The cars we loved.
Any discussion of American turbo cars usually centers on various Buick Regals, Ford Thunderbird and a few Pontiac Trans-Ams. Unknown and nearly forgotten by many was the short lived Chevrolet Monte Carlo Turbo, a car that like the lone 89 Trans-Am, was a recipient of Buicks turbocharged heart.
It seemed odd actually that Chevrolet waited until the very last of the 3rd generation G bodied Monte Carlos to stick Buick’s turbo 3.6 liter V6 under the hood. Buick had been using turbocharging since 70’s to beef up the gas mileage of its midsized and occasionally full-sized cars. Chevrolet decided that turbocharging the Monte Carlo would give its top engine more power with better gas mileage, something the domestic manufacturers were desperately trying to figure out how to do as the 80’s dawned.
In 1980, the first turbocharged Monte Carlo appeared. Using the Buick 3.8L V6 engine, it produced a healthy 170 hp sent to the rear wheels. That was 15 hp more than the biggest 305 V8 offered for the Monte Carlo that year. By 1980 standards, that was enough power to pass for a performance car, but a quick survey of the outside suggested otherwise. At first glance there was little to distinguish the turbo model from any other run of the mill Monte Carlo. Closer inspection of the hood revealed a hood scoop that had “TURBO” badging stamped on its side indicating that this Monte was special.
Inside it looked pretty much like any other Monte Carlo with baroque styled seats that looked more at home in a living room than a car. In keeping with the Monte Carlo’s luxury sport mission, it was loaded with the luxuries of the day including a t-top. Once again, only the “TURBO” badge on the dash suggested something special was under the hood. The turbo was a rather expensive option over the regular 3.8, but with 32% more power and better gas mileage, it was worth it. The turbo option sold over 13,000 units, but would have been more popular if lag was not an issue and looked more like a “sport” model on the outside. It had the same wire wheels and white walls as any standard Sport Coupe. If you got to Landau with the turbo, it even had the padded vinyl roof.
When the fourth generation Monte Carlo debuted in 1981, it up the ante on refinement, while staying close the previous generation’s design. It still had the body on frame construction of the old car, but was sleeker with a .48 cd vs. the 80’ models .53. The big news this year was an electronic fuel and emission management system called “Computer Command Control (CCC)”. With still no V8 optioned SS model in the lineup, Chevrolet brought back the Buick 3.8L V6 turbo as the top engine. This time the CCC system was able to improve performance by reducing lag to the point of making the 81’ model faster than the 80’ with the same horsepower. The CCC system was not designed to improve performance as much as economy and emissions, but it ended up improving drivability.
The new car was also handsome and conservatively styled with wire wheels, white walls and plenty of chrome. Still, no special external treatment for the turbo models beyond the hood hump and plaque inside. Chevrolet did offer a gauge package in 1981 that had everything but a tachometer and boost gauge (even on turbo models). Maybe the guys at Chevy were trying to hide the fact that the turbo was there. Lag was still a problem and many drivers complained that the engine did not seem as responsive when they floored it at speed. A 0 to 60 time of 11 seconds was fair, but was far from a drag star. The Monte Carlo really shined when cruising on the highway. Chevy buyers had become accustomed to the instant gratification that comes with V8 torque (or used to). Despite the lag, the 81 when ordered with the F41 sport suspension was a nice handling car. Not only did it handle well it was as fast as any F body once the turbo kicked in. Why, it was only 20 hp shy of the 1981 Corvette! In the end the old rule about no replacement for displacement would win over as the turbo option was retired after only 3,027 were sold for the 81 model year. The Buick turbo was not intended for performance at this stage in its development. Had Chevy held on until sequential fuel injection was introduced in 1984, the Monte Carlo SS or whatever they might have called it might have stolen some of the Grand National’s fire.