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Mon Nov 24 11:16:30 SAST 2014

Detroit's manga manga race

Thomas Falkner | 08 October, 2012 18:56

Never mind the space race; the real battle for 1960s bragging rights was fought on the mean streets of Detroit, Michigan.

You see, Ford had just released the Mustang, a sleek and sporty coupé that could sex up the image of every man.

Standing out from the Motown crowd with its long hood and short deck design language, Ford expected to sell 100000 of these ponies in its first year of production.

But the hype was so massive, the package so appealing, that this figure was achieved just three months after the Mustang was launched at the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York, on April 17 1964.

Oh yeah, baby, this was the car that young America wanted to be seen in. Even more so when, in 1965, Carroll Shelby was commissioned to turn this Ford into a formidable track weapon that could kick some ass in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) race series.

The result, the GT350, became an immediate icon, one that helped propel Mustang sales to over the one million mark by 1966.

Ford's competitors were quick to sit up and take notice of this runaway sales success. The Mustang had just given birth to the lucrative "pony car" segment and the likes of General Motors, Chrysler and American Motors all wanted in.

So the gloves came off and the fast-moving Ford was soon being challenged by a herd of similarly priced, similarly styled rivals. Yeah, it was a rumble all right; and the most formidable opponent that sparred off against the Dearborn Pony was the new Chevrolet Camaro, that hit the road running in 1967.

Supposedly named after "a small, vicious animal that eats Mustangs", this was the machine that GM fans had been waiting for.

Packing all those sleek Coke-bottle styling cues, the Camaro was undeniably an attractive bit of metal right out of the starting blocks.

Even more so if customers checked the optional RS package that threw in that trademark hidden headlight grille.

Great to look at, the Camaro had plenty of muscle too - particularly in the form of the powerful SS and Z28 models that were aimed squarely at the GT series Mustangs.

Wise to the old marketing mantra of "win-on-Sunday-sell-on-Monday", Chevrolet followed Ford's cue and soon entered their Camaro in various motorsport events.

The most noteworthy among these was the SCCA Trans-Am Series in which New Jersey-born race ace, Mark Donohue, battled his Roger Penske-prepared Z28 against the factory backed Boss 302 Mustang of Parnelli Jones.

The racing was nothing short of explosive and, after stealing the championship in both 1968 and 1969, the Camaro established itself as a major pony car player.

So it was little wonder that nearly 700 000 first-generation models were sold before the close of the decade.

Off the racetrack, and on the street, the Ford-Chevrolet rivalry was equally fierce. In 1969, enthusiasts looking for the perfect quarter-mile time could now squander their hard-earned greenback on either the Camaro ZL1 or the Boss 429 Mustang - hand built, turnkey dragsters that took horsepower to a whole new level. There was no shortage of muscle.

But then, with the coming of the 1973 oil crisis, the pony car herd was suddenly culled off in favour of smaller and less powerful econoboxes.

It amounted to a neutering of the severest order and one that destined the once proud demigods such as the AMC Javelin and the Plymouth Barracuda to an early grave.

Fortunately, the Camaro was spared from death row and left to soldier on as a comparatively under-endowed husk of its former self. Well, at least it faired better than its poor Ford rival did; the most potent Mustang of the 1970s, the Cobra II, came armed with a pitiful 103kW V8.

Fast-forward to the present, however, and you will notice that both these juggernauts have been restored to their past glory. In fact the modern-day Camaro ZL1 and Mustang GT500 are some of the most powerful production cars you can buy at the moment.

Combined, they push out no less than 918kW - that's 80kW more than a pair of considerably more expensive Ferrari 458 Italias can muster.

But, whereas you can walk into Viglietti Motors and order the aforementioned Fezza, getting your hands on either one of these Detroit gunslingers is a much tougher challenge - one that means they remain a very rare sight on our South African roads.

So it's something of a red-letter day when I get a chance to strap myself into a matte-black Camaro SS. One model down from the supercharged ZL1, this menacing slab of metal has not only been converted to right-hand drive but also comes equipped with a 6.2-litre V8 engine that is good for 298kW and 560Nm.

Unfortunately mine has been mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that seems woefully out of place in such a performance-orientated vehicle.

It's a lazy ol' box too, one that requires you to shift up early in order to avoid running up against the rev limiter. Be this as it may, the SS is still tyre-blisteringly brisk in a straight line.

Chevrolet America quotes a 0-100km/h-sprint time of 4.7-seconds - a figure that, even at this lofty altitude, does not feel very far from the truth.

It sounds brilliant too; building from this gruff guffaw at low revs to a metallic wail the closer the tachometer needle gets to the red paint.

Come off the gas at any time and the exhaust system will ricochet with a series of pops and burbles reminiscent of distant thunder.

With all this aural panto-mime mixed in with those killer good looks, the Camaro SS is something of a neck twister: an evil road entity that commands endless fist pumps of approval from bewildered pedestrians and motorists alike.

Now, although super-sized US cars aren't known for their hand-ling prowess, this Chevrolet isn't half bad. Sure, it lacks the crisp, razor-sharp reflexes of its German rivals but once you get used to the uncommunicative steering and noticeable body-roll, corners can be dispatched at speed and with reasonable confidence.

Turn the traction control off and there's also plenty of scope to indulge in a little sideways action.

Yeah, power oversteer is seldom so accessible and, indeed, so rewarding. In actual fact it becomes a useful tool when you are steering the Camaro through those tighter twists and turns.

Squirt the throttle, give a quick dab of opposite lock and this near 1700kg monolith tucks in nicely.

Downsides? Well, despite being fixed with four-pot Brembo anchors, the words "braking" and "quickly" aren't something you'd readily use to describe the SS retardation experience.

Prone to early fade after just one or two big stops, the middle pedal also felt disappointedly mushy, with precious little feedback to be had.

Yep, not particularly confidence inspiring when you're hustling close to two-tons of high-powered Americana along some rolling back road.

Another let down was the interior. The innards of the new Mustang aren't too shabby but the Camaro is seriously lacking in the quality department. From the cheap plastic dash (moulded, no doubt, from melted down takeout boxes) right through to the poorly finished stitching on the drivers seat, the SS cabin is right up there with the Chery Tiggo and Tata Indigo. Very disappointing.

But, as soon as you twist that big pushrod V8 to life and rumble on down the road, this disdain just sort of floats away on a giant cloud of exhaust gas.

Perhaps I'm being biased here, I don't know; but the feel-good factor offered up by the latest Chevrolet Camaro SS more than makes up for its various shortfalls.

This is a raw, uncomplicated car that harks back to an era in which life was lived one quarter-mile at a time and the calibre of your date determined by the width of your racing stripes.

For some people - me included - this is more than enough reason to be a little smitten. Its predecessors would be proud.

  • Thanks to Jack Daniels for making this drive possible. This branded Camaro was given away in a recent promotion.

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