Motoring Memories: Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 1970 1988, 1995 2007 motoring memories classic cars car culture
1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

What became known as the “personal luxury coupe” segment of the market can be traced back to the 1958 four-seat Ford Thunderbird. Although sporty car enthusiasts decried the demise of the 1955-57 two-seat T-Bird, Ford sold many more four-seaters and earned far more profit on them than they did on two-seaters, and than Chevrolet did on Corvettes. It also started a whole new car trend.

General Motors responded to this new challenge with the 1963 Buick Riviera, then the 1966 front-wheel drive Oldsmobile Toronado, followed in 1967 by the Cadillac Eldorado, a Toronado clone. Pontiac replied in 1969 with a trimmer Grand Prix.

Chevrolet wanted into the game too, so for 1970 its engineers created the Chevelle-based, 2,946 mm (116 in.)-wheelbase Monte Carlo coupe. It was vintage Detroit engineering with independent A-arm front suspension, solid rear axle and coil springs all around. Power came from an overhead valve V8 and power assisted front disc brakes were standard.

Stylists followed the personal coupe long-hood, short-deck theme, stretching the Monte Carlo’s a hood a full 1,829 mm (six feet), the longest in Chevrolet history. They also gave it crisp, clean lines, a remarkable absence of chrome and a nicely integrated cross-hatch grille.

With its lack of ostentatious adornment, Chevrolet no doubt hoped to link the exotic exclusivity of the Monte Carlo name with elegant understated European styling. Embedding the radio antenna in the windshield added to the clean lines, and for added sleekness many buyers ordered the optional fender skirts. Although the “formal” rear roofline was quite attractive, it did create a blind spot for the driver.

This was the era of big cars, and while the Monte Carlo carried its size well, it was still large. Overall length was 5,227 mm (206 in.), 254 mm (10 in,) shorter than the full size Chevrolet. It was also 102 mm (4 in.) narrower.

The standard engine was a 5.7-litre (350 cu in.) V8, with several optional V8s: two 6.6 litres (400 and 402 cu in.) and a 7.4 litre (454 cu in.).

Needless to say the 7.4 (454) was quite fast. Car Life (2/’70) reported that a Monte Carlo with the SS454 option scooted to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.7 seconds and reached a top speed of 213 km/h (132 mph).

The Monte Carlo was restyled for 1973, although it retained the same basic package and dimensions. Its fender lines were more pronounced, its creases were sharper and the sides more sculpted. The roof was squared off and small rectangular side windows added at the rear somewhat relieved the blind spot. GM called it “colonnade” styling, but most critics called it baroque, and the public showed they loved it by purchasing almost 330,000 ’73 Montes, a record year.

The next few years would see the Monte Carlo receive only minor revisions as more of the industry’s resources were directed toward meeting safety and emissions legislation and impending fuel economy standards, not to mention 1970s “Oil Crises.” Also, quoted horsepower ratings were falling as manufacturers switched from Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) gross ratings to the far more realistic SAE net ratings. Compression ratios were falling to accommodate the non-leaded gasoline needed by catalytic convertors, and other power-sapping emissions hardware was being added.

The Monte Carlo got vertically stacked quad headlamps for 1976, as well as a new more elaborate grille. This would carry it through 1977, the last year for the large Monte.

To address economy concerns, 1978 brought a new, smaller Monte Carlo. Its wheelbase shrank 201 mm (7.9 in.) to 2,746 mm (108.1 in.) and overall length was 5,080 mm (200 in,). Weight fell too, and base power was a 3.8 litre (231 cu in.) V6.

The Monte Carlo received new styling for 1981, and was then allowed to soldier on though most of the 1980s with only minor changes except for a special 1983-85 Monte Carlo SS. This was motivated by Chevrolet’s desire to improve its chances on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuits. A wind tunnel-developed aerodynamic front end and a 5.0 litre (305 cu in.) 180-horsepower Chevy V8 were fitted. To satisfy NASCAR that it was a stock car, Chevrolet offered them for sale to the public.

The Monte Carlo SS was fairly fast. Car and Driver (7/’85) recorded zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 7.8 seconds and a top speed of 188 km/h (117 mph). The SS did the job for Chevrolet on the track by dominating NASCAR racing during 1983 and ’84.

The rear-wheel drive Monte Carlo was laid to rest in 1988, its time having passed. The Monte Carlo name returned in 1995 as a two-door version of the front-wheel drive Lumina. It stayed until the 2007 model year and was then discontinued.