Vintage Reviews & Comparison Test: 1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo – Personal Luxury Gate Crasher

(first posted 3/16/2017)    The Personal Luxury party was in full swing as the 1960s came to a close, with an ever growing number of entrants targeting the upper price brackets of the American market. Cadillac and Lincoln had introduced ultra-high-end Personal Luxury coupes, sitting atop the ranks of expensive, exclusive, profit laden cars.  Even Ford, a pillar of the “Low Priced Three,” had successfully served up pricey Thunderbirds for years.

For 1970, however, the big spending good times were disrupted when Chevrolet brought out the new Monte Carlo, with all the expected Personal Luxury cues at a far less premium price.  Depending on their editorial slant, the buff books viewed this newest Personal Luxury player with either disdain or admiration.  Plus, right out of the gate, Motor Trend even went so far as to compare the new Monte Carlo against the revamped 1970 Thunderbird and still-fresh 1970 Grand Prix, providing an assessment of the evolving category. 

Chevrolet was clearly going for the jugular of the Personal Luxury segment.  Formal styling and a luxurious interior were the main selling points, and abundant power was on offer as desired.  But it really wasn’t about performance anymore—the Monte Carlo SS pictured in the ad, replete with fender skirts and conservative full wheel covers, was arguably the least sporty looking Super Sport ever.

Predictably, Car and Driver was less-than-enthused by the newest Chevrolet.  Critiquing everything from its pastiche of Personal Luxury styling cues to its imitation burl wood dashboard trim, C&D summed up the Monte Carlo as a poseur for Middle America.  The Monte Carlo SS with soggy shocks just amplified that impression.  Without a doubt, the new Monte Carlo was not a car for discriminating driving enthusiasts.

The editors at Road Test Magazine, on the other hand, were more attuned to actual Middle American desires, and they saw the new Monte Carlo just as Chevrolet intended: affordable Personal Luxury for the masses.

Proving that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Road Test praised the Monte Carlo styling.  The semi-formal/semi-sporty long hood/short deck look was seen as right on target.  Inside, RT editors found comfort on both the bench seat as well as the optional buckets.  The simulated vinyl burl wood trim was likened to the real thing in European cars (!!!).  In short, the Monte Carlo nailed all the then-current high-style features.

With Chevy being Chevy, there was also a broad array of V8 powertrain choices for the Monte Carlo, starting with a 250-horsepower 350 2-barrel and 3-speed manual all the way up to a 360-horsepower 454 4-barrel V8 with Turbo-Hydramatic for the SS.  Also on offer were 4-speed manual, 2-speed Powerglide automatic and 3 additional V8 engines: 300-horsepower 350 4-barrel, 265-horepower 400 2-barrel and 330-horepower 400 4-barrel.  This selection of powertrain options was the largest in the Personal Luxury category, allowing buyers to tailor their Monte Carlo to their pocketbook and performance aspirations.

Given the 6-foot long hood, there was plenty of room for any of the motors.  The diagram showed the extent of the wasted space at the front of the car…  But oh, that hood—the longest ever worn by any Chevrolet was sure to spark envy in the neighborhood.  Handling, ride and braking were pretty much standard Chevy, and could be augmented by low-cost heavy duty suspension.  However, handling wasn’t the point—fashion was.

The Monte Carlo, which carried basically the same base price as an Impala Sport Coupe, was the lowest cost entry point into the style-centric Personal Luxury segment.  With a base price of $3,123 ($19,546 adjusted), the Monte Carlo was $772 cheaper ($4,832 adjusted) than its inspiration from Pontiac (note, just like the Chevy, power steering and automatic were options on the Grand Prix).  As Road Test noted, most Monte Carlos were undoubtedly loaded up with $1,000 worth of options, like power steering, Turbo-Hydramatic, Air Conditioning, vinyl top, AM radio, etc.—but even so the resulting ~$4,100 price tag ($25,661 adjusted) still would have undercut the base prices of the Riviera, Toronado and Thunderbird by 15% to 18%.

So the Monte Carlo was by far the most affordable Personal Luxury car, but how did it stack-up on the road against key rivals?  Motor Trend offered up their assessment in December 1969 when they compared the Monte Carlo with the fully revamped Ford Thunderbird and the popular Pontiac Grand Prix.

Motor Trend felt each of the Personal Luxury cars was long on looks (and all had long noses…), but interior packaging was “personal” at best (rather sad given the ample exterior dimensions).  All three offered comfort and convenience features galore, including the newfangled radio antenna bonded inside the windshield.

Performance-wise, all three cars were pretty quick for the times (and undoubtedly guzzled plenty of gas).  Stopping distances were also relatively close, with the Monte Carlo earning the shortest stops from 30 miles-per-hour while the Thunderbird offered the shortest stops from 60 miles-per-hour.  But would prospective customers for these cars even read the specifications and test results?  After all, the main mission of these showboats was to make a big image statement.  On that score, Motor Trend took the “good,” “better” and “best” approach to the ranking, crediting the Monte Carlo for offering all the Personal Luxury car basics, while the Grand Prix represented a nice step-up in “personal style” and the Thunderbird remained the leader in Luxury.

So the new Monte Carlo was an instant contender, at a price that shook up the Personal Luxury segment.  Customers responded enthusiastically, snapping up 145,976 copies, making the Monte Carlo the best seller in the segment by a large margin.  Given the heightened competition from Chevrolet (and also the new Cutlass Supreme 2-door hardtop), poor Pontiac took a tumble, with Grand Prix sales dropping 68% to 65,750 units.  Nor was the redesigned Thunderbird even close to the Monte Carlo: the new “Bunkie Beak” T-Bird saw sales climb just 2% versus 1969, to 50,364 (41,963 2-doors and 8,401 4-doors).

Thus the gauntlet was laid down: with the Monte Carlo, style plus affordability became a new key variable in Personal Luxury, and the ensuing decade would see the segment transformed by the phenomenal growth of medium-priced, mid-sized Personal Luxury coupes.