The cars we loved.
The Term ‘Race on Sunday Sell on Monday’ was already a tired cliché when Chevrolet rolled out it’s new H Body cars late in 1974. The most attractive of these, The Chevrolet Monza looked like it could be the answer to Ford’s Mustang II. An answer that was not found in the erase the attractive, but flawed Vega. The new Monza (along with the Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Starfire and sometimes Pontiac Sunbird), would use the Vega’s 4 cylinder engine, and 94 –inch wheelbase, but would be a larger car.
The extra room allowed room for small block V8 engines to be dropped in the place of the wheezy four (as Vega owners has done). The performance potential of a smaller car with a bigger engine was something Chevy officials were interested in. After all the Camaro was getting heavier and it’s power was being strangled by new emissions standards.
A one-off prototype flared fender race car was developed that would eventually would catch the attention of the Motor Sports Association of America. MSA officials were so impressed that they urged Chevrolet to campaign the car and created a new American GT class to accommodate it. Chevrolet designed a shell that race teams could configure a tubular frame for. The result was a sleek Monza with aggressive Porsche 930-like aerodynamics.
The Monza race car made it’s debut in the Camel GT racing series in 1976. It started out with a bang-literally when it jumped out ahead of the pack of Audis, BMWs and Porsches until the engine blew and had to sit the race out. Despite that setback, the Chevy proved that the Monza had potential and by the end of the season the Monza racing car was racking up wins. So many that at least two Porsche drivers (Al Hobert and Mike Keyser) switched teams and ran Monzas. 1976 was a big year for the Monza race car. It had won a few major races in Camel GT series in America’s Bicentennial Year, swelling race fans with pride as an American car trounced the European competition in a sport that they normally dominated. Who says Americans could only race in circles.
Chevy had an unexpected hit on its hands and naturally wanted to make a version for the street to sell in its dealer network. Initially the plans were aggressive with nearly 20,000 units planned in three color schemes. In the end roughly 2,400 cars were made. The special edition car would be called the Mirage and feature toned down for the street ground effects complete with budging fenders and aggressive air scoops and dams. The normally sleek and Ferrari GTC/4 like lines of the stock Monza were now transformed to an aggressive race car for the street look that made the Trans-Am look tame. The Mirage was way ahead of its time because street tuners would replicate this look a decade later with garish ground effects kits.
Monza’s started life in a Canadian factory and would be shipped to British Overseas Racing Team (BORT) based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. BORT developed a package for the street based on the real racing versions. The Mirage package as it was being sold as (not a separate model) was only available in the 2+2 fastback versions equipped with the 302cid (5 liters for modern people) V8 engine. The cars were ordered through Chevy dealerships and arrived only in white with red and blue decals (after all the nation still had Bicentennial fever in 1977). Despite the wild exterior, little was done to really distinguish the Mirage from the run of the mill Spyder (which could be a Mirage sans the aero treatments). All Mirages came with the Firehorn red vinyl interior with the same wood grain dash as other Monzas. There were optional gauges for voltage and temperature that replaced the standard dummy lights on other cars.
Amazingly, the Mirage option only cost only $700 but the actual cost of the IMSA styled body panels were said to cost as much as $1600. That amount of money could almost buy a new Vega when it premiered in 1970. Even with the attention paid to making the Mirage look the part of a race car, there were some odd cost cutting measures like the smallish 13 inch wheels and rear drum brakes. The suspension was not enhanced over the standard Mirage, and options like dual sport mirrors, air conditioning were not standard. Most of them were sold with a four speed manual transmission that was associated with the V8.
By today’s standards a 5.0 with only 145 hp is not impressive at all, but remember this was 1977 and that much power in a smaller American car was unheard of. The Mirage was no drag racer, even if it looked like one, but having a V8 allowed it some level of straight line performance over and above most compacts on the road during the late ’70s. It also had the appropriate growl and could get the rear wheels smoking under the right conditions.
The Mirage was a special car and a unexpected treat considering that it was only available for one year. It would not take long for third part venders to offer kits their own boy racer kits that made any Monza look like an IMSA race car. Monzas continued being raced into the ’80s even as the H body cars gave way to the J car. Like most things from the era built in small numbers, the Chevy Monza Mirage is all but extent as fewer than 30 cars are thought be be registered and still running.