NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Stayin' Alive: The Chevrolet Monte Carlo

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Stayin' Alive: The Chevrolet Monte Carlo

Written by Aaron Severson

Saturday, 14 November 2009 00:00

Certain cars become emblematic of a time and a place, perfectly encapsulating the values, priorities, and obsessions of their eras. For America of the fifties, it's the 1955-57 Chevrolets and the '59 Cadillac; for the sixties, the Mini, the Beetle, and the Mustang. For the seventies, we'd make a strong case for this week's car. Generally reviled by critics, staggeringly popular with the public, and much imitated, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo remains as powerful a symbol of the period as disco balls, platform shoes, and The Brady Bunch.

This week, we look at the history of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and consider the reasons for its immense -- and ultimately ephemeral -- popularity.

THE BIRTH OF THE PERSONAL CAR

We freely admit that we didn't really get this one. At the recent car show in El Segundo, California, where we spotted our white photo subject, our Baby-Boom-generation companions all agreed, with some conviction, that the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was "a really nice car." Frankly, it left us scratching our head. We're well aware, of course, that Chevy sold an amazing number of Monte Carlos -- close to half a million of the first generation, 1.6 million of the second -- so our friends were not alone in their appreciation. That a lot of people loved the Monte is obvious; the question of why is a little more elusive. The Monte Carlo was, as Car and Driver aptly (and rather derisively) characterized it, a Chevy Chevelle in a dinner jacket: a perfectly ordinary domestic intermediate, dressed up with exaggerated proportions and neo-Classical design cues. Not being overly fond of Chevelles to begin with, we were a little puzzled as to why so many people would pay extra for the fancy-dress version.

To understand the Monte Carlo's rationale, we must first go back to the 1958 model year, and Ford's introduction of the first four-seat Thunderbird. The Squarebird, as its fans have come to know it, inaugurated a new genre of American automobiles, the personal luxury car. (Ford had actually coined the term "personal car" with the launch of the original two-seat Thunderbird in 1955, but the concept didn't really find its métier until the T-Bird grew a back seat, putting an end to any presumption that it was a sports car.)

A key design feature of both the Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix was a very long hood. From 1968 to 1977, GM's A-body intermediates had two wheelbases: 112 inches (2,845 mm) for two-doors, 116 inches (2,964 mm) for four-doors. The Monte Carlo -- offered only as a two-door hardtop -- rode a special version of the four-door frame, with the extra 4 inches (102 mm) of wheelbase inserted ahead of the firewall.

What's a personal luxury car? To answer that, we must first consider a more basic question: What is a luxury car? If we dispense with the press-booklet arguments about advanced engineering, meticulous craftsmanship, and lavish comfort -- all of which are nice, but not strictly necessary -- the ultimate aspiration of the luxury car is to make its buyers seem rich and successful, whether they are or not.

Some buyers, though, are not content with merely looking affluent; they want their possessions to express their taste and distinction (and set them apart from their peers, who are trying to do the same thing). Before the war, the wealthy could always send off their new luxury cars -- or even a bare chassis, if they were feeling especially extravagant -- for custom coachwork. Such bespoke jobs were for the few, and with the Depression and the outbreak of war, the number of buyers who could justify such expense dropped sharply. After the war, European automakers like Alfa Romeo and Mercedes took advantage of a surfeit of underemployed carrozeria to offer stylish, low-production coupe and convertible versions of their normal sedans. In America, automotive customization became a mostly amateur sport.

In the early fifties, GM offered a couple of stylish, limited-production convertibles, the Cadillac Eldorado, the Buick Skylark, and the Oldsmobile Fiesta, that reflected the growing influence of the "Kalifornia Kustom" movement. The idea of a factory-built car with the flair of a custom job struck a chord, but the GM offerings were labor-intensive to produce, and sold in limited numbers, for daunting prices. Ford followed them in 1955 with the original Thunderbird, which looked not unlike an attractively shortened, sectioned, and chopped Ford convertible. The Thunderbird was attainably priced, if not cheap, but with only two seats, it was still not a practical proposition for most buyers.

Ford finally put all the pieces together with the Squarebird. In four-seat hardtop form, it was reasonably practical, but it was in no danger of being mistaken for a mundane sedan. It was cheap enough to put it within the reach of middle-class buyers, but not so cheap as to seem common. Moreover, while its oddball mix of formal roof and sports car design cues failed to impress purists, it successfully bridged a wide array of tastes. The Squarebird quickly outsold its sportier predecessor, and became a lucrative profit-maker for Ford. Within a remarkably short time, it became a clearly established brand, even with the critics who decried its lackluster performance and extravagant styling.

A LOT MORE OF THE STORY AT LINK:

http://ateupwithmotor.com/component/content/article/203.html

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Wow ... interesting article.

Thanks for posting it, 98!

Cort | 36swm.IL | "Mr Monte Carlo"."Mr Road Trip" | pig valve.pacemaker * 07/24/2010 = Chitown #3 *

WRMNshowcase.legos.HO.models.MCs.RTs.CHD = http://www.chevyasylum.com/cort

"This can't be the end" ... Bertie Higgins ... 'Key Largo'

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Wow ... interesting article.

Thanks for posting it, 98!

Cort | 36swm.IL | "Mr Monte Carlo"."Mr Road Trip" | pig valve.pacemaker * 07/24/2010 = Chitown #3 *

WRMNshowcase.legos.HO.models.MCs.RTs.CHD = http://www.chevyasylum.com/cort

"This can't be the end" ... Bertie Higgins ... 'Key Largo'

You are most welcome. I was reading a lot this past weekend and I came across that site. I thought all the GM stories were interesting. That is why if you check each GM brand here, there are stories in each one. I was hoping people would enjoy them. I also wanted people to know the real stories behind many GM brands and designs. They can get an idea of where GM has been and where it needs to go and have a feeling of how GM lost its way.

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My parents had a 1970 MC and it was the best car we ever had! It was way more reliable than our '68 Plymouth wagon, it always started, was quick for a 2 barrel carb V8 and just nice to ride in. We owned it from 1973-75. The wagon was our main family car, but it had so many starting issues, we started squeezing into the MC for road trips instead. The Monte was meant to be the 2nd car, but moved to 1st, :-)

It got totaled one night when parked on busy street, and frame was bent. Parents traded both the wagon [which was dying] and MC for a '72 Sedan DeVille, which seemed like a bargain at the time. But overall not as fun to drive as a Monte and was costly to drive, 8-16 mpg. My father to this day wishes he had gotten a new MC instead! Also, having just one car between my folks got to be a pain, so we got Skyhawk as 2nd car after a year.

So, GM did make some great cars, just to many forget them!

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I had a 1970 and it was a great car. It was one of the best styled Chevys of all time. Not over done as many of the later Monte Carlos were.

I did 86 the fender skits and caps for a set of rallys. It was not what I would call the most exciting or fun car I ever owned but it was very reliable and in fact is still in great condition and still on the road. I see it once in a while with the present owner. I sold it 25 years ago and it was then as now a rock solid car from Alabama.

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Thanks!

The Monte Carlo and Grand Prix was everyman's Eldorado/Riviera/Toronado, and that was a good thing. It made that genre of car affordable to many more people through the Chevy and Pontiac nameplates.

Come 1973 and the arrival of the colonnaded opera window, these cars became must-haves. In 1973, the Monte Carlo may have been the most attractive of the GM intermediate coupes. By 1975, in my opinion, the baton passed to the Cutlass Supreme, which now had a nicer grille and the rocket insignia in the taillamps. And then, by 1976, there was no doubt that the Oldsmobile was the most sought-after of the mid-size coupes. The 1976 Cutlass Supreme was probably one of the most beautiful and captivating cars of that decade.

The smaller intermediate coupes of the early-1980s, including the Monte Carlos, were nice enough, but a little quirky. By the mid-80s, all of them had been "cleaned up" a little and all of them looked great. Unique to the Monte Carlo, initially, and subsequently available on GP, was the new-ish Chevrolet Vortec 4.3 litre TBI V6. These turned out to be great little engines and they put out about 30 more hp than the 3.8 V6 with a carburetor, which I had in my 1984 Cutlass. In those low hp days, an extra 30 hp was a big deal. (Now, if we're talking V8s, the Oldsmobile mid-size was the clear winner with its 4.3 and 5.0 small-block Rocket V8s).

Still, the Monte Carlo was a great car that kind of waned as the years went on, becoming a rebadged Lumina coupe, and then a rebadged Impala coupe. I see the last-gens daily and wonder how much nicer they could have been...and that they could, and should, have been a better last-hurrah. Regardless, the last-gen Monte Carlo, in my opinion, wasn't bad, but it's certainly not memorable either.

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It was a mistake to not give them the same interior update that the Impala received rather than a half-assed compromise.

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You are most welcome. I was reading a lot this past weekend and I came across that site. I thought all the GM stories were interesting. That is why if you check each GM brand here, there are stories in each one. I was hoping people would enjoy them. I also wanted people to know the real stories behind many GM brands and designs. They can get an idea of where GM has been and where it needs to go and have a feeling of how GM lost its way.

Exactly ... I understand what you mean, 98.

Would you believe a friend of mine ... literally days after I saw your thread here ... sent me a link to that same article? I've started to share it with some of my other groups/boards, particularly the MC-related ones. I'll see what the reaction is next time I visit, of course.

While I certainly appreciate the fact that they didn't spend much time at all on the FWD Celebrity/Lumina/"monte carlos" (1995-2007), I was ... and still am ... a bit disheartened at the pictures they chose to use. I don't know, maybe it's just me ... but I would think that they'd have been able to choose better pics to use/share throughout the article....

*shrugs*

Cort | 36swm.IL | "Mr Monte Carlo"."Mr Road Trip" | pig valve.pacemaker * NoreastrTrek.Aug2010 *

MCs.Caprice|models.HO.legos.CHD.RadioShows|RTs.us66 = http://www.chevyasylum.com/cort

"She became the envy of my dreams" ... Kenny Rogers ... 'Scarlet Fever'

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What do you think about making a 2 door version of the next generation Malibu and naming it a Monte Carlo? Buick also could use a 2 door coupe on the same platform and name it a Riviera. And really I dont think this car would compete much with the Camaro. they would go after two totally diffrent buyers.

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Exactly ... I understand what you mean, 98.

Would you believe a friend of mine ... literally days after I saw your thread here ... sent me a link to that same article? I've started to share it with some of my other groups/boards, particularly the MC-related ones. I'll see what the reaction is next time I visit, of course.

While I certainly appreciate the fact that they didn't spend much time at all on the FWD Celebrity/Lumina/"monte carlos" (1995-2007), I was ... and still am ... a bit disheartened at the pictures they chose to use. I don't know, maybe it's just me ... but I would think that they'd have been able to choose better pics to use/share throughout the article....

*shrugs*

Cort | 36swm.IL | "Mr Monte Carlo"."Mr Road Trip" | pig valve.pacemaker * NoreastrTrek.Aug2010 *

MCs.Caprice|models.HO.legos.CHD.RadioShows|RTs.us66 = http://www.chevyasylum.com/cort

"She became the envy of my dreams" ... Kenny Rogers ... 'Scarlet Fever'

It is nice to know it is impacting the right people.

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I would love to see a GM entry-brand to mid-brand mid-size coupe platform, but it CAN'T be a frump. It needs to be a thoroughbred (not necessarily in hp, but in looks, reliability, ride, comfort and handling).

The sad part is that I won't be in the market for a while.

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Unique to the Monte Carlo, initially, and subsequently available on GP, was the new-ish Chevrolet Vortec 4.3 litre TBI V6. These turned out to be great little engines and they put out about 30 more hp than the 3.8 V6 with a carburetor, which I had in my 1984 Cutlass. In those low hp days, an extra 30 hp was a big deal.

The El Camino got that efi V6 at the same time as the Monte.

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Monte was a sweet car...

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Ponderous article. It purports to discuss the MC, but wanders all the way back to the 1920s in the process. I HATE articles that talk about cars like the readers were all from Mars.

Also, I have an issue with the repeated claim that the Monte is primarily a Chevelle, - it's like saying the GP is a "dressed-up" GTO. 'taint so, overall.

There are other sloppy bits that shouldn't be.

>>"{GP} would share much of its structure with the intermediate Le Mans, but it looked distinctly different."<<

What structure ??

>>"He made a deal with DeLorean to share the cost of the Grand Prix's roofline, giving Pontiac a one-year exclusive on it for 1969, but allowing Chevrolet to develop its own "G-car" (as the Grand Prix was known internally) for 1970."<<

'69 & 70 GP rooflines are identical. '70 Monte roofline is distinct... so what roofline costs they were sharing is unknown. Different dies for each.

>>"In fact, the Monte Carlo differed from the Chevelle only in its front clip, rear fenders, sail panels, and outer doors. Even the upper roof panel was shared with the Chevelle hardtop."<<

Weren't we just told it shared the roof with the GP ??

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What do you think about making a 2 door version of the next generation Malibu and naming it a Monte Carlo?

No. That'd just be another FWD version. Might as well bring the Lumina back.

It is nice to know it is impacting the right people.

*grins*

It is!

Cort | 36.m.IL | "Mr Monte Carlo"."Mr Road Trip" | pig valve.pacemaker

MCs.Caprice | models.HO.legos.CHD.RadioShows | RTs.us66 = http://www.chevyasylum.com/cort

"Nobody likes to be let down" ... Jack Johnson ... 'Flake'

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70 was the best looking of the bunch .............. no problems if you had a 71 or 72 but that was it, the rest went down hill fast.

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"repeated claim that the Monte is primarily a Chevelle, - it's like saying the GP is a "dressed-up" GTO. 'taint so"

The A-Special [GP/Monte] and A bodies [LeMans/Chevelle/Skylark/Cutlass] shared many parts. And "horrors", the GTO and Chevelle also shared A body parts!!! ["Like, OMG, Pontiac was not a separate car company?!"]

BTW, the LeMans was the main selling Pontiac A body car. The GTO was the top line model or option package, depending on year. Some younger car fans assume all Pontiac mid-sized cars were GTO's. {Or think it was a Mustang competitor with unique body shell, and never heard of Tempest/LeMans} I saw on Jalopnik an article about a 1969 Custom S and they were like 'it looks like some kind of GTO'.

Also, all Chevelles were not muscle cars, that would be the SS versions.

"What structure"? Umm the A body and chassis???

Edited by Chicagoland
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