Unsung Heroes: Opel Monza GSE

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Back in the early-’80s, the big coupé market was sewn up with the BMW 6-Series, the Jaguar XJ-S and Mercedes-Benz SEC. But for those with a smaller budget who still yearned for a punchy straight-six, your local Vauxhall-Opel dealer was able to help you.

Roomy and affordable, the Monza GSE offered good performance and sleek lines which still good almost 25 years after deletion. Mike Humble pays his respects.


Rüsselsheim’s big hitter

Opel Monza GSE: The cut-price Autobahnstormer

Everybody loves a warbling V8 engine. Its smooth nature combined with vocal noises remind you of power and force and just by saying those two words – ‘vee-eight’ – can wipe years off you as you get exited just at the thought. Those two words make people listen when you talk about cars – they are by-words of passion that modern, soul-less stuff will never match.

I confess, I love a V8 but my chosen configuration is a large straight-six – the chosen format for some of the great cars from BMW – Mercedes-Benz and, of course, our very own Triumph. Ridiculed at school and technical college for reckoning the Rover 2600 could have been a match for the 3500 if only the damn engine was built properly, I still to this day think a straight-six is the ideal engine for a long distance cruiser, the long heavy crank offering heaps of bottom end torque and pulling power making a long distance journey as smooth and effortless as nodding off in a leather chair.

I once borrowed a friend’s BMW 730i, and even though it was old as time itself and had been round the clock more times than the hands of Big Ben, the sheer ability to cruise at great speed at an enigne speed barely higher than a fast idle re-enforced my opinion of a big six.

The Triumph six, especially in the 2500 range, was a lovely engine that pulled from its boots while still sounding great. And when the Heath Robinson Lucas fuel injection worked, was also blessed with good performance. The Rover 2300/2600 was also a good sounding engine, and even looked good even if the sprawling plug leads smudged the canvas slightly.

In 2600 form, performance was not far behind the V8, and it is a well known fact today that Rover-Triumph engineers held the power back as not to eclipse the range topping V8 models when developing the SD1. Ford had ditched its straight-six years before, adopting a range of V4- and V6-cylinder engines, the largest being the Essex 3.0-litre – an engine that was not without its engineering problems.

And that brings us on to the other UK maker, Vauxhall, with its straight-six unit, fitted into that well known executive car which we all loved – the Ventora (I was kidding). Known as a maker of cheap and half-dependable cars, Vauxhall entered a new era when its styling changed for the better with cars like the Chevette and Cavalier Mk1 making the brand feel alive again. Engineering and development became shared between the UK and Germany as GM made sure they were getting the best from their investment.

The 3.0-litre 180bhp straight-six engine from the GSE

Worthy but utterly dull models such as the Victor, Viva and Ventora were cast aside by models with more Fatherland input. The models became duplicated with German Opels; so the Chevette could also be a Kadett; Cavalier an Ascona – but the bigger cars such as the Viceroy and Royale were pure German or Belgian cars, simply badged as a Vauxhall.

These big saloons were a world apart from the Vauxhall offerings of old such as the Victor. They had a seemingly tough build quality that was far superior to the Granada, making the Rover SD1 feel almost brittle and glass-like, even if the styling was verging on the plain side. The Royale and Viceroy were powered by an Opel-designed straight six engine with a similar CIH (cam-in-head) valve gear system to the 1.6-, 1.9- and 2.0-litre units found in the Ascona/Cavalier.

This lazy six-cylinder engine matched the executive nature of the car, and made the overall experience more sedate and homely – whereas the Ford Granada 2.8 would feel urgent and granular when pressed into action. Offered in 2.5- and 3.0-litre guises, the engine might well be almost forgotten today – but the coupé three-door body style was handsome and head-turning.

The Royale coupé was a smart looking car with decent-looking alloy wheels, deep padded velour seats and a lazy three-speed automatic gearbox – although a manual transmission could be specified for sportier types. GM eventually dropped the Royale in the UK, a slow selling car compared with the dominant Granada and SD1. This was quite simply because of badge snobbery – the buying public did not relate the Vauxhall brand with a prestige car.

The Opel Senator became the top of the range GM saloon in the UK and, what was the Royale coupé, became the Opel Monza ES, a car now aimed at more fashion conscious executives. Bosch fuel injection was fitted to the GSE’s 3.0-litre engine, upping the power and torque and improving fuel consumption slightly.

Where the Royale seemed slightly gentlemanly or twee, the Monza GSE – thanks to some nice styling touches like anthracite-effect alloy wheels, Recaro seats and lowered ride height – looked every inch a Continental sports tourer. It also happened to undercut its rivals from Jaguar and BMW considerably. Whereas the Senator was offered in fuel injected 2.5- or 3.0-litre form, the Monza became a single model 180bhp option that sold well and was produced in limited numbers.

The Recaro velour clad Monza GSE interior showing the LCD dashboard

GM, riding high in the sales league thanks to the Cavalier Mk2 and Astra, embraced the modern technology of the ’80s by fitting a space age digital dashboard to the facelifted Monza in 1983. This was around the same time that Austin Rover offered a similar item in the Maestro, and for a while proved all the rage. The idea was similar – but whereas ARG used a solid state vacuum type system with a voice synthesis, GM resisted a voice synthesizer and produced its instruments with a much more reliable and better looking LCD set-up. It even boasted a rev counter represented as vertical graph depicting its power curve. It was at this point that sales really took off in the UK.

The facelifted Monza also featured a lavish interior in a stunning patterned velour trim, deep carpeting, electric sunrooof and windows, long range halogen foglamps, and headlight wiper system – it really was a nice machine to drive. Even though it lacked the kudos of the Jaguar XJS or BMW 6-Series, the Monza became a common sight on the roads, and partly thanks to its aggressive looking black grille and deep plastic bumpers, it gave Vauxhall-Opel a confidence boost. The colour schemes of the Monza GSE also made a platform for sporting Vauxhalls to come – though a strange turn in marketing policies would see some major changes for Vauxhall-Opel.

GM decided to offer just one brand in the UK, deciding to phase out stand-alone Opels in the process. And subsequently, the Opel Senator was re-badged a Vauxhall – and that died a slow death until an all-new model went on sale in 1987 (leaving the Manta to soldier on alone until 1988). The Monza was also deleted in 1987 and was not replaced – models on the roads today are in almost penny numbers, and yet the examples you do see are quite often in stunning condition and lovingly cared for.

The rakish styling and that imposing front end will never be forgotten. And my own childhood memory of being driven along the A66 in a Monza by a local dealer MD at an amazingly silly speed watching those yellow LCD digits tick higher, will be forever etched in my mind!

By the way, if you happen to be looking for some used cars and living in Glasgow, you might be interested in visiting http://www.motors.co.uk/. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you would find.

Gallery

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

35 Comments

  1. Great article Mike – the Monza really is the unsung hero of the 80s Vauxhall/Opel range, along with the Senator that spawned it.

    A friend had an A reg automatic 3.0 GSE in white exactly like the photo in 1995 (he only paid £800 for it!)  I drove it a couple of times, it was beautiful to drive, solid, secure, comfortable and powerful.  It wasn’t even bad on petrol – he used to get 27mpg from it.  He still wants another one now.

    The digital dash was the car’s scariest feature – at least in that example.  The speedo section didn’t always work, and when it flickered on it would appear randomly in either MPH or KPH, which, needless to say, could give you quite a shock.They’re still undervalued today – £3k will get you a cracker and they really are built like tanks, the best Eighties muscle couple I reckon.  Try getting a Capri 3.0 for £3k! 

  2. Yes, the Monza was a lovely looking car and the performance figures were impressive. One of only a few cars which were improved by the facelift. A pity it wasn’t replaced when the mk2 Senator came out – part of a process by which large cars with non-premium brands were taken off the market.

  3. Good article Mike, interesting to put the spotlight on the Monza when it seemed oddly in in the shadow of little brother Manta that time hasn’t been quite so kind to. I still remember Russell Bulgins Autocar obituary to the Manta. Probably fair to say if they buried the car he would’ve danced on it’s grave. I only remember seeing one Monza on a regular basis…shame really

  4. Russell Bulgin was a fantastic journalist, from the all star Car magazine 90s line up including the sublime LJK Setright, both sadly no longer with us.  They were joined by a fresh faced James May, whose writing style was as technical, amusing and acerbic as now.  He was continually skint back then and amusingly unfashionable.  Amazing what ten years does!

  5. I loved the Royale when it came out – it was 1978, my dad owned a VX-series estate, and there was a Vauxhall / Alfa Romeo (?) dealer on the route home from school – I would make my mum take me there everytime there was a new model to see – and the Royale was one of them – the saloon was elegant, the coupe striking (although not beautiful – I saved that assessment for the Alfa GTV6 they also had there)……the Monza/Senator combination was equally impressive, although I mourned the loss of Vauxhall’s ‘premium’ cars……great article BTW……

  6. @steve bailey – wholeheartedly agreed – Russell Bulgin’s column was the highlight of ‘Car’ magazine in the late ’80s / ’90s. I also have some of the TV shows he made with Steve Coogan on VHS – what I particularly admired was his attention to design and styling – my area of fascination with the automotive form – he was also an intelligent, witty, and superbly articulate writer – his death a great loss to motoring journalism……

  7. Lovely car when in Royale form. Looked inside one once and was amazed at the plushness of the interior. Coupes always look good and I remember the chunky alloys setting off the whole package. The sound was good too. I would be happy to drive one today.

  8. Ah, Russell Bulgin, I only came across him when he started writing for Autocar in the mid nineties but his columns were a highlight every week. Few journalists had his turn of phrase.And I love big Vauxhalls… Good article Mike, had me looking for one and there is a clean looking 1985B Auto on eBay for £3k… Tempted…


  9. In Australia, the Monza coupe very nearly did come with a V8 engine. The plan was to produce the car using a 308 cubic inch V8 from the Group 3 HDT Commodore (Holden), a five-speed Borg-Warner gearbox, Corvette brakes and locally-tuned suspension (see:
    http://www.drive.com.au/Editorial/ArticleDetail.aspx?ArticleID=50263 ).

    It was one of those lost opportunities of Australian motoring (like the Holden GTR-X) which parallels the lost opportunities of Austin>Rover.

  10. I had one of these an ’86 GSE, I have two lasting memories of it..

    One of seeing over 200 on the speedo.. then relizing it had been flicked over to KPH

    The other is of jumping up and down on the front hums with the wings and front end off in an attemto to restore the front end geometry. The can rust in such a way as to allow the turrets to move, and in typical old banger fashion this one had just had plates welded in to pass the MOT. Rampant tyre wear, unpleasent handling at speed and an inablity to get the bonnet to line up with either wing were the symptoms. So the whole lot came off, the hubs jumped on repeatedly (after the suspect MOT ‘repairs’ had been removed), repeated test fitting of the wings till they fitted properly and then welded up with proper sections.

    This was then taken for alighnment and was found to be very clsoe to perfect! Drove like a different car, it was actually IMHO a nicer drive than the 635CSi after that, and the tyres lasted a lot longer! and over 30MPG was easy

  11. I was always a fan of the Open Monza and loved hearing that six-cylinder’s barotone growl, especially when mated up to automatic transmission.

    In some ways it was a shame that Opel/Vauxhall never actively looked to bring out a replacement for it in the Nineties based on either the new generation Senator or later Omega. The Vauxhall Calibra V6 was still appealing, but it seemed to lack the authority and conviction of the Monza.

  12. This brings back memories :)The only time I rode in a new Monza GSE was as young man, being taken home on a Sunday morning after “Ungandan disscussions” with a much older married lady. It was brilliant! (the car was’nt bad either)

  13. Dad had one of these, in a metallic burgundy colour. Well built and a head turner – but more than a little thirsty compared to Fords of a similar engine capacity.Somewhat later I owned a 2.5 Omega which was also a pretty solid thing, and that was never really replaced either. It does make you wonder whether the GM marketing people were up to the mark (marque?) when they dropped such cars rather than “invent” a brand like Lexus/Infiniti to distance them from Chevettes and Corsas.

  14. Another nice historical look back Mike that I agree with.  I well remember the Monza & Senator and their Vauxhall counterparts.  I still have a 1979 Vauxhall brochure with them featured.  Yes those Alloys set them off a treat too.  I thought the initial Vauxhall Royale’s had 2.8 litre engines but I would need to refer to aforesaid brochure to check. Also agree that the later version Monza GSE illustrated suited the Recaro seats & anthracite wheels.  Big & solid cars – the nearest equivalent for me would be a mid 70s Granada Ghia coupe?

  15. The Royale was initially sold only with the 2.8 engine. The 3.0 was introduced as an option after a couple of years, but the whole range was dropped shortly afterwards.Our neighbour was a salesman for a Vauxhall dealer in the 70s and occasionally brought a Royale saloon home. Very classy looking vehicle!

  16. Thanks for confirming that Jonathan.  The brochure I have is one of the early launch editions.  As you say, they looked classy and were the most expensive (badged) Vauxhalls of the time.  The final Monza GSE discussed here looks the best – I think.

  17. Mike, we must have a friendly argument over a pint sometime.Let’s start with sixes. The Triumph six did sound fruity, especially in saloons and GT6’s, but the Senator/Monza six made a dreadful noise – just a loud roaring, like a fan with an engine attached! Mind you, it could have been worse – I saw a Monza carrying “2.3D” badges in Stuttgart.

    V8’s definitely sound better, my top three being

    1) Hemi Chrysler
    2) Stag with original engine
    3) MG ZT260.

    The Ventora, if you don’t mind, was a car of great character. Quite a Q-ship when most had been scrapped, and people forgot what the mouth-organ grille meant. Dull it wasn’t – the steering wheel was only fitted to make suggestions, but at least it had rack and pinion – if the driver asked where the front wheels were, the answer would come back, 2-3 feet from the kerb. In an Omega, the answer would be “Shropshire. I think.” To be fair, the Carlton/Viceroy/Senator/Monza generation were a lot lighter than Omegas, and the steering worked better.

    The Ventoras had enough torque to climb house walls, but getting sideways on fabric braced radials gave you time enough to read a paperback before it all got straight again. An FD Ventora weighed 2400 pounds soaking wet – a three-cylinder Corsa weighs a mere 150 pounds less. Get  manual overdrive tranny and a good distributor, throw the automatic choke in the bin where it belongs, and you could have a lot of fun in a Ventora. It was as simple to service as a Viva, but reliable. The Rover V8 fits nicely.

    You didn’t mention the Viceroy. Dreadful thing. The extra 15bhp over the Carlton (with carburettor; the same output as a 2.2i) wasn’t worth it when you paid for it with thirst, understeer, and the longest bonnet this side of a Mark 4 Zephyr. Don’t get me started on those dreadful things.Thankyou and goodnight!

  18. I’ve wanted a Mark4 Zephyr/Zodiac since I was a kid (had a toy Matchbox one bought from a second hand stall in 1983 – even as a kid I preferred classic cars).  Read an article on them in an old issue of Car magazine which basically said it was the most evil handling car ever, its handling changing depending whether people were in the back or not.  I still want one one day, but I probably won’t drive it…

  19. These big Opel/Vauxhall’s of thier time were like the poor mans BMW?..I will get shot for this one but thats how some see them and the layout is similer.Four disc brakes allround, independent rear suspenion, straight six’s. GM Opel cloned it all in the Monza/Senator but in a different manner.The Omega (B) with its V6 engines was like a 20 year catch up version of Fords Consul/Granada mk1 and 2 for the 1990’s after sticking to the ohc straight six too long even the Vauxhall 3.3 ohv before it is based on old chevy designs for use in trucks no wonder its got the torque to pull anything.

  20. Forgot to say I remember the FD Ventora too… I was 13 years old when it was launched (Victor body with better trim, vinyl roof and the straight six 3.3 litre engine a’la Cresta / 120bhp?).  At launch it was billed as “The lazy fireball”.Going back to the Monza GSE, if it had stayed around longer I guess it would have got additional colour coding on the mirrors, handles and side mouldings… but still looked good as it was.

  21. Great article on a forgotten car. I loved these but never had the money for one at the time.Must admit that I preferred the analogue dash to the digital one though! The neareast I managed was a Mk2 Cavalier and Mk1 Astra :-(The Royale Couple / Monza were the dogs doo-doos of the 80s affordable cars for me, especially being brought up on a Triumph 2000, a six cylinder was highly desirable. But the car is just such a great shape, it looks the business even 20-odd years on (hell, nearly 30 years). I’d love to own one now but 20,000 miles a year and 25mpg don’t go together!

  22. A great source of information and rare press photos etc can be found in trevor alders transport source books on the above car,by the way as for gm plying catch up to fords v6?not likely the ford v6 was rough as toast!

  23. I had an A-reg silver one of these for a couple of years back in the late 80s. It was a 3.0E (not GSE). Superb car, wish I’d kept it. Many many happy memories.

  24. 3.0L E as ES was pre GSE Rich, I had three of them on the trot but they were at that stage in life where they weren’t classic yet. All 3 had serious issues in the turret dep’t, one having been very skillfully bodged with fibreglass! the other two had repairs done twice in my tenure, you just watch the bonnet/wing gap then get the welder out again..
    Lovely car though..

  25. I don’t think I’ve seen one in over 20 years, but until the late 1980’s I used to see one near me on a regular basis.

    On my mid 1990’s paper round one house had a Royale Saloon, which looked like it was a daily driver.

    GM seemed to used Opel as a prestige brand in the UK for a couple of years, with the Royale being dropped & the Senetor replacing it, but later it was rebadged back as a Vauxhall.

  26. My 1985 Monza GSE has had only 1 previous owner, has done less than 80000 miles and the rear seats had never been used until I bought the car in 2006. I love it! At present it is not being used as some of the electrics have got the hump but soon I shall be roaring around in it again. My 3 grand-daughters argue over which one of them is going to be lucky enough to inherit it.
    I was sad to read uncharitable remarks about Ventoras. I had 3 in succession; an FD which went like a rocket, an FE about which the less said the better and finally another FE which could beat the pants off my Rover 3.5 SD1 in every department except top speed. Both that FE and the FD had overdrives and I spent much time hotshifting. I made the overdrive on the FE operable in all forward gears. In fact I broke a gearbox on one occasion when dragging away from the lights – and my opponent was only a small van of some sort, but he was being really cheeky so I had to do it.
    I don’t suppose I shall ever see a decent Ventora offered for sale but if I do, I shall buy it unless a 3-litre manual Senator 24 valve comes up at the same time. It would be a difficult choice but I think the Senator would win.

  27. The Monza is a half forgotten great, but to those of us who remember these cars, they always raise a smile. It was an excellent car that was aimed at the BMW 6 series market, but with General Motors running costs and prices, and looked and went just as well as a 6 series. Also the Opel straight six was a reliable and smooth unit and not as rushed as the 2.8 V6 fitted to the Capri, which it could easily outrun.
    As has been pointed out, straight sixes were popular engines for big Vauxhalls and Opels for over 20 years. The Cresta pioneered the engine, but it really came into its own with the FD Ventora, a lighter and better looking car that resembled the lesser 2 litre Victor, but was endowed with another 1300cc and effortless, refined performance and masses of torque.

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