Alighting is more than enough to hammer this home. Unlike the reclined seating position in the SS, the fully restored black leather seats in the Z/28 are more upright, though in no way uncomfortable, such is the plushness of both the leather and the timely give of the springs beneath.
Unlike the multi-function, thick-rimmed steering wheel in the SS, the Z/28’s wood-trimmed example is almost alarmingly slick and large by comparison, though unlike other classics I’ve been introduced to in the past, I actually can find a comfortable seating position without the steering wheel jamming into my thighs. Even the three pedals in the footwell – yes, it’s a four-speed manual – feel well-spaced.
By my right elbow lies a beautifully refurbished silver gear lever that, again, looks so slim and delicate part of me legitimately worries I’m going to snap it. Aside from the radio and a new A/C compressor hooked up to the period vents, there’s nothing else on the dash but a grab handle in front of the passenger seat. It all feels so fantastically straightforward and elegant in spite of the oddly segregated analogue speedometer and rev counter peeking through the gaps in the steering wheel.
Even the rear seats are genuinely big enough for two grown adults, something the fairly woeful examples in the SS are not. This doesn’t scream ‘driver-focused’ cabin. It hints at a lifestyle of an era gone by.
Unsurprisingly, the Z/28 can’t match the SS in terms of pure pace – the latter has more than double the power – but what it loses in outright grunt, it more than makes up for in drama. Take the soundtrack. I’ll admit, given the ear-bleeding levels this ’86 small block can hit under start-up, I’d expected much the same cacophony in the cabin. Somehow you just don’t get the full impact of the noise unless you’re standing right behind the exhausts. Not that I’m complaining, given that it continues its glorious, mechanical opera well into the mid-rev range (given the heat, Rob’s understandably wary of pushing the V8 too hard). It’s linear acceleration yet still impressively sprightly as each gear change is ‘snapped’ into place. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a
The differences continue into the first sequence of corners. Rob freely admits beforehand that period suspension and the same platform as a Pontiac Firebird mean handling is not the Z/28’s forte, despite the circuit heritage. “Like a truck” is an expression that’s offered in jest.
He’s not kidding. Under turn-in the Z/28 leans heavily into its archaic suspension as the weight shifts, immediately making its driver question confidence in the front end. Similarly the steering is pure 1960s performance, feedback through the surprisingly light column impressive for its time but completely over-assisted by today’s standards. Fortunately the brakes and clutch, both of which have recently been fully refurbished rebuild some of that lost confidence. It’s tidy when not bullied, thanks to surprisingly grippy tyres at all four corners (power sliding is out of the question today too), but you wouldn’t want to harry the front end through the twisties.
Where the Z/28 does come into its own though is back on the straights, and not even at ‘muscle car’ speeds. At a cruise, it proves a stunning example of its breed. The suspension, previously overwhelmed at the slightest hint of a hustle, now soaks up all imperfections in the road.
The engine, free from the pressure of bonfiring its rear rubber, ticks along superbly at mid-revs. The steering, now no longer required to tiller mid-corner, feels airy and perfectly suited to multiple kilometres down Route 66.
Taking a step back seems to have opened up an entirely new and considerably more beneficial driving experience. Away from the pressures of having to ‘perform’, this first generation Camaro suddenly feels like a revelation, a representative of a time long gone. It’s starting to feel like a muscle car, in the way the newer SS…kind of doesn’t.We cannot display this gallery
My wistfulness would continue, were it not for a few soft coughs from the engine. Rob has done a superb job keeping this example pristine, but lest we forget, this is still a nearly half century old car, and it’s not handling the steaming weather in quite the same way its contemporary is. Understandably, Rob is soon keen to wrap up so he can get the Z/28 home for a thorough once-over (a clean bill of health is relayed to me later via messenger).
Time though for the ultimate question: 2017 SS or 1969 Z/28 Tribute? I’ll admit, it’s a tricky one, given the lairiness and energy of the SS in terms of handling and acceleration versus the audibly more dramatic yet more subtly refined Z/28. Part of me is enchanted by the sheer V8 oomph in the sixth generation as well as the stellar job Chevrolet has done with the suspension and chassis, even if the comparatively muted soundtrack gives me pause for thought.
On the other hand, there’s little chance the Z/28 can put up much of a fight through either the corners or on the quarter mile, though admittedly the SS can’t match the quiet charm of cruising along at mid-revs with that raw 60s soundtrack rifling through from all angles. Plus, as good as the SS looks…well, c’mon…
It’s tempting to sit on the fence, and suggest that the SS would be ideal for your hooligan days while the Z/28 caters more perfectly for the ‘experience’ of a road-trip, but I’ll sack up and refrain from doing that. What I will say is this: while the prospect of owning a classic muscle car in the Middle East is a daunting one, and the idea of owning a modern interpretation with all the bells and performance whistles is more tempting, someday you’ll find yourself cruising along at 60kph in plush leather seats with a four-speed manual at your right elbow, and you’ll know you made the right choice.