COAL: 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – Time Is On My Side

Most people have little interest in a 3rd generation (1978 – 1980) Chevrolet Monte Carlo, no matter how old it gets. It’s never anyone’s top choice. At some point, even the Edsel and the Pacer managed to achieve some sort of loser cool. But the Monte was neither a loser in its day nor a magnet for reverse-snob hipsters as a used car, and so it somehow fell between the cracks. An area that I inhabited.

The downsized Monte Carlo, introduced in 1978, straddles the tail end of one era and the beginning of another. Conceived after the 1973 oil crisis, it represents the as yet un-humbled GM doing what GM always did best. Even though already reeling in response to the changing environment, the General could still bring off a successful downsizing, where the car would lose 700 pounds and 15 inches in length, yet actually gain interior space. The downsized GM coupes hit the very bull’s-eye of the mainstream market. THIS was what Middle America wanted and all was still right with the world.

In 1979, GM was still at the top. It was in first place with 4,887,281 cars produced that year, representing 46% of the domestic market. Its U.S. employment peaked at 618,365 in 1979, making it the largest private employer in the country. But just a year later, the General was already out of its comfort zone. 1980 saw GM’s first annual loss since 1921. The “first Chevy of the 80s”, the Citation, was a fiasco. Roger Smith took over as CEO and promptly started to consolidate operations and gloss over the differences between divisions. The beginning of a losing battle that ultimately led to agonizing loss of market share and bankruptcy was already underway.

The Monte Carlo was left right on the cusp: the last fully traditional Chevy coupe is smaller and somewhat better adapted than the unapologetic old-school Detroit dinosaurs of yore, but is still of the same species, and today, its kind is just as extinct. But while it seems to be even more underappreciated than most 1970s cars, the Monte is still a solid example of classic American design, totally evocative of its era and always deserving of a fighting chance. In other words, an underdog with character. Perfect!

Me, I was into cars for as long as I can remember. When I was 11, my family emigrated to America from the USSR. I soon had an impressive collection of dealer brochures and was learning to read English with the help of Henry Gregor Felsen. By age 12, I had firm opinions on various automotive matters and could identify almost any car from a block away. At 14, I started doing odd jobs for my neighbors after school and saving my dollars. And at 17, I bought my first car with my own money.

What kind of car would a teenager buy for $1200 in 1986? That was enough money to get something decent. Despite my impatience, I forced myself to save until I no longer needed to look at beaters and projects. None of that Henry Gregor Felsen jalopy stuff for this kid, I wanted to drive, not to wrench. I was determined that my car should be a 2-door coupe – a workaday sedan got about as much respect in a high-school parking lot in those days as a minivan would today. Nor would it be something quirky or foreign, I wanted to live the American dream.

And the American dream, for car-aware teenagers in those days, was still mostly made in America. Like the Pontiac Trans Am. That seemed to be the “in” car with the cool kids in my high school. But I wanted nothing to do with those cool kids, who tended to be badass cugines still living the Tony Manero lifestyle in those last years of disco and weren’t exactly friendly towards Russian immigrants like me. Those kids cruised 86th Street in Bensonhurst in their Trans Ams, wearing gold chains, tight Sergio Valente jeans and white canvas shoes, always talking trash and ready to pick a fight with anyone who looked at them wrong. Which was enough to thoroughly turn me off Trans Ams, as well as newer SS Monte Carlos, which the same demographic adopted en masse a year or two later.

Here’s a pic I found of 1980s teenagers on 86th Street. The car’s too nice and the kids a bit too too clean-cut, but otherwise that’s how it was. I spent my teenage years having nothing to do with this.

I wasn’t into disco, I didn’t wear gold chains, and I didn’t care to participate in this particular local version of American Graffiti. I played guitar, wore a black leather jacket and affected a rebellious outsider attitude. I was a rocker:

And we rocker kids had a different taste in cars. It might have been morning in America, but we all wanted 1960’s Detroit iron from the day before. The future – at least GM’s – belonged to cost cutting, downsizing, de-contenting, corporate consolidation, lack of a clear vision and one disaster or disappointment after another. With so much to be pessimistic about, there was plenty of justification for retro-inspired teenage reactionaries to stubbornly prefer pre-malaise era cars.

One of my friends back then had a loud red Barracuda that he occasionally raced at Gerritsen Beach. There was also at least one old Mustang and a jacked-up Duster parked near my school. This being Brooklyn, only a small minority of students had cars, but those that did tended to be car nuts like myself and usually drove something more or less cool, even if it was a crappy old beater. Only one kid, whose parents must’ve had some money, drove a nearly new Datsun 280Z. My classmates stuffed dog turds under his door handles on several occasions.

I really wanted to upstage all my friends with a ’68 or ’69 GTO, which was my dream car in those days. I had read the Pontiac Performance book published by Consumer Guide and knew all about the legendary Goat. Here’s what I used to doodle in my notebooks in eighth or ninth grade:

But no GTOs were available locally when the time came to stop daydreaming and actually buy something. Besides, prices were already starting to creep beyond mere used car levels, and high insurance rates were definitely a factor. Oh, I tried. I bought the papers early at the newsstand to check out the used car ads as soon as they came out. I kicked the tires of a tired green LeMans and a Chevelle or two. But a proper muscle car just wasn’t in the cards for me that summer. And so I settled for a nice clean ’79 Monte Carlo. Not a muscle car, but still a traditional 2-door, V8, rear-drive American coupe with a little bit of style, and still roughly fitting the same mindset. Mirroring the dominant trends in that era of diminished expectations, I too succumbed to forgoing real muscle for a high school version of personal luxury.

I now had pretty nice wheels, which at that stage in my life was a huge deal. However, my choice failed to impress my car savvy friends. My car was simultaneously too old and not old enough: it neither fit the current 1980s mode nor was the “correct”, cool kind of vintage. In a way, it basically confirmed my outsider status and my contrarian sensibilities. When I got to college, I met a few kindred spirits who drove ’59 Chevys and played in punk bands, but in high school I wasn’t that cool yet.

Did I say V8? Even that part I had compromised on. I liked this particular Monte so much, I decided I can live with a six. The car impressed me with its distinctive Cadillac yellow exterior, a no-nonsense all-black cloth interior, and a profound lack of dated 1970s gingerbread. Had this been a Landau, saddled with a tacky half-vinyl roof, or an earlier, bloated and overly baroque second generation barge with a plush bordello interior in some nasty 1970s velour, that would have been a deal breaker: too close to a cugine Cutlass, too much of a disco-mobile. The first thing I did was to tie a Rolling Stones air freshener off the rearview mirror and slap a couple of rock radio stickers on the rear bumper. There. Done. Territory marked, allegiance proclaimed. Now it was just a matter of blasting some REAL music and looking cool behind the wheel of my new (used) Chevy.

Despite the 6-cylinder engine, the car looked pretty sporty for the times, with dual aero mirrors and color-matched rally wheels. This was a trim, downsized, modern Monte, equipped with an automatic, A/C and an AM/FM stereo, as well as an anti-theft “feature” which left me stranded twice before I figured it out: the car often refused to start until one opened the hood and pulled the stuck throttle manually.

I had some vague ideas about eventually rebuilding that Rochester carburetor and maybe even “dropping in” a 350 someday, but really it was all just daydreaming out loud for the benefit of my friends. In the meantime, I merely took care of stuff like brakes and oil and did some minor detailing. I also replaced the sagging rear springs that summer, which allowed me to load the trunk up with all my stuff and take off for college in Binghamton, New York. My guitar and amp fit in the back seat, the little dorm fridge rode shotgun. Since the car had no tape deck, I always took a boombox along on long trips, with plenty of tapes. The good stuff: MC5, Gene Vincent, The Ramones… and of course Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks. “Ti-i-ime is on my side, yes it is…” I kept meaning to upgrade the radio, but somehow there was always something more important to spend my limited funds on. LP records, textbooks, girls and beer, roughly in that order.

Or an occasional unexpected mishap, like a minor fender bender during a rainstorm. A trip to Harry’s U-Pull-It got me a header panel off a ’78 Monte and on my next trip home, my stepfather and I installed it ourselves. Here’s my car in “blackface”.

I took lots of road trips in my car, exploring most of New York State between the Catskills and Buffalo. I liked to stay off the Interstate and drive along the back roads, enjoying the scenery. A lot of trips were planned around flea markets and junk shops that I discovered in various towns, where I looked for old guitars to fix up and re-sell. In addition to a part time job at the college library, my developing luthiery skills helped to keep me in textbooks and beer. There was always a sleeping bag and a change of clothes in the trunk, so that I could take off on a whim without having to think about packing. I often slept in the car to save money. Those nice soft bench seats came in really handy:

One night after an off-campus party, I got into my car and couldn’t turn the ignition key in the column. That’s strange, I thought, why doesn’t the key fit? Then I looked up and noticed that my Rolling Stones air freshener was missing. What the hell, why is the steering wheel wrapped? I hastily got out and sure enough, somebody had parked a nearly identical white ’79 right next to mine. In the dark, I mistook white for yellow. GM cars of this era have two keys. The door key fit, the ignition key didn’t. I beat it out of there before someone mistook me for a thief.

The car proved to be reasonably reliable. Aside from basic general maintenance, my Chevy gave me very little trouble. My old logbook reveals that I did at some point replace the fuel filter, PCV valve, water pump, shocks, thermostat and muffler, as well as a steering column bearing and one worn-out door hinge. There was a tune-up or two and some new brake shoes, belts and hoses over the years – all routine stuff on an older used car with over 90,000 miles on the odometer. And it served me well all through my college years and beyond. The V6 was not a performance engine by any stretch of the imagination, but it was always adequate and happily piled on the miles…. until one day it wouldn’t. That evening, on my way home from work, the car suddenly started to lose power on the Belt Parkway. It got me home, but never started again. In the morning, I popped the hood to attempt to diagnose the problem before calling my mechanic, and discovered a cracked hole in the block and a puddle of oil under the car. I don’t know what exactly happened and why, but that engine was toast.

I was left with a choice: a new engine, or a new car. After some deliberation, I decided on the latter. The replacement car was an ’82 Oldsmobile Delta 88 that I found in the local classifieds: a newer, lower mileage car as well as a step up in responsibility. Fresh out of college, I had temporarily moved in with my grandparents while saving up to get my own place, and thought that they would appreciate being chauffeured in a 4-door

Olds rather than the Monte. Here’s Grandma in the back seat of my Monte, happy enough to be driven around on her errands, but not too thrilled about getting in and out of there every time:

There were a few other reasons to move on. Back in Brooklyn after four years away at college, I had discovered that the newer model SS Monte Carlo had in the meantime become the official car of every violent greaseball on 86th Street. By extension, all Monte Carlos were suddenly starting to be seen in a new derogatory light. It would be a few more years yet before a Monte Carlo would be universally stereotyped as the mullet-mobile from Central Casting, but here in Brooklyn this was no joke. Hell, it’s probably still not safe to drive a Monte Carlo around Bensonhurst.

Another push was provided by a rather materialistic young lady that I was trying to woo at the time. She saw my old Chevy as a significant demerit. It turned out she was also seeing another guy who drove a Porsche, which apparently suited her better. I bid her farewell shortly afterwards, but decided that maybe upgrading my ride wouldn’t be such a bad thing anyway, if not quite up to Porsche levels. Right about that time, my Mom borrowed the Monte and dented the passenger door. So by the time the engine went, it was definitely time to bite the bullet and step up the Alfred P. Sloan ladder of success. My mechanic took possession of the Monte in exchange for some minor maintenance work on my new Olds. He promptly put in another engine, banged out the dented door, painted the black header panel yellow to match the rest of the car and resold it. I saw it around Kings Highway a few times before it disappeared.

Over the years, I watched the Monte Carlo recede in life’s rearview mirror. The car continued to evolve – turbos, Super Sports, Aerocoupes… but I had little interest in any of them, new or used. To me, the fourth generation Monte appeared to be flawed somehow, whether resembling an old dog being cynically taught new tricks (the SS models) or simply past the sell-by date (the LS cars still sporting wire wheels and vinyl roofs). My ‘79 might not have been the most progressive choice in the mid 1980s, but at least it was of its own time in ’79. That gave it enough character to appeal as a used car, too. Once upon a time there was something fresh and modern about it, some basic Chevy integrity to respect, a bit of blue collar luxury to aspire to.

But fourth generation cars were self-consciously retrograde right out of the gate, the last refuge of desperate traditionalists who refused to be dragged into front wheel drive or an import at any cost. With the Super Sport’s introduction in 1983, the Monte seemed to have developed a schizophrenic personality: did the name now stand for Brougham or NASCAR? There wasn’t any integrity at GM anymore. And fresh, it definitely wasn’t. When the last G-body Monte bowed out in 1988, it was about as gauche and passé as a pair of acid-washed jeans. As for the Lumina-based FWD Montes of 1995 – 2007, as far as I was concerned, two-door Luminas should have just remained Luminas. There was absolutely nothing there to aspire to. But third-gen Montes still drew my attention.

Finally, by 2005, the nostalgia became unbearable and I decided to have my mid-life crisis early. I became determined to find another ’79 Monte Carlo – in excellent condition, completely stock, and only yellow with black cloth interior, please.

This proved to be much harder than I had expected. ’79 Monte Carlos are not exactly rare cars, 316,923 of them having been built that year, but by 2005 far too many of the remaining ones were either worn out, rusty restoration projects or were already resto-modded into donks, low-riders and trailer park hot rods.

At some point, Monte Carlos started to become regarded as raw material for some kind of conversion by most people, something that just wasn’t ever done back in my day. The fourth generation models prompted this change in perception: just as the original 1970 Monte was created by heaping extra bling onto a basic 2-door Chevelle, so with the Super Sport’s debut in 1983, GM started to reposition the Monte Carlo from a personal-luxury coupe back into some sort of latter-day Chevelle again.

Soon enough, this notion began to be retroactively applied to older Monte Carlos by their second and third owners. Towards the end of the decade, that mindset started to predominate. And for those who missed the trend, by 2001, the film Training Day, with its rather conspicuous hot-rodded ’79 Monte Carlo, spelled it out to everyone. Don’t you just “love” it when something you have always quietly enjoyed gets discovered by a large number of people with no clue as to its original context?

I refused to admire aftermarket wheels, balked at fancy paint jobs, and became very suspicious at the first sight of a chromed air cleaner. Which again put me into a rather small minority: one almost had to be some kind of determined reactionary to NOT want to modify an old Monte Carlo. However, I wanted my Monte the way I remembered it, and not somebody’s half-assed vision of what it should be. I also learned that black cloth must have been a rather unpopular interior choice in ‘79. Despite the fact that cloth was the default standard interior, and black was available with most exterior colors, apparently most buyers splurged for optional vinyl or velour, both of which were considered an upgrade at the time, but tended to hold up worse over the years than basic cloth and were far less attractive to me in a used car.

And then one day in the spring of 2006, there it was on eBay – a clean, low mileage yellow-and-black survivor waiting for me several states away. I knew this was the one right away, from only a short description and three blurry photos. I contacted the seller with some questions and waited nervously until the end of the auction to place a bid… only to be outbid by 25 cents. One lousy quarter! But two days later, the seller contacted me: the high bidder had backed out; did I still want the car? I guess it was just meant to be mine.

My second Monte came equipped for someone with an entirely different set of priorities than my first one: standard steelies with basic hubcaps in lieu of the nice color-matched rally rims, and an AM-only radio, but instead, the 305 V8. Other than the upgraded engine and A/C, it came with one other, fairly rare, factory option: a small detachable waste basket in the front passenger foot well. Just perfect for a tidy little old lady who cared little for music or fancy wheels, but wanted just a little more passing power. She had put barely 30,000 miles on the car before she died. A re-seller snatched up the Monte at the estate sale and listed it on eBay. I took the Greyhound south to Virginia, and drove my new Chevy back up north with a big grin on my face. Sliding onto that black cloth bench seat and clicking the column shift down into drive felt like coming home.

Eleven years later, my Monte is still with me, and still makes me smile. Yes, there was a time in my life when I would have preferred a muscle car, but not anymore. Besides, anything that gets too much of the mainstream’s attention still rubs me the wrong way. Give me an underdog with character, any day.

My choice of vintage car represents a return to my own roots rather than an attempt at achieving some postponed teenage fantasy. I had settled for my first ’79 Monte despite really wanting something else, but sought out my second one because nothing else would do. I guess this kind of explains why some of us are more interested in cars that we actually drove back then, rather than the ones that we wished we did. I am keeping my Monte just the way it is, letting time turn it into a classic.

Maybe. Some day. “Ti-i-i-me is on my side, yes it is…”