Curbside Classic: 1979 Chevrolet Monza Coupe – Vega II or Mustang Too?

(first posted 11/6/2012)      The 1970s was the decade when small cars became a significant part of the U.S. auto market.  You can argue that the ’60s marked the start of that trend, but there was a huge difference: In the early ’60s, American small cars were every bit as good as  their imported competition. If that seems like  a slight exaggeration, the fact is the American triplets of Corvair, Falcon and Valiant were relatively small cars that did what they were supposed to do: Start every morning, and then bring you home every night. During the first compact boom, many foreign competitors (VW was a notable exception) could not always make that claim.  By 1962, the Corvair had been marginalized, and the ultra-conventional Chevy II  embodied the very attributes of an American small car–solid, reliable, and dull as dishwater.

That said, I suppose it’s little wonder that when the U.S. industry decided to enter the sub-compact territory in the early 1970s, those “American Car” attributes were seen as good things by executives in Detroit and Dearborn.  Although both GM and Ford (Lynn Townsend’s Chrysler Corporation would sit out this round of innovation) already had well-developed small car platforms in Europe, both companies chose to rely on them only minimally.  While the debut versions of the Vega and Pinto might disappoint fans of European Opels and Fords, they’d be seen (at least initially) by those Americans who insisted on such vehicles as acceptable small cars.

But once the Vega and Pinto were in showrooms, U.S. firms decided to take their small-car game to the next level.  I can hear it now: “Let’s make a small car that WE would want to drive.”  What was it that “we” wanted to drive in the mid-1970s?  Clearly, it was something with a vinyl roof, opera windows, deep-grained vinyl upholstery and thick carpeting.  And thick vinyl side moldings.  Lots of thick vinyl side moldings.  There was no more skillful purveyor of 1970s-style fashion than the Ford Motor Company  and, true to form, Ford was first to the showroom with its “better” small car . They called it Mustang II.

Most who view the Mustang II do so through the prism of the original Mustang, an perspective often not very flattering to the latter car–yet perhaps that’s not the best analysis. Actually, the car that became the Mustang II represented Ford’s way of packaging most of the goodness of a Gran Torino, or even an LTD, into a package only slightly larger than a Pinto.  Isn’t that what the American car buyer really wanted?  Lee Iacocca thought so, and who would know better?

As usual, Chevrolet got into the game a bit later. Seen as more of a driver’s car, their Vega seemed the more appealing package in the fall of 1970.  However, its legendary design compromises and quality lapses sucked up a lot of attention at GM, and perhaps that obscured the urgency of moving on to version 2.0 of the platform–or perhaps GM’s product planners were satisfied with their work, and reacted only after rumors of the Mustang II had wafted across town.

One year after the debut of the Mustang II, Chevy dealerships began receiving the first Monza 2+2s.  In a way, GM got it backwards: In Brougham-crazy America, the last thing Mr. Leisure Suit and Ms. Pantsuit wanted was another little hatchback.  Ford understood this from the get-go, and had offered a notchback coupe right out of the gate.  Chevy would be a little slower on the uptake, and a few months behind, but by April 1975 had come up to speed with the Monza Towne Coupe.

Yes, Towne Coupe.  Not Town Coupe.  That would be a Lincoln.  The Towne Coupe was, let’s face it, the Chevrolet Mustang II.  Let’s give the Chevy boys some credit on one thing – they did not call the car Camaro II and try to bathe it in styling cues from the ’67 Camaro (to the extent that the inaugural Camaro actually had any).  I guess the recycled Corvair wheelcovers were a nice touch.

It is well known that the original Camaro was a blatant reaction to the 1964 1/2 Mustang.  The Monza Towne Coupe makes it clear that by the mid-1970s (if not immediately after the tragic chapter of the Corvair), Chevrolet had stopped trying to influence the basic package defined by its crosstown rival.  The Towne Coupe was a Mustang II infused with enough Chevy personality to appeal to GM die-hards (who in those years represented a very large number of customers).

Under its skin, the Monza wasn’t much more than an improved Vega, essentially sharing that car’s aluminum four-cylinder engine and basic architecture.  However, it did manage to resolve some of the Vega’s notorious rear suspension bottoming and hop issues.  With the Monza’s arrival, the Vega became relegated to econocar status as the Monza was given all the sex appeal.

Speaking of sex appeal, the Monza did one thing from the get-go that the Mustang II didn’t; specifically, offer an optional V8 engine right off the bat.  The Monza’s light weight made even the little, de-smogged 262 cu in (4.3-liter) V8 seem powerful.  It is also the car made famous by the discovery that it was impossible to change spark plugs without slightly lifting the engine from its mounts.  Ten pounds of engine in a nine pound engine bay?  It would appear so.

The Monza is an early indicator of the indecisive management that eventually doomed GM.  It seems that Chevrolet never quite figured out what the Monza was supposed to be.  Ponycar?  Little brougham?  Pocket rocket?  Econobox?  Matters were made worse in 1978 when the Monza’s new front sheetmetal was grafted onto  the now-discontinued Vega hatchback and wagon to create the new Monza base coupe and the Monza wagon.  This was also the year the Pontiac Iron Duke replaced the unloved Vega aluminum four as the base engine; a couple of V6s, including the Buick 3.8-liter, also made the lineup.  In fairness, Chevrolet was selling a lot of Camaros at the time, which probably imposed restrictions on just where the Monza should be positioned in the lineup.

One thing the Monza never did was to outsell the Mustang II.  Until the two former Vega models got sucked into the lineup in 1978, the Monza managed to sell between 2/3 (1975) to one-half (1976-77) of the MII’s volume.  Even with a base hatch and a wagon available in 1978, Monza hit only about 2/3 of the Mustang’s volume (and don’t forget that Ford was still selling a fair number of Pintos).  It is interesting that while Mustang coupes generally outsold hatchbacks by about two-to-one, that ratio typically was  reversed with the Monza.  It is also interesting that the Monza had its best sales years in 1979 and 1980, its fifth and sixth years of production with very little change, and following the demise of the archrival Mustang II.

I think I understand.  One of my three law-school roommates had a ’75 Mustang II base coupe, and another had an ’80 Monza base 2+2.  Both cars were four-cylinders with stick shifts.  Both were slow, rough, fairly noisy and made a guy with a slant six Scamp feel like a genius.  But the Ford felt like a higher-quality car in terms of body structure and interior materials.  The Monza was all molded plastic.  Put another way, the Mustang II felt a lot more like an LTD than the Monza felt like a Caprice.  The Monza was probably the better car to drive and to own for the long haul, but the Ford landed in a fatter part of the market with better showroom appeal.

Here is a mystery to ponder.  These Monzas were pretty solid structurally, not bad against rust, had moderately durable engines (other than the Vega-derived base four) and were set up for V8 power.  So where did they all go?  The Mustang II was a rust bucket of the first order, and is as unloved by Ford fans as any car since the 1958 Fairlane.  Yet in my personal and very unscientific study, there seem to be more Mustang IIs than Monzas still around.  I first saw this Monza last winter, and since then I have not seen another.  So much for the CC effect.  This V6-powered car is owned by a young mechanic who works in his grandfather’s repair shop.  He picked it up precisely because they are so seldom seen, and kindly permitted me to take some pictures.

After thinking things over, I’ve decided that I sort of like the little pup (although the unusual color is not my thing).  But what is its legacy?  Was it an underachiever with an identity crisis that displayed an occasional flash of  above-averageness, at least compared with its crosstown rival?  Or was it a decent car that sort of got lost between the Vega’s infamy and the Camaro’s dominance?  I don’t know.  Maybe its muddled image and mission continue to dog it, because this seems to be the one small Chevy most everyone has forgotten.