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The First Four-Cylinder Chevrolet Camaro Was Really Bad

Illustration for article titled The First Four-Cylinder Chevrolet Camaro Was Really Bad

The freshly redesigned sixth-gen 2019 Chevrolet Camaro was revealed today alongside welcomed news of a 1LE track package for the 2.0-liter turbo engine. To counter this good example of a four-cylinder Camaro, let’s look at the worst example—the third-gen 1982 car with the infamous Iron Duke engine.


The 2019 Chevrolet Camaro’s new 1LE Turbo package is a promising lower-tier muscle car, considering it comes with a four-cylinder. It’s only available with a six-speed manual transmission and gets suspension upgrades, Brembo brakes, wide summer tires, “Sport” and “Track” drive modes and, according to GM, “nearly” 50-50 weight distribution.


The new Camaro 1LE Turbo has 275 horsepower, or roughly three times the 90 HP “Iron Duke” engine of the very first four-cylinder Camaro introduced back in 1981.

Illustration for article titled The First Four-Cylinder Chevrolet Camaro Was Really Bad
Illustration: GM Heritage Center

That’s right—the all-new third-generation Camaro introduced for the 1982 model year, allegedly still intended to be defined as a muscle car, had an engine option with a double-digit horsepower figure. The Iron Duke engine was purely a product of the Malaise Era scramble to sacrifice performance for fuel economy and to meet government emissions standards following the fuel crisis and influx of Japanese competition. It resulted in one of the worst-performing Camaros ever sold.

The infamously weak, Pontiac-built Iron Duke engine was a 2.5-liter fuel-injected pushrod straight-four, which was essentially just one cylinder bank from a contemporary Pontiac V8. Production of the Iron Duke started in 1977 and continued until 1993, landing in cars across every General Motors brand except for Cadillac, including third-gen Camaros from 1982 through 1986.


GM never intended for the Iron Duke to be a performance engine, despite it showing up in seemingly-performance-oriented models like the thrid-gen Camaro and Pontiac Fiero. The Duke’d Camaro had an embarrassing zero to 60 MPH time of somewhere around 20 seconds. It also had an admittedly reasonable 132 lb-ft of torque to go with its measly 90 HP figure. Still, there was a big disconnect in the refreshed aerodynamic and sporty look of the then-new four-cylinder Camaro and how it actually drove.

Illustration for article titled The First Four-Cylinder Chevrolet Camaro Was Really Bad
Illustration: GM Heritage Center

The Iron Duke was only available in the base “Sport Coupe” Camaro trim, and the engine got a boost to 92 HP for the 1983 model year. It was originally available with a four-speed manual as standard, with a three-speed automatic available at extra cost.

In 1984, the transmission choices upgraded to a five-speed manual and four-speed auto. The V6 option was only a $250 premium, and replaced the Iron Duke as the standard option for the Camaro in 1986. I’m not sure anybody really noticed.


Here’s how GM Parts Center described the Iron Duke Camaro:

If you were to do a quick Google search for “The Worst Cars Of All Time,” the 1982 “Iron Duke” Camaro would inevitably be named. Remember that up to that point, the Camaro was a legendary and successful sports car. But when the newly designed 1982 “Iron Duke” Camaro made its debut, the 90 hp engine left something to be desired. In the book Automotive Atrocities: The Cars We Love to Hate, author Eric Peters said that its drivers were forced to go through “the humiliation of being left in the dust by K-car station wagons.”


Time ranked the Iron Duke Camaro number 36 on a list of the 50 worst cars ever built, it was number two on Complex’s list of the 50 worst cars of the 1980s, and as Autoblog points out, Chevrolet didn’t sell very many of them.

The third-gen Camaro sans the horrible Iron Duke wasn’t bad, though. The V8 Z28 model was noted for its sharp handling and won Motor Trend’s performance car of the year award in 1982. So just the 90 horsepower model sucked, which makes sense. The four-cylinder Camaro has come a long way.

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Great post, great points.

So I’ll be “that guy” and post a few views which are a bit contrarian (but don’t change the final conclusion one tiny bit: this combination of engine and vehicle was, um, deeply unfortunate.

1. EFI: GM was actually oddly fairly advanced in offering ELECTRONIC fuel injection at the time. Most of ze Germans were well along into the dead-end Bosch CIS mechanical EFI at the time.

2. The Iron Duke was actually a sturdy engine, understressed as it was. The trick was to keep oil in the damn thing, which the Fiero infamously did not due to its limited sump capacity. If you live in the suburbs in the USA, your mail was probably brought to you today by an Iron Duke — it still (!) powers the Post Office LLV delievery vehicle. Unheralded, unloved, and unyielding (again, keep oil in it).

3. Turbocharging of mainstream engines was pretty much unheard of back then. The first Porsche 911 Turbo was only 4 years old at the time. VW turbocharged nothing, and was doing well in the US market with 52 hp diesels (but those were much lighter and livlier than Camaros, for sure). But 90 hp from a 2.5L OHV engine of the era was actually not bad — VW was getting 90 bhp from a 1.8L OHC engine in 1983, with less torque than the GM engine, but putting that engine into the light, nimble Rabbit (Mk 1 Golf) made all the difference.

Ultimately, if a car is a pig to drive, it’s a pig in all of its components. That era of Camaro was large on the outside, laughably small on inside, and nearly impossible to work on with a V8 stuffed in it. Without a V8, the 4-cyl engine exacerbated the car’s weak points.

As I said, deeply unfortunate.