Historiography: The Rebirth of Performance

What was a young teenager's fantasy in 1982?

A young man loved his cars fast, furious…or astute. The Lamborghini Countach would soon replace Farah Fawcett on some bedroom walls, but even Journey or Rush couldn't yield to a difficult-to-drive Italian supercar. As we began to attain our licenses, we pondered the possibilities of where it would take us. Rather, in what vehicle would we get there?

The idea of a sports car had been around before World War II. The idea was simple: A lighter body and chassis, a more powerful engine, two seats and better suspension, braking and steering bits. In some cases, you can race them anywhere. There was a story in my family of how my father drove one of those postwar MGs (on behalf of the MG dealership in San Rafael) to run around San Francisco's Stern Grove (no relation to me, I'm afraid) around 1950. His generation was the first to embrace the sports car and hatched a culture that spawned a slew of roadsters, closed coupes and the like for the next several decades.

They were a difficult proposition for many young drivers. As powerful and specific in the way they drove, they were simply too hot to handle. Only the best drivers were able to conquer these machines. Only the best sports cars ruled the roads – Porsche, for example.

Soon, the idea of the sports car was firmed up. They divided into niches, depending on levels of performance, brand of manufacture, and price point. Ferraris and Lamborghinis sat at the top of the food chain, with Porsche spreading far and wide through a lineup of entertaining sports machines. Others fell in line underneath the 911.

By the late 1970s, one sports car segment began to take root. It began with Porsche's collaboration with Audi and Volkswagen – the 924. It was the kind of car that purists hated and made more plebian sports car lovers hungry at a run against one. All of the sudden, Porsche created a target for others to aim at – the Japanese included.

In 1979, Mazda threw all of its rotary engine efforts into one sporty car: The Savanna. We call it the RX-7. This two-seat sports coupe had a measly 1.1-liter two-rotor engine that put out 100 horsepower. The RX-7 was attractive since it offered operational efficiency while attaining a top speed of 120 MPH. It helped that the RX-7 was very lightweight and given the latest in suspension engineering to achieve a level of performance enthusiasts still enjoy today.

The RX-7 merely changed the game for the Japanese. While the original Datsun 240Z became a bloated, lazy machine lacking the firepower and agility it once had, it took a while for a car such as the RX-7 to wake Japanese car enthusiasts up. To consider the 280ZX of the early 1980s a sports car was to give up on the idea that such a car exists.

Then, the 1982 Toyota Celica Supra arrived. Though it was an extended version of the new Celica, the Supra offered a lot more than its smaller brother. The engine was a massive 2.8-liter in-line six with 145 horsepower on tap. The interior offered better seats, materials, and appointments than the Celica – making it more distinctive than just a mere Celica with a six-cylinder under the hood. The suspension was worked on – with help from Lotus. The result was a sports car that moved the bar for the Japanese on these shores. It threatened the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the Europeans.

However, the Americans weren't without its own sports car identity crisis. Ford's Fox platform yielded a somewhat improved Mustang over the Pinto-based atrocity of the mid-1970s (I once owned one of these pitiful machines). Though the return of a V8 helped the newest Mustang's efforts, it was still considered still meek compared to the mighty Camaro and Firebird. Its sister, the Mercury Capri, did not help matters much. By 1982, the Mustang and Capri both received an infusion of horsepower from the uprated 5.0-liter High Output V8.

Yet, mainstream sports coupe buyers anticipated the arrival of the new Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird. General Motors was on a new product binge through the early 1980s and it knew that the F-Body was going to yank the hearts of muscle and pony car lovers. It was big but yielded a design full of angles, straight lines and plenty of glass. Inside was modern and modular. You can still get a V8 with a carburetor and 145 horsepower on tap. More desirable was the "cross-fire" fuel-injected version of the same engine with 165 horsepower on tap. Both engines were just 5.0litres in size. They did improve the driving dynamics underneath, giving the Camaro and Firebird better tracking on the curves. Still, they were seen as straight-line driving cars in the end.

The Supra and Camaro/Firebird provided some sports car drama during my senior year in high school. It was a rivalry no one saw coming. For the purpose of this battle, everything else was removed from the table. The Mustang/Capri was not even considered for this battle. The RX-7 would have to wait another year until the GSL-SE showed up with its 13B 1.3-liter twin-rotor beast worth 135 horsepower. The 280ZX would be on the bench.

For a bit of perspective, the numbers given for the RX-7, Camaro/Firebird and Supra were quite relative for the time. The 1970s slammed the horsepower war shut thanks to EPA regulations, oil crises and a change in the way the Society for Automobile Engineers calculated engine output. Numbers, such as 145 and 165 would be reserved for today's high-revving, twin overhead camshaft, four-valves-per-cylinder, and multi-port fuel-injected four-bangers. Today's Camaro starts with just over 300 horsepower on tap for their base model alone.

The Camaro/Firebird-Supra rivalry would be seen as a war over how the sports car should be. GM's F-Body may look modern, but was seen with normal American car tendencies. Even though the profile was lower than before, a curve could be achieved with mixed results. A Supra was seen to take a curve, then a canyon road and a desert highway…and so forth.

Then, there was the debate whether a dual overhead camshafted in-line six-cylinder could take on a mighty V8. GM's small-block was reduced to 305 cubic inches – 5.0-liter – for the reality of an environmentally conscious nation. Its teeth were filed down to a mere shell of what it used to be. Still, the small block was a durable motor where it only needed better induction and fuel management to give it some of its brawn back. The LU5 had two throttle body injectors where the carburetor used to sit. At least it was a start.

When it came to engines, Toyota could do no wrong. With two parallel camshafts lofted above a bank of six cylinders, the 5M-GE was considered one of the finest engines available in the USA. The design alone was a preview of things to come as the idea of adding two more valves per cylinder was being touted by Yamaha as the way of the future. Still, two-valves per cylinder were sufficient to manage the air/fuel mix in the mighty 5M-GE.

The Camaro/Firebird vs. Supra battle may not have been pronounced like other automotive rivalries. However, these two powerful sports coupes began a new chapter in performance cars. The debate engaged those who worshiped American iron with those who feel the Japanese got what it takes to rule the road.

This debate did not ignore the Europeans entirely. Porsche had another horse in the race by the summer of 1982 – the 944. Though it was developed off of the 924, Porsche made sure to infuse its own components where the Volkswagen or Audi's bits once lived. Porsche developed a water-cooled in-line four-cylinder engine – essentially half of the 928’s V8 engine. Its balance-shafted 2.5-liter four banger wielded 150 horsepower – right smack in the middle of the Camaro Z28/Firebird Trans Am and the Supra. Mitsubishi helped Porsche meld their patented engine balancing system into the better half of the big V8 to ensure a peerless performance experience with the steroid-infused body of the former 924.

The drag race between the Camaro/Firebird, the Celica Supra and the 944 began to heat up when it appeared that everyone else wanted a piece of this three-sided battle royale. It would be easy to calculate the acceleration numbers against each other without putting any of them on the tarmac. Why declare a winner, as each one of them exhibited a series of superlatives for the era?

This would also mean breaking down the three of them. The Camaro and Firebird would bore the brunt of the criticism with its interior quality, lack of a fifth gear (rectified for the 1983 model year) and other minor kvetches around the Van Nuys/Norwood-built sports coupe. The Supra could be called a "Johnny come lately" by the European crowd, but how could they defend the legacy of the 924 in the presence of a more aggressive looking 944?

Never before had anyone seen a trio of sports cars from three different places on the planet that seemed to dominate enthusiast conversations? The Camaro/Firebird, Celica Supra and the 944 represented a new era in (relatively) affordable performance.

In one moment, we rediscovered performance. The paradigm had changed since it was no longer the domain of Detroit – Japan and Germany also came out to play. The battleground was no longer just the quarter-mile. There were curves involved. Straight-line performance figures were given equal billing to lateral g-forces and other measurements recording the agility of a sports coupe through any road condition.

These weren’t exotic cars that required the nerves of steel and the vision of a hawk to operate. All three were very civilized to drive. Consider how much the automobile had evolved until the early 1980s. Performance cars did not require a workout at Gold's Gym to turn a corner or Steve Austin's $6 Million left leg to engage the clutch. You sat in seats that conformed to your body with plenty of cushion for pain-free motoring.

What the 1982 Chevrolet Camaro Z28/Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, 1982 Toyota Celica Supra, and 1983 Porsche 944 started was to bring three worlds together to change the perception of the sports coupe. It was a wonderful time to an automotive enthusiast. The party grew as the Ford Mustang and Mercury Capri figured out how to become a better sorted car with the new High Output V8 under the hood. Chrysler extended their K-car platform to spawn a series of turbocharged coupes in the throes of battle – namely the Dodge Daytona Turbo. Mazda responded when they brought out the RX-7 GSL-SE to go against another newcomer – the Mitsubishi Starion. Then, Nissan figured it all out. They reigned in the 300ZX enough to find a way back into this battle.

How soon we forget about all of this. The big sports coupe battle had trimmed down to a few eager opponents over the years. Yet, the horsepower race continues to boggle the mind. With the fastest machines running 145-165HP, its successors already scaled beyond those numbers. Today's equivalent to the Camaro Z28 has 455 horsepower on tap today. Add a supercharger to the mix, and that brings the Camaro ZL-1 to 650 horsepower. Porsche's starting point today is the Boxster and Cayman with boxer engines installed rearward ranging from 300 to 394 horsepower. Toyota brought back the Supra with help from BMW and Gazoo Racing. Just in case you missed it, that car won #VOTY2020.

The walls of teenagers may not shout as paeans to the late Farah Fawcett anymore. Perhaps a Lamborghini remains iconic as wallpaper. Yet, a teenager turns 16 and wants a turn in something more attainable. In 1982, the dreams of a few included either a Camaro, a Firebird, a Supra or a 944.

Long may they run.

All photos by Randy Stern

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