Across North America there once roamed great herds of large and unmistakable beasts, unique to the continent. I’m talking about the American Bison, of course, but I could just as well have been referring to the Personal Luxury Car (PLC). Like the bovine mammals, PLCs were once almost unbelievably prolific across the land but have now dwindled to a tiny fraction of their previous population. While the buffalo made a small comeback from near extinction to stable numbers, there is no sign of that happening to the American luxury coupe. Rare examples in the wild are all that are left.
Let’s take a quick look at this unique American species (of car) before getting to Monte Carlos and finally a well-kept example of the very last one (skip to the end if you are just interested in the story on this red 2007 LS).
The Personal Luxury Car subspecies of the American coupe is famously considered to have started with the 1958 Ford Thunderbird. What is a “personal luxury car” anyway? My definition is a mid or full size two-door from a U.S. manufacturer, with a back seat, that is visually distinguished in a substantial way from related sedan and coupe models, and oriented more towards luxury over performance. That does not rule out that some examples are also good performers or that some aren’t really very luxurious. The “personal” is kind of meaningless marketing speak for what were 4-6 passenger cars, but applies to actual use more than the capabilities, because they were most commonly used by individual drivers primarily for commuting (or nightclubbing!), as opposed to general family use. They were generally owned either by people without young kids, or as a companion to another family car. The same could be said of other coupes but the PLC was supposedly meant for folks affluent in mind, if not actually in bank account, who were looking for something more stylish and/or luxurious than a typical car.
As for the Thunderbird, you couldn’t get much more “personal” than the original 55-57 two-seater, which was also more of a luxury car than a sports car. The back seat is crucial to the morphology of the PLC, though. Purists cried over the Thunderbird’s change, but sales took off. People wanted a back seat, even if they didn’t use it very often (more thoughts: could either the 1940+ Lincoln Continental or the 1955+ Chrysler 300 be actually considered the first personal luxury car?).
It took GM a while to respond to the four-place Thunderbird’s success. When they did, they clearly weren’t messing around because the original 63-65 Riviera was arguably the best styled car to ever come out of Detroit. Introduced in 1962, the 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix became fully-actualized (as people might say later on the 70’s), with its innovative clean flanks and new roofline. (Though often referenced, the 62 or 63 Grand Prix surprisingly has never received a full-scale CC article!)
With the success of the Thunderbird and Riviera, new examples proliferated both above and below their price point. Enthusiasts will quickly conjure up images of cars like the Oldsmobile Toronado, Cadillac Eldorado (the FWD one), Mercury Cougar (early ones are debatably PLCs, but later ones certainly are), Lincoln Continental Mk III+, Chrysler Cordoba, and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
The 60’s may have had the most beautiful examples, but PLCs practically owned the 70’s. It was called “The Me Decade” for a reason and the popularity of personal luxury cars was highly reflective of the times. 1977 was probably Peak Personal Luxury, though the next few years were also very personally luxurious.
1977 Personal Luxury Cars U.S. Sales
|Coupe DeVille *
|Cutlass Supreme coupe*
|* May not satisfy all elements of PLC definition
The 77 Monte Carlo had the highest PLC sales of all time. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the changes in our car buying habits that have happened in the intervening years. Today, the dwindling number of volume car models are almost all sedans, virtually all the burgeoning SUV/CUV models have four doors, as do the perpetually hot-selling pickup truck models. A couple of things are clear: these days we like utilitarian vehicles and we like rear doors. Flashy, oversized, overstuffed American coupes are not even slightly a thing in the 2020’s. Yes, there is a small market for luxurious coupes, but these would be considered more Grand Tourers or true high-end luxury cars, and they are all non-American brands.
Fifteen years after the PLC market peak, American luxury coupes were still kind of a thing in 1994 (see scientific analysis section further down), when the Monte Carlo nameplate was brought back as a 1995 model after a several year hiatus. Many of the mighty PLC models were still around: Thunderbird, Eldorado, Mark VIII, Cougar, Cutlass Supreme, Regal and Grand Prix (these three GMers also available as 4-doors), while the Riviera made a return the same year. Among the classic models, only the Toronado and Chrysler Cordoba were departed, though Chrysler had the Sebring coupe which would probably fit the PLC definition, even if it was mostly based on Mitsubishi underpinings.
It could very well be argued the 1995 Monte Carlo had a fake ID and was not a real PLC. It was really just as much a Lumina coupe as the 1994 model it replaced. It had very little to set it apart from the Lumina sedan, sharing exterior and interior styling and mechanicals. Further diluting the Monte Carlo’s PLC street cred, it’s debatable whether it was even a coupe. The 90-94 Lumina coupe could almost certainly be considered a two door sedan (roofline and backlight shared with the four door) and the new Monte Carlo possibly could as well. That’s no way to honor the Monte Carlo name!
The original 70 Monte Carlo shared its basic structure and wheelbase with the Chevelle four door sedan but was about as different as it could be. It had completely unique sheetmetal and roofline. Though it shared the same 116″ wheelbase, the proportions were different, as it had a much longer hood. This was achieved by using the body structure from the Chevelle two-door, which had a 4-inch shorter wheelbase, but using the longer sedan chassis with the 4 inches added to the body ahead of the cowl. The Monte Carlo and it’s Grand Prix brother had remarkably long hoods for “low-priced” brands. This visual distinction probably had a lot to do with their sales success.
The second generation 73-77 used the same basic formula of distinct body panels and super-sized hood, but with bolder styling. This was the one that blew out the sales numbers, along with PLCs from all over Detroit.
The Monte Carlo’s third generation was significantly downsized for 1978 and lost its special cowl-to-front-axle length. It had the same basic proportions as the Malibu sedan/coupe now, but with a bit more overhang to stretch the hood and flanks, and a more formal roofline, of course. It seemed to work, as the sales party continued for two more years. Come 1980, someone rudely turned off the disco music (cue long needle scratch sound effect) and switched on the lights, as sales dropped by about half and never really recovered. No longer the king of the showroom, it cashed checks written in the 70’s through 1988.
In an era of diminished coupe expectations, the 95-99 Monte Carlo sold relatively well (60-70k/year). At least well enough that for 2000 Chevrolet gave it another generation and restored PLC street cred with its own sheetmetal. The Lumina sedan was rebadged Impala, with styling completely different from the new Monte Carlo. The MC got fender arches that hinted at the 1970’s, just less boldly. “Tasteful” would probably be the word Chevrolet would use, as they would for the unusually shaped headlights, which could be liberally interpreted to suggest the single round headlights used on the 1970-75 Monte Carlos. They might also be interpreted to suggest Kermit The Frog’s eye pupils.
It was said that the backlight and elevated trunk height were specifically designed so the “Monte Carlo” NASCAR racecars would be favorably shaped for high-speed aerodynamics. The platform was the 110.5 inch wheelbase second generation W-body, shared with the Grand Prix. It was significantly stiffened and refined over the first-generation W-body (originally GM-10) found under the 95-99 models, which had a three-inch shorter wheelbase.
Engine Talk Section:
Engines were slightly confusing. The 2000-2005 models came with a 180hp 3.4L V6 (LA1) standard, an upgrade from 95-99’s 160hp 3.1L (L82) version of the same engine. The engine traced its lineage to the 2.8L 60º V6 (LE2) first used on the 1980 X-bodies (Citation et al.). The Grand Prix had the 3.1L version standard through 2003, so customers buying a base Monte Carlo got a substantial upgrade over a base Pontiac. However, Monte Carlo customers wanting more engine were limited to a Series II 200hp 3.8L V6 (L36) from 2000-2004, while Grand Prix buyers could get the 240hp supercharged version (L67). That changed in 2004, when the L67 supercharged engine was finally offered in the Monte Carlo.
The base engine was significantly redesigned for 2006, when it was enlarged to 3.5L and gained 31hp (plus 13 more hp for 2007, to 214hp), variable valve timing and numerous substantial refinements (LZ4). A 240hp 3.9L (LZ9) version of this engine was optional. To make things even more interesting, the supercharged V6 was jettisoned in favor of a 303hp 5.3L V8 (LS4) for 2006-2007.
Monte Carlos got a facelift for 2006, losing the Kermit lights in favor of very conventional lenses shared with the Impala. They also lost the Monte Carlo shield emblem:(
Taillights also became a bit blander, mostly losing the stacked circle look seen on 2000-2005’s. Rear spoilers had previously been optional, now standard.
Interiors changed very little over the generation’s run. A new steering wheel appeared for 2006, shared with the Impala and other Chevys. Cloth seats aren’t fancy but are very comfortable. Wasn’t cloth considered luxurious in the 70s? With the longer wheelbase, back seat space is excellent for a coupe. A large trunk and fold-down rear seat backs make cargo space generous as well.
Over the course of the latter day Monte Carlo’s run, it went from one of several PLCs to the last man standing. One by one they went to the Great Discotheque In The Sky: Regal (1996, sedan lived on), Cutlass Supreme (1997), Thunderbird (1997), Cougar (1997. Returned as a non-PLC for 1999, then died again in 2002.), Mark VIII (1998), Riviera (1999), Grand Prix (2002, sedan lived on), Eldorado (2002), and Sebring (2005, convertible and sedan lived on).
Scientific Analysis Section:
So why did the PLC thrive so in the 1970’s to decline rapidly in the 80’s, then linger for another decade or so until final extinction in the late 90’s/early 2000’s? It’s a complicated question that can only be answered with science. After extensive review of the literature and consultation with PhDs in the fields of sociology, Swiss gastronomy, malaise psychology, and automusicology, I have a theory. The pervasive need for personal luxury transport is closely tied to three other essentials in the 1970’s, as measured in precise pleasure units. Personal luxury cars satisfied the same needs as absurdly wide-legged pants, pretentious cheese dinners and highly rhythmic music fine-tuned for dancing and lovemaking. Not every 70’s hipster shared all these interests, but the correlated trends is the point.
As any scientist has told me (when I’m not really listening), correlation equals causation. The baby-boomer generation transitioned from self-absorbed leisure pursuit to more responsible family-centered activity in this time period, giving up their strange fashions, swiss dishes, smoothly danceable love music, and excessively stylish coupes. PLC demand leveled out in the mid-80’s (see very scientific chart) and remained relatively low but fairly stable until the late 90’s. Levis still had bell-bottoms, the BeeGees made music until they literally died off, and cheese remains meltable today. Individuals continued some or all these consumptions out of habit or stubbornness, but there weren’t enough to make money on PLCs much past the turn of the century.
Monte Carlo, probably by virtue of its good value, lack of competitors, and association with popular NASCAR racing continued selling 60-70k every year until it, too, finally succumbed its last three years to America’s modern indifference to luxurious coupes. Only 10,889 found homes in the final 2007 season.
One of them was this base LS model, which was a rental until purchased by its present owners when it finished its first career. They embody what is probably the typical profile of latter day Monte Carlo customers, that is to say an empty nest couple that in the past owned a couple Monte Carlos from the 70’s and 80’s. Being thus favorably disposed towards Monte Carlos and the wife not needing a four-door vehicle at the time, she was attracted to this sharp, well built, amply powered coupe. The Monte Carlo has 120k miles and has given well over a decade of trouble-free service. Since it can’t be replaced with a newer version of something similar, the owners are quite content to keep the Monte Carlo for the foreseeable future.
With conscious intervention, we managed to save the American Bison. Sadly, there was no such intervention for the Personal Luxury Car which is quite extinct in today’s showrooms, but we will hopefully have a cadre of nice survivors like this Monte Carlo indefinitely.
photographed in Houston, TX 9/25/2022
Related reading: There have been a lot of Monte Carlo CC articles over the years, here are a few of the relevant highlights
Curbside Classic: 2000-06 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – The Last Gasp Of The American Personal Luxury Coupe by William Stopford – Less about the larger PLC trend and more detail on the 2000+ Monte Carlo.
Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – Lumina Coupe Two by William Stopford – I hadn’t read this before writing my article, at least not since 2016, but he naturally comes to the same conclusion as me about the Chevy McLovin.
Vintage Reviews & Comparison Test: 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – Personal Luxury Gate Crasher by GN – lots of juicy vintage coverage of the first Monte Carlo.