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Classic 80s Mustang vs Camaro

Chris Kaiser

The Fox-body Mustang and IROC-Z Camaro defined 80s muscle cars in style and substance. But how do these classics contenders actually match up?

Fox-Bodies vs IROC-Zs

When we compare titans of the pony/muscle car era, the Ford Mustangs and Chevy Camaros that come to mind are usually the classic long hood/short deck, big-engined monsters of the late 60s and early 70s. Rightly so, these cars pioneered a brand new and hugely popular automotive segment. And so it is that Mustangs and Camaros long past their heyday, like those from the 1980s, haven’t always gotten the love or attention they deserve. Sure, they were slow, sometimes comically so. Sure, today they look dated rather than timeless. But car enthusiasts are starting to get wise to the charms of these new classics of the 80s.

Below we compare the third-generation Ford Mustang and the third-generation Chevrolet Camaro and explore the highs and lows of this unique and distinct era for muscle cars.

Oil Crisis Hangovers

The Oil Crisis of the 1970s dealt a massive blow to American muscle/pony cars. The twin pressures of government regulation and consumer demand meant the glory days of massive 6- and 7-liter engines were over. But starting in the 1980s, Ford and Chevrolet began slowly ratcheting back up the size of their engines while also finding innovative ways to replace all that lost displacement with greater efficiency.

1979 Ford Mustang Indy Pace Car - Erik Radzins on Youtube

1979 Ford Mustang Indy Pace Car – Erik Radzins on Youtube  |  Shop Ford Mustang on Carsforsale.com

The Fox-body Mustang replaced the lackluster yet mystifyingly popular Mustang II for the 1979 model year. Not only did the Fox-body feature engine options ranging from a puny 2.3L four-cylinder to a meaner 4.2L V8, it made major strides in improving the Mustang’s aerodynamics. The wedge-shaped front end and bucketed headlights reduced its drag coefficient to that of Ford’s legendary GT40 race car. A new hatchback option added utility to the “sporty” the 2+2. The new Fox-body Mustang was the pace car for Indy 500 that year and was released on a limited basis with performance upgrades and unique styling.

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car - carsforsale.com

1982 Chevrolet Camaro Indy Pace Car – carsforsale.com  |  Shop Chevrolet Camaro on Carsforsale.com

The Camaro got its own fresh start in the 1982 model year (it too was the Indy 500 pace car for its debut year). The third generation was a ground-up reimagining of the Camaro. It lost 500lbs. in curb weight, traded out the old leaf springs for coil springs, and, starting in 1985, got a new tuned port fuel-injection system. Like the Mustang, the third-gen Camaro’s engines ran the gamut from tiny four-bangers to larger V8s. Fun fact, the “Iron Duke” 4-cylinder took a full 20 seconds to reach 60 mph in the Camaro. Starting in ’85, the Camaro got a new top performance trim, and supplanting the Z28, in the IROC-Z (IROC stood for International Race of Champions). The IROC-Z brought an upgraded suspension, that aforementioned fuel-injection system, and 215 horsepower.

Po-Po Performance

1982 Ford Mustang SSP - Nick OFF Duty on Youtube
1982 Ford Mustang SSP - Nick OFF Duty on Youtube

We all know cops sometimes need to drive fast. And though the 5.0L had been dropped from the Mustang for 1980 and ’81, the larger V8 it made a return in 1982. That year Ford produced some 406 SSP, or Special Service Package, 5.0L notch-back Mustangs for the California Highway Patrol to be used as pursuit vehicles. In a cruel twist for Chevy, the CHP had tested the ’79 Camaro for 18 months for chasing down bad guys but found the car experienced camshaft issues when driven at high speeds. The SSP Mustang proved so popular with the CHP that other law enforcement agencies wanted their own speedy Stangs and over 15,000 SSPs were produced over the following years.

1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z - carsforsale.com
1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z - carsforsale.com

As swift as the SSP Mustang was in ’82, it would take another decade for the third-generation Mustang and Camaro to reach their fullest potentials. The 1993 Mustang SVT Cobra, running a 5.0L (technically it was 4.9L, but, well, marketing), achieved 235hp and the third-gen’s fastest 0-60 time of just 5.7 seconds. The Camaro also took until close to the end of it’s run to reach peak performance with the final iteration of the IROC-Z in 1990 (Dodge took over the sponsorship the following year). That year the 5.7L L98 V8 reached its pinnacle with an output of 245hp and a 0-60 of 5.8 seconds.

Looks More 80s

There is a fascinating feedback loop between the fashions of an era and the cars of that same era. Some cars anticipate the zeitgeist and set a new standard for what’s hip, cool, or on fleek, if you will. Take the 1964 ½ Mustang as exhibit A for trend setting. And yet, other cars have the era stamped into them. They follow current trends and fashions, seeking to meet the market where it is rather than guide it along a new path. Such is the case with both the Fox-body Mustangs and third-gen Camaros.

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1983 Ford Mustang GT - carsforsale.com
1983 Ford Mustang GT - carsforsale.com

Though the Mustang remained on the same Fox platform throughout its third generation, it began and ended in markedly different places when it comes to how it looked. The initial Fox-body’s wedged front and bucketed head lights feel very late-70s, but as the decade wore on the Mustang evolved with the times. Some of our favorite features include the hatch back, the optional T-tops, and various hood scoops that came and went. But for our money the best-looking of the Fox-body Mustangs was the 1987 GT with it’s “cheese grater” taillight covers, round fog lamps, side skirts, and rear spoiler.

1983 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 - chevrolet.com
1983 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 - chevrolet.com

For as super 80’s as the Fox-body looks today, the third-gen Camaro cranked that aesthetic up to 11. Its hatch back version beats out the Mustang for the sheer amount of glass used. The long, sloping hood and front spoiler seem to go on for days. The Stang had its Targa alternative T-tops, but the Camaro wore them better. And the fake air intakes on the hood looked so boss you really couldn’t diss on them. For sheer 80s excess, the Camaro wins hands down.

The People Have Spoken… Or Have They?

If, like me, you were in high school in the 1990s, you’ll remember the Mustangs and Camaros of the 80s as already too old to be considered cool but also not old enough to have taken on the halo of nostalgia that glows about them today. For as much as they looked dated and often housed small engines, the distain of my teens was justified. But both cars have steadily built up a fan base over the years as all things 80s have transformed from cringe-worthy to cool.

1979 Ford Mustang Fox Body - ford.com
1979 Ford Mustang Fox Body - ford.com

This is especially true for the distinctive Fox-body Mustang which is rightly looked upon today as something of a savior for the Mustang nameplate. The boxy body lines and modest stature (as in light) have it gaining popularity among enthusiasts and fanboys. And now all those poor, underpowered Foxy-bodies are getting love with some sick LS and 2JZ swaps.

The Fox-body Mustang might be the “cool” kids’ thing, but it’s actually the Camaro that commands a consistently higher price on the secondary market today. Is it the rarity, the great handling, or just those distinctively 80s body lines? You be the judge.

1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 convertible - chevrolet.com
1992 Chevrolet Camaro Z28 convertible - chevrolet.com

So, which is the better, cooler, faster, more ‘80s, the Foxy-body Mustang or the IROC-Z Camaro? Both were hampered early on by small engines and bounced back with decent performance later on. Both look every bit the boxy ‘80s beast fashion call on them to be. And both offer potent whiffs of nostalgia that get headier with each passing year. If you’re looking to buy and swap one of these into a real monster, I’d recommend the Mustang. But, if you’re wanting the most “dad” car of the two, it’s the Camaro by a country/quarter mile.

WINNER: 80s Nostalgia

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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