If you were a kid in high school (or college) during the ’80s – and into fast cars – you probably remember the last full-frame, rear-drive/live axle, carbureted, cast-iron pushrod V-8 muscle car GM ever made:
The ’83-’88 Monte Carlo SS.
It was conceived at a time when memories of the original muscle cars of the 1960s and ’70s still lingered – before rap music, before front-wheel-drive (and AWD) drive “sport compacts” took over the hearts and minds of kids looking for a speedy car. When people – especially high school and college-age people – thought about performance cars in the Reagan Years, they thought almost reflexively about Five-Point-O Mustang GTs, Tuned Port Injection IROC-Z Camaros – and the brooding presence that was the SS Monte Carlo.
Its striking Winston Cup bodywork – shovel-nose front end with quad headlights, blacked-out grille, monochromatic paint job, beefy (for the era) Eagle GT tires and rumpety-rump sewer pipe-sized dual exhaust hanging prominently behind the rear axle “pumpkin” – made it an instant hit in 1983, the first year of production. Even better, the SS packed the goods to go with the stock car looks. Under that broad, flat hood sat the same “L69 HO” 5 liter/305 cubic inch V-8 engine that became optional in the Camaro Z-28 and Pontiac Trans-Am that year. The 5-liter V-8 was small, but it was still old-time muscle – from its cast iron block and heads to its aluminum medium-riser intake manifold and Rochester Quadrajet 750 CFM 4-barrel carburetor.
To goose output, Chevy fitted this engine with a high-lift L-82 Corvette camshaft, upped the compression to 9.5:1 and added a free-flow exhaust system with Corvette catalytic converter and a low-restriction air cleaner. Though this exact same engine was rated at 190-hp in the same-year Z-28, the Monte’s version was downrated slightly, to 180-hp — probably to avoid annoying the Camaro faithful.
By modern standards, 180-hp from a 5 liter V-8 may seem weak. It is weak. But in the mid-’80s, it was top-shelf, with only a few high-performance models besting it – and even then, not by very much. The early-mid ’80s Corvette that year, for example, only had about 10-20 more rated horsepower – and it was the most powerful (domestic) car on the market.
A stock Monte Carlo SS was good for mid-15 second quarter mile runs – and 0-60 blasts under 8 seconds – respectable clocking for the era. But what made the car so much hee-haw fun was the easy burnouts (no traction control in those days), tire-chirping 1-2 upshifts through the turbo-hydramatic transmission and the redneck burble of a classic small block V-8.
Flip the air cleaner lid to let the Q-Jet breathe deep, ax the catalytic converter – and you were ready to rumble.
First year sales were decent – but limited by available production capacity. Only 4,714 examples made it through the pipeline at a base MSRP of $10,474 (which was just slightly more expensive than the ’83 Camaro Z-28’s base price of $10,336). 1984 was much better – with sales increasing nearly six-fold to 24,050. This trend continued into 1985, with sales climbing steadily to a production capacity limited 35,484. Chevy could have sold even more Montes if the two plants where they were built in Arlington, Texas and Pontiac, Michigan had been able to bolt more of them together – but overall, the car’s performance on the lot was every bit as solid as its performance on the street.
In ’86, Chevy came out with a limited-edition version of the SS called the Aerocoupe. It was designed with NASCAR competition in mind, just like in the days of the Plymouth Superbird and Charger Daytona.
The Aerocoupe was defined by its unique raised rear glass, which followed the roofline back to the tail to cut aerodynamic drag at high speeds. According to published figures, the swept-back “aero” rear glass reduced the car’s drag coefficient relative to the standard notchback SS by nearly 3 percent – a big deal on the high-speed ovals where race versions of the Monte were running. The glass itself was one of the more complex single pieces of glass to be installed on a production car up to that time.
Aerocoupes also had a unique ducktail spoiler which provided downforce on the car’s rear end – and which added to the heavy-breathing stock car ambiance.
’86 was also the first year for standard gas-charged Delco Bilstein shocks and newly available argent/aluminum 15×7 wheels very similar to the ones used on the ’80-81 Camaro Z-28.
Smoked-glass T-tops became a popular option.
Of the 161,067 SS Monte Carlos produced during the five year run between 1983 and 1988, Aerocoupes are the most rare – 1986 models especially. Just 200 were produced -with another 6,052 built the following year. All were white – with identical options – which would have included the new-for-’86 15×7 aluminum rims with Goodyear Eagle GT tires, F41 sport suspension with high-effort steering and special “SS” decals and stripes.
Base price for the ’87 Aerocoupe was $14,838 vs. $13,463 for the standard notchback SS.
By this time, unfortunately, sales were beginning to droop – down to 16,204. After five years on the market, the Monte SS hadn’t been developed much and still had the same drivetrain, with the same output/performance. Meanwhile, Chevy was pouring the coal to the Camaro and Corvette – which now offered Tuned Port Injection 305s and 350s with 210-plus hp and much improved performance. Buick was selling the killer Regal GS (and GSX), either of which could mop the floor with the Monte.
1988 would be the final year for the Monte Carlo SS – and, sadly, for a rear-drive, V-8 Monte Carlo. Chevy decided the future lay in smaller, front-drive models like the soon-to-be-released Lumina.
The Monte Carlo nameplate would be revived a few years later . And V-8 power would return in 2006 (in a front-drive configuration and with modern engine controls, etc.). But the classic muscle car layout of ’83-’88 was history. It was too crude for modern tastes; too politically incorrect to pass muster with The Man.
But the sound of an old SS under full steam – Q-jet secondaries opening up, Eagle GT’s skittering on the pavement – is a happy reminder of simpler times; of cheap thrills, of hanging out at McDonald’s on a Friday night…
They may build ’em faster nowadays – but they’ll never build ’em sweeter.