Chevrolet Monza (1982-1996): The Brazilian Opel Ascona

( – In 1982, exactly 40 years ago, Helmut Kohl became German Chancellor, Italy soccer world champion and the film “ET, the Extra-Terrestrial” was a crowd puller in the cinemas. Back then, drivers liked to buy the still new Opel Ascona C. What hardly anyone knew: as the Chevrolet Monza, the Ascona became a Brazilian.

000 – Monza arrived in Brazil in 1982, as a two-door hatchback


However, this story begins in the late 1970s, when General Motors headquarters had a brilliant idea: to build cars that could be sold all over the world, with a minimum of customization for each market. This would save money in development. (Ford would later try something similar with the Mondeo.)

This is how the “J-Car” project was born, which from 1981 spread around the world under various names. In Europe, the J-Car project resulted in the new generations of the Opel Ascona (Ascona C) and the Vauxhall Cavalier. In Australia it was the Holden Camira and in Japan the Isuzu Aska. In the US, the J-Car lineup consisted of the Chevrolet Cavalier, Cadillac Cimarron, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac 2000, and Pontiac Sunbird.

The German Opel Ascona as a five-door

The German Opel Ascona as a five-door Zoom

In April 1982 it was Brazil’s turn, where the model debuted under the name of Chevrolet Monza. Originally the idea was to keep the European name. Until someone raised the ball: Ascona was reminiscent of “disgust” in Portuguese. So they settled on Monza, a name GM itself used in markets like the US and Europe, albeit for very different models (see Opel Monza).

Isuzu Aska - the Japanese Ascona

Isuzu Aska – the Japanese Ascona Zoom

When it arrived in Brazil, the “World Project” received nationwide coverage. The Europeans were curious too. To explain: on the old continent there were versions of sedans with two or four doors and a hatchback with five doors. The national Monza also had a hatchback, but only two doors, somewhat resembling the larger Opel Monza in Europe.

When it made its debut in Brazil in 1982, the Monza had a 1.6 liter engine

When it made its debut in Brazil in 1982, the Monza had a 1.6 liter engine Zoom

The model combined modern concepts. Until then, the only Brazilian car with a transverse engine was the Fiat 147. Front-wheel drive was also something new for the GM vehicles manufactured in São Caetano do Sul. And the driver-centric cockpit, designed to improve ergonomics, was something that’s never been seen here. The lines were elegant and aerodynamic.

The Monza marked the arrival in Brazil of the Family II line of engines that would go on to make GM history (and draw attention because the distributor was housed in the cylinder head and connected to the camshaft). The first version had a displacement of 1.6 liters. With 75 gross hp, the first Monza was considered “lame”.

The driver-oriented dashboard was a novelty in Brazil

The driver-oriented dashboard was a novelty in Brazil Zoom

The 1.6 engine was almost inaudible thanks to the hydraulic tappets in the cylinder head, a solution not used in Brazil until then. But with higher mileage, the bearings of the valve control were worn and caused noise.

The suspension was well tuned and conveyed security in the corners. The brakes (with ventilated discs up front, which not even the German Ascona had!) were efficient and the clutch was smooth. So the Monza was a pleasant car to drive.

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Most importantly, the Monza was up to date compared to the rest of the world – a rarity in Brazil at the time.

In 1983, GM resumed the 1.6 engine and began offering a 1.8 version with 86 hp and a single carburetor. A few months later, the limousine bodies with two or four doors came. Only this measure helped the Monza to break through.

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In a short time, Monza was already a consumer dream for the middle class. The most sought-after configuration at the time was the two-door sedan with a 1.8 engine and luxury equipment such as power windows, central locking, power steering and air conditioning. It wasn’t long before the model eclipsed sales of the VW Passat, Ford Corcel II and even the new Santana.

The Monza’s golden age was the 1984/85/86 triennium, when it achieved a rare feat: while not exactly cheap at the time, it was the best-selling model in Brazil, even beating out the popular Fusca (aka VW Beetle) and Chevette (a refreshed Cadet C).

Chevrolet Monza (1985)

Chevrolet Monza (1985) Zoom

Imports were banned and the adaptations of national cars were a success. The Monza could not be missing either, with convertible versions (manufactured by the Sulam and Envemo companies) and station wagon versions (also by Envemo).

In September 1985, GM launched the sports version S/R, with a rear spoiler, 15-inch wheels and Recaro seats. The 1.8 alcohol engine received a twin carburettor, as well as new intake and exhaust pipes to produce 106 hp (10 hp more than the normal engine). He competed against the Passat GTS, the Escort XR3 and the Gol GT.

Monza convertible and station wagon by Envemo

Monza convertible and station wagon by Envemo Zoom

The following year saw the launch of the top-of-the-line Classic. This Monza attracted a lot of attention with its fog lights, striped wheels and, most importantly, with the elegant two-tone paintwork (optional). Power steering, air conditioning and “trio elétrico” were standard. And there was also the long-stroke 2.0-liter with 110 hp, initially with a carburetor.

The Monza was the second national car to be sold with electronic fuel injection (just after the Gol GTi went on sale). It was 1990, with the 500 EF special series paying homage to Emerson Fittipaldi’s victory at the Indianapolis 500. And it brought the first cassette deck with a detachable front.

1990 Monza 500 EF with its namesake

1990 Monza 500 EF with its namesake Zoom

But as Monza evolved technically, the design became more and more antiquated. Abroad, the Ascona had already given way to a more modern design in 1988 – it was the first generation of the Vectra, which was still a few years away in Brazil.

However, GM Brazil felt that the Monza could remain in production for some time and in 1991 decided to update its style with the usual recipe: keeping the central part of the body and retouching the optics. Thus the Monza “Shark” was born – the nickname came from the 8.5 cm longer front, whose silhouette was reminiscent of a shark. The rear was increased by 4.2 cm, which increased the trunk from 510 to 565 liters.

The 1991 facelift

The 1991 facelift Zoom

The “new” Monza was even more enjoyable to drive. It had a SL/E 2.0 petrol engine with single injection and 110 hp. Although it had only one injector, the injection was more modern than the Classic.

Finally, in 1993, the first generation of the Vectra was launched in Brazil, but the Monza continued to be manufactured in São Caetano do Sul. It wasn’t until three years later, with the appearance of the state-of-the-art second-generation Vectra, that the old Monza gave up the ghost – production ceased on August 21, 1996. In 14 years, 857,000 cars were sold here and in other South American countries.

It wasn't until the arrival of Vectra II in 1996 that Monza went out of line

It wasn’t until the arrival of Vectra II in 1996 that Monza went out of line Zoom

The Monza is dead, but its legacy lives on in the Brazilian Chevrolet: for decades, the Family II engine was used in the Kadett, Omega, Vectra, Blazer, Astra and Zafira until it disappeared from the scene in 2016 in the Flex S10.