MPC 1/25 1978 Monza S (Chevy Sportback) (OOB)

Even before the oil crisis in 1973, there had been a move towards small cars. It wasn’t a big move, but the Big 2.5 (Chrysler didn’t care, and AMC was still alive so we’ll give them a half point.) saw that the need for smaller cars was coming, and began working to erode the invasion of European and Japanese competition in this increasingly hotly-contested segment.

The results are legendary. New nameplates were added at all the participating companies; nameplates whose passion for quality, innovation, efficiency and style would forever change how Americans bought small cars. Names like Pinto and Vega and Gremlin… names that would shake the world, or blow it up, or cause it to seize up/melt down. Okay, so you know what, sometimes it’s hard to change your ways in one shot. Sometimes you’ve gotta work out the bugs. Sometimes, you just have to start over.

By the time the ’73 gas crunch was over and the innate lack of quality and value-for-money of these American compacts had begun to be experienced, things got really bad. The Automotive Dark Ages began, and all form of fun, performance and enjoyment was systematically drained from the cars being produced. What was left behind was a teeming mass scuttling econoboxes, wheezing their “lean-burning” unibody shells around ever more bleak commutes. Even though the Japanese were now clearly entrenched in the market, the American makers could do little but soldier on.

Still, despite the ever tightening emissions restrictions, the increasingly invasive government safety mandates and the skyrocketing fuel prices (Sound familiar, 2022??) people, a lot of people, still wanted to support the home team. But they wanted something new, something that delivered at least the promise of something hopeful. The people knew that the days of the muscle car would likely never return, but they at least wanted to drive something that looked unlike a household appliance. Style would have to suffice for substance, and that’s where the Monza came in.

GM created the Monza to replace the Vega, even though the Vega was produced for several years in tandem with it. When the Monza debuted in ’75, it at least had a sporty looking 2+2 fastback that made stodgier versions look like they were standing still. You could get a V8, and with spoilers, decals and fancy wheels, a Monza could at least pretend to want to pretend to have power. However, if it’s one thing GM knows, it’s how to save a buck. That’s how they survived so many decades of mismanagement, after all!

So, when the Vega was finally put out to pasture (sorry, discontinued) in 1977, Chevy had a conundrum. It seems they had a bunch of left over Vega parts and didn’t know what to do with them. What better way to emphasize Monza’s distinctness from the Vega than to use these left over Vegas as Monzas, right? Heck, badge-engineering is the very life-blood of GM, and it isn’t like watering one line down with another could hurt sales, right?

Thus was born the “Monza S”. This was the 1978 Monza hatchback “price leader”, and it was just a Vega hatchback with a new Monza sedan front end grafted on. They didn’t want to use the 2+2 front, because that would have stolen sales from that model, so they went with the plain-Jane nose instead. You could actually get a Monza/Vega wagon, too (the only way to get a Monza wagon, actually)! However, just like day-olds on a bakery’s clearance shelf, or mom’s “famous” leftover-casserole, the Monza S wasn’t a leader at anything, other than sucking. (Is that what the “S” is really for?) It sold miserably, with only something on the order of a couple of thousand leaving the lines. Maybe that’s all they had parts for? Regardless, people were done with the Vega, and even a nose job didn’t help it, it seems.

Now, if there’s one company that understood stretching styling and product as much as GM, it was MPC! Long the producer of many “annual” promo-based model kits, the MPC Corp was no stranger to tweaking a mould to get another year out of it. Sure, maybe it meant the product wasn’t quite right (see the 1978 Pacer X), but until the dust settled hungry modellers wouldn’t know the difference anyway, right? So, I can only imagine the glee in MPC’s engineering department whey they saw the Monza S. Here, then, was a way for them to stretch their Vega-investment too! They could retool their 1977 Vega hatchback annual (A kit I simply must get one day!) for at least another year, just by slapping on a new Monza nose. That would give them TWO flavours of Monzas on sale at once. (Check out the Monza Parts Comparison for the other flavour!)

So, in a way, MPC made one of the most realistic model kits of all times by simply, and shamelessly, reusing old parts and putting lipstick on the pig. It seems, though, they didn’t quite know what to call the car, so they simply went with the generic “Chevy Sportback” as the kit’s name. It’s not right, but it’s not wrong, and it was ready for market, so hey, can’t fault them for that.

The thing is, though, that this kit seems to be very hard to get. I’ve long wanted one, but have never seen one in the flesh. Enter, once again, my supremely resourceful brother who gave me one as a present a couple of years ago. It turns out that this kit is so rare, he had to get it from a guy in Japan! Thus, this kit has literally gone halfway around the world, and then had to come back, just to make it into my collection. You want to talk about “globe-trotting”? I doubt there’s a real Monza S out there still running with that many miles on it!

So, let’s take a look at this most elusive chimera, shall we, and see what I’ve been missing all this time?!

The Box:

The box is straight out of the MPC late-‘70s playbook. You’ve got the white background, black pinstripe border and blocky writing at the top left. This era of MPCs is not as engaging or as visceral as later years, like those into the ‘80s. However, while this box doesn’t exactly grab you by the eyeballs with flash, there is a lot of interesting stuff going on!

First, and foremost, is the GIANT Monza S street machine on the front of the box. This punches you in the porn-stache with everything a good ‘70s street machine or drag racer (what they say it is) needs. It’s got a gigantic, completely ridiculous hood scoop, giant side pipes and 5-spoke mags. It also has a lip spoiler on the trunk, and hood pins near the cowl. Why near the cowl? Don’t forget, these were re-used Vegas, so the hoods open forwards, unlike on other “legit” Monza variants!

Lookin’ as fresh as that tangy, month-old lettuce in your fridge, the Monza S brings all the ’70s street raching tricks to the table; add “sunset stripes” and you’ve got yourself one mean(?) machine!

The most important feature of this custom though, is the paint. It is, to my delight, done in the most ‘70s and ‘80s of all possible schemes: Sunset Stripes!! You can’t tell if it’s a Tonka van or a Hot Wheels when you put the red/orange/yellow stripes on something, and you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way! I love black with sunset stripes, and I clearly like black cars with red interiors (see Faust for details), so this little wheezer trying to be all that and more is just too great. I also love that the car is on there so big that it actually doesn’t quite fit on the cover!

Up in the top right is the usual minimal-effort build of the “Stock” version. Not sure why MPC decided not to do more work to make the stock version look less like a promo and more like a kit worth building, but the custom version was always their thing, it seems. I mean, they didn’t even paint the back up lights or door handles on the stock one. I guess if GM doesn’t care about just shrugging out the leftovers, then neither did MPC.

For anyone lucky enough to have the ’77 Vega, the custom parts will be completely recognizable, as this kit is indeed just the previous one with the new nose. Every single piece looks like it was reused, making the nose of this kit the only really rare thing about it. However, just like the real car, that likely contributes to its scarcity. Oh, I love that the illustration is a “photo of a painted prototype model”. Good thing for creative airbrush work, is all I can say!

If you want to see all the boffo accessories that your Monza S comes with, turn to the side, where you’ll see a rear three-quarters view of both Drag and Stock versions asl well as a list and illustrations of the custom goodies. There’s even a list of all the MPC kits for ’78 that you have to collect. I know I want them all, even though I have a couple already!  Most importantly, this kit comes with two engines, one dual-carb V8 for non-suckage, and one “stock engine” for maximum Malaise Era wheezability!

That’s right, you get the legendary IRON DUKE included with this kit! Its 151 cubes cranking out 85hp/123 lb.ft of torque will not only barely warm tires, it’ll also not pull stumps! Equipped with a two-barrel carb, this is the epitome of Dark Ages propulsion! Why anyone would think to equip this kit with any other motor is beyond my comprehension. The mighty Duke is so loved and admired that it’s even cast in chrome. BEHOLD ITS AWESOMENESS!

No windows in the models, no effort in the stock version, but man, check that chromed I4! MPC knew what turned the kids on!

What gets me is the two built models shown. The “no figs given” approach to the stock version build is as apparent as the tail sticking through a Smurf’s pants!  It looks just like a blue promo, and I can’t help but wonder if it is indeed the ’77 Vega promo just shot from the back. It would explain the single colour in and out, the lack of back-up lights, chrome and any other detailing. Also, is it me, or do neither of those cars look like they have windows?

The Kit:

Inside the box is more typical MPC; meaning it’s a bag of car all put together, even if not done so with any great care or forethought. Once the parts are out of the bag, you can identify about 6 racks, although numerous pieces had fallen off by this point. The kit is moulded in white, although it’s a ‘70s white, so it’s a bit creamier than the new, almost purple-white stuff we seen in Round 2 reissues.

A bit disorganized, like all MPC kits, the Sportback is really a fairly basic kit. Check those nice, non-tire-melted windows!

The detail on this one is not as good as on some other MPCs, specifically their ‘80s kits. Not only that, but it’s pretty obvious that this is sourced from a promo. How can I tell? Well, the best place to start is the interior bucket, which is entirely assembled in the box. That’s right! All the seats, door panels, etc. are all moulded together as a single unit. This is something you see on promos, but not usually model kits. This is going to make accurate painting and detailing fairly difficult. Add to that the seating pattern isn’t right for any variant of Monza that I can find, and you’ve already gotten yourself in a heap of trouble trying to get this thing looking authentic.

Often, MPC interiors offer excellent detail and texturing. Sadly, the Monza S interior isn’t overly accurate, and painting it nicely is going to be a pain with the seats moulded in!

The patterning on the seats, the matting in the trunk area and the carpet all look decent, if not correct, and they’ll likely take to washes and the like well, but making them look right will be a bit of a challenge. The only Monza S I have been able to find online looks to have the one-up-from-base-model “sport cloth” interior, with two-tone beige seats, and they don’t look like this model at all. Chassis detail is similarly “moulded together” with nearly everything that goes on a chassis being moulded in to the bottom pan of the car. A lot of work is going to be needed to detail the exhaust and driveline/suspension. Will it be worth it? That’s for the modeller to decide… (Note: The answer is “Duh! Of course it’s worth it – this is a Monza S!”)

The chassis has everything moulded in, and the suspension is quite crude. Yes, that is a “perforated” line near the transmission hump; you cut that out for the V8. I think I’ll have to apply some plastic behind it to be sure it doesn’t come out accidentally!

The chassis shows further the kit’s promo origins, with two large (and unusual) snap clips that hold the chassis and the body together. I have to say I LIKE this idea, and wish more US companies did it that way. The clips are also used as bumper hangers for the rear bumper so they do double duty. The good thing is that the car should have good positive location in final assembly. The bad news is that once the bumper’s on, you can’t get it back apart again. Oh, and did you want suspension detail? Well too bad. That’s not what this kit is about, so paint your subframes black and call it a day. That’s all you can do.

One particularly odd piece of extra work that MPC did was to get the “Monza” script on the front fenders. This is on the one extant Monza S I’ve seen, and I’m really blown away that MPC bothered. Interestingly enough, there’s also a second badge, right above the front side signal light. This one, while it’s hard to see, says “V8 5.0 Litre”. Firstly, I’m always amazed when the US companies spell “Litre” correctly. Thank goodness they were trying to be all “Euro” with it. Secondly, No. This badge will be sanded off, since I’m going to be using my Duke/140 in here. I don’t even know if you could GET the V8 in this car! Why? Well, the Vega only ever came with some flavour of I4, so I doubt GM was going to re-engineer the leftovers to take the “bigger” Monza V6s and V8s.

Gotta give MPC some credit; they did bother to put the “Monza” writing on the fender. That other badge, though? That’ll have to go!

The bumpers, like the Iron Duke and the grille, are on the chrome rack. This is typical MPC in that it’s very shiny and bright, but the chrome is on there rather thickly, and the parts need sanding anyway. Thus, everything will likely be easier to handle once it is stripped and rechromed. One thing that’s odd, and wrong about the kit, is the lack of bumper guards and an obvious rub-strip on the bumpers. Even the price-leading Monza S had the black bumper trim. This will have to be painted on by hand.

The most confusing point for me is the grille. In the (one and only) catalogue shot for the Monza S, it is show with no turn signal indicators in the grille. The one photo of the one Monza S I can find online makes it look like it doesn’t’ have them. Thankfully, though, www.thetruthaboutcars.com had a feature on one of these FrankenVega wagons, and the lights are indeed present. This is good, because they are moulded into the grille on the kit.

The chrome rack is extensive, and the Iron Duke looks utterly inappropriate when plated. No, I don’t know why the mag wheels have 5 bolts when a Vega/Monza only has 4 per wheel, thanks for asking!

It’s hard to tell, with all that chrome on there, how textured the engine is. Usually MPC is pretty good for that, so I’m crossing my fingers that this mill will carry on the tradition. You get six tires; four normals and two bigger drag slicks, and they’re all lettered. They look nice, and while they’re inappropriate for a car at this level, I’ll likely end up lettering them anyway. The “S” should have white-stripe tires, if you read the brochure. Thankfully, the glass on my example looks fantastic – I managed to avoid “tire melt”!

Both kinds of tires are nicely lettered. Gotta love old kits for that!

Instructions and Decals:

The instructions are exactly what you’d expect from MPC, and in this case, that’s good and bad. Why? Well, they’re good because they’re fairly simple and relatively clear. They’re also not very large, which means they fit on your modelling bench easily enough!  

At various points, we are faced with a number of options, and the instructions clearly point out what must be done to fit either the V8 or the I4. This includes a different firewall and cutting out part of the chassis to make the transmission hump fit. I wonder if they had to do that on the real car? Hmmm… Anyone out there who knows, leave a message about it! There are also wheel position options; the fronts can be lowered for racing, which, with the larger back tires, should give the little hatchback a pretty aggressive stance!                                                                                                                                                                            The problems with the instructions, begin on step 1, and that’s calling out the engine as a 140 Cid motor. Why would they do that? Because that’s what it is… er, was. The Vega used the legendary 140 Cid I4 until it died, but by 1978, the Monza’s smallest engine was the Iron Duke. Of course, since this is based on the Vega annual, the engine is that which came with the Vega, namely the 140. Thankfully, I don’t really care, and I’m going to paint the engine blue and let people decide if it’s the Duke or the 140. In this case, I’m not particularly invested in supreme accuracy; so long as it’s a four, it’ll get the cheap sadness of Malaise Era motoring across just fine.

This is the one side of the instructions. See that 140 Cid callout in Step 2a? Seems like there’s more layers to this “left over” econobeater than we thought, eh?

Interestingly, the drawing of the “V8 Engine” in Step 5 looks like it has a blower on the top. The reason for that is that this was something available in the ’75 and ’76 (and maybe earlier?) kits, and they didn’t check the instructions and update them. Of course, it could be that they couldn’t be bothered to, as well.

Blow me! Okay, says the engine in Step 5’s “V8” section. Oh, wait, that’s not in this kit? Oh well, nevermind.

The decals are awesome! They look like what you see on the box, which means lots of Sunset Stripey goodness! There are also some racing credits and some white and clear “Chevy” decals that I assume are for the windows, but I could be mistaken there. The decals aren’t in bad shape, given the age of the kit, and they look nice and in-register. Like Gold Rush’s decals, I’d be afraid of them breaking up, so I’ll hit them with the Testors decal bonder spray, and see how they do. That assumes I even use any of them, since I’m sure I’ll do this relic bone-stock.

Sunset-o-rama!! The decals are bright and look like they’re in good shape. They’d look sharp on the car, but sadly, there’s no place for them on the stock version of the Monza S.

Conclusions:

The Vega was an important, if not imperfect, first step on the long and painful road to producing decent small cars in North America. The advent of the Monza was supposed herald a turning of the corner, a new branch on the tree, so to speak. However, like all evolutions, there’s usually a missing link somewhere, and in this case it’s the FrankenVega known as the Monza S.

As far as kits go, this isn’t the best one I’ve seen. It’s generally inaccurate in terms of both interior and engine detail, and even things like the bumper rub strips are wrong. These kids of things are the result of trying to get “one more go” out of something that was “done” a few iterations before. The kit is also over-simplified in ways that make it difficult to build well, like the moulded-in seats in the interior and the moulded in exhaust and suspension.

The kit is likely simple enough for those with little automotive experience, and as a custom, the inadequacies in terms of accuracy can be easily overlooked. Thus, if you wanted to hot rod it, then this kit really isn’t too bad. However, if you really want a customized Monza S, you’re better off finding the “Twister Vega” kit, which, according to what I’ve seen online, uses the Monza S body but cannot be build stock.

So, while it might work okay for someone who’s not overly experienced, the very high cost and low availability of the kit precludes its use for such purposes. Rather, this is a kit that only dedicated builders and collectors will even have access to, and I can’t see the purpose in glue-bombing a valuable kit. Thus, the model of the “Chevy Sportback”, the only way to build a stock Monza S, is something only for those with the skills and resources to spend on it.

With awkward styling and gaudy custom options, the Monza S really lets you know what decade it came from. The “left over” nature of the real car is adequately represented by the model, which is largely and appropriately inadequate in many ways.

Do I love it? You bet your butt! Should you build one? Sure, if you can find it. If you want a super-accurate representation of the Last Vega, then you should likely go elsewhere. But, if you’re happy enough with a kit that tries just as hard as the subject it represents, then be sure to invest in one when you can!

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