Curbside Classic: 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – A Modest Beginning To A Huge Hit (and Hips)

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(first posted 1/19/2015)    GM’s US market share peaked at 51% in 1962, thanks to Chrysler’s implosion that year. During the rest of the sixties and early seventies, its market share declined gently but steadily as Chrysler revived itself and import sales increased. But then starting in 1976, GM rallied again, and enjoyed a few final good years with 45+% market share, before its free-fall to today’s 17.8% share (2014). What contributed to that temporary rise? GM invented a new category: the affordable, mid-sized, personal coupe, which quickly became the top selling cars in the land.

Chevrolet’s Monte Carlo was the most affordable of the bunch, dominated its sector of the category, and became a massive hit along with its massive (gen2) hips. But it got off to a rather more modest start, both stylistically as well as statistically, sales-wise.

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This new segment was pioneered by the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix, and given its influence, goes down in history as being John DeLorean’s most successful car by a big margin. He took a prosaic A-Body Tempest/LeMans coupe, added six inches of wheelbase ahead of the front cowl, and gave it distinctive new sheet metal, including the longest hood ever seen on a car like this. It was a formula for success that would revolutionize the industry, as Americans ditched their dowdy sedans (or cramped Mustangs), and found automotive bliss.

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Chevrolet had been mulling something vaguely similar for some time, but when Pontiac’s GP showed the way to do it at very low incremental cost, Chevrolet saw the light, and cobbled up its own version of the “A-Special” body. Like the GP, it’s mostly a Chevelle Malibu coupe lurking there; the whole roof pressing is shared, as well as many other parts and the interior. But it presented itself quite differently.

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The design is credited to the young Terry Henline, under the direction of Dave Holls. It’s surprisingly muted, both in comparison to the GP and of course the flamboyant gen2 Monte Carlo. The “hips” on the fenders were still delicate, compared to what was to come.

Cadillac 1971 eldo -07

Stylistically, I’ve always seen a certain kinship with the 1971 Cadillac Eldorado; Chevrolet had a long history of looking like a junior Cadillac, going back to 1932. Of course, the Eldorado came out one year later, but there weren’t exactly a lot of secrets within the GM studios. Regardless of whether that was intentional or not, clearly Chevrolet saw the opportunity to build and sell a Chevy-priced Eldorado.

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This is how Chevrolet saw its Monte Carlo: in a field by itself, without any direct competition. The Grand Prix was priced 28% higher, thus a step up from the Monte Carlo, which cost only some $200 more than a comparably-equipped Chevelle Malibu coupe. This was the potent formula that created one of the biggest successes ever: a (perceived) luxury coupe with a long hood for just a few dollars more than a prosaic “regular car”.

Mustang 1964 bochure luxo

Needless to say, that was of course almost precisely the same formula that Lee Iacocca used in 1964 with the new Mustang; essentially a Falcon with a long hood and some sporty-luxo touches. GM turned the tables on Ford, in a rather logical next step: when Mustang and Camaro owners got tired of their cramped pony cars and were ready for something bigger, quieter and more comfortable, GM had exactly what they were looking for.

Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca at a News Conference

Ford’s market share began to falter right about the time the Monte Carlo and company dominated the sales charts. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Lee’s stock with Henry Ford II began its decline when GM came out with the Mustang’s logical successor? Lee had been known as the brilliant creator of new market niches in the 60s; this was the new market canyon, and Ford was caught snoozing. And had to scramble to stay in the game.

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The Monte Carlo’s interior was very slightly upgraded form the Malibu coupe; it used the round-gauge instrument cluster as used on the Malibu SS, with some GM plastiburl applied. The seat fabric was a tad nicer, but bucket seats or Astro-Back divided seats were strictly options. The Monte was more about external appearances than any real inner luxury.

At least there was no six cylinder under the long nose, although that is somehow perversely appealing. A 250 hp (gross) hp 350 V8 was standard, along with a three-speed manual. That was probably a rare combo, as these were inevitably automatics. The venerable Powerglide still saw late-life duty behind the two 350s, but the new THM 350 automatic was available too, on all engines, as well as a four speed manual. No manual with the 454, oddly.

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Optional was a 300 hp four barrel 350, a 265 hp two-barrel 400 (small block), and the 330 hp big block “400”, actually with 402 cubic inches. Either way, these engines all looked lost in the Monte’s mighty engine compartment. The fan duct looks like a wind tunnel.

Chevrolet 1971 Monte Carlo ss 454

And there was also a rather understated SS454 package, which included a mildly-tuned 365 gross hp 454 (7.4 L) big block and THM automatic, as well as a performance oriented suspension and other upgrades. But the MC SS454 was a sales dud; only some 6,000 were sold in 1970 and 1971, and then dropped. Buyers who wanted a Monte Carlo were interested in other things, quite obviously.

A 350/350 equipped regular Monte Carlo was a pleasant-enough car to drive, if not exactly inspiring. GM had entered its “handling era”, although that would be more noticeable in the new front suspension geometry of the gen2 MC. Still, the gen1 MC, like all these GM A-Body coupes, handled reasonably well for the times. And isolation from road noise and harshness was good, thanks to body-on-frame construction and GM’s long experience with optimizing it for that effect.

The power train, if equipped with the THM 350 automatic, was excellent: smooth, quiet, reasonably powerful; it was as good as anything being built in the world at the time for the intended purpose. The 350/350 combination became the de facto standard for American cars for years; too bad it was spoiled by the down-scaled V8s and automatics to come. But during the gen1 and gen2 Monte Carlo’s reign, millions of these coupes powered by the 350/350 combo did their job effortlessly and without complaint, for the most part. And the Monte Carlo even had standard disc brakes.

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As the title makes clear, the gen1 Monte Carlo (1970-1972) was reasonably successful, but nothing like its bulging-hips successor. 1970 sales got off to a solid start, with 146k units. 1971 dipped to 129k, but that was due to the effect of the 67-day UAW strike against GM in the fall of 1970. 1972 sales increased to a more substantial 182k units.

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But these sales numbers pale in comparison to what was to come. The new 1973 hip-hopped that up to 291k units, and in 1977, the Monte’s best year ever, a whopping 411k were bought by eager buyers. That put it just behind the Cutlass Supreme coupe, which was the best selling car and coupe that year, with 422k units. Add in the GP and Buick Regal coupes, and GM sold 1.3 million of these mid-sized personal luxury coupes in 1977 alone. Of course, GM’s new down-sized B and C Body cars were off to a good start too; in 1978, GM had a 45% market share, but from then on, it was all downhill.

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The Monte Carlo was substantially downsized in 1978, now sharing the same 108″ wheelbase with the Malibu. It was still RWD and BOF, but lost some 800 lbs in the process. How well the already somewhat controversial looks worked on the stubbier body was questionable. Initial sales were good; an impressive 358k ’78s were sold. But in 1980, a difficult year, the numbers were less than half; 149k. And they never really recovered.

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A facelift in 1981 smoothed out the hips and lengthened the ends, but sales hovered around 100k per year until 1987, when they headed into a final descent. 1988 was the last year, and a mere 30k sold. The almost twenty year run of RWD Monte Carlos was over, as was America’s infatuation with cars of this type. Almost four million Monte Carlos of these generations were built. But now buyers had moved on, and the Ford Taurus and Honda Accord were duking it out for sales supremacy. But what a ride it had been in its best years.

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Monte Carlo: A segment pioneer, one of America’s best selling cars of its time, and a cultural icon. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that this is the very first Monte Carlo Curbside Classic of any of the generations we’ve ever posted here. And how many dozens of B and C Bodies have we had? It’s time to rectify that, starting with this very nice first year Monte Carlo I shot a couple of years ago. I’m guessing its youthful owner got tired of waiting to see it posted. Better late than never.