General Motors made a car for kids, and it was great
Corporate governance standards these days would likely prohibit the kind of things that executives at the domestic automobile companies got away with back in the 1950s and 1960s. Arthur Ross had stints in charge of styling for both Cadillac and Oldsmobile, and his 14-year-old son drove his middle-school prom date to the dance in the F-88 Motorama show car, which the senior Ross had brought home for the weekend. In the late 1950s, GM styling chief Bill Mitchell set up a secret skunkworks in the basement of the General Motors building where Peter Brock did the initial styling on what became the Stingray XP-87 racer after Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine refined the concept. Mitchell then privately raced the Stingray to get around the ban on competition that GM had in place at the time.
It’s not surprising, then, that by the mid-1960s, when GM vice president Mitchell wanted a scaled-down, go-kart version of Shinoda’s Corvair Monza SS and Monza GT concepts (which later heavily influenced the styling of the C3 Corvette) for his stepson Tony, the team at GM’s Tech Center went all out.
Under the custom fabricated fiberglass body the team used a racing go-kart chassis powered by a two-stroke West Bend Power Bee engine, complete with Dellorto carbs, velocity stacks, and a chromed megaphone exhaust. It had the Monza SS’ cut-down speedster windshield, a custom teak-rimmed steering wheel, leather upholstery for the single, bolstered seat, a brushed stainless steel dash with full instrumentation, custom wheels that mimicked the rims of the Monza concept, and a bright red exterior finish just like the Monza SS show car.
GM director of styling Chuck Jordan liked it so much that he had his team make another one—this time in blue, for his own son, Mark, and based on a stock Rupp go-kart chassis with a 3.5-horsepower gasoline engine made by Lauson, a Tecumseh subsidiary. It proved to be popular enough inside General Motors that Chevrolet started using it in promotions at car shows and in parades.
The junior Monza SS was so popular, in fact, that GM contracted with Rupp, which manufactured mini-bikes and go-karts, to make a small production run of replicas based on Rupp’s Dart kart. The body was revised to fit the Dart chassis, which was powered by a 3.5-hp one-cylinder Lauson engine, and featured “uni-action” steering linkage, a six-inch drum brake typical for karts of that period, inflatable tires, Rupp “turbine” wheels, and black Naugahyde upholstery. Unlike the Mitchell and Jordan karts, the production karts did not have windshields or any instrumentation. Like the original Monza SS concept, the karts were red with silver rear panels. A license plate in back had “Monza Junior” in script, flanked by faux taillights with red reflectors.
Chevrolet received the first shipment in 1965, and according to some sources, it had a fairly high-profile debut, introduced at the Detroit auto show alongside the restyled ’65 Corvair available in a high-performance Monza package. The Monza Jr. went on tour to car shows, county and state fairs, and shopping center openings, with raffles drawn for lucky winners to take one home.
Chevy dealers wanted to get in on the action, and Rupp knew it had a hit on its hands, so GM allowed the kart manufacturer to wholesale Monza Juniors to Chevrolet dealers for their own promotions even as Rupp sold the karts directly to customers. The Monza Jr. may have been a toy, but it wasn’t cheap. List price was $495, which works out to almost $4000 in 2019 dollars. If your parents bought you one, you were a lucky child.
Monza Juniors were made from 1965 to 1967, with a slight change in the body during that production run, reducing the height of the seat and its fairing on the rear deck, giving the body a side profile more like the Monza SS than the Monza GT coupe.
For 1968, slight changes were made to the nose of the little car. The color was changed to Marina Blue, with white horizontal racing stripes, and a Monza badge was dropped. The kart was renamed Chevy Jr. with an attendant change in the wording on the license plate. At some point early in the third generation, Rupp switched engines to a Tecumseh H35 motor of similar power. In the early 1970s, the color was switched to Corvette Monza Red, with a similar striping treatment.
Chevrolet dealers were still using the Chevy Jr. for promotions into the mid-1970s. Around that same time, a fleet of slightly modified karts was purchased by Flint, Michigan’s Safetyville, a miniature town set up in a city park to teach children the rudiments of traffic safety. Safetyville was sponsored by the Industrial Mutual Association, which likely had support from General Motors, and operated from 1963 until 1982. To protect the kids, the Chevy Juniors’ engines had speed governors, and to protect the karts, the IMA settled on outrigger bumpers.
Perhaps the most famous use of the little Chevy go-karts has been by the Shriners, the fraternal and charitable group that raises money for children’s hospitals. At some point the Shriners transitioned from just marching in parades to driving little clown cars. In the 1960s, the Monza Jr. and Chevy Jr. caught on with the Shriners in a big way and while Shriner cars today include a variety of automotive miniatures, including Jeeps and Econoline vans, the mini-Corvettes are still popular with the fez-wearing set. The Kena Shriners of Manassas, Virginia have a fleet of 22 Monza and Chevy karts that they parade in over two dozen events every year.
While not as rare as Baby Bugattis, the junior Chevys are collectible. At Barrett-Jackson’s 2017 Scottsdale auction, a restored 1972 Chevy Jr. with a replacement Honda engine sold for $3680, very close to the inflation-adjusted price when new.
A fully restored 1967 Monza Jr. was on display at the 2017 Detroit Autorama and raffled off by boosters of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. It had the earliest body style, with the tall seat and high fairing, and was fully operational.
If you’d like to see one in person, you can visit Ypsilanti’s Automotive Heritage Museum, where Alex Pizana’s Chevy Jr. is currently on display, part of the museum’s exhibit dedicated to the Corvair, which was assembled in Ypsilanti at General Motors’ Willow Run plant. Alex, a student enrolled in Washtenaw Community College’s Auto Body Repair and Custom Cars & Concepts programs, works part time at the museum. He received the go-kart as a gift from his grandfather, who, in the 1970s, bartered it for some work he did. Alex restored the Chevy Jr.’s body at his school’s facility, with the work sponsored by WCC and the Detroit Area Corvair Club.
Back in the 1960s, the little Chevrolet go-kart was pretty unique, a thing unto itself. Sure, you could buy a go-kart, but one with a show car body—a junior Corvette? Today, when their offspring are ready to move up from Cozy Coupes, parents and grandparents can buy their progeny just about any kind of powered ride-on toy vehicle they might want, including Escalades, Benzes, Lamborghinis, and McLarens. Still, I’m guessing that at least a few of those grown-ups, and even their kids, might prefer a Monza Jr.