1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Landau: Downsized decadence
The first-generation Monte Carlo was Chevrolet Division’s answer to the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix, which moved from a full-sized personal-lux coupe to a midsize in 1969, albeit with accompanying pool table-sized hood. It was immediately successful and, although based on the Chevelle coupe, was differentiated with its own alligator hood and riding upon the 116-inch Chevelle sedan wheelbase.
Yes, personal luxury was on the way, even as the final fire-breathing muscle cars appeared in showrooms across the land. But in a few short years, the midsize luxury coupes from GM were going to take over. By 1978 safety and fuel economy standards—along with changing tastes—resulted in an all-new Monte Carlo.
It was a smaller Monte Carlo, following in the footsteps of the full-size GM cars that had shrunk in 1977. As had been oft-told, GM realized sometime in the early ’70s that its full-sized cars were getting too big, and the decision was made to make the next round of new cars smaller. Thanks to CAFE, two fuel crises, and the lead time involved in rolling out an all-new automobile, the ’77 Caprice Classics and Impalas hit just as people were getting tired of parking and fueling their Nimitz-class cruisers. And in ’78, it was the midsize cars’ turn.
All the A-body cars, from LeMans to Century to Malibu, shrunk appropriately. In 1977, the Colonnade midsizers were actually about the same size as the brand-new full size cars, though the big cars had more interior room and trunk space. But order was restored for 1978. And as the A-Special cars— Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass Supreme, and Regal—were cash cows, many of the Colonnade styling cues were retained on the new, smaller coupes.
There was no questioning it was smaller. Gone were the long, long hood and front fenders, though the neoclassical fender blisters remained as a nod to the ’73–77 Monte Carlo. The stacked quad headlamps were gone, replaced with dual rectangular units. The formal grille remained, but with a tight grid pattern. And the taillights went from vertical to horizontal.
Interiors were still plush, especially in red velour! Bucket seats and a console were also available, along with the expected power windows, power door locks, power trunk, and power Skyroof. Production was good, with 216,730 Sport Coupes and 141,461 upper-crust Landaus built for the model year, though that was down from the 411,000 Monte Carlos built the year before.
The first noticeable thing about the 1978 Monte Carlos were their reduced size, naturally. They were a foot shorter, 800 pounds lighter, and sported a V-6 for the first time ever; all 1970–77 Monte Carlos came out of the factory with a V-8. Standard engine was a 231-cubic-inch V-6, with a 305-cu-in V-8 optional.
The Landau, top-of-the-line Monte Carlo since 1973, added an Elk-grain landau vinyl roof, pinstriping, power steering, power brakes, deluxe wheel covers, broader chrome sill moldings, and color-keyed sport mirrors, among other extras.
A T-top was optional if you wanted even more sky than the power sunroof offered. And, of course, there were the expected stereo options, including a cassette tape player, 8-track player, or AM/FM unit with an integrated citizens’ band radio.
The cheapest ’78 Monte was the V-6 Sport Coupe at $4785 ($22,079 today); top dog was the V-8 Landau, for $5828 ($26,891). Of course, with all the optional extras, that could be pushed much higher when A/C, cruise control, sun roof, and other items were added to the total.
And the two-model Monte Carlo line, with 358,191 total ’78 sales, very nearly outsold the also all-new Malibu line, which included coupes, sedans, and station wagons. How close was it? Very—358,636 base Malibus, Malibu Classics, and Malibu Classic Landaus were built. Yes, coupes were still king in 1978. Especially personal luxury coupes. This basic body style carried on through 1980 with only minor facelifts, though the ’80 got a new quad-headlamp fascia. In 1981, all the GM midsize personal-lux coupes would get new sheet metal, though they still rode the 1978 chassis.
I spotted this showroom-condition example locally in October 2012 while running errands. I was agog at how nice it was and immediately had to park and check it out. It’s always nice to see a clean, original car like this with such a caring owner. It really shows.
As for the Monte Carlo itself, the ’81 style lasted to 1988, then disappeared from the Chevrolet line. It returned in 1995 as a two-door version of the redesigned Lumina sedan. In 2000, it was redesigned along with the Lumina sedan (newly renamed Impala) and lasted to 2006. The storied name is unlikely to make a reappearance in today’s truck-, SUV-, and crossover-obsessed car market, but the vintage ones will always be around, whether at a car cruise, car show, or just being driven and spotted my an admirer on a nice autumn day.
Oh, and for folks who share my love of cars like these, Johnny Lightning recently (October 2022) released a ’78 Landau in 1/64 scale … in the exact same color combo! Of course, I bought one.