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
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.
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.
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.