By Stuart Grant and images by Henrie Snyman
With the brutal Holden Monaro and Chevy SS machines leaving our shores, and heading down under faster than they accelerate from zero to 100km/h, we track down a pair of these Australian-derived South African legends before there are none left to see if they live up to the hype.
The early 1970s was an exciting time in South African motoring with local tuners shoving hulking great V8s into family cars, transforming them into track and open road tarmac-eating machines while retaining factory or dealership warranties. Of course we got the likes of the Capri Perana in 1971 and Chevrolet CanAm in 1973. In Australia the theme of big power in relatively decent handling packages appears similar, probably as it aids reliably chewing up the miles of wide open expanses found in both lands, as well as the penchant for motorsport. The Holden Monaro, like Australia’s Ford Falcon GT (Ford Fairmont GT here in SA), could not only pull the caravan to the beach in record time but also excelled on the mountainous Bathurst 500 race track at Mount Panorama.
For the Holden Monaro, General Motors Australia initially used its HK Model sedan as a starting point but dressed it in a coupé body style. The 1968 Base model saw a 6-cylinder motor while the excitement kicked in with a Chevrolet 5-litre V8-powered GTS and 5.3-litre GTS 327. Late in 1969 the face-lifted HT model replaced the HK version, with beating the Ford Falcon at production car racing a major goal. The HT also saw the dropping of the Chevrolet-built power units as in-house Holden 4.2 and 5-litre engines filled the gap. Only a year later the Monaro was revised again, albeit very subtly with the removal of some brightwork, minor trim and decal changes.
As the HT and HG enter the mix so South Africa joins the party. In essence, thanks to an export programme that saw the Monaro being shipped to Port Elizabeth in CKD form for assembly, we got the monsters here. HT versions were sold as Holden Monaro GTS and as GMSA decided to focus its marketing on the Chevrolet brand, the later HG items were slightly tweaked and rebadged as Chevrolet SS from 1971. With a unique front treatment featuring quad headlights and large indicators, the SS is therefore yet another proudly South African machine. While the local Monaro initially used a Holden 5-litre as its power source it gained a Chevrolet 5.74-litre when the SS hit the shelves. This meant both cars could be bought in 5-litre or 5.74-litre guise and the records show that 1 828 Monaro and 1 182 SS units hit the country’s roads. Power went to the rear wheels via a 4-speed manual or a 2-speed dual-range Powerglide auto, which quickly evolved to the 3-speed Trimatic unit in the 5-litre cars of 1971. Trimatic cars, welcomed in power-steering as standard, and the likes of a limited slip differential, sporty steering wheel, rally wheels, red band 6JJx14 tyres and rev counter were on all versions of the Monaro and SS.
Despite weighing in at just over 1.4 tonnes, the automatic 5.74-litre galloped to 100km/h in just under 8 seconds while the 5-litre was good for just over 9 seconds and a top speed in the region of 110 miles per hour. In either engine format they pulled the caravan well with the 5.74-litre churning out 224kW and 515Nm at 3200rpm while the smaller lump thundered out 179kW and 427Nm of torque at 3000rpm.
And thunder they do. Climb behind the sporty steering wheel of either, turn on the ignition, stab the accelerator pedal once or twice to get the juices flowing in the Holley carb and crank the key … WHAAAMM! The V8s spring to life with a serious bark before settling down to a thumping idle. It is no surprise though when you see that a dual exhaust system passes through a singular shared free-flow silencer and then exits the tail via a quartet of big bore pipes.
Subtlety doesn’t seem to be in the GM products’ vocabulary with bright red, yellow or orange paint colours most requested by buyers. Add to this factory bonnet stripes, contrasting vinyl roof, side sill stripes, shark-like gill vents, chrome sill and arch trim and bonnet scoops and they weren’t exactly stealth machines. Fearing that the stripes were too much, the option was given to order the cars without stripes but in reality it seems that most GTS or SS owners liked a bit of a show with the go, staying with the decals.
Peering over the 3-spoke sports steering wheel your eyes follow the black bonnet lines, egging you on to chase the horizon. The seating, although regarded as buckets back in the day, offer very little side support and padded squab puts you high up in the car. Blip the throttle and the car rocks side to side. Gauges are well laid out with the massive circular tachometer and speedo dominating a wood-look facia. Hook a gear and the GMs will comfortably trundle off the line without even breathing on the loud pedal. Steering in this Monaro was not power-assisted and after an arm-aching 3-point turn it became clear as to why the high-specced SS received power-assistance.
Once on the straight and narrow a stab on the gas results in a glorious exhaust bark and squeal from the rear tyres. Automatic gear ratios make initial acceleration a touch slower than you’d expect from vehicles with such cubic capacity under the hood but once up and running the pair pull incredibly strongly. Overtaking ability is at the sharp end of the ‘70s car spectrum and at almost any speed kickdown is not needed for overtaking. Stopping power is not half bad either thanks to servo-assisted discs at the front and 10-inch drums at the rear.
More impressive, or perhaps defying the predetermined idea of all big V8 machines being boat-like, is the steering response and directness. With 3.5 turns lock to lock relatively small movements get a reaction at the front wheels, which also results in decent high speed stability – crucial for those cross-Karroo blasts. Ride across the vast expanses would be comfortable too with decent firmness achieved without being harsh or choppy. Standard setup is an independent coil guise at the front and 3-blade leaf with live axle at the rear. Although we didn’t have a Jurgens to hitch up and tow test this time around, loading the boots with weight showed that the suspension would be well up to the task when pulling a few kilograms. And these extra kilograms may well need to be a fuel bowser as in the pre-oil crisis days of the early 1970s it seems General Motors was not afraid to drink petrol. On open roads at 60km/h the 5-litre gulped gas at 11 litres per 100km. Double the speed to 120 and the consumption figure bolted to 16ℓ/100km. With a 75 litre tank that would be good for a 468km trip. Prod the gas pedal a few times for a laugh and you’d be beached between garages.
In 1971 a 5-litre automatic Monaro GTS would set you back R4 036 (R3 842 for a manual) while in 5.74-litre format you’d need to cough up R4 764 for the auto. Ford’s Fairmont GT beat the GM price coming in at R3 989 for an auto and R3 167 for manual. You are either a Ford fan or a GM fan so making a decision as to whether the Fairmont is better or worse than the Monaro/SS is one point that could be dangerous to discuss here and therefore not worth making. Two facts are worth mentioning though. The first is that the Holden Monaro GTS and Chevrolet SS are well worth the legendary classic status. The second is that they are so good, and so iconic, that the Australians want them back to belt the Fords around town and up and in historic races so the rate of export is high. The words from Men at Work’s 1981 hit song Down Under keep ringing as I cross my fingers and hope that we in SA hold on tight to our General Motors SA classics.
Do you come from a land down under? / Where women glow and men plunder? / Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder? / You better run, you better take cover.