GM’s Answer to the Ford Mustang II

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Chevrolet Monza is Born as Pony Cars Die

Though many people blame the death of the muscle car on stricter emissions and fuel economy standards, the truth is that before horsepower started to drop in the early 1970s, Americans (both consumers and automakers) were already starting to sour on muscle cars. The year GM downsized to the  Mustang II—1974—was also the last year for the Plymouth Barracuda, Dodge’s near-twin Challenger, and the AMC Javelin.

If GM president Ed Cole had won out, the Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird and Trans Am would have been gone as well. Cole wanted to kill the F-bodies after 1973, citing the expense of updating the cars to meet new Federal bumper standards. The Camaro only lived because of a lobbying effort by an internal group of Camaro fans at GM and an external group of dealers that traveled to Detroit and offered to buy the entire production run. (GM acquiesced, and it was the right decision: Camaro sales were up for 1974 and continued to rise through the end of the decade.)

One argument in favor of killing the Camaro was that Chevrolet had a new small sporty car on the way, one that John Z. DeLorean referred to as “the Italian Vega”. In June, 1974, our sister publication MotorTrend published drawings of a car it called the “Vega V-8” which was based on the same rear-wheel-drive platform as the troublesome Chevrolet Vega. (MT later acknowledged this label as “a mistake. Any resemblance that the Monza bears to the Vega can only be discerned by turning it upside down and poking your nose into the floor pan and front suspension. This is a new car. “)

The magazines had already begun to speculate that GM was planning to replace the Camaro with its new compact car just as Ford had done with the Mustang. Three months later, readers saw photos of the new-for-1975 model and learned that it would be called the Monza.

Chevrolet Monza Meets the 1970s Head-On

By 1970s standards, the new Monza 2+2 (the official name for the hatchback) was a sharp-looking car, a slick fastback with definite Ferrari overtones. The nose featured quad headlights, two thin slits in place of a traditional grille, and flexible plastic cladding that minimized the visual impact of the 5-mph bumpers. Inside, the Vega-based interior received a high-class makeover. Dimensionally it was similar to the Ford Mustang II, slightly longer in length and narrower in width.

Like the Mustang II, the Monza’s base engine was a 2.3-liter four-cylinder, in this case the Vega’s aluminum-block overhead-cammer with a two-barrel carburetor and a grand total of 87 horsepower. Ford had added a V-8 to the Mustang II for 1975, and the Monza got one as well—an extra-small 4.3-liter (262 cid) version of Chevy’s legendary small block, albeit with a paltry 110 horsepower. California buyers got their own V-8, a 125-hp 5.7-liter (350 cid) only available with an automatic transmission.

The Rotary Engine That Never Happened

The big news for the Monza was supposed to be a new Wankel rotary engine. GM had licensed the technology in 1970 and hoped to introduce its own rotary in the 1974 Vega. As development progressed, it became clear that the engine was not going to meet GM’s requirements for durability, emissions or economy, the latter an especially big concern in the wake of the 1973-74 fuel crisis. In the spring of ’74, about the time GM would have been getting ready to put the Monza into production, GM announced that the rotary engine was delayed, and the program was cancelled that fall. (This was a bigger blow to American Motors than it was to GM, as AMC had designed the 1975 Pacer around GM’s rotary engine.)

In mid-1975, Chevrolet introduced a notchback version of the Monza called the Town Coupe, its posh interior trim likely a response to Ford’s successful Mustang Ghia coupe. (Ford had anticipated a 60/40 sales mix for the Mustang fastback and notchback, which is likely why Chevrolet led with the 2+2; the public preferred the Mustang notchback, which reportedly wreaked havoc with Ford’s production schedule.) Initially, the Monza Town Coupe’s front fascia differed completely from the 2+2’s, with round headlight and a traditional grille and bumpers, but the coupe would eventually be offered with the 2+2’s front end and vice-versa.

Chevrolet Monza V-8 vs. Ford Mustang II V-8

With or without a V-8, the Monza could hardly pass itself off as a Camaro replacement. In 1975, MotorTrend pitted V-8 versions of the Mustang and Monza against each other. Both cars had automatic transmissions, and the results of the acceleration tests seem laughable today: The Mustang took 9.6 seconds to get to 60 mph and strolled through the quarter mile in 17.5 seconds. Still, it blew the doors off the Monza, which took an agonizing 12.6 seconds to hit 60 mph and ran the quarter in 19 seconds flat.

To be fair, Chevrolet openly acknowledged that the Monza wasn’t setting the pavement afire. A 1977 ad for the Monza noted, “Today’s kind of driving demands today’s kind of car… Because there’s more to driving than speed.”

As a car for the 1970s, it was only moderately successful. First-year Monza sales totaled just over 136,000, a far cry from the Mustang II’s fuel-crisis-fueled first-year sales and well shy of the 190,000 examples Ford moved for 1975. Though the Monza’s sales got an appreciable boost thanks to the second energy crisis in 1978, it continued to trail the Mustang II by a sizable margin.

The Monza would stay in the Chevrolet lineup for just six model years, discontinued in 1980 to make way for the Cavalier. Along the way, it would lose the Vega engine (replaced by the 2.5-liter Iron Duke four-pot) and its bespoke V-8 (replaced by the 305) and gain a V-6 and the wagon body style from the discarded Vega lineup. There were classic ’70s tape-stripe hot-rods like the Monza Spyder, and ultimately the H-body would help set the stage for GM’s cookie-cutter badge engineering, with near-identical versions sold as the Buick Skyhawk, Pontiac Sunbird, and Oldsmobile Starfire.

Was the Chevrolet Monza Really the Camaro II?

Back to our original question: Was the Monza meant to be the new Camaro? We say no. The evidence indicates that GM was ready to bury its Mustang competitor, just as Chrysler and AMC had done. The Monza was not supposed to be a direct replacement, but rather a new type of sporty car for a new age—the same role as the Mustang II but without the baggage of a legendary name.

As it turned out, GM’s predictions were wrong. Perhaps it benefitted from being the last pony car standing, but Camaro sales continued to increase steadily through the 1970s, with 1979 being Camaro’s best sales year to date. That was the year Ford debuted its new Fox-body Mustang, and Chevrolet followed on with a new, modern, and muscular Camaro for 1982. And as we all know, the pony car segment, in the form of the Camaro, Mustang, and Challenger, is once again alive and well—for now, at least.

Whatever GM’s intentions, the Monza was never given the chance to replace the Camaro—and given the damage the Mustang II did to Ford’s reputation, that’s probably for the best.

1975 Chevrolet Monza 2+2 V-8 Specifications

PRICE $3,965
ENGINE 4.3L OHV 16-valve V-8/110 hp @ 3,600 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 3-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe
L x W x H 179.3 x 65.4 x 50.0 in
WHEELBASE 97.0 in
WEIGHT 3,043 lb
0-60 MPH 12.6 sec
TOP SPEED 115 mph (est)



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