Reflections on the F-body: Camaro and Firebird
Bill Boyle
This past week (August 25, 2002) marked the official manufacturing end to the F-body cars from Chevrolet and Pontiac. F-body production came to a halt after 35 years of production. What a shame this happened.

Thinking back, my wife and I have owned three F-body cars. We had a very nice but austere 1968 Camaro (with Bumblebee stripe) and later (and only for a short time) a 1979 Camaro Z-28 that she preferred driving to my "spirited " 1979 Firebird Trans Am--the Z's replacement. We bought no third or forth generation F-body cars because our family needs and daily driving circumstances changed.

It was acceptable for me to drive my Trans Am to work, but we also needed a larger car to accommodate children, family and friends. Owning two F-body cars wasn't realistic. We bought a family car and have maintained at least one since 1979. This choice was out of need not because we didn’t like the appearance, performance or image of the F-body cars. I still own the TA. My brother’s situation was similar. He traded his very cool Olds 442 for a 2nd generation Camaro, exchanging a muscle car for a more docile F-body. He then purchased a 3rd generation Camaro Z-28 that he still owns and drives today. I’ve owned my Trans Am for 23 years and my brother has owned his Z-28 since 1983. Neither one of us bought a 3rd or 4th generation F-body because we kept the old ones and bought replacement family cars instead.

According to GM, sales of the F-body declined steadily after 1979, yet the cars steadily improved in terms of handling, performance and amenities. Unquestionably, the 4th generation Camaros and Firebirds are better cars than earlier generations. Their increased purchase price also reflected a change in time as well as the increase in cost due to technology. Was it the price that caused declining sales? Did the marketing image for these cars hurt sales? In my opinion, the answer is yes to both questions. Of the two, marketing image put the cars to rest.

The muscle car era died a long time ago! Ford took advantage of that phenomenon and GM did not. The buying public never perceived the Ford Mustang as a muscle car. It was always perceived as a sporty little car that was easy to drive. This image has been carried through to today. Ford early recognized the general population wanted a car that was easy to drive and reasonably inexpensive to run. The F-body’s for the most part, did not fit that concept--they were something more.

When my wife and I momentarily had two F-body cars, remember the 79 Z-28 and 79 TA, she found the Z-28 easier to drive. The cars were virtually identical in size and shape, close in performance and handling yet the Camaro was tame. I found that to exist as well. The TA had better fitting parts and better paint but the Z-28 was very easy to drive. It had better manners. It handled nicely in corners and required a lot less driver effort. In the TA, the steering was tighter, the ride was harsh, torque was more noticeable and most importantly, you had to shift that Hurst yourself. There was more to do…more to deal with in traffic. It was like riding a farm horse versus a stallion with a temperament all its own. It wasn’t the TA's manual transmission; it was simply a lot more of a car to handle, in every respect. The TA was spirited and you'd expect it to be different. It appeared cocky with the bold golden bird on the hood. The car, sitting at idle bouncing that shaker…it was making a statement. The car was saying: "I am hot, I am a lot to handle. Only the best drivers can drive me well!" These attibutes contributed to my wife's belief that my TA was not easy to drive. It was not just perception on her part, it was reality. As I stated above, the F-body car was something more, and in this case it was true. However, that Z-28 was a nice, driveable car.

Going back to my earlier comment, "the general population wants a car that was easy to drive and inexpensive to run," the Mustang was marketed for the general populous and Ford has done a remarkable job creating and maintaining that image. The Mustang appeals to young men and women and the older maturer crowd. It is perceived as a sporty looking car that is nimble and not too costly to purchase or operate. It is also perceived as a nice car. People want to drive a nice car. In contrast, GM marketed the F-body, in my opinion as rude, go-fast serious pseudo-sports car that had the guts to handle any roadway challenge. That brutish muscle car image was a little too much of a threat for the average consumer even though you could buy a very tame Camaro or Firebird. The macho image of the Camaro and Firebird was strong!

Today's Mustang comes in all flavors. That was not always the case. Remember the Mustang II. The Mustang Cobra GT, in comparison, for example, is a very spirited car just like the 4th generation Camaros and Trans AMs. None of these powerhouses are for the average buyer or driver. While the powerful, no kidding around Mustang do run up and down the streets, that ever present macho image is foreshadowed by the nice car image created and marketed so successfully by Ford. Buyers flock to the Mustang because of its overall nice car image. The F-body died because every Camaro and Firebird, whether powered by a 6 or V8, was perceived by potential consumers as a spirited macho car—a car too much to handle and expensive to run. This was not really the case. What a shame that perception persisted.

What does the end mean? Well I believe we need to be thankful for what we have in our garages. From the early growing performance days of the ‘60s, to the debilitating smogger performance years of the ‘70s and early ‘80s to the inspiring technological advancements of the ‘90s through 2002, the F-body endured to become an automotive legend and now a true classic. Moreover, our existing Camaros and Firebirds will live on forever especially if we drive and maintain them. A toast is in order: "Long live the F-body!"