Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Daydreams: F-Body Camaro SS and TransAm WS6

GMs F-body cars have always had a particular appeal to me. It could be that I got hooked after growing up as a huge fan of the Pontiac TransAm that served as the basis for KITT on the 80's classic TV show Knight Rider. It could also be that I just loved the long hood look of this traditional RWD platform. Even the classic Camaro's from the first-generation of this platform, which started the iconic look are oft admired, though mostly from afar. Of course, growing up in the 90's meant that it was the Fourth Generation F-Body cars, the Camaro and Firebird, that stuck in my mind. Those swoopy designs with all of the crazy body kits and powered by push-rod based American V8 muscle were among the more attainable cars that I lusted after as a kid and it still makes me smile to see the rare pristine example driving on the road.

As I would come to learn during college in the early 2000s, many of my favorite cars of the 1990's had their designed influenced or penned by one man, Ken Okuyama. As head of design, Okuyama was responsible for the sleek styling of the NSX, one of the cars I still lust after. After moving to GM, he was put in charge of both the Camaro and the C5 Corvette. At Porsche, he led the design team that was responsible for the 996 generation of the iconic 911. Finally ending up at Pinanfarina, Okuyama was the mind behind the design of the Enzo and was Creative Director for the 599, one of the best looking front-engined Ferrari designs of all time.

"2002ChevroletCamaroSS35-001" by Rich Niewiroski Jr.
Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
In looking at the early examples of the Fourth Generation Camaro, you can see some of the cues from the other cars that Okuyama worked on. That all black roof is a trait shared with the Acura NSX. The side profile borrowed liberally from popular 2-door coupes of the era, but was a tremendous departure from the Third Generation cars. The Firebird, which shared its platform and drive train options with the Camaro, shared many similar body panels, but had a unique snout that felt more like an evolution of the Third Generation design. As both models aged, they were refreshed with increasingly aggressive body work and wheels. Sitting atop each respective models hierarchy were the Camaro SS and the Firebird WS6, packing all manners of outrageous bodywork and rip-snorting V8s -- just the kind of cars catch the attention of a car-loving teenager.

While I never had the opportunity to own one, I did have occasion to drive one during college. It was a V8 model with the automatic transmission, so not the most sporting, but certainly plenty powerful. As with all muscle cars of that era, the solid rear axle compromises handling to some extent, but straight line performance, especially with the torque of the small-block V8, was fantastic for a car of that era. With tires that were just a bit on the old side, it was easy to dip too far into the throttle and break the rears loose. Of course, most of the time, I simply admired the cars from afar.

A year and a half ago, I had occasion to take a quick road trip with a current generation Camaro, a car that draws extensively upon its heritage for its chiseled looks. The time with that car shows that the spirit of the Camaro is alive and well and, while it has gone to the big parking lot in the sky, the Firebird lives on in spirit as well. While it is thoroughly more modern than its F-Body based predecessors, it still carries that character that makes muscle cars so much fun, both to look at and drive.

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