An ’80s Party That Lasted 30 Years: The History of the 1LE

Today, the Camaro 1LE package is synonymous with the idea of a high-performance, track-ready, road-race-ready, GT350-fighting Camaro that is essentially a Corvette Grand Sport with a backseat. The sixth-generation of the Camaro has given us one of the most prolific and awe-inspiring, bang-for-the-buck, modern-day hot rods we’ve seen in quite a while. But, the 1LE package has a history about 30 years in the making. It wasn’t always such a high-flying hot rod, however, if we grade on a curve, maybe it was …

Business Up Front, Party In the Back

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there were plenty of fond memories to be had. TV shows that actually had actors and actresses, music that was memorable in its fame as well as its infamy, if nothing else, some of the best and most quotable movies of all time, and fashion that was … okay, we’ll forget the fashion. But for all of its greatness and high-flying excitement, sadly, the 1980s were a time in which car manufacturers were in a time of flux. Gone were the days of big-block 428s, 454s, and Hemi engines, gone were the rip-roaring Cobras, ZL1s, and Super Bees. There was a slow and steady push, from a country still recovering from the gas crisis, to start to reign in all the automotive fun and start acting like miles per gallon was the pinnacle of car building, and that anything that sounded like it had a Holley double-pumper was pure anathema. As a result, the cars produced during the Reagan administration had much less charisma than our fearless leader, and they were certainly less engaging than, say, your average episode of Thundercats.

There were a few bright spots along the way — presuming you, again, were grading on a curve of course. One such example came along in 1988 when some rogue Chevy engineers took their (then) venerable and top of the line IROC-Z Camaro, channeled their inner Zora Arkus-Duntov, and offered up a race-ready, no frills, handling-comes-first-at-all-costs option package called 1LE. This RPO code was privy to only those in the know and provided a version of the Camaro that could compete in SCCA Showroom Stock racing events. Beyond that, the original buyer actually needed to prove that they were going to actually race the car in SCCA or IMSA races in order to be allowed to purchase one.

Initially, the 1LE package wasn’t even listed as an option. Chevy was particularly concerned about customers thinking they wanted a track car, and once they experienced just how jarring extremely stiff springs and thick anti-roll bars can be (among other things), they made it so that a savvy customer could only get the secret package by first ordering an IROC-Z with either a 305 or 350ci V8, and then opt for the G92 code, which was a performance rear end gearing (3.42 for manual transmission cars and 3.23 for auto), then check the box for the G80 RPO code, which was for a Positraction rear end, and then mention that they didn’t want their car coming with air-conditioning, which would be the password for the 1LE. We assume this was all done whilst wearing a decoder ring as well.    

So what did all of this clandestine sales gamesmanship get you? Quite a lot actually. The 1LE package included upgraded disc brakes, much stiffer shocks and struts, thicker front and rear anti-roll bars, an aluminum driveshaft, race-ready spindles and wheel bearings, a baffled fuel tank that sported dual pickups to keep the fuel pump from starving around steep curves, as well as some weight reduction, making Camaros with this package much, much more agile than your garden variety IROC-Z.  

Over the next three years of the 1LE’s existence, the package returned with some upgrades like Caprice-sourced brake rotors (read:  bigger), a better flowing dual-cat exhaust, an engine oil cooler, four-wheel disc brakes, a fog lamp delete, and slightly more power.  Once the secret was out, the 1LE package sold more in its final year (a whopping 705 models), than combined in the previous four years, for a combined total of 1,360 third-gen models produced. The 1992 model year, however, the 1LE race-only mystic vanished like tire tread on race day.

 

3rd Gen Camaro 1LE

Third-gen 1LE in pure ’80s style; business up front, party out back.

The Next Generation

From 1993-1996 the 1LE package was offered during the Camaro’s fourth-generation, and with some very impressive additions: an improved ratio Borg-Wagner six-speed manual, better ABS system, Koni shocks, higher rate bushings and stiffer sway bars, but then in 1996, GM made air-conditioning standard even in the 1LE, and then changed the marketing from 1LE to calling it the “Performance Suspension Package.” Thus, was the demise of the true 1LE. 1999 saw SLP try to use the 1LE designation for some of their upgrades, but it was clearly just a marketing ploy and not much substance to warrant the track-happy history of the RPO code, so we choose not to accept that as a true 1LE appearance.  

4th Gen Camaro 1LE

A fourth-gen SS 1LE, arguably one of the best bang-for-the-buck cars ever built.

Pleading the Fifth

Fast forward more than a decade later — and during the course of the now fifth-generation of Camaro, in 2013, GM decided to resurrect the 1LE option package once again to the delight of Camaro lovers everywhere. Much like the ZR1 did for the ZO6, the 1LE benefited from a trickle-down effect from the top-dog ZL1. The 1LE package took an SS model (the only available trims that you could add the 1LE package to were the 1SS and 2SS) and upgraded it significantly. A strut-tower brace, monotube rear dampers, front anti-roll bar mounts, as well as a set of 285/35ZR-20 Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar G:2 tires almost complete the package. But the most fun (if not the most noticeable) change is a rear-gear change from the normal 3.45:1 to a shorter (and more acceleration friendly) 3.91:1 gear. An electric power steering unit also served to increase steering feel and driver feedback.

The 1LE package helped curtail what many fifth-gen Camaro owners have had issue with since the cars reappearance — a predisposition to heavy understeer thanks to its near-two-ton heft. The 1LE upgrades helped the car turn-in much quicker and scrubbed away almost all of its understeer to the point of feeling neutral around the track or on the street.

Thankfully, the fifth-gen 1LE sported the same thumping LS3 small-block V8 as in the SS, making the same 426 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, and even got an optional dual-mode exhaust (same as the ZR1/ZL1) that made on-ramps even more exciting than ever before. The 1LE ran to 60 mph in a mere 4.6 seconds, 100 mph in 10.5 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 13.0 seconds flat. The price tag did jump up a bit from the original 1988 sticker to a base price of $37,035, which is $855 short of being exactly double what the original 1989 1LE would have cost you new. Though, considering the 2013 version produced almost double the horsepower of the original, double the price might just get you almost double the car. 

5th Gen Camaro 1LE

Fifth-gen 1LE, setting the new standard for American performance

Thankfully, the fifth-gen 1LE stuck around from 2013 through the end of the generation to 2015, then took a sabbatical for a year while the Camaro settled into its new sixth-gen body and styling. But the 2017 1LE package is back and nastier than ever.

 

Fourth Time’s the Charm

The biggest news for the sixth-gen 1LE package is that for the first time, it can be had on both V6 and V8 models–and it was recently announced that a turbo four-cylinder model will also get the package. It seems there was enough demand from V6 owners to warrant strong handling without having to decrease MPG, and with 335 horsepower on tap, the new V6 model outshines the fourth-gen Camaro SS in terms of power, so there might not be that much of a let down anyway. Opt for the 6-speed manual, and the V6 1LE gets an FE3 suspension that gets package-specific stabilizer bars, stiffer rear shocks, ball-jointed rear toe links and stiffer rear cradle mounts. The drivetrain gets a limited-slip 3.27:1 ratio rear that sends power to big Goodyear Eagle F1 275/35R20 rubber out back, while the 245/40R20s up front do the all the steering. All four corners are graced with Brembo calipers sporting four-piston units up front to clamp down on speed in a moment’s notice.  

The SS 1LE turns up the heat to almost ridiculous. Starting with a Corvette-inspired 6.2-liter 455-horsepower V8, the SS gets a similar treatment as the V6, but as with the engine, everything is stronger. The FE4 suspension gets the much heralded magnetic ride dampers with Camaro-specific tuning, as well as stiffer springs and stabilizer bars, and also a segment-exclusive electronic limited-slip differential sporting a 3.73:1 ratio rear end. The 285/30ZR20 front and 305/30ZR20 rear Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar tires are summer-only and are Camaro specific in compound and construction. The SS 1LE gets even bigger Brembo brakes, with monstrous 6-piston monobloc front calipers and two-piece rotors.   

Both V6 and V8 models get the signature satin black hood, front splitter, rear spoiler, and side-view mirrors to let the world know you’ve got a special car out on the road. But it’s more of the track cooling package that adds coolers for engine oil, differential oil, and transmission fluid that will let anyone on the track know just how special this car really is, while the dual-mode exhaust system makes it easy to switch between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a moment’s notice.  

Inside, the 1LE package does a great job of improving what has notoriously been a weak point of the Camaro in the past. Available RECARO front seats are more than worth the price of admission. Heavily bolstered, they are supportive yet comfortable for track days, as well as beach days. The suede-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel and short-throw shifter keep the comfort rolling. There is also an optional Chevy Performance Data Recorder which, up until then, was only been available on select Corvette models and measures things like speed, RPM, lap times, g-forces, and braking force. Aside from that, the 1LE is still the benefactor of the sixth-gen interior upgrades that have significantly enhanced the Camaro’s public perception, especially compared to its German competitors.  

On the track, which is what the 1LE was born for, it should be no surprise that this Camaro (in either V6 or V8 guise), lives up to its birthright. It flat out flies in a straight line, and around corners. The LT rips from 0-60 mph in a mere 5.2 seconds (not bad for a V6), while the SS shaves an entire second off that time. The LT has a cornering max of 0.97g, while the SS bests it yet again with a score of 1.02g. And the LT brakes from 60-0 mph in 112 feet, but the SS takes five feet less to retain its title and presumably, to justify its higher price.  

Oh, and new for 2018, Chevy has decided to add just one more option code you can tack your 1LE package on to, the ZL1. This purpose-built track superstar packs the punch of an angry Mr. T with the footwork and star power of Michael Jackson. The water from the Gods continues to trickle down the assembly line, and the benefactor is the bold Camaro owner that checks off ZL1 and 1LE in the same order sheet. This new super Camaro gets the ultimate hand-me-down from big-brother Corvette ZO6 in the form of a supercharged 6.2-liter old-school overhead valve V8 that puts down the exact same psychotic 650 horsepower and mind-bending 650 lb-ft of torque. Just for some perspective, that power is about a Delorean’s worth of horsepower MORE than the first two generations of 1LE combined. Now, add that sickening amount of giddyup to the most buckled down, strapped in and race-ready suspension imaginable and you might begin to appreciate just what the ZL1 1LE is all about. 

More downforce, tenacious grip and superior control along with less weight to sling around are the key tenets of the 1LE package mantra, and in ZL1 guise, you’re going to need every ounce of that suspensions heroics to keep that power on the pavement. You may notice the first-for-GM functional carbon-fiber wing before anything else, but what you may not see is the 300 pounds of downforce it creates at 150 mph (which you can experience much more often than you might think). The 1LE package deletes the useless daytime running lights, which saves seven pounds as well as allows larger openings on the front end, which also helps the 1LE gulp down 106 more cubic feet of air than a “normal” ZL1 at 90 mph, which is a phrase we never thought would exist.

The ZL1 1LE gets more goodies than there were ways to hurt yourself on a Slip’N Slide on a summer day. The 1LE somewhat surprisingly ditches the ever-praised magnetorheological dampers that have been all the rage in recent years in favor of an aluminum-bodied spool valve damper from the Canadian company Multimatic. This semi-controversial change will become a non-issue when suspicious owners realize not only have they shed a combined 23 pounds of weight with the switch, they also have the ability to vary damping force and can actually get negative camber out of the front end thanks to these ball-jointed, top mount, inverted struts. 

But a car is only as good as the tires it wears right? And the ultimate 1LE sports a set of rubber slick enough to moonwalk in. No, they aren’t the heralded Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires that have taken the sports car world by storm in the last few years, but instead, GM has gone back to its longstanding relationship with Goodyear for the ZL1 1LE. The Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires mark the first time a car from GM gets to wear DOT-legal track tires from the factory, and rightly so. The monstrous 305/30ZR-19s adorn the front end while even larger 325/30ZR-19 steam rollers appear out back. Combine lighter tires with one-inch smaller forged aluminum rims (than the standard ZL1) and you have another 13 pounds of weight reduction that furthers the 1LE mission statement which is essentially “Everything in the name of a better lap time.”

We were actually there in person when the ZL1 1LE made its debut at the Daytona 500.

The 1LE in ZL1 form is purpose made for road courses, but that doesn’t mean it can’t smoke a Maserati off the line either. All those track-ready suspension pieces and crazy-glue rubber does help keep it glued to the pavement, and that means a whole bunch of that 650 pony stampede under the hood can hook to the pavement. The ZL1 1LE runs from 0-60 mph in a mere 3.5 seconds, 0-100 mph in only 7.4 seconds and a completes the quarter-mile in 11.5 seconds at 125 mph, and that isn’t even its forte. Out around the bends, this Godzillic performer really shows off to the tune of a stupefying 1.18 g around the skidpad. That number, for the record, is only barely bested by the C7 Corvette ZO6 … Probably not by accident, so Vette owners don’t get their harnesses in a bunch and feel like they wasted the extra money on their prized possession. We’d be mad too if our six-figure Corvette just got beat at a track day by a car whose price tag is just slightly over $70K, a full base Camaro 1LT V6 cheaper than our top-of-the-line track star. The ZL1 1LE is not only the ultimate Camaro, it also may be the greatest bang-for-the-buck track-ready superstar ever built. 

The 1LE package has had a very strange and unique history without a doubt, but it’s clear that it is back and better than ever. And while it started out just being a no-frills RPO code to help spice up a rather lackluster late 1980s IROC, the modern version is a certified GT350 killer – dare we say supercar killer? So now that we have the 1LE again, maybe there’s still hope for getting Thundercats back after all.

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