The car that made Earnhardt a legend

1986 Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe

NASCAR domination goes in circles (no pun intended). Sometimes it’s Ford, then it’s Chrysler, then it’s General Motors. Whenever a car takes the spotlight, a competitor counters or new rules yank away the advantage. And from 1983 to ’86, the Ford Thunderbird was the car everyone was talking about. More aerodynamic than anything GM could muster, the “Aerobird” saw its first victory at Daytona on Independence Day 1983, and with Bill Elliott driving—Awesome Bill from Dawsonville!—it would keep on winning, winning, and winning. In 1988 Elliott won his first Winston Cup driver’s championship, Ford’s first since Dick Pearson won in 1969 in a Ford Torino Talladega.

Chevrolet and General Motors needed a counter-punch to the Thunderbird, and that car was the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Just two years after the car’s 1981 redesign, NASCAR allowed Chevy to run with a new sloped nose, which improved aerodynamics up front. That year also saw the return of the Super Sport package after a 12-year absence, complete with a 305-cid V-8. And yet, the Chevys still lacked the aerodynamic downforce to remain competitive.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe
Tim Richmond driving the No. 25 Folgers Coffee Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Hendrick Motorsports.

Enter the Aerodeck. The Monte Carlo’s stock canted rear window was swapped out for a huge, three-sided piece of glass, sloping down at 25 degrees, ditching the formal and upright roofline that defined 1980’s GM style, from Buick Rivieras to the Pontiac Grand Am.

NASCAR rules dictated that 200 examples had to make it into production for homologation. And in 1986, that’s exactly how many Chevrolet built. To civilians, this very special Monte Carlo was sold as the Aerocoupe (Honda used the AeroDeck name on a two-door Accord wagon in Europe). And in 1987, it returned in earnest; of 39,251 total Monte Carlo Super Sports sold, 6,052 were Aerocoupes—just over 15% of total production. There are minor differences between the two years, as exhaustively chronicled here.

If you can find one today, it’s a rare breed—a genuine piece of NASCAR history, trickled down to the showroom world. That’s reflected in the value of the cars, as high as 36-percent more than a standard SS coupe, according the Hagerty Valuation Tool.  But they also hit a sweet spot between affordability and homologation rarity. “Superbirds and Daytonas and those kinds of cars—forget it,” says one owner, who owned his maroon-on-maroon example for three years. “They just got too expensive for me. I was never going to have one of them. But this [Aerocoupe] was specifically built for NASCAR, and it was a great opportunity for me to pick one up for decent money. And the production numbers are very low.”

All 200 Aerocoupes built the first year were white with burgundy interior. The next year, the car came in four colors: white, black, gray, and burgundy. Like the SS, a carbureted 305-cid V-8 was standard, with 180 horsepower, mated to a four-speed automatic. (Chevrolet killed the manual option on Monte Carlos in 1979.) An ’80s Monte Carlo is one of those cars you used to see everywhere, but these days it definitely takes a dedicated NASCAR enthusiast to keep one on the road. Pontiac also built its own Grand Prix Aerocoupe, complete with subjectively bizarre beaked front end and a weaker small-block engine.

With its deep, hooded, squared-off headlights; egg-crate grille; and simple accent red lines, the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe looks like a street fighter—a toned-down gasp of period-correct muscle in an otherwise dark decade for GM’s lineup. You can tell yourself that that grafted-on nose, extending nearly two feet ahead of the front wheels, is cost-effective engineering at its finest. And it is. It was race-proven, at least. And that rear window may be a subtle tweak in the formula, but it’s definitely something for in-the-know diehards to spot—and it also helped win races.

That leads us to the Monte Carlo’s special place in history. In 1986, the first year of that Aerodeck racecar, Dale Earnhardt was behind the wheel of a yellow and blue Monte Carlo, sponsored by Wrangler jeans. He’d run out of fuel at that year’s Daytona 500 with just three laps to go, an agonizing defeat—but he went on to win five races, as well as his second Winston Cup Championship. The next year, he won 11 races and his third championship. While squaring off against Elliott’s Ford, Earnhardt was bestowed with the nickname that he’d carry to the end, “The Intimidator.” And in 1988, with a new sponsor in the form of GM Goodwrench, Earnhardt’s car was repainted entirely black—the livery that made the nickname all the more intimidating.