Good things come to those who wait. A wise saying, especially when shopping for a somewhat rare and unique vehicle (nowadays, anyway ) like a GM H-Body.
The saga of my ownership of this car starts way back in 2005, a full three years before I actually took possession of it. I spent a great deal of my spare time trolling Craigslist for cheap vintage project cars. Almost on a whim, I started looking specifically for a hatchback H-Body. That’s when I chanced upon this. The $1300 asking price at the time was fair, but due to my stalling and / or indifference, I wound up getting the deal of the decade.
My first exposure to these cars was at the tender age of 8 (this would be around 1978 or ’79 ) when I accompanied my grandparents and cousins on a trip to the L.A. Museum Of Science And Industry. In one of the display halls was a bright red Monza 2+2, split down the middle with one half of it hanging on the wall, and the other half sitting on a raised display platform in the middle of the floor. Pushing a button would make the pistons in the cutaway engine go up and down, the tires turn, and other neat stuff.
As a budding car enthusiast, I was smitten. At that time, I was completely clueless about these cars’ ills- their infamous Vega heritage, the awful build quality, the crappy brakes, and their general crudeness. I just thought they looked cool, and I was determined to have one someday.
An early Consumer Guide test described the Monza as “an overweight subcompact in search of an engine that fits”, citing the loss of the rotary, the low power and dubious reliability of the Vega-derived four, and the significant additional heft and thirst of the optional V8. It still didn’t stop me from wanting one, however.
I didn’t have my first ride in an H-Body until the late 1990s, when I was briefly friends with Timothy Iskenderian, who happens to be the youngest son of legendary cam grinder Ed Iskenderian. The two of us were taking a smog licensing class at El Camino College, and quickly hit it off. Tim had a ’76 2+2, faded red, with the Buick-sourced 3.8 liter V6 mated to a four-speed manual. Despite being tired and dingy, that car was a hoot to drive.
At the end of the last day of class, us and two other classmates headed up the street for a burger and a beer. Tim and I were in his Monza, while two other classmates were in an automatic, 4-seater 280ZX. At the corner of Manhattan Beach Bl. and Prairie Ave, we lined up. As soon as the light turned green, Tim floored the accelerator while simultaneously popping the clutch. The junky little Chevy screamed like a banshee, smoking its right rear 13-inch tire furiously for half a block and leaving the bloated ZX in the dust. We laughed our asses off all the way to the restaurant.
When the other guys caught up to us a few minutes later, the ZX’s owner, an older black gentleman named Tony, went up to Tim and said “what the hell did you do to that thing?!? ”
My Monza’s previous owner was a nice young fellow named Manny. He and I exchanged e-mails for the better part of a year, and then lost touch. A couple of years later, he had posted the ad again and we reestablished contact. He was getting married, moving out of state, and needed the car gone. He then gave me an irresistible offer- if I come get it that week, I could have it for $500. Let’s see- 500 bucks for a complete, running, rust-free factory V8 Monza 2+2? Sold!
As a bonus, the car came with a gallon of ATF, a gallon of Prestone antifreeze, a can of Gumout carb cleaner, and a set of jumper cables. The car started and ran with nothing more than a new battery, which I brought with me when picking the car up.
For the next couple of years the car bounced back and forth between my apartment complex, the street outside, and a rented boat / RV storage space before taking up permanent residence in my parents’ garage. During that time, I got a considerable amount of work done. I replaced all the vacuum and emission hoses, chucked the destroyed front bumper cover, and relocated the battery to the spare tire well. I also installed a clean used set of chrome valve covers that I had pilfered from the dying small-block that was in my Biscayne when I bought that car.
In the years since, I’ve performed some useful modifications, and done some extensive parts scrounging. Moving the battery to the right rear spare tire well was a no-brainer, as it is a boon to both handling and traction, especially in a lightweight yet nose-heavy car like this. Rather than cough up big bucks on one of those fancy NHRA-style battery boxes on a street car, I found a cheap and easy alternative. A reproduction battery tray for a 1967-1970 Ford Mustang and Mercury Cougar, with the vertical mounting bracket portion removed, turned out to be a perfect fit. It laid perfectly flat in the appointed space, with room to spare.
I borrowed an Optima battery from a co-worker to mock up the assembly, then I got to work. Three carefully drilled holes, along with three 3/8″ stainless steel bolts, nylon lock nuts, three 2″ stainless steel and rubber flat washers, and a universal hold-down kit, and that task was done. A pre-drilled hole in the hatch striker plate provides a handy attachment point for two ground cables, and a single 0-gauge welding cable, routed to the starter via aluminum cushion clamps attached to the underside of the floorboard with stainless hardware, covered with thermo-sleeve, provides the juice. Oh, and don’t forget a universal battery cut-off switch. Cheap insurance.
This leaves one minor concern: what about the spare? From the factory, H-bodies came with those wimpy collapsible temporary spares, along with a pressurized gas bottle to inflate them, and the whole thing hidden under a large plastic cover. That stuff was long gone when Manny acquired the car, and replacements are difficult, if not impossible, to find. I never liked those things anyway. For me, driving any reasonable distance without a working spare is not an option. The lack of a functioning spare tire is all it takes to turn a minor, temporary inconvenience into a day-ruining ordeal. What to do?
Some cursory eyeballing and trial fitting provided the answer. With that cover removed, a full size spare lays perfectly into that corner of the cargo area, and hides the battery at the same time. The latch plate for the OEM plastic cover provides a handy attachment point for the spare tire hold-down. This cuts significantly into the cargo area, but who uses a vintage H-Body to haul anything of substance?
That leads to the next question: what about the chassis and rolling stock? The whole Pro Street / pseudo drag car theme on these cars has been done to death, and frankly I’m tired of it. I’m bucking tradition by sticking with more of a “factory muscle” look, and I found the perfect shoes for doing so:
On one of my Pick-a-Part scouting missions, I spotted a junked G-Body Malibu sedan wearing a set of five-slotted rally wheels, in the small 14X6″ size- perfect for the Monza’s small wheel wells. This also happened to be during one of their holiday half-off sales. I happen to keep a star wrench, a 1/2″ breaker bar, and a prybar in my truck at all times, so after spending half an hour fighting with rusty frozen lug nuts, those wheels were mine. With tax, they were under $40 out the door. Score! I plan on having them powder coated semi-gloss black and using the flat disc brake center caps.
This, of course, necessitates an upgrade to five-lug brakes and axles, replacing the wimpy 4-lug factory setup. This is, fortunately, fairly easy and inexpensive to do. Various aftermarket companies make and sell aftermarket control arms designed to accept stock ball joints and disc brake spindles for a Chevy S10 / GMC S15 / Isuzu Hombre mini truck. Converting the rear to five-lug is even easier. On ’77 and later H-bodies with the venerable 7.5″ rear end, stock replacement axles from an ’82-’96 2WD S10 pickup slide right in. The later H-bodies and S10 truck even use the same brake master cylinder!
As far as performance, California’s smog laws limit just how much I can modify, but there’s still room to upgrade. The stock two barrel air-cleaner that came on my car, with its tiny 2″ air inlet, is a sick and perverted joke. Fortunately I once again found a quick fix. On yet another junkyard run, I scored a big mouth two-barrel air cleaner assembly from a 350-powered, mid-70s Nova, with the large intake snorkel on the opposite ( right hand ) side. This leads to part two of my plan:
After some careful measuring and trial-fitting, I drilled a 4″ hole in the passenger side inner fender, mounting two of these Spectre 4″ universal adapters face-to-face on either side of the hole, with salvaged air cleaner screen sandwiched between to keep rocks, trash, debris, and critters out of my air cleaner. The one inside the engine compartment goes straight to the air cleaner via duct hose. The one outside hooks to a 90-degree rubber elbow with a length of 4″ thin-wall PVC sewer vent pipe connected to a y-shaped air intake that will be mounted just underneath the bumper. Cheap and easy ram air 🙂 . To take advantage of the improved airflow, I’m sending the puny factory 350 CFM Rochester 2GC to the carb wizards at Sean Murphy Induction to be opened up to 500 CFM, which should be just right to keep that little 305 happy.
I had one last lucky break concerning the car last summer. On still another Pick-A-Part visit, my buddy Chris spotted a badly rusted blue Monza 2+2 sitting near the back of the GM section. Knowing how difficult spare trim pieces for H-bodies are to find, I spent an entire three-day weekend, and most of my tax refund, yanking every usable piece off of it- the side and rear glass, all the aluminum, stainless, and plastic door and window trim, the chrome headlight bezels, the taillight lenses ( mine are ruined ), and even the glovebox door.
I tried to remove the windshield but broke it in the process I even snagged both window regulator assemblies, which were strangely both spot-welded and epoxied onto the door frame! I needed the window regulators due to a minor accident the car was in. Either Manny or the PO before him simply continued to forcefully roll the window up and down until the splines on the window crank shaft stripped out. She or he then used Vise-Grips to continue opening and closing the window, destroying the otherwise surprisingly mint-condition door panel.
As you can see, I was making significant progress on this car. That’s about when things hit a snag. A broken ankle, my bad back, my dad’s mail-order shopping mania, and other pressing matters put the kibosh on Project H. The top two pictures were taken around 2013 or so. The bottom one is the car’s current state. I’ll get back to it one day, after the Vette and the Olds. I’ve already acquired nearly 3/4 of the parts necessary to complete this car’s transformation. I just need to find the time. Sigh…