In 1970, after about two years of development, Chevrolet released the Vega, a cheap subcompact marketed to become GM’s next family car. To the company's dismay, the Vega swiftly earned a unflattering reputation. Nonetheless, 275,000 cars were sold in its first year on the production line.
By 1972, the Vega had continued to raise rates of production, despite becoming an afterthought among Chevrolet’s engineers.. It wasn’t long until Chevrolet became anxious to put the Vega's image behind them. Coincidentally, talks began about boosting the brand’s ego by bringing a more powerful option to the table. Using the popular Vega as a foundation, Chevrolet started development of a new contender.
As the Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona was selected for the main inspiration, Chevrolet turned to innovation to help propel the project. As a result, Chevrolet stumbled upon the idea to use the intriguing “Wankel” engine — a rotary engine newly developed in the late 1960s — to power their future sports car.
By 1974, however, such plans had fallen through the roof. While economical issues with the engine became apparent, Chevrolet’s initial plans became even more compromised with the high fuel prices caused by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. With virtually no choice, Chevrolet was practically forced to close the program. Nonetheless, Chevrolet carried on with the car, replacing the rotary engine with a 2.3L I4 and sent the “Monza” into dealerships for the 1975 model year.
Sporting a stunning shape, the Monza was offered as the ‘2+2’, while a cheaper ‘S’ sport model was added later in the year. Both models featured a hatchback design, with a sloped front end to help fuel economy. The Monza’s handsome exterior was completed by a pair of rectangular beam head- and taillights. With the 2.3L I4 as standard, the Monza was offered alongside an upgraded I4 and two alternative V8s.
Unfortunately, these engines — a 4.3L and a detuned 5.7L, respectively — didn’t offer much in terms of power. Thanks to the rising emissions from the recent oil crisis, the Monza only saw a max of about 120 horsepower. However, the new Chevrolet’s clever design won over much of the public, as the Monza pulled in an impressive 130,000 cars in just its first model year.
Interestingly, Chevrolet made the decision to add a little more variety in the engine department for the following model year. For 1976, the Monza was treated to two new engines. The first, derived from the Vega, was known as the “Durabuilt 140”, and brought a 84 horsepower option to the table; not to be outdone, Chevrolet’s second offer replaced the 5.7L with a 5.0L capable of 144 horsepower.
Complete with a 5-speed manual transmission, the Monza was sold once again with a 2+2 hatchback package as standard. While the S model didn’t survive 1975, the new “Towne Coupé”, a more fancier approach to the Monza line-up presented in both cabriolet and luxury trims, and the “Spyder”, a more sportier version of the Monza were added to the Monza’s list of editions. Overall, sales reached a mere 80,000, less than 50,000 cars than the previous year. Despite the decline, optimism lead the car to be sent into another year of production for 1977.
As for 1977, the Monza took a new form in two new special packages, one focused on enhancing performance (sold for an extra $274) and the other specializing on appearance (sold for an additional $199). While the 2.3L I4 enjoyed its final year with the Monza, and the 5.0L was made the only V8 available, the Towne Coupé cabriolet model trim was removed, with a new “Mirage” model added to take its place.
The Mirage was a special-built model welcomed to the Monza family. Assembled at an aftermarket company known as Michigan Auto Techniques — with the exception of a select number of dealerships — the Monza Mirage featured a white base with prominent blue and red racing stripes, finalized with add-on fiberglass panels and sport suspension.
A fresh interior was also added, highlighted by a new dashboard. When all was said and done, more than 70,000 Monzas hit the open market, roughly 4,000 wearing the Mirage nameplate. Finally, the slow decrease in sales was addressed, as it was decided that 1978 would promise a new, revamped design.
Chevrolet did indeed keep to their promise in the following year, with the classic lamps being replaced in favor of a new box-styled headlights. The sloped hood was removed, a flat, level hood taking its place, with the body offered in hatchback and wagon trims. As for new editions, the Monza was gifted remains from the now extinct Vega, including the resurrected ‘S’ sports model that was essentially a rebadged Vega.
Meanwhile, the 2+2 was also permitted a facelift with a new grill. With Pontiac’s 2.5L “Iron Duke” I4 now as the standard engine, the Monza provided two Buick-built V6 engines, both producing 90 horsepower (3.2L) and 105 horsepower (3.8L), respectively, alongside a V8 capable of munching out nearly 150 horsepower.
All of the changes seemed to be pay off, with the Monza arriving in nearly 140,000 homes. However, this didn’t mean all trims were safe for the Monza; heading in the 1979 model year, the Monza line -up was narrowed from seven cars to just four, with the S hatchback option, Towne Coupé sport option and the estate wagon receiving the boot.
Aside from minor engine changes — the most notable being the only V8 tuned down to produce just 130 horsepower — the new model year had little changes. Small exterior add-ons were made standard, including fresh body moldings and a new grill. Gone was the sloped front-end, the only exception being the 2+2 hatchback.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Monza boosted its sales up to 160,000 cars. While the Monza did in fact earn another year on the market, it was clear that the Chevrolet’s life would be coming to an end soon. For the 1980 model year, serving as the Monza’s finally year of production, Chevrolet demoted the Monza’s line-up, narrowing down the choices to just two similar 2+2 trims and a single Spyder option, which featured new special decals.
Engines were also reduced, the Iron Duke being standard with Buick’s 3.8 V6 as a compliment. All in all, the 1980 Monza surpassed its previous record for most cars sold, with about 170,000 cars sold, bringing the overall total up to a little more than 730,000 cars over a six-year span.
In spite of the high sales, Chevrolet officially pulled the plug, giving the Camaro and Citation authority over the company’s. Ultimately, the Monza lasted just six years of production, but accounted for a majority of Chevrolet’s success in that short time. Likewise, it acquired a following of dedicated enthusiasts in the process.