Curbside Classic: 1976 Holden Monaro LE – Beginning of the End of an Era

(first posted 8/14/2017)      Despite the title, this isn’t technically a Monaro, instead it is the result of GM-H getting things a bit wrong in several respects.  One of the characteristics of the Australian motor vehicle market is that we as a nation do not buy a lot of two-door cars; there was a resurgence in the mid-1960s led by Falcon hardtop, and the Holden Monaro took things to the next level 1968, but by the mid-1970s the bloom was very much off the rose for Holden and they were the first of the Big 3 to drop their coupe.

Historically two-door sedans (and wagons) almost disappeared from model line-ups in the early to mid-1950s if not sooner, with the Studebaker one of the last hold-outs.  It seems GM basically stopped selling 2-door sedans in Australia after WW2, other than some fully-imported two doors up to 1951.  Those would have been subject to import tariff and thus cost a lot more than the locally-assembled CKD four-door sedans.

The fastback Falcon hardtop debuted locally in 1964 emphasising style rather than simply having a sedan roofline minus two doors.  Only around 4,600 were sold before the next generation took over in 1966 – without a hardtop.  Cars cost significantly more in Australia in real terms than the US, and two-car households were relatively rare during this era, so cars had to be more practical in accommodating the whole family.

Designed by a team led by Joe Schemansky as part of the new generation HK Holden of 1968, the Monaro certainly a lot more impact.  Part of this was because Holden were selling so many more cars it wasn’t funny; about 2.5 times the number of Falcons and over 3 times the number of Valiants.  But the Monaro wasn’t ‘just’ a fastback roof simply plonked on a rectilinear sedan body, which could also describe the Valiant hardtop, it was a more integrated and striking whole.

Holden’s excellent advertising certainly played its part, with this iconic ad being the most famous.

A couple of wins at Bathurst definitely helped too, with the 1968 GTS 327 and 1969 GTS 350 having an appropriately hairy-chested image even though the GTS 350 was ultimately out-gunned by the Falcon GT-HO (sedan!) in 1970.

While the move to racing the smaller, lighter, cheaper Torana likely did achieve its aim of appealing to younger buyers, this contributed to a perception the next HQ generation Monaro was softer and its profile dropping.  A more luxurious LS trim (above) was new, and indicative of the Monaro’s new status.  Sales were good initially, but faded.

There was still a GTS 350 version with the imported Chevrolet V8 (although the car above has a Holden V8), but it wasn’t in the same state of tune as before, down to 8.5:1 compression and no real performance advantage over the Holden’s 308 V8.  It theoretically had 275 hp, but the L48 was rated at 250 hp in the US (The US L48 with 8.5 CR was rated at 270 gross hp. ED). Less than 900 HQ GTS 350 Monaros were sold in just over three years.  The HQ also had very pronounced understeer, which discouraged enthusiastic driving by effectively scaring the driver into slowing down.

Holden was slow in responding with a 4-door version of the Monaro in 1973, which immediately out-sold the coupe.  Out of 485,650 HQ Holdens sold through its 3 year, 4 month run, just 13,872 were Monaro coupes.

The 1974 HJ model introduced squarer front end sheetmetal for the Monaro (the One Tonner has the front end from a higher-trim Premier sedan), but unlike the sedans it kept the same rear end.  Only 943 Monaro coupes were produced; the story goes that the hardtop was removed from the dealer sales books, but manufacturing was not told of this so Holden found themselves with a stockpile of coupe bodies that were going to be hard to shift!  There were almost five times as many Monaro GTS sedans sold in the same period (4,574).

In a move that would be repeated by Ford with the Falcon Cobra, a special model was developed to send the Monaro coupe out with a bang.  A prototype was developed, featuring Pontiac-sourced Polycast wheels.  Due to delays in the development process thanks to some of the ‘extras’ presenting issues for manufacturing, the 1976 HX facelift came out before the LE was ready.

Cosmetically there were few changes, but the LE package added front and rear spoilers to go with the special burgundy paint with gold pinstripe and lettering.  At the front there were quad headlights and a blacked-out grille.  As mentioned above the Monaro name did not appear anywhere on the car so some will ardently claim that this is not actually a Monaro, although every other hardtop was badged as such.  It is not something I have dwelt upon.

The interior had all the fruit thrown at it – ie every amenity Holden had to offer in the manner of the luxury Statesman Caprice lwb sedan.  Air conditioning, power windows and aerial, eight-track player, tinted windows, sports steering wheel, full instrumentation, (fake) walnut finish on the dash fascia and centre console, with crushed velour trim.

All Monaro LE’s were equipped with Holden’s 308 ci V8, with a four barrel carb and dual exhaust, a THM400 auto and 10-bolt Salisbury limited-slip diff.  New ADR27A emissions regulations saw power reduced from 179 kW / 240 hp to 161 kw / 215 hp.

As a last-of-the-line car with a production run of just 580 units (some say 606), they had a collectability factor from day one.  Surprisingly I have seen two in traffic in the last few months, note the other car has a rubber protection strip along the belt line.  The LE is not hugely valuable in the overall scheme of Aussie muscle cars; that is still the domain of the models that raced at Bathurst.

The Monaro GTS name continued on in 4-door form until the HZ model was introduced in 1977, when the new model was simply called GTS.  Of course the Monaro would return in 2001, but that is another story!


Further Reading:

Curbside Classic: Holden HG Monaro GTS – Heavy Metal on the Grassy Plain

CC Outpost: The 1979 Mad Max Holden HQ Rocket