This is the car that brought personal luxury to the masses. The 1970-72 Monte Carlo. Sure, personal-lux coupes had been around for years, but generally they were flossier high-end cars. Cars like the first of its type, the Ford Thunderbird, which had more or less set the mold in 1958 with its low-slung lines, bucket seats and soon-to-be-ubiquitous center console.
Other makes immediately set their sights on the T-Bird, with cars like the Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Riviera, and Oldsmobile Toronado. A case can be made for the 1967 Mercury Cougar as well, with its luxury touches, but really, it was still Mustang-derived and thus a ponycar, not a personal luxury car. Yes indeed, luxury coupe mania spread like wildfire throughout the Sixties, but there really were no offerings for the “Low Priced Three”, Chevrolet, Ford and Plymouth. Until 1970.
In The Year of Our Lord 1970, Chevrolet Motor Division was the 600-pound gorilla of General Motors Corporation. They made the money, they moved the metal, and you really couldn’t go wrong with any of their products, from Nova to Caprice.
The template for the Monte Carlo had been set a year earlier in the new 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix. From 1962 to 1968, the GP had been more or less a customized full-size Catalina, with plusher interior, more trim outside and other refinements. But it moved to the A-body midsize platform for 1969, as the 1968 GP had been a slow seller. Something new was needed. Thus, the model was moved to the midsize platform, and utilized the 116-inch sedan/station wagon chassis, to maximize the close-coupled look desired. This resulted in a really stunning automobile, with crisp sheetmetal and a loooooong hood!
In 1970, it was Chevrolet’s turn. The four-door, 116-inch wheelbase was used, just like it was on the GP, for the long hood, short deck proportions customers wanted. The rest of the car borrowed heavily from the Chevelle line, with most of the interior and roofline of the coupe used-just with a different sail panel and quarter windows.
A 1970 Monte Carlo had a base price of $3,123. Of course, this being GM in the Seventies, all sorts of options, colors and other accessories were available.
The Monte used the same instrument panel as the Chevelle, but with a hearty helping of Carpathian burled elm woodgrain. Fender skirts, color-keyed wheel covers, bucket seats, rear defogger, and various AM/FM stereos were available options.
All Monte Carlos were V8 powered. This was, after all, a personal luxury car! The base V8 was a 245-hp 350 CID mill; a 270-horse 350 and 300-hp “396” (in actuality a 402) were optional. The scarce Monte Carlo SS454 had, naturally, a 454 CID V8.
Believe it or not, a three-speed manual transmission was standard with the 245-hp V8, though it’s unlikely too many were sold so equipped. This was a boulevard cruiser, not a tightwad special, after all. Powerglide was still available in ’70, though you’d enjoy your Monte Carlo much more with the most excellent Turbo Hydra-Matic.
Plenty of new car shoppers found the Monte Carlo both pleasing to the eye and to the pocketbook. 130,657 were sold in its first year, a respectable figure by anyone’s standard.
No drastic changes presented themselves when the ’71s appeared in Autumn 1970. Why fix it when it isn’t broken? That was Chevrolet’s thought for 1971. The Monte Carlo was much the same as its inaugural year, with only minor trim changes. Base price was up to $3,416.
A new grille and new stand-up hood ornament freshened the nose. Parking lamps went from circular to rectangular. The well-known GM strike of 1971, however, threw a wrench into production. Still, 128,600 were still sold that year. If not for the strike, sales most likely would have been higher than MY ’70.
I should also mention that an SS variant of the Monte Carlo was also available in 1970-71. Dubbed the SS454, it was rather a Chevelle SS in a tuxedo.
It was a nice package on an already nice car, but as this was the tail end of the muscle era, sales were a spit in the ocean compared to total Monte Carlo production. 3,823 were built for 1970, and ’71 SS takers were about half of that, with 1,919 produced.
Most Monte Carlo buyers were more interested in comfort and whitewalls and woodgrain and, in general, Broughamage, than performance. Lux was in, sport was on the way out!
1972 Monte Carlos greeted shoppers with a bolder eggcrate grille with new parking lamps alongside. Otherwise it was pretty much business as usual. Base price was now $3,362. Fun fact: A 1972 Monte Carlo was Jim Carrey’s ride in the goofy 1994 movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
With the GM strike a shrinking memory, production ramped up to meet demand, and 180,819 1972 Monte Carlos came off the line. It was the best year sales-wise for the original MC.
1973 would bring Colonnade design and opera windows to the personal luxury Chevrolet, and a completely different look, but that’s a story for another time. But we’ll get to it one of these days, you bet!
That car is significant to me – for reasons that have nothing to do with the car. A beautiful young woman – think, Toni Tennile, at age 17. She was a dead-ringer for a young Toni.
And daddy was rich. I was most-definitely from the wrong side of the tracks.
She was a senior attending college-prep courses in the small all-grades school, while I was riding the garbage truck. Daddy bought her a used Monte Carlo, during the three-rich-family vacation to Hilton Head. I bought me a used Super Beetle from my earnings off the garbage truck, augmented by overtime driving the snowplow.
Memories. I once hated GM with a passion, and with some justification; but age is bringing wisdom. This was one of their better products, class-status positioning aside.
But I see it and think of other things.
Nice writeup Tom, and I always liked these early Monte Carlos as a kid, but I guess when GM was printing money in the 1960s and early 70s the bean counters didn’t have incentive to dig into the craziness of offering so many stupid option combinations. Who could possibly want a 3 on the tree or Powerglide on their new Monte? Why offer so many versions of basically the same V-8 with such minor differences in power? Why is a basic AM radio or even A/C not standard equipment on a luxury car? All those combinations had to have required a lot of engineering hours, created huge headaches with regards to inventory control and manufacturing quality, and greatly reduced economies of scale that come from making the same basic thing thousands of times. Thus they had to have reduced profits for GM and resulted in a lot of shoddily built strangely optioned cars that did not make customers very happy. Really strange it took Honda to bring rationality to car options with their DX, LX, EX, etc. packages with varying levels of features standard at each level rather than hundreds of stand alone options.
There were several reasons for that.
First, a lot of buyers were buying perceived status. Many of them would have been as happy in a Nova; but what would the neighbors think? So they’d get an MC with three-on-the-three and a 250 six.
That was also a way to tack stuff onto the options list – which in those days was where the profit lay. You want a Monte Carlo? We have a nice one here, nice sturdy six; three-speed. Oh, you want a V8? That’s just a little bit more…we have one, here. Turbo-Hydramatic. Air Conditioning. You know, your monthly payments will be JUST A LITTLE BIT MORE…and think of the RESALE VALUE.
…sound familiar? It was only with time that they realized that the process of having so many options, ate up much or most of the profit from upselling from strippers.
Yeah but what will bake your noodle is this: Honda in Japan did their options just like GM in the USA. The standardized trim level was something they did to prevent six month wait times on new orders stateside.
Those last two beautifully colored shots of 72s with that slogan …building a better way to see the USA… really struck me. When most imports were so underpowered and short geared that long interstate drives were torture for both driver and car. This comes along with 350V8/ THM350, smooth quiet ride, and even a few luxury touches. It is great when a car lives up to the hype. Great article Tom
Just as the (first) gas crisis was getting into full swing, I was browsing used cars at a Ford dealer and ran across a 4-speed ’71 Monte Carlo SS454. It was gold with matching vinyl top and interior, and looked brand new. The salesman told me an Air Force officer had traded it on “something smaller” to get better gas mileage. I lusted after that car. Unfortunately, to a twenty-something college student, it was too far out of reach to even think of buying even though they were virtually giving it away. Fifty years later I still lust after it, and if I could find a WABAC machine, I’d go back and tell my younger self to do whatever I had to do to buy it!
The silhouette of the red ’73 reminds me of a relative’s. Was there a Buick version?
Yes, the Buick Regal and the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme were the other GM versions of this body.
The Buick Century had similar swoopy lines in the Colonnade years.
I’ve been working my way through a gifted collection of 1965-1981 car magazines. The hatred some of the editors had for the personal luxury cars, especially the Monte Carlo and Cordoba, is incredibly similar to the manner in which some automotive commentators treat CUVs today. The odd thing is that while personal luxury cars were all about style at the expense of utility, the CUVs reviled today are at least mostly about catering to the ways people actually use their cars.
This is worth a separate column but I think we were a better people when we bought style instead of fear.
Do you honesty think fear sells a RAV4? As a kid from the ’70s, I can tell you that small on the inside, big on the outside coupes with 200 lb doors were horrible family cars. It is ironic that people with lots of kids had the worst family cars ever conceived while childless and friendless people need five doors.
Think the personal luxury car was more about giving a man a soothing commute at the beginning and end of his work day. The wide back seat was there when a ride for the children was needed. Giving him some comfortable alone time between the stresses of home and office seems to me enough justification for the cars existence. With divorce and the nanny state looking after families now not so much.
I think it was about having something to talk about instead of how much slower and less efficient 1973 Chevrolets were than 1967 Chevrolets. Personal luxury cars of the ’70s were rather different than ’58 Thunderbirds and ’64 Rivieras, which were strong performers with standard features and style that wasn’t completely fake. I’m at a loss that anyone can look at a fad that consisted of putting on fake convertible tops, fake radiator shells, fake wire wheel covers, fake burled wood dashboards surrounding fake gauges, fake landau bars, and fake long hoods over short engines that wheezed and then come to the conclusion that the people who fell for it were somehow better than people who buy cars that can go faster on half the fuel while possessing actual utility. Besides, they’re often the exact same people. Baby boomers still have plenty of money to spend on new cars.
My original comment was attached to this article by timely convenience. I don’t think anyone pronounced the first Monte Carlo to be the worst car in the world, as Patrick Bedard did of the second generation Monte Carlo while declaring the third generation Monte Carlo to be merely the second worst car in the world upon its arrival. The cars that followed the first Monte Carlo melded its market position with the Lincoln MKIII’s terrible revelation: there was lots of completely tasteless and ignorant money to be harvested with mass produced pimp mobiles. Why worry about engineering when tacky trim brought in the Benjamin’s? I can’t find a way to admire people who bought these cars. My own taste in cars was shaped by calls for authenticity that resulted from their phoniness. Period BMW’s may have been expensive and Spartan, but what was there was real. The world has changed, and BMW now makes what Detroit did in 1958, but I still don’t want a car that pretends to be something it is not.
The cars of 1977 were outrageously styled to distract you from the fact that the government had made it impossible for them to be quick.
The cars of 2017 are viciously quick to distract you from the fact that they are utterly without proportion or style.
If Mr. Bedard claimed a car that offered a standard 350 V8 or for a little more a 454 V8 the worst car in the world because not everyone paid extra for the gage package and at that price point the wood will be fake, he was having a pretty serious brain fart.
There was an R/T(sorry Jack) cover that claimed that the worlds auto problems could be solved if everyone drove 57 hp Civics. Another total brain fart that proved that sometimes the editor took the day off, or perhaps should have.
Every car doesn’t have to be the same and thank God for that.
Yes, how dare they buy the car they want and not the car that’s “good for them.” I mean, CUVs are fake SUVs, a Corolla/Civic/Forte/Focus on tippy toes with a box on the back, so…
I absolutely do.
Fear of being low in traffic.
Fear of weather or road conditions that may never come and aren’t best handled by raising the Cg a half foot.
Fear of not having exactly what everybody else has.
And finally, as you noted, fear that one day we will need a certain outrageous vehicular capability and we will be on our own because we have no family or real friends left.
I think you doth protest too much considering you have a giant pickup for the purpose of carrying a couple of small bicycles. Many CUV drivers need one vehicle to fulfill all of their transportation needs. They don’t have a coupe for commuting and a 4×4 BOF leviathan for things that would require careful packing otherwise, or at least all season tires. I don’t know anyone buying a CUV because of the reasons you listed, but I know people who have them because they’re getting older and they don’t like climbing in and out of their Porsches anymore, or because they live on a street that gets plowed three or four days after a snowfall. I’m sure there are herd animals buying CUVs, just like there were herd animals buying 3-series BMWs when I was 30.
I’m not immersed in that world of sameness any longer, and I live in a fifty year old neighborhood. The people here are at many different stages in life, so there really isn’t any rhyme or reason to what’s in the driveways. Perhaps if I lived in a five year old condo complex I’d feel differently, but there’s everything from motorcycles to senior Mercedes on my block. People I know seem to buy what they want rather than what everyone else has, or maybe I’m not seeing them in the environment that matters. Maybe my next door neighbor goes to work where everyone drives an old Colorado or a new Avalon, and the b’nai b’rith people across the street’s fellow worshipers all drive Siennas and Outbacks. I don’t see the world as being as homogeneous as you do, and I really don’t see the personal luxury cars as being anything other than the most faddish automotive category in US history. The die was set by the 1973 Monte Carlo, and the last of the type was the 1997 Cougar, a car that had been limping out of dealerships in insignificant numbers for almost a decade after the volume PLCs had been abandoned. By contrast, the CUV has been growing in popularity for twenty two years. PLCs peaked in four years. Plenty of people who chase trends obviously didn’t want another after owning one. CUV people say they can’t imagine going back to a car.
I’d take this criticism more seriously if I had bought the giant truck for carrying bikes… the truth is that I have a hitch-mount rack on the Accord and we use that for the bikes quite a bit. 🙂
I was just pointing out that you have options. CUVs are great for people who don’t have personal fleets.
This is is a good as place as any to ask the following: How did American car manufacturers lose the adavantage in making stylish, low, wide, fast, and stable RWD luxury sport-tech mobiles? Although I know the answer intellectually, historically and economically, I can’t help wonder every time I am near an Audi, Mercedes or BMW why these cars became the imitator of and then the standard bearer of luxury? They are the Cadillacs, Buicks, and even Chevys of yesteryear! I always told my dad if his new Lumina Z34, or even a Cavalier, Pontiac or Buick not named was real wheel drive it might be the best selling car in ‘Merica instead of ceding that ground to Europe. After all the Grand Marquis GS he traded was no Mark VIII, but not enough bought those either. All of these car shows I seem to be nostalgic for a time that never was, celebrating the past of the future that never came, or was rolled into pickups and Body on frame SUVs of six figure pricing. I sat in traffic today depressed by the dozens of makes of different sized, but identical egg-wagons/CUVs commiserating in a similar car wondering what if I was rolling in a Volt that looked like a Continental and performed better than the Mustang? I guess Europe will soon tell me…
That’s a column in and of itself… Let me work on that.
Chevelles and Malibus were nice in the first generation to me, these were completely off my radar even though I worked on and rode in them when new .
Now I ‘get’ . I still don’t want one but I feel they’re pretty damn good cars .
I vaguely recall that ’69 and ’71 had A.I.R. pumps but ’70 didn’t, is that possibly right ? .
Something odd about the California smog laws so ’70s were lusted after by Hot Rodders…..
If I’m mis remembering I’m sure you alls will set me right .
Nice one, Tom. The over-ornate gold pin striping must be aftermarket, especially the hood ornament surround? It brings back memories of other cars and other pinstriping, in any case. Another silly feature done as a dealer value add, perhaps. But always better done with a paintbrush rather than a spool of vinyl tape, and in either case someone was making money with their own hands and knowledge.
Dad was one of the many that fell in love with the 1970 Monte. He bought one brand new. “Off the showroom floor” back when that still meant something.
He hated it. (He still hates them!) It was nothing but trouble according to the stories. He wound up trading it in on a 1971 Mach1.