Tuesday, January 8, 2013

History of the Monte Carlo, Chevrolet's personal luxury coupe

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite automotive nameplates of all time: the Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  When this car debuted in 1970, Chevrolet called it a “personal luxury coupe.”  You’ve just got to love that.  This car had the longest hood in Chevrolet history, but a relatively small interior.  A V8 monster like this was purely gluttonous, and in my opinion, one of the best cars of its time because of it.

The first Monte Carlo was the Chevrolet version of the contemporary Pontiac Grand Prix, which came out a year earlier.  It was essentially a Chevelle coupe built on a Chevelle four door chassis, which is why it had that lavishly long hood.  Or, if you think about it another way, it was sort of a poor man’s Eldorado.  It had a similar short trunk, long snout, formal roofline appearance without the astronomical price tag.  The two door hardtop styling with full roll-down rear windows suggests that a convertible was also planned, but none were ever built from the factory.

These were some of the best driving cars of their time.  The engine was set way back in the chassis, and the weighted balance was excellent.  No, it wasn’t a sports car, but it was an excellent touring car.  And Chevrolet’s bullet-proof engine options included a 350-c.i. small block, a 402-c.i. big block, and of course, the 454-c.i. big block.  There was just no way to go wrong with a first-generation Monte Carlo.  By the way, the SS option was available in 1970 and ’71.  In 1972, that changed to the Custom package.  So if you see a 1972 Monte Carlo SS, you know something is a little wonky there.

Here’s a little tidbit that I think is interesting.  My dad was early in his career with Chevrolet Motor Division when the Monte Carlo arrived on the scene.  One of his jobs was to travel around to auto shows and drive the Monte Carlo out on stage wearing a tuxedo while the dancing girls did their thing around him.  And while he drove more Caprices than anything back then, he did drive a few Monte Carlos as company cars.  The red one in this picture was one of his brand-new GM company cars.  Wouldn’t that car be nice to have in that condition today?

GM redesigned all of their intermediate cars in 1973, and the Monte Carlo was no exception.  These were really ‘70s chic, with Landau half padded vinyl top options and long, sweeping body contours.  Yeah, they were big and marshmallowey, and their V8 engines received all kinds of power-choking emissions equipment as the decade wore on, but they were still good driving cars, and tough as nails.  It’s no secret that the cars of the ‘70s were prone to iron worms, but if you could keep the body on a Monte Carlo, it would run indefinitely.

1977 was the last year for this style of Monte Carlo.  The full-sized Caprice had already been downsized for 1977, so the handwriting was on the wall. The crazy thing here is that the “intermediate” ’77 Monte Carlo was bigger than the “full-sized” ’77 Caprice.

Chevrolet brought out a new, and extremely downsized version to help meet governmental CAFE requirements in 1978.  People complained about the smaller cars across the board at GM, but it didn’t seem to stop them from buying them.  The V6 and 305-c.i. V8 Monte Carlos from this era remained very popular either in spite of, or because of their relatively compact size.

Another design refresh in 1981 paved the way for the NASCAR-inspired SS in 1983.  Power and trim changes during this time kept the Monte Carlo fresh, and the Aerocoupe came along in 1986 to help the car compete with the sleek new Thunderbirds on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.  The last of this generation was a 1988 model.

And though the Monte Carlo was gone, it was not forgotten.  After a seven year hiatus, it returned in 1995.  By then, it was still a two-door coupe, but now it was driven by the front wheels.  And who are we kidding, really?  These were Monte Carlos in name only.  This car was a Lumina coupe.  These weren’t bad cars, though.  They might not have looked that exciting, but they had pretty nice build quality and lots of gadgets and features for that time.

The final major redesign of the Monte Carlo came out in 2000.  These were still front-drivers, but they did have some distinctly Monte Carloish traits that the previous versions lacked.  The most obvious were the taillights, which mimicked those on the ’73-’77 and ’81-’87 versions.  A new rendition of the knight’s shield emblem also returned after its ’95-’99 absence.  And the sweeping wheel arches further embraced the car’s heritage.  During this final hurrah, you could get this car in all sorts of racing-inspired special editions, including pace cars and NASCAR driver trims.  The final Monte Carlo was produced in the 2007 model year.  It’s hard to believe it has been gone for six years, but there you go. 

I have actually owned several of these cars over the years, spanning four different generations.  And I liked every one of them for a different reason.  But the thing they all had in common was that they were nice Chevrolet coupes, and they were often available when other car companies offered nothing even comparable.  Will the Monte Carlo ever return?  I wouldn’t put any money on it, but it would certainly be OK with me.

The slideshow below has Monte Carlo pictures that I took at various car shows and events around town, as well as a few old personal photos.  It should at least take you through the evolution of Chevrolet’s personal luxury coupe.  Click on this link for a better version of the slideshow.

10 comments:

  1. When Kelly and I got married in 79, she brought with her a nice 76 Monte Carlo. We drove that car for a year and then traded it in on a Toyota Corolla. The Monte was a great riding car,but at that time gas prices were really going up and we thought at the time we needed a fuel saver...
    I've robbed quit a few Monte parts for my chevelles over the years. Sorry to see em go...
    Rick

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  2. You traded a '76 Monte Carlo for an early '80s Corolla? That had to hurt! Thanks for the story, Rick.

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  3. Thanks for the post - I've always liked MonteCarlos too. My Godparents bought a 70 model new; I built an AMT version just like it which I still have. A buddy had a real 70 SS454 when we were in our early 20s.[sold to finance a Corvette] My wife was driving a 74 that her parents bought new and she bought from them before we got married. We bought a low mile, one owner 75 from a friend's uncle a few years later. I had a 96 and a 2000 as a company car... yep, like Monte Carlos...

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  4. When I worked at Leeds Plant in 78 the Monte's were built there along with 2 door / 4 door / SW Malibu's, El Camino's, & GMC Sprint. You should do some stories on the great cars that came out of Leeds, Fairfax, & Claycomo plants.

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    Replies
    1. You know, that is a good idea. I might have to do that sometime!

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  7. always liked the monte carlos. closest i came was owning a '74 Chevelle SS Laguna with a 454, and finally got one of the newer generation monte's buying an '03 SS in 2005. very hard to find superior blue with tan leather. still like the styling on those.

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  8. 75 creme colored monte was my 2nd car -- (69 bug was first). My grandmother bought it brand new, I got it in about 1980. Ended up with a cam and headers, and I learned how to do transmissions with that car. (I was rather hard on vehicles...) Did the trans 5 times, rear end twice, and went through the engine once. I owned it 3 years and sold it to buy a gorgeous 79 firebird esprit -- I should have kept the monte. I miss that car, and will have another when my wife's 84 454 monte is completed (hopefully driving this summer) got the drivetrain installed, just finished making the factory ac box clear the valve cover, have to get pulleys, then put the interior back together and paint, then we are gonna cruise Route 66 with my 15 year old all the way from Kansas to Cali.

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