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Those Z-licious Z-Cars

First-generation Z/28s take no back seats among vintage muscle machines.
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The Camaro Z/28 was bred for racing; examples driven on the
street were among the best-handling cars to leave Detroit during
the muscle car era.

Perhaps even more than the big-block models, the Z/28s were the quintessential Camaros. These special high-performance Camaros, particularly those first-generation “Z-cars,” were truly race-bred. From the beginning, Chevrolet engineering did its best (even though they were not “racing” at the time, of course) to create a vehicle capable of winning on the road course; by the conclusion of the Camaro’s sophomore year, they had done more than that.

Vincent Piggins, Chevrolet’s well-remembered director of product promotion during the era, had already perceived that the new 1967 release would need something special to take on Ford’s Mustang. Prior to production, Piggins was discussing its potential with SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) officials, who had begun a new series in 1966 that would become the Trans Am class. Factory product development agreed to introduce a special Camaro package that would be legal for Group II competition (max 116-inch wheelbase, max 5,000cc displacement); racers could get a pretty stout car, and Chevrolet would sell street examples to “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” customers.

Initial plans and a prototype included a 283-cid engine, heavy-duty pieces such as a big-block clutch, upgraded suspension and other performance changes. Elliot “Pete” Estes had become general manager of the brand, and Estes, a performance enthusiast, was impressed with the one-off test car. When Piggins mentioned they had stuck to the 283-cid for this sample, but swapping the 283-cid crank into the 327-cid block would create an engine much closer to the 305-cid limit (5,000cc) than either Ford (289 cid) or MoPar (273 cid) offered, Estes approved immediately and engineering got to work.

Only 602 Z/28s were bought that first year. A fully optioned Z/28 was $858.40 more than the base model. This was almost as much as a Hemi package added to a Chrysler model. Since the sanctioning body required 1,000 examples to homologate a model, Chevrolet also legalized the 350-cid Camaro in SCCAs Group I class. The 350-cid model was not really a racer, but the factory turned out way more than 1,000 of those in 1967. Mark Donohue’s three wins, wearing Sunoco colors on a Camaro program financed by Roger Penske, were promising. For drag fans, Ben Wenzel won the Stock Eliminator at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in a Z/28 as well.

Changes to the production Camaro for the next year were not dramatic, and the hot 302-cid Z/28 package continued. This was actually a real race engine with a 780-cfm Holley on an aluminum intake featuring 11.0 compression and a lumpy cam; the factory’s 290-horse rating at just 5,800 was low, but the engine needed real revolutions to make big power. Low-end torque was absent.

On the track, it was all Donohue. With engines built by supplier Traco, bankrolling by Penske and no small amount of backdoor support from Chevrolet’s research and development arm, Donohue dominated the Trans Am series with 10 wins out of the 13 events held. The blue Sunoco machine was loved by the fans, praised in the press and feared by its competitors.
With the backing of the enthusiast press and on-track success, second-year Z/28 sales jumped all the way to 7,199 units.

One of those 1968s is now owned by Mike Slaughter. Although Slaughter lives in Colorado now, he had known about this Illinois car for literally years. Its owner had once lived next door to his grandparents, and in 1993 he had a chance to buy it after it had spent 10 year on jacks alongside the owner’s house.

“This car had always been owned within 20 miles of the original dealership, Jim Miller Chevrolet in Genoa, Illinois, and that’s including me until I moved in 2002,” said Slaughter, who works as a technical representative for an automotive paint company. “In 2000, I got all the original paperwork from the salesman who had sold the car new.”

Like many Z/28s, this Camaro was somewhat worn, but it had all the right stuff — the D80 spoiler/swaybar package (new for ’68), mandatory J52 power disc brakes, a G80 4.10 PosiTraction differential, plus the regular Z/28 gear, such as the 15 x 6-inch Rallye wheels, multi-leaf rear springs, M21 four-speed and more. Slaughter began a year-long, frame-off restoration soon after his purchase. Paul Adams of Richmond, Ill., was tagged to rebuild the 302-cid engine back to its original healthy shape. Parts primarily came from two noted suppliers to the Camaro restoration marketplace: Ron Norman at McHenry Classic Car Parts and Larry Christenson of Camaros Plus.

Slaughter himself repainted the car back to its original ZZ British Medium Green using BASF/Glasurit, and the concours level of everything had garnered this Camaro numerous awards, including a Gold Spinner from Chevy VetteFest, Gold from the American Camaro Association, Super Chevy Show titles and invites to the Forge Invitational Musclecar Show.
It has been said the 1968 Z/28 is one of the hardest muscle cars to document, but the pedigree on this car is rock solid. It has the original engine and all the paperwork to back it all up, and is owned by somebody who had known it for years. It is one of the best, from the year when racing put Z/28s on the map.

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