On occasion, Detroit comes up with a one-year wonder that strikes a chord with its audience. Chevy's first facelift of its pony car was one of those chords, and the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 provided the rockin' muscle car backbeat.
A deft revamp of the original 1967-68 body shell created unique styling used for just this season. Good thing the '69s were so interesting. As it turned out, they had to be carried into the '70 model year when production problems delayed introduction of the fully redesigned next-generation Camaro.
The most-popular enthusiast Camaro was again the Super Sport, which added about $300 to a coupe or convertible and included a 300-bhp 350-cid V-8, stiff suspension, and F70x14 tires. Power front disc brakes were now part of the package, as were the nonfunctional hood ports previously exclusive to SS 396s. An extra $79 landed the new cowl-induction hood with its functional rear-facing inlet. The hidden-headlamp Rally Sport option cost $132. The interior was updated, too, and a new $95 gauge pack put a round tach in the instrument pod and auxiliary dials on the center console.
Except for rare 427-cid specials, big-cube Camaro muscle was best expressed in the SS 396. The respected engine was back in three basic states of tune: 325 and 350 bhp, and the 375-bhp L78, which cost $316. For $711, Chevy would fit an L78 with aluminum heads. It called these L89s and rated them at 375 bhp; 311 went into Camaros.
Chevy worked to improve the behavior of the big-block Camaro's rear suspension. But the 396 had so much torque and put so many pounds over the nose -- 59.3 percent of an SS 396's weight was on the front axle -- that the lightly loaded rear axle struggled to get the power down in hole shots. "At the mere suggestion of work, the axle leaps and hops, judders and bucks..." said Road Test. "The rear suspension is (the) weak linkage between axle and car, and it drags the 396 Camaro down to the level of just another Camaro."
Savvy street racers attacked the problem with aftermarket traction kits, which cut ETs significantly. And as time would prove, no '69 was "just another Camaro."
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