When the Vega program was introduced in 1970, GM’s CEO Ed Cole also went forward with a program to build the Wankel rotary engine under license from NSU. The original intent was to offer it in a sporty new fastback hatchback design called the Monza 2+2 for 1973, and then later offer it in the Vega as an option.
While sharing the Vega’s body pan and wheelbase, the 2+2 was four inches longer overall and wider between the front strut towers, so it became its own platform known as the H body. However, GM could not get a balance between reliability, fuel consumption and emissions issues sorted out with the rotary, so it canceled the program in 1974.
GM then had a production-ready new car without a powertrain to put in it. However, the wider engine bay could accept a small-block V8 with minimal engineering changes, and that’s how the world was introduced to the Chevrolet Monza 2+2 for 1975.
While the V8 and styling were the big news, the newly introduced 110-hp 262-ci V8 (called the 4.3L) was an option. Standard was the same 140-ci four (now called the 2.3L) found in the Vega. Folks in California did have a 350-ci small block as the lone option in lieu of the 4.3L. Yet it was a strangled 2-barrel that has the dubious distinction of being the lowest-powered 350 every built, with 145 wheezy horses.
A new look
If the engines were uninspiring, the new package around them was a breath of fresh air. Borrowing GM styling cues and some from Ferrari, John DeLorean famously called it the “Italian Vega” — proof enough that he was he was involved with cocaine before starting his famed car company. If anything, it looks like a shrink-wrapped Camaro — especially from the rear.
The Monza 2+2 was awarded Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year, which was either a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.
Midway in 1975, Chevy added a notchback Town Coupe to the Monza line. Its ties to the Vega were more obvious, with upright styling and single front headlights. 1976 saw few tweaks, with the Town Coupe gaining an optional cabriolet roof treatment to tap the rampant personal-luxury trend. For 1977, the 4.3L V8 was dropped, replaced by the 305-ci (badged as a 5.0L) small-block V8, available in all 50 states. It found a home in the Monza as the biggest engine upgrade in all but the basic Town Coupe. 2+2s and Coupes added Sport-level trim, plus the 2+2 front fascia was grafted onto the coupes, as this was the final year for the Vega.
Offered in 1976, the Spyder Equipment Package (RPO Z01) featured sport suspension with radial tires, sport steering wheel and fender emblems on any Monza sport. Keeping up with all the other wannabe muscle cars of this era with animals on the hood, in 1977 Chevy added the Spyder Appearance Package (RPO Z02, and only for 2+2 Sport models) for Z01s, with black-out trim, front and rear spoilers, plus plenty of vinyl decals on the body sides and a tough-guy arachnid on the front of the hood.
With the Vega finally put out of everyone’s misery after 1977, Chevy realized that it didn’t have a compact wagon for 1978 to compete with the still-popular Ford Pinto. As such, the Vega wagon was reincarnated in December 1977 as the Monza wagon. It did inaugurate a new single-headlight front fascia as the only thing that didn’t look like a Vega, and was also used on the basic coupe and a one-year-only S hatchback — another undead Vega.
All Monzas for 1979 got the wagon’s single-headlight front fascia — except the 2+2 Sport. For the Monza’s final year of 1980, the Spyder was a unified 2+2-only package (Z29) and only non-Bowtie engines — the Pontiac 2.5L four and Buick 3.8L V6 — were under the hood.
While the Monza rode the ebb and flow of whatever GM could use at a given time, the car was actually something of a sales success. Over three-quarters of a million were built in total, helped to some extent by fluctuating of gas prices at the time, plus the second Arab oil embargo in late 1979.
Also helping the Monza at the time was the use of the 2+2 in some racing circles. IMSA competitor Al Holbert campaigned a highly modified, Corvette-powered 2+2 in this series, becoming the IMSA Camel GT champion in 1976 and 1977. Chevy even offered a similar replica, called the Mirage, to include fender flares and spoilers fitted by Michigan Automotive Technologies before shipment to dealers. These kits were also available over the parts counter.
Engine-swapping field day
As they were engineered to a price, used hard and minimally cared for, attrition on Monzas has been high. The few stock ones that surface in the 21st century are by and large low-mile “little old lady” cars that were virtually forgotten.
More common are Monzas that either had V8s put into them or had their original V8s upgraded. A lot of people did just that to varied levels of quality and success.
While supporting these cars logistically is now not as easy as it used to be, parts availability is vastly better than any period import. As for the small-block-powered cars, walk on the side of the road long enough and you’ll be able to rebuild the motor with what you find. Aftermarket restoration trim? Forget it. Best bet is to score NOS that someone is shifting on eBay, praying you’ll buy at the 99-cent opening bid.
For future collectibility, the Monza has a lot going both for and against it. It’s not the lowest ebb of GM reliability and build quality, but they are down pretty low. Yet with the few that have made it this far, the whole quirky 1970s car thing does give traction in the market — especially for the few originals that surface with low miles. Yet even for a vintage drag special, they represent a lot of bang for the buck.