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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:

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  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

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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

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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)

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Col Lingus
Col Lingus
2 months ago

A fellow employee and me actually drag raced a Chevette vs Camaro.
And yeah the Vette won by a hair. So after a couple of rematches, we went back to work.
Those 4 banger Camaro were so weak.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
2 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

Back in high school, my lovely blue 1978 Camaro base coupe and its boat-anchor 305 lost a drag race to my friend’s Ford Fiesta. You wanna talk about an ego crusher, yikes. That was the night I learned a harsh lesson in the concept of power to weight ratio.

Mike TowpathTraveler
Mike TowpathTraveler
2 months ago

Yep, I’m the weirdo who’d not mind owning an Iron Duke Camaro; just as I think the early 70’s Challengers and Barracuda’s with the Slant Six are way too cool. The apex of the middle finger, anti-establishment to the anti-establishment performance pony car!

Soasas
Soasas
2 months ago

Please do not insult the slant 6 by grouping them with the iron duke

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
2 months ago
Reply to  Soasas

Them’s fightin’ words.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
2 months ago

Too bad they used the Iron Dukee and not the 122 or the Opala engine 🙁

It’s ok as long as it has T-tops 😉

Cerberus
Cerberus
2 months ago

I want to know more about that considered S4 engine. Just a V8 with deactivated cylinders? Gobbledy search predictably only returns Audis or misfiring GM V8s as a match.

I don’t remember these with the 4s. I knew they existed and I’m sure they were around, but the V6s were heavily ridiculed as it was and used V8s weren’t all that expensive when I started driving in the early ’90s, so I don’t think I ever knew anyone with one. If I knew they were that slow, I would have gone hunting for them with my better power:weight Subaru GL.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
2 months ago
Reply to  Cerberus

Yeah, like a Jag 😛

Hangover Grenade
Hangover Grenade
2 months ago
Reply to  Cerberus

Agreed. You can’t just gloss over “S4”!!

James Carson
James Carson
2 months ago

That must be the no 1 penalty box of all time. I carpooled in a chevette and a pontiac Skyhawks which both had iron dukes. Both where frustratingly slow. This thing must be glacial.

Astrass
Astrass
2 months ago

1983 Chevettes were available with an Isuzu diesel that made a firebreathing 51 horsepower when new. I’d love to see a drag race between a Chevette so equipped and an Iron Duke Camaro. Who will be the slowest? Find out next week, when they finally cross the finish line!

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
2 months ago
Reply to  Astrass

A diesel Camaro would’ve been awesome! Too bad the Chevette’s diesel wasn’t available in it 😛

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago

I have driven one of these! An automatic version, to boot!

It was the mid 90’s. It was blue and on a tote-the-note car lot. It was so slow, I was convinced the motor had blown a head gasket or something. I popped the hood and suddenly everything made sense. I was just moving it around, so I wasn’t going to buy it. However, I was there a week or so later and saw another guy signing the papers for it.

Oof…

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
2 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Huh, I wonder if we both went to the same car lot, because I have a nearly identical experience. A sketchy used car dealer, a blue “1986” Camaro, and a test drive where I couldn’t tell if the engine was broken or if the transmission was just slipping like mad. I too popped the hood, saw the Iron Duke, realized they had wrong year on the windshield stickers (along with the incorrect stickers claiming a V6), and walked (ran) away as fast as I could.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

Bethany, OK?

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
2 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Dang! Unfortunately, it was in Houston. That would have been an awesome coincidence though!

First Last
First Last
2 months ago

I feel like we need to talk about the guy in the lead photo.

Dolsh
Dolsh
2 months ago
Reply to  First Last

and where are his feet?

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago
Reply to  First Last

Who? Luke Skywalker from Wish?

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Iron Duke Skywalker

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
2 months ago

Oooo that’s much better!

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
2 months ago
Reply to  First Last

I expected him to burst into “I’m Just Ken”…..

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
2 months ago

I’m sure that someone at Chevrolet was convinced that an I-4 Camaro *had* to be created, simply to compete with the I-4 Mustang, and to be able to offer that sweet low MSRP.

Interesting side note is that the S-10 pickup, which was a more appropriate home for the Duke, didn’t get that engine until 1985, as the Duke Camaro died that year, so they had excess production to put into minitrucks.

Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
2 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

The thing is that GM was probably building vastly better engines in Europe. By then any European 2.0 would be making around 100 hp. With room to improve, and so much better mileage.
The ineptitude and laziness of American auto engineers of the Malaise era and beyond never ceases to surprise me.

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
2 months ago
Reply to  Argentine Utop

Hey, David Tracy is neither lazy nor inept, just misguided and insane on occasion!

It often feels like American auto makers are only allowed to hire a certain percentage of good engineers. They work on things the Blackwing and the Bronco, and then the crap engineers get left working on everything else.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago

DT wasn’t born yet when the malaise era ended!

Last edited 2 months ago by The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
Argentine Utop
Argentine Utop
2 months ago

Ha! Yes, DT is a real hero! But you might be right about using the best engineers on selected projects only.
Or perhaps I’m being unfair, and it’s the accountants the ones that prevent a reasonable work. In any way, it shouldn’t be more expensive to design an efficient engine than a crappy one.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
2 months ago

Had a 2.8 that could not get out it’s own way. Can’t imagine this thing.

Kasey
Kasey
2 months ago

There was a low mile baby blue Iron Duke Camaro for sale near me a couple years ago, it was pretty clean other than the typical GM interior wear. Wish I could’ve gotten it but the time wasn’t right.

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
2 months ago

I rode in one of these a few times (’83 Berlinetta). It had a 4 speed and would lunge for a moment when you downshifted and what little torque there was tried it’s hardest to motorvate. Then it would wheeze out after about 900 RPMs. Pure garbage.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 months ago

Worse power-to-weight than a Chevette?
I test-drove a pizza delivery Chevette after changing the clutch, and was rather unimpressed. -and I drove a 20yo Type2 Westy at the time.

I can’t imagine that motor in the beautiful shape I yearned for when it debuted during my HS years.

LTDScott
LTDScott
2 months ago

My first car in high school was an ’86 Celebrity with the Iron Dook. To this day it’s still the only engine I’ve completely seized while driving. One day back then a guy in a 3rd gen Camaro needed a jump start and I offered to help, and I was shocked to see the same engine as my car when he popped the hood on his!

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago

The Iron Duke would have passed through GM’s lineup sooner if they’d used stool softeners.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago

The no-wing, no-body cladding version of the Camaro is the best Camaro.

Just like the Periscopio is the best Countach.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
2 months ago

I would absolutely, happily rock an Iron Duke Camaro or Firebird. Why? Because cars like these are all about going against the grain, saying “fuck you” to all the normies. A V8 behaving badly is what they expect, and it’s too obvious. A car that looks like this but takes its own damn sweet time getting going? Now that’s a big old middle finger.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Still, couldn’t they have at least called it a Shamaro?

Loren
Loren
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

I’m feelin’ it. Keep your eye on the rear view mirror, watch ’em come up on you and as they pass, blammo! Kill ’em w/ that middle-digit and ruin their f’n day. And, you’d be way cooler than being in a Volkswagon van or something, doin’ that “This is for the environment” thing.

I went to Sears that year to buy a battery and there was a brand-new Firebird w/ every option…auto, A/C, T-tops, that rolled in all pretty-like w/ a very stylish gal driving. They popped the hood and there was that Iron Duke…I took another look at her and I swear I could see the lady cringe a little.

Toecutter
Toecutter
2 months ago

IRON DUKE!

Now I’ll read the article…

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

And by coolest speedo ever, you mean the famous dual needle setup right?!

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

And models without a tach had a dual-needle fuel gauge reading out in freedom units AND liters.

https://www.ebay.com/itm/334617898817

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Geoff Buchholz

I’d never seen that configuration. It almost makes me willing to forgo the tach!

Data
Data
2 months ago

You can’t drop a nugget like coolest speedometer ever and then not talk about it.
It would be like Torch mentioning the coolest taillights he’s ever seen and then start talking about using a chainsaw to create ice art of Beetle taillights.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Data

You beat me to it. Totally…no pic at all?

Dolsh
Dolsh
2 months ago
Reply to  Data

This. Must know more!

Clark B
Clark B
2 months ago

If it took over 20 seconds to hit 60, then it’s slower than a VW Beetle with the 1600cc engine (18 seconds), and maybe slower than some of the smaller engine Beetles as well. Imagine driving your sleek new Camaro, only to get smoked by a 10 year old Beetle at a set of stoplights.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
2 months ago
Reply to  Clark B

Heck, Barbie’s Jeep is faster.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Clark B

This was certainly a crazy part of the ’80s – many of the (relatively) sleek sport coupes of the era would be trounced by a family station wagon, as many of them were optioned up with V6s and 8s.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
2 months ago

Well, the same (final) years you could get a hemi in a 70s challenger…you could also get a 198ci slant six that made barely more than 90hp.

Last edited 2 months ago by Bizness Comma Nunya
Fratzog
Fratzog
2 months ago

A whole article on the iron duke, and not a single mention of the LLV mail trucks.
I can hear it puttering and wheezing outside my house as if it was there right now.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
2 months ago

Why would you want too? Unless driving it in a parade with the Shriners was your goal?

MrLM002
MrLM002
2 months ago

It is unironically my favorite Camaro variant.

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
2 months ago
Reply to  MrLM002

It can’t be unironic with an iron duke in it though

MrLM002
MrLM002
2 months ago

I will concede it is the least Camaro Camaro ever made, but I wouldn’t buy one because it’s a “Camaro”. I’d Buy it because its a Front engine RWD car I can get with a 4 speed manual that gets 40+ MPG with an ultra durable engine stock.

I could almost certainly get a 5 MPG boost out of modern self learning TBI and another 5 MPG boost out of very simple and very cheap aero mods (Rear wheel pants, underbody aerodynamic skid plate, etc.

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