Picture this. It’s 1988. Michael Jordan wins his first league MVP award. Good Morning, Vietnam spends nine consecutive weekends as the number one box office film. And Dale Earnhardt signs a sponsorship deal that allows him to take the nickname he was destined to have: The Man in Black.
Image: Brian Clearly
Whether you were an overgrown or actual teenager in the late 80s and you had a need for speed, chances are good that you dreamed of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS. And not just because The Intimidator used it to challenge the limits of physics on Sundays. In a time when souping up a hot rod meant hooking a turbocharger to a European V-6, Chevrolet offered one of the last original models of American speed.
The 1950s and 60s marked the golden age of American muscle. Heavy big block V-8s hammered through the hills in North Carolina and roared across the beaches in Daytona. A new language took hold with words like cammed, bored, stroked, and supercharged. And grease-covered gear heads worked for hours to shave off fractions of a second through the quarter mile.
Then in 1972, the U.S. government handed down a list of safety and emissions regulations that threatened to terminate the muscle car. But manufacturers adapted. Ford countered with an up-market shift. Buick borrowed tips from European sports cars. Yet the days of owning an affordable, mid-size, rear wheel drive, cast-iron V-8 seemed to be fading. And after the early 1980s recession, chrome dinosaurs nearly went extinct.
Nearly, thanks to the Monte Carlo SS. The vehicle shared the same G-body platform as some of GM’s most popular cars: The Cutlass, Regal, Malibu, Bonneville, Grand Prix, and El Camino. Many of these have a following today, but the Monte has a unique legacy. When the 1988 models rolled off the line in December 1987, they became the last rear-wheel drive vehicles to carry the name. But perhaps more importantly, they were the last full-frame, carbureted cars of any kind from GM.
The ’88 Monte Carlo SS wasn’t the fastest car to wear the bowtie. The 305 cubic-inch 5-liter V-8 made 180 horsepower. But that engine packed old-school muscle with a cast iron block and heads, aluminum medium-riser intake manifold, and a Rochester Quadrajet 750 CFM 4-barrel carburetor. The whole thing was wrapped in an eye-catching body that became the classic we recognize today: shovel-nose front end, quad headlights, blacked-out grill, and monochromatic paint job.
The engine paired with GM’s good-old TH200-4R transmission, which was strapped to a 3.73:1, 75/8-inch rear end with optional limited-slip differential. And all that sat on four beefy Eagle GT tires.
As for performance, a stock ’88 Monte Carlo SS could burn through the quarter mile with an e.t. in the mid-15 second range and get up to 60 mph in under 8 seconds. Not bad for a mid-size vehicle during that time.
But the Monte’s greatest appeal is its connection to those big blocks from the 50s and 60s. It offered one of the last opportunities to experience the menacing rumble of a small block V-8. It showed 80s kids how easy smoke-billowing, tire-screeching burnouts could be, thanks to its lack of traction control. And anyone who owns an ’88 Monte Carlo SS can feel like one of the last, true gear heads when he flips the air cleaner lid, kills the catalytic converter, grips the wheel, and lets her rip.
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