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In a booming muscle car era with competition fueled one quarter-mile at a time, the 1967 Camaro Z28 didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the crowd.

European handling? Limited body-roll? Nobody understood these foreign terms that could be found in the reviews of the Z28 from nearly every auto rag that was lucky enough to get its hands on the car.

What originated as an RPO option code has since developed into the three most recognizable letters in Camaro’s legendary performance history.

The Z28 was developed by Chevrolet to compete against the Ford Mustang and Plymouth Barracuda in the SCCA Trans-America sedan racing series. To compete, Chevrolet had to develop an engine that was smaller than the 305 cubic-inch displacement limit for Class A sedans.

A test mule was fitted with a high-performance version of the tried and true small-block 283. Though it was impressive for what it was, veteran Chevrolet engineer Vincent W. Piggins was left wanting more after putting the Z28 through its paces on a test track and slalom course.

To eek out a few extra ponies, Chevrolet’s four-bolt main cap 327-block was fitted with a forged steel 283 crankshaft. This produced a 4 x 3 bore and stroke and displacement of 302.4 cubic-inches, slotting in just a hair below the SCCA’s 305-cid limit.

With muscle car enthusiasts in the late 1960s traditionally seeking big-block torque and straight-line acceleration, GM’s groundbreaking design was largely ignored and only 602 Z28s were sold in 1967, compared to 64,842 RS and 34,411 SS models.

Despite the low sales numbers, Chevrolet didn’t give up on the Z28. The news about its legendary handling and sleeper potential started to spread and forced Chevrolet’s competitors to focus on more than straight-line acceleration if they wanted to offer an all-around performance package as potent as the Z28. Big-block owners were no longer caught off guard when a Camaro with a small-block 302 was shockingly getting the jump and holding them off at stoplights. The secret was out.

By 1969, the Z28 achieved notoriety and was the most sought after pony car in the United States. With an advertised 290-horsepower at 5800 rpm and 290 lb-ft at 4200 rpm, the Z28’s high-compression, free-revving 302 was criminally underrated. Actual output is believed to be closer to 350 horsepower at 7000 rpm. This was likely to keep the SCCA from penalizing Z28 drivers and curb insurance costs from reaching big-block prices.

In addition to the high-performance 302, the 1969 Z28 package also came standard with a M21 four-speed manual transmission and the iconic F41 heavy-duty suspension with quick ratio steering, heavy-duty front coils and multi-leaf rear springs. A 3.73 axle ratio and power-assisted front disc brakes were also included in the $3443.80 base price, with posi-traction and four-wheel disc brakes as optional equipment.

The stylish and functional ZL2 Super Scoop hood was also new for 1969 as an option in either steel or fiberglass for SCCA competition. The Super Scoop was designed to force feed cool air near the high-pressure base of the windshield into the induction system, dramatically reducing under hood air temperatures and increasing horsepower.

Nearly a half-century later, and the 1969 Camaro Z28 is still one of the most distinguished and collectible pony cars ever produced. It was perhaps the first car that proved that going fast in a straight or curved line did not have to be mutually exclusive in the muscle car era. And of course, it did with unbelievable style and flair.

Chevrolet has been trying for years to recapture its magic, but no sequel will ever takes its place. Muscle car collectors have already started to reach the same conclusion, and that’s why the price of 1969 Z28s have skyrocketed during the past three years.

According to Hagerty’s price guide report, the average Condition #1 Z28 price has escalated from $85,000 in December 2012 to $131,000 in 2015, while Condition #2 models have jumped from $67,800 to $103,000 during the same time period. Even Condition 3 cars are following the same upward trajectory and have climbed from $49,800 to $83,500.

To put it bluntly, if you’d like to finally live out your childhood dream and test out the Z28’s incredible F41 suspension on your favorite driving roads, now is the time to make room in the garage. Prices will only continue to rise, as the Z28 is no longer America’s best-kept secret.