Curbside Classic: 1978-82 Opel Monza – A Beautiful European Cousin

Seeing an Opel Monza at an Australian car show is like going to visit an old friend’s house and finding their hot European cousin is in town. They have similar facial features but the cousin has a gorgeous body and speaks with a sophisticated, foreign accent. It’s familiar and alluring all at once.

From the windshield forward, the Opel Monza and the first Holden Commodore are visually identical. Holden married the body of the Opel Rekord with the longer front-end of the Opel Senator in order to fit their existing six-cylinder engines. The Monza, being the Senator’s coupe counterpart, naturally has much the same face as the VB Commodore. Aft of the windshield, however, is an attractive hatchback coupe body which we Aussies were deprived of.

The hood scoop is obviously not stock. The European cousin bought a tacky souvenir on their visit.

Compared to our Commodore, Opel’s executive sedan and coupe acted as though they’d been to finishing school. In place of the venerable Holden sixes and V8s were a range of Opel inline sixes. The range-topping engine in this flagship coupe was a 3.0 inline six with Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection and 180 hp and 179 ft-lbs. It was the fastest Opel yet and could propel the 3200-pound Monza to 60 mph in around 8.5 seconds. Also available was a carbureted 2.8 six with 140 hp and 161 ft-lbs, considerably slower with a 0-60 time of around 12 seconds. On the continent, there was also a base 2.5 six borrowed from the Opel Commodore.

The Monza’s engines were all overhead valve mills with an iron block, derived from Opel’s 2.0 four-cylinder engine, with a chain-driven camshaft mounted in the cylinder head and valves operated with hydraulic tappets and rockers. With these engines, there was a choice of three-speed automatic or four-speed (later five-speed) manual transmissions.

Also different to the Commodore was the suspension. The Monza, like the Senator, utilized independent rear suspension with semi-trailing arms. There were also disc brakes all-round, although steering was still of the recirculating ball variety albeit with standard power assist; conversely, the Holden used a more modern rack-and-pinion set-up. The Monza’s handling was controlled and predictable and its ride comfort commendably plush, as befitting a flagship coupe. The Senator/Monza platform would have made for a comfortable yet dynamic “small” Cadillac as it possessed much of the dynamism of a BMW but with a quieter cabin and a more compliant ride.

Unfortunately, the Opel Monza had a little in common with its unrelated Chevrolet namesake across the pond – an interior with some low-rent plastic trim pieces and available, naff fake wood. Nevertheless, it was well-assembled and the Monza came standard with then-trendy crushed velour trim. The rear seats had sufficient legroom but headroom was restricted by the rakish roofline.

That hatchback bodystyle did, however, provide the Monza with 9 extra cubic feet of cargo capacity at 26.5 cubic feet. It was a highly unusual bodystyle for this segment, similarly-priced and sized rivals typically being notchback coupes or, in the case of rivals like the BMW 5-Series, Peugeot 604, Volvo 264 and Rover 3500, not offering a coupe variant at all.

The Monza received a fairly extensive facelift for 1982, losing much of its chrome. Its refreshed looks firmly brought it into the 1980s and there were significant changes to the interior as well.

The following year saw the introduction of the most exciting Monza yet, the GSE. Available exclusively with the 3.0, the GSE added Recaro bucket seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, digital instrumentation, and a sportier suspension tune. On the other end of the spectrum, the facelifted Monza now had the 2.0 and 2.2 four-cylinder engines from the Rekord, their 115-hp outputs rather outmatched by the Monza’s stout curb weight.

1986 was the last year for the Monza. Opel developed a replacement for the Senator sedan but the Monza’s niche status seemingly ruled out a successor. In total, 43,812 Monzas were manufactured.

Australians did come tantalizingly close to getting the Monza. The Holden Dealer Team, Holden’s semi-official racing team, had ventured into tuning road vehicles by the 1980s. Legendary racing driver Peter Brock, by then the owner of HDT, spearheaded a plan to source partially-assembled Monzas from the Rüsselsheim plant and finish assembly in Australia. The HDT Monza would have ditched the Opel six for Holden’s 247-hp 5.0 V8 mated to the Corvette’s Borg-Warner T5 five-speed manual; the Holden V8 actually weighed less than the Opel six. Out would have gone the recirculating ball steering, replaced with the Commodore’s rack-and-pinion steering. The front suspension would have been borrowed from the Commodore too, although the IRS would have remained. One prototype was built before the project was scuttled, ostensibly because meeting Australian Design Rules would have pushed the price into the stratosphere.

Though Australia missed out on the Monza, other right-hand-drive markets were more fortunate. When Holden was bleeding red ink in the 1980s, GM New Zealand approached Opel for product. The lucky Kiwis ended up receiving the Monza along with the Manta, Senator, Kadett GSi and Ascona GT, although the Opel lineup wasn’t hugely successful over there and the remaining products were rebadged as Holdens in 1994 when that brand was resurging.

Over in the UK, with Vauxhall shifting wholesale to Opel-designed products, they received the Monza (and Senator) as the Vauxhall Royale. Although by the 1980s Opel and Vauxhall products were almost identical, GM persisted with selling the Monza as both an Opel and as the Vauxhall Royale in the UK. There, GM had the short-lived idea (delusion?) that the Sloan ladder structure of the US could be mirrored in the UK, in part, with the Vauxhall and Opel brands. To that end, the Royale was introduced with the carbureted 2.8 six while the Senator and Monza had the fuel-injected 3.0 six and a higher list price.

This Sloan-lite experiment quickly fell apart. By 1980, the Royale could be had with the fuel-injected 3.0 and by ’82 the Royale was gone. Instead, the Senator was rebranded as a Vauxhall and the Opel Monza carried on until the end of production. By this time, the Opel brand had been reduced to just the Manta – which lacked a Vauxhall equivalent – and was withdrawn in 1988.

Monza ended up being one of the most prolific GM names. Like Calais – used by Cadillac, Holden, Oldsmobile and Opel – the Monza name has since been used on a multitude of products. It originated with Chevrolet, used on a sporty version of the Corvair in the 1960s and then a sporty subcompact in the 1970s. GM do Brasil used the Chevrolet Monza name on their version of the GM J-Car. Finally, GM’s Chinese operations launched a new Chevrolet Monza this year, a sedan slotting between Cavalier and Cruze and using the PATAC-K (simplified Delta II) platform. Well, Monza is a nice name and easy to say and spell, so why not continue using it?

Although the Monza name was a popular choice for various Chevrolet lineups throughout the world, it was used only one other time by Opel.

The sleek, sexy Monza concept of 2013 was once again a three-door hatchback coupe although instead of an inline six, it used the same Voltec drivetrain as the Chevrolet Volt. Sadly, the Monza never reached production.

Alas, to those of us outside Europe and New Zealand, our friend’s hot cousin remained out of reach. Johanna with the pert derriere – or was it Jürgen with the tight abs? – was an ocean away and we wouldn’t be able to experience the enticing way they moved. At least those of us in Australia had their more ocker cousin, a little less shapely, a little more uncouth, but still plenty of fun.

Related Reading:

CC/Automotive Histories: 1995 Buick XP-2000 & 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera – The Story Of A Buick Holden And A Cadillac Opel

Cohort Classic: 1978 Opel Rekord 2.0S (And Olympia/Rekord History) – Near The End Of An Unbroken Rekord

Curbside Classic: 1978-81 Holden VB/VC Commodore – The Beginning of a New Era