Although over 720,000 Monzas were built for the 1975–1980 model years, sightings of the once-popular compact are rare these days – at least on the street. There are still Monzas going down the dragstrip, but these cars have usually been so heavily modified that only the body remains more-or-less in its stock configuration. When Henry went to have his Monza appraised for insurance purposes, he says the appraiser found many more records of sales of drag cars than road cars.
Chevrolet introduced the Monza in 1975 as a variant of its Vega compact. It was originally intended to use a rotary engine similar to those used in Mazdas of the time, but problems of reliability and fuel-economy forced GM to use the Vega four-cylinder engine with a downsized small-block V8 as an option. Buick and Oldsmobile also produced versions of the Monza in 1975 and a Pontiac appeared in the following year.
Henry was originally a pony car guy, owning first a Mustang and then a Camaro. The Camaro, although it was street-legal, was a serious drag car capable of quarter-mile passes in the low 10 second range. When Calgary’s Race City Motorsport Park closed, he sold the car. In the summer of 2018, Henry says, he started to feel the need for a project. Although he looked at some of the Camaros on offer, most were in pretty dire shape. Then he spotted an ad for the Monza.
“Back in the Eighties, I don’t know how many Monzas and Vegas I had – maybe 15. I’d buy them for a winter beater – park my Mustang for the winter and buy a Vega or a Monza for $100,” says Henry. “I’d drive it and throw it away.”
One thing he remembered fondly though was how much fun to drive the little cars were. Something that added to his interest was that, of all the Monzas he’d owned, Henry had never had one with a V8. The Monza he found on-line was in very good shape mechanically.
“It had its issues, but in general it was just a really solid car – considering it was 44 years old,” he says. Originally purchased in Leduc, Alberta, it was parked in 1988 with only 53,000 miles on it – probably due to a faulty fuel pump. When Henry found it, the fuel pump was working but the car’s original two-barrel carburetor had been replaced by a much-too-large four-barrel.
“You might as well have had a jerry can with a nail hole in the bottom,” Henry laughs. “That’s how efficiently it was working.”
“It still had the original 262 (cubic inch) V8, which was leaking from every orifice” Henry says. “There wasn’t a gasket on it that was still holding. It was using about as much oil as it was gas.”
As he looked over his options, Henry came to the conclusion that he wasn’t going to be happy with the car as long as it had its original engine, which was designed for fuel economy not power.
“The 262 has incredibly small valves and ports. It’s a really small bore. They don’t flow. They don’t make power – and they weren’t intended to.”
Since the 262 was just a version of the Chevy small block, the solution was obvious. Henry found a 350 cubic inch crate motor, built it up and dropped it into the Monza. So easy was the conversion, he says, that “I could have not changed a single thing – the exhaust system, the cooling system and the whole nine yards.”
As long as the engine was out of the car, Henry decided to upgrade everything. Exhaust headers and a very efficient cooling system were installed and the Turbo 350 automatic transmission and the rear end were examined and found to be in very good condition. Another of the Monza’s concessions to fuel economy, its very tall 2.56 rear end gear, was kept despite being less-than-ideal for acceleration. With about 350 horsepower in a 3,000 pound car, getting under way isn’t really a problem
“It’s actually kind of fun,” Henry says. “I can cruise down Deerfoot Trail at 60 miles per hour at 2100 rpm. I’ll get the same fuel mileage as my half-ton 4×4 pickup.”
Vegas and Monzas, like most other unit-body cars of their time, were notorious for rust. When Henry took the car down he wasn’t surprised to find rust damage, although how bad some of the repairs that had been done to the car previously caused him to shake his head. “Somebody brazed patches onto the sheet metal,” he marvels. “Onto it, not in it. They put it over top and then bondo-ed it smooth.
“There is no aftermarket sheet metal support for these cars,” he notes. “I went out a grabbed a sheet of 18 gauge mild steel, cut it up and started hammering and bending. I made my own patches.”
Luckily, he found someone in Cold Lake who had purchased a pair of New Old Stock front fenders in 1980 and never used them. This fall, the Monza will go to Jack James High School to be repainted.
It is also impossible to find brake rotors or calipers, Henry says. The Monza now has the rear brakes and axles from a Chevy S10 pickup. S10 pieces can be installed on the front, as well, but so far Henry says it isn’t necessary. This has resulted in the rear wheels having a five-bolt pattern while the front wheels remain four-bolt.
Window louvres were a popular add-on for cars of the Monza’s vintage. Typically, when he could find only an incomplete set in poor condition, Henry used what was left as a pattern and built his own. So popular is the look that, when he posted a photo on a Facebook page for Monza fans, a number of car owners asked him to make them a set, too.
“I don’t believe a car is ever done,” Henry says. “I’m always tinkering. I’m building it the way I want it to be – as a driver. I didn’t go nuts with the motor like I did with the Camaro. I just want to have some fun with it with a reasonable amount of power. It’s all about fun.”
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