The Chevy Monza was born at just the wrong time, but fans keep the flame alive

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?

Car and Driver called the Monza’s look “stunning.” It was the most progressive design in the segment.
Car and Driver called the Monza’s look “stunning.” It was the most progressive design in the segment. Per Lönnborg

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, 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.)

Chevrolet Monza print ad
Chevy Monza ad GM

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trove of detailed H-body production data, was also once a registry for the cars, but McCready says the records are out of date.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.”

Sloping front end with urethane fascia and rectangular headlights predicted a design trend; the Fox-body Mustang, third-gen Camaro and Dodge Daytona show influence.
Sloping front end with urethane fascia and rectangular headlights predicted a design trend; the Fox-body Mustang, third-gen Camaro and Dodge Daytona show influence. Per Lönnborg
McCready’s Monza rear 3/4
McCready’s Monza at a rare gathering of H-bodies. Bryan McCready

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.

Chevrolet Monza at the beach
GM Heritage

Slow going

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.

Chevy Monza Engine
Per Lönnborg
Monza lost its V-8 option for 1980; McCready’s has the Buick 231 V-6 with minor mods.
Monza lost its V-8 option for 1980; McCready’s has the Buick 231 V-6 with minor mods. Bryan McCready

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.

Busy bodies

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.

Customized non-production "Rapide"
Customized non-production "Rapide" GM Heritage

International appeal

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.”

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    Because a car doesnt sell 400,000 per year doesnt mean it was “born at the wrong time”. The Camaro sold under 60,000 units in 1972 and was nearly cancelled, so Chevrolet introduced a smaller sporty car with a choice of 4 AND 8 cylinder engines. And it sold more than the 75 Camaro. Care to change the title of your article now? Why cant you guys get it right? Because your all millennials. With age comes knowledge. You surely wont get it from the internet.

    Sorry to break it to you, but Jim’s been writing about cars for over 30 years! You may disagree with how he framed the Monza’s short/long term prospects, but calling him a millennial clearly doesn’t help your argument.

    I think he meant it was a good concept doomed to mediocrity at best by some poorly chosen cost cutting.
    My friend’s girlfriend had a later Monza notchback with the Iron Duke four. She loved it and it was pretty reliable to boot. A problem cropped up where it couldn’t be aligned properly anymore. Evidently the front crossmember and/or frame rails “spread”. The lower control arms ended up further apart than factory specs, knocking the camber out of whack. There wasn’t enough adjustment range to compensate, so the choices were a new crossmember (it was a common enough problem that the local Chevy dealer kept them in stock), new tires every 5K miles, or a new car. She chose the third option. She was happy enough with the Monza she bought another GM (can’t remember specifically what).

    First of all the Monza was born a Vega in 1968. The Monza was the second generation. When should it have been born? The Monza was a Vega H-body with upgraded suspension , more standard equipment and additional engine options. Was the Mustang II (based on the Pinto) introduced the year before born at the wrong time too. You guys need help.

    When the Vega 2300 was introduced in 1970, Chevrolet stated no major styling changes for five years, as part of their effort to appeal to foreign car owners. Chevy general manager John DeLorean had intended on turning a decent profit for Chevrolet in a new upscale small car market segment and the new Vega variant was initially priced about $1000 more. It would require a new nameplate to go with its higher price. GM President Ed Cole had named the XP-887 Vega 2300. So who named the 1975 Vega variant? DeLorean in his 1979 book “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors.” referred to the Monza as “The Italian Vega” and claiming credit for returning a profit on the H-body variants but DeLorean left GM before the cars were introduced. Chaparral was selected first but Monza was chosen without a usage fee probably by Cole who retired from GM the same year.
    The car was initially dubbed 2+2 Rotary. It’s first mission was to showcase the GM Wankel rotary engine set for a 1975 debut but the engine was cancelled for mediocre fuel economy, the only configuration meeting emissions standards. The car was introduced with the Vega 4 and a new fuel efficient 110-hp 265 cu in V8 option in place of the 150-hp 205 cu in rotary. A mid-year Town Coupe was introduced to pick up on the sales success of the Mustang II notchback. The Monza and Ford’s Mustang II went head to head dubbed “super coupes” (e.g. Vega GT, Capri, Mazda RX-2. Opel Manta) a step up from “economy cars”. The Monza V8 was judged more fun to drive than the Mustang II V8 said the experts, C&D quote “The Mustang II is well-built but feels like a shrunken T-Bird.

    Well,the Monza was around earlier it was the Vega,the Monza is a Vega with only updated styling cues,it is a Vega..

    They sold a pest of these the other GM division brands pretty much had one and these were all over the place..I never liked them but some did..

    The Mustang II sold an amazing number — not 1964-65 amazing but still, it drew hundreds of thousands of buyers who were intrigued by a “more fuel-efficient” Mustang. Many were returning buyers who had bought original Mustangs. Was it better than the Monza? No. The Mustang II did not even have a V-8 originally and the Monza hatchback had much better balanced styling (not “in my opinion” but actually looking at the damn thing and analyzing it for natural rhythm and balance). And, as usual, its the Chevrolet that handled much better. Both cars had weak engineering though, which was typical with 1960s to ’80s Chevrolets and some Fords. But here is the thing — these are now beloved for their smallness, “light weight”, and performance with a V-8. Thing is these extra-low horsepower motors actually weighed more than the 1990s LT-1 and LS-1. They did NOT even come close to Vega weight, due to their strengthened chassis and rear axle. Consider this: a 1996 LT-1 Z/28 (at 285 HP with factory dual cats) weighs about 3500 lbs. — that is only 300 pounds more than a V-8 Monza (or Sunbird or Starfire). A 2000 Z/28 (about 310 hp) weighs even less with the LS-1. You’ll pay around $5000 to $20,000 for a great running LS-1 Camaro, depending on mileage, and receive instant 13.2 second 1/4 mile timeslips and great handling, along with a/c, airbags, and the choice of a convertible. You’ll pay $5000 to $25,000 for a decent 3200 pound V-8 Monza and have to spend a good deal more to even get near that kind of horsepower with light weight – in fact an LS-1 swap would work best and that would cost at least $6000. I really like the styling of 1970s H-bodies (and F-bodies for that matter), but with prices heading to and above $30,000 they are just financially beyond the reach of genuine decent working Americans. Owning an old car is not a hobby for most Americans now — it is an investment for the predatory and greedy. I’ll stick to my 285 hp late 1995 California emissions Firebird Formula convertible — one of only 37 in its color and it cost me $4,700 ten years ago with 80,000 miles from the original elderly owners in very good condition.

    Solid argument for the 4th Gen Camaro but the styling has not aged well, especially the 96-02 “Catfish” Camaro. The Monza Spyder and Mirage ha much more balanced styling than the 4th Gen. The Pontiac’s styling has definitely have aged better than the Camaro. I have a feeling that in the not too distant future we’ll start seeing the WS6 T/As start taking off like IROCs recently did in terms of value.

    One thing to keep in mind… Good handling, easy and fun to drive cars, as well as ones snatched up at a fair price, get -driven- . People drove the wheels off the good ones. The rest, Including my Original 1978 Monza Spyder, and 1980 and ’78 Sunbird hatchbacks stay out of the daily driving loop for just such a reason. Actually a requirement, in the snow months of western NY. Summer gets them out to cruise nights.

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