While the fox-platform Mustang of the ’80s and ’90s has been popular for quite a while now, the third-generation Camaro of the same period hasn’t encountered the same level of interest. A few have been turned into homebrew hot rods, for sure, but for the most part, the 1982-’92 Camaro has faded from the scene. Though not for much longer, we’ll bet.
Stefano Bimbi, head of the revived, fabled Nickey Performance (well known for making hot Chevrolets even hotter in the ’60s) in Loves Park, Illinois, is quick to point out that this is far from the first LS-swapped third-gen.
We will add to that, however, that it’s one of the nicest LS-swapped third-gens you’ll see. Owner Jeff Clark, a retired AP Biology teacher, agrees. Nickey, he says, “just does really good work.”
Part of that good work was not only fitting the 500-plus-horsepower LS3 crate engine where a 305 once resided, but making sure everything from the air conditioning to the cruise control worked as well or better than when this 1988 IROC-Z convertible was sold new.
That’s because Jeff isn’t a racer, he’s just a fellow who enjoys a distinctive and powerful car on the road.
“Jeff came looking for an IROC to be his special, personal retirement car,” Stefano recalls, and Jeff found it within Stefano’s personal collection.
“He wanted a convertible and he fell in love with this one.”
It wasn’t that Jeff was particularly enamored of the third-generation Camaro, even when it was new, but he wanted a convertible, and first-gen cars had climbed out of reach. Thankfully, for 1987 the convertible had returned as a regular production option for the first time since 1969. The IROC itself had debuted for 1985 and by the time this car was produced for 1988, it had replaced the old Z28 entirely.
The IROC-Z package was named after the International Race of Champions, an all-star racing series that, for the 1984-’89 seasons, used identically prepared NASCAR-spec stock cars bodied to resemble third-generation Camaros. To capitalize on this high profile racing connection Chevrolet for 1988, putting down only 148 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque. The 6.2-liter (376-cu.in.) LS3, meanwhile, is factory rated at 430 hp and 425 lb-ft, measure at the flywheel. It was the standard engine in the sixth-gen Corvette and gave the IROC production car a lower ride height than the Z28, as well as special shocks, larger anti-sway bars, a steering and frame brace, special decals, and aluminum 16 x 8-inch five spoke wheels shod in Goodyear Eagle VR “Gatorback” tires.
Not all IROC engines lived up to the historic reputation of the small block Chevy. The 350-cu.in. V-8 was essentially unavailable in a Camaro convertible during those years, and the 305, while similar in displacement to the Fox Mustang’s big-bore/short stroke 5.0, used a long-stroke and smaller-bore configuration that wasn’t quite as lively. In addition, this particular IROC didn’t even get the best version of the 305, which would have had Chevrolet’s Tuned Port Injection system. Instead, it made do with the more workaday throttle-body-injected version. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Jeff came back to Stefano and inquired about addressing the indifferent power.
“I was tired of being beat by moms in minivans,” Jeff jokes. Initially, he proposed hot-rodding the 305, per haps with a turbocharger, but thanks to General Motors’ crate engine program, an LS swap was the most cost-effective approach.
A chassis dyno visit showed the TBI 305, rated at 170 horsepower the fifth-generation Camaro SS. The third-generation Camaro weighs considerably less than its fifth-generation equivalent, though. In fact, it’s about the same weight as a C6 ’Vette — giving a hint as to the performance potential.
To handle the increased power, a 4L60E transmission was treated to heavy-duty clutches and a shift kit.
That was pretty much the extent of the swap, at first. Jeff chose to modify the car in stages, so he could still enjoy it while keeping to his budget.
These photos were taken at the point where the car was essentially a stock 1988 Camaro with an LS3 and electronic transmission. That makes it sound considerably simpler than it was, however, as merely fitting the LS was only a part of the process.
Stefano explains, “We installed the engine using the Holley Performance Parts LS3 installation kit. The Holley conversion oil pan fit like a glove, as did all the Holley brackets and drive systems. However, we had to modify the A/C and oil lines. We ordered a custom harness and computer from Speartech and integrated it into the stock GM harness. We installed a high-performance in-tank electronic fuel pump and PTFE fuel lines and pressure regulator. The engine also received ‘Stage 1’ Nickey Performance bolt-ons, meaning street-only modifications and not drag car modifications. We recalibrated the PCM, but did nothing internally to the engine.”
The Stage 1 additions included a Holley air intake and 304 stainlesssteel headers made for Hawks Motorsports. The headers have 2-inch primary tubes meeting at a 3-inch collector. After installation, the lightly massaged LS3 was dynamometer tested to over 420 hp at the rear wheels.
To maintain a safe operating temperature, Nickey fitted an all-aluminum two-core radiator equipped with five electric fans. Two fans pull air through the radiator, two push, and the fifth is placed in the right front fender to ensure adequate airflow over the transmission cooler. That’s the kind of effort that ensures the Camaro remains completely civilized, despite the mods.
“Other than some very subtly placed LS3 badges,” Stefano says, “we kept the car as stock-looking as possible from the outside. The car is loaded with all the options: power windows, electric mirrors, all the power amenities minus the power top. It still uses the stock wheels and tires, and everything is in perfect working order, including the A/C, cruise control, power steering, and power disc brakes. It looks like any other 1988 IROC-Z would, that is until you pop the hood!”
Another place where the sleeper image falls apart is the exhaust note.
The third-gen wasn’t known for its amazing exhaust plumbing — true duals weren’t even a factory option and the chassis setup left limited space for custom pipes. Nickey solved that with a chambered system of the type found on 1969 Camaros, built from 3.5-inch oval tubing. This extremely civilized car has what Stefano describes as “a nice little crackle to it” — shades of the brawnier muscle of the ’60s rather than the cool European demeanor originally intended by GM.
Since this photo session, Jeff has had the car in for some further modifications. Improved braking was high on the list. Jeff is not a track rat, but he enjoys spirited driving, including the Muscle Car Adventures tours put on by Nickey.
To make sure that the car could be enjoyed under all conditions, the factory disc/drum setup was replaced by Wilwood components carefully selected to fit behind the stock wheels and tires. On a recent tour of the Wisconsin Dells, Jeff says his Camaro had zero difficulty staying on the tail of the 2018 model ahead of him, through even the tightest corners.
The final mod, for now, was the replacement of the 2.73-geared rear axle with a stout 12-bolt from Strange Engineering, fitted with a 3.55:1 ratio and a limited-slip differential. It was hooked to the transmission with a heavy-duty driveshaft. Jeff says he’d like to take the car down the strip a couple times, just “to see what it will do.” Mainly, though, it’s a driver. “It’s not my only car,” Jeff says, “but I drive it a lot. I like the character of it. Number one, it’s a convertible, and it’s 33 years old with the accompanying squeaks and clicks. I don’t sweat the little nicks and such. I just get out the touch-up brush and fix them up.”
With the concept proved out on Jeff’s car, Nickey is ready to go as interest continues to grow in the potential of the third-gen chassis. Because he drives quite moderately, Jeff hasn’t opted for some of the chassis reinforcements that exist to really stiffen up the platform, but plenty of cars that were modified earlier in life already have them.
Companies like BMR Suspension even offer convertible-specific pieces to reinforce the decapitated T-top bodies used in the conversions. If there was ever any doubt in your mind, this car should put it to rest.
Thanks to the modern aftermarket and up fitters like Nickey, the third generation F-body can live up to and beyond its potential. Maybe it’s time for you to give them another look.
1988 CHEVROLET CAMARO IROC-Z SPECIFICATIONS
Block type….GM/Chevrolet Performance Parts LS3 Gen IV small-block V-8; aluminum
Cylinder heads …………. GM aluminum w/ L92-style port; as-cast with 68-cc chambers
Displacement …………… 376-cu.in.
Bore x stroke …………… 4.065 x 3.622 in
Compression ratio ……….. 10.7:1
Pistons….. GM hypereutectic aluminum
Connecting rods….. GM powdered metal
Crankshaft………………. GM nodular iron
Horsepower @ rpm ………… 420-plus @ 5,900 (at rear wheels)
Torque @ rpm ……………. 425 lb-ft @ 4,600 (stock rating)
Camshaft type……… GM hydraulic roller
Duration………………… 204/211-degrees duration (at .050-in)
Valvetrain …………. Hydraulic roller lifters and rockers; 1.7:1 ratio
Induction system ……….. High-flow intake manifold; 47-lb/hr injectors; Holley air intake
Lubrication system………. Stock wet-sump; Holley oil pan
Ignition system…….. Delco coil-near-plug; Speartech computer
Exhaust system…………… Hawks Motorsports 304 magnetic stainless headers (2-in primaries, 3-in collector); 3.5-in oval-chambered pipes
Original engine………….. Chevrolet 5.0-liter (305-cu.in.) 170-hp TBI small-block V-8
Type…………………… GM 4L60E four-speed automatic; heavy-duty clutches; shift kit
Ratios…………………. 1st/3.059:1 … 2nd/1.625:1 … 3rd/1:1 … 4th/0.696:1 … Reverse/2.29:1
Type…Strange Engineering GM 12-bolt; limited-slip differential
Type…………………….. Hawks Motorsports power-assisted; fast-ratio steering box
Turns, lock-to-lock ………. 2.5
Type…………Wilwood hydraulic power-assisted four-wheel disc
Front………….12-in drilled and slotted rotors, six-piston calipers
Rear……….. 12-in drilled and slotted rotors, four-piston calipers
Front.Independent; MacPherson strut; coil spring; anti-roll bar
Rear Solid axle; trailing arms with torque arm and Panhard bar; tubular shock absorbers; anti-roll bar
WHEELS & TIRES
Wheels Chevrolet aluminum five-spoke
Front/Rear: 16 x 8-in
Tires ………… BF Goodrich G-Force Sport
Not yet tested.
Watch this video for 1988 Chevrolet Camaro Iroc-Z Modification