What a difference a few years can make. In the early 1970s, a rear-wheel-drive American sport coupe with a slick, Ferrari-flavored design, small-block V-8, and racing pedigree had a pretty good shot at becoming a future collectible. That car, the second-generation Camaro that debuted in 1970, has long been a staple of the collector market. But another Chevy coupe from just a few years after checked many of the same boxes—the 1975–80 Monza. Somehow it became a throwaway, with most of the nearly 800,000 built doomed to the nation’s scrap yards and metal shredders.
With that visual in your mind, can you just hear Sweet’s Fox on the Run blasting in high-distortion glory through the factory stereo?
Arrived too late, but also too early
The Monza was born a looker, but its fatal curse was being born at the wrong time. As a child of the ’70s, it carried the triple whammy of lifeless performance, sketchy build quality, and badge engineering run amok. In addition to the Monza, GM cranked out 524,000 Pontiac Sunbirds, 144,000 Buick Skyhawks, and 125,000 Oldsmobile Starfires. All were known as second-generation H-bodies, based on the often-maligned Chevy Vega. All shared Vega’s 97-inch wheelbase and unibody, but with some improvements, including a torque-arm rear suspension to tame the Vega’s wheel hop under braking.
Although most are now gone, the Monza and its clones have super fans working to bring owners together and help preserve the cars that are left. In August, Bryan McCready, who maintains monzahomestead.com, will host the 13th Annual MonzaQue in Codrington, Ontario, Canada. Owners will enjoy a cookout while also sharing tips on preserving and modifying their cherished cars. (Vegas and Pontiac Astres are welcome, too.)
Spreading the Monza gospel
The website, which hosts a treasure trove of detailed H-body production data, was also once a registry for the cars, but McCready says the records are out of date. A small population of cars has not dampened enthusiasm, however, and now some website members are establishing a formal club, the H-Body Owners Association.
“There’s a lot of interest in these cars, and cars that were hidden away are coming out,” says McCready, who bought his first Monza in the early ’90s. “I didn’t know anything about Monzas at the time. I liked the way they looked. It was a neat little car. It died after six months, and then I found a Monza 2+2. I loved it but needed something more reliable and so had to sell it.”
Regretting that decision, McCready spent years looking for a replacement, finally finding a rust-free 1980 Monza 2+2 in California in 2001. That one has the Buick 231 V-6 that was an option over the standard Pontiac Iron Duke four-cylinder. It also has the optional and desirable Spyder handling and appearance package. McCready boosted the V-6’s power with an aftermarket intake and cam.
“Most owners modify their cars,” he says. “Many install V-8s if not originally equipped. I’ll eventually do that.”
Honey, I shrunk the pony car
The Monza 2+2 and its clones arrived in fall 1974, a year after Ford launched the Mustang II into a growing field of compact sport coupes. The trend had begun in 1970 with Ford’s German-built Capri arriving for sale through Lincoln-Mercury dealers. Pony car sales were shrinking, and the market was ripe for smaller, more economical alternatives. In 1971, Buick dealers began offering GM’s Opel 1900/Manta from Germany, and the Toyota Celica began a 35-year run.
Chevy, which found inspiration for the second-generation Camaro’s design in early 1960s Ferraris, borrowed the Monza’s fastback profile and rear side window shape from the Italian maker’s 1971–72 365 GTC/4. Even the Monza name, taken from an Italian racetrack, had been used on a 1950s Ferrari race car before Chevy put it on a Corvair. The Monza 2+2’s added hatchback practicality, and its polyurethane nose and quad rectangular headlights predicted an emerging trend.
Car and Driver called the Monza’s design “stunning,” and Motor Trend named Monza “Car of the Year” for 1975. Monza’s size and aerodynamics attracted drag racers, including Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, and road racers too. Driving a DeKon-built Monza, Al Holbert won IMSA Camel GT titles in 1976 and ’77, breaking a Porsche and BMW stranglehold on the series.
Unfortunately, there were no such thrills from the showroom. GM had originally planned the cars to use a Wankel rotary engine it was developing but cancelled that program. Instead, the H-bodies used a variety of anemic corporate engines, including the Vega four-cylinder (later replaced by the Pontiac Iron Duke), Buick V-6, and Chevy small block V-8. Transmissions included four-speed stick, three-speed automatic, and later a five-speed option for four-cylinder and V-6 models.
The Monza’s optional 262-cubic-inch V-8 with two-barrel carburetor made a pitiful 115 horsepower. California buyers got a 350 instead, with a still-dismal 125 hp but more torque. In Road & Track’s hands, the 262 Monza crawled from 0–60 in 13.4 seconds and sauntered through the quarter mile in 18.5 seconds at 72.5 mph. A 140-horse 5.0-liter (305-cu-in) version livened up performance in 1977 but was dropped after 1979. Most H-body buyers were focused on fuel economy.
All four divisions offered “sticker packages” and handling options. The 1976–80 Monza Spyder revived a name used by the turbocharged Corvairs. McCready’s car wears a reproduction decal package for the 1976–79 model, which until recently was all that was available.
“Phoenix Graphics in Arizona is now reproducing the 1980 Spyder set, and I’ll be switching to that,” McCready says.
The 1977, Monza Mirage mimicked the IMSA racers with “wide body” fender flares, front air dam, and a rear spoiler installed as the Mirage Sport Appearance Package, RPO ZX1, by Michigan Auto Techniques Corp. Most, if not all, of the 4507 made were white with red and blue stripes, a scheme seen on IMSA Monzas, including one driven by Al Unser. Chevy “recommended” ordering the 5.0-liter V-8, heavy-duty suspension, BR70-13 white-letter radial tires, special instrumentation, Sport steering wheel, and body-color mirrors, but McCready says not all were necessarily built this way.
If the Monza name triggers memories of several markedly different looking cars, your memory isn't failing you. In late 1975 Chevy added the Monza Towne Coupe, a notchback style sharing the hatchback’s windshield, doors, and front fenders but with single round headlights. This body style outsold its racier looking sibling, and Pontiac, too, sold more Sunbird notchbacks than hatchbacks. Like the Mustang II, these coupes could not escape Detroit’s obsession with landau roof options.
Chevy briefly offered the notchback body wearing the 2+2’s four-headlight nose and then later put the notchback’s round-headlight front end on a hatchback, creating an additional model. Adding more confusion, Chevy dropped the Vega after 1977 but rebadged the hatchback and wagon as a pair of cheaper Monzas through 1979. The Sunbird offered a wagon, too, while Skyhawk and Starfire used only the original 2+2 hatchback style. In retrospect, the notchback might have been well suited to those luxury-oriented brands.
The Monza found fans far from home. In Stockholm, Sweden, Per Lönnborg fell in love with the Monza at age 13 when he saw it in American car magazines. “The compact size combined with a V-8 and beautiful lines attracted me from the start,” says Lönnborg, who recently launched a website as a resource for H-body owners in his home country..
Lönnborg estimates there could be as many as 200 H-bodies in Sweden. One of those is the red 1975 Monza V-8 he bought in 2002. He replaced its original 262 with a 350 TBI (Throttle Body Injection) engine from a 1987 Chevy Van, also adding a cold-air intake, headers, and three-inch single exhaust. Following a how-to article in a magazine, he reprogrammed GM’s EFI software.
“This engine runs great in all weather, uses less fuel than the 262, but has about 240 horsepower,” Lönnborg says.
Other modifications include brakes from the 1976 Monza and Koni shocks. “The 1975 models had very bad brakes.”
Living with a Monza
Finding a good Monza or other H-body is challenge enough, but then you’ll deal with its foibles. For example, all models came only with 13-inch wheels, a drawback for handling, braking, and even finding replacement tires. Upgrading to 14- or 15-inch wheels and better brakes, McCready explains, can be done fairly easily using spindles from Chevy’s S-10 Blazer or pickup.
The V-8 was a tight fit in these cars, but there has been misinformation about trouble changing spark plugs. Chevy blamed “assembly variations” for difficult access to the #3 spark plug on some V-8 models with power steering and advised repositioning the engine on its mounts to solve the problem. (The procedure is described in Chilton’s Repair & Tune-Up Guide.) Not all mechanics did that, adding to owners’ woes down the road. Lönnborg says having headers makes plug changes easier, too.
Powertrain and service parts are available, but owners must scrounge for body and interior pieces. McCready says the urethane bumper covers were “surprisingly durable” but do fade and crack, and there are no reproductions.
“I’ve fixed some with fiberglass repair kits,” he says. “That’s actually something I like about the Monza. You have to work to keep these cars on the road.”