I have a 1988 Monte Carlo. I want to improve the stance and handling, and perhaps even do something to improve braking. I don’t want to build a race car but I would like to make this beast handle a little better. Right now it leans heavily into the corners and plows when you drive it hard into a turn. Thanks.

T. W.

Jeff Smith: This sounds like a fun project. You will feel the results of your changes every time you drive the car. We’ll assume the car is stock right now and further assume the shocks are leaking and likely near dead.

The initial pieces to consider will be the shocks, a larger sway bar, a solid rebuild of the upper and lower control arm bushings and ball joints, and a new set of brake pads and perhaps rotors if yours are past their prime. The final piece of the puzzle will be a good alignment with some custom specs.

The beauty of this approach is that you can perform these upgrades individually as your budget allows, or create a package and do it all at once–which will really make an impression the first time you drive the car!

The first step would be to rebuild your existing control arms with new ball joints and new bushings. Before you start, take a look at your existing alignment shims. Is there a thick pack of shims between the frame and the upper control arm shaft on both ends? If so, it’s possible the frame has sagged and the shims were the “fix” the last alignment shop did to bring the camber into spec. This is not uncommon with G-bodies, especially those with lots of miles on the clock. Remember, these cars are well past 30 years old.

If the car has a big pack of shims, this is a major clue that you could use a set of high performance, offset upper control arm shafts. These shafts offset the upper control arm outward to compensate for this sagging issue. Global West is one company that makes them but there are others. Also make sure to purchase quality ball joints and bushings. Global West makes a high quality Del-A-Lum bushing that not only reduces deflection compared to rubber bushings, they also have a million-mile warranty. If you intend on putting miles on your Monte, these are a good investment.

One item that is definitely worth the investment is a set of shocks. There are probably a dozen companies offering a performance shock for your car. A set of non-adjustable shocks like those from QA1 or Bilstein will provide a handling improvement along with good ride quality. We’ve included their PN’s in the parts list below. If you are considering an adjustable shock, Ride Tech, QA1, and Viking all offer adjustable shocks that have a great reputation for quality and performance.

Here’s a little tip worth investigating. Shocks for early Camaros will bolt into your generation Monte Carlo. So if a Pro Touring buddy is upgrading his shocks, you might be able to score his take-offs–especially if they are adjustables.

Another major improvement that will seriously reduce that front-end “push” you described is a larger front sway bar. The stock non-F41 Monte Carlo bar is just a touch under an inch in diameter. The SS cars got a larger 1.25 inch front bar. A larger bar acts like a torsion bar between the two independent front spindles. Let’s say you are entering a right-hand turn. As the car approaches the middle of the turn, the body will experience a weight transfer to the left side of the car and lean. A larger front bar will reduce this tendency and improve handling.

Stiffer front springs will also help with this approach. Many enthusiasts think that a stiffer spring will automatically make their car ride like a lumber truck, but the reality is that shock valving has a much greater impact on ride quality than spring rates. This means you can make a modest increase in front spring rate to improve handling without sacrificing ride. Of course, this is where an adjustable shock absorber can also make a difference.

Moving now to the rear of the car, a combination of a rear sway bar and tubular lower control arms can make a substantial difference. Stock suspensions are designed to understeer when pushed hard into a corner. Adding a rear sway bar will stiffen the rear suspension, which can reduce the potential for understeer, which essentially balances the car front to rear. Once you get the front suspension working properly, you may find that softening the rear suspension will improve handling even more.

Tubular lower control arms provide a firm foundation for the rear axle. Tight rear tire clearances are possible because the tubular control arms are stiff enough to minimize body movement over the rear axle.

You also mentioned that you’d like to improve the Monte’s braking efficiency. This really gets into a whole different story that offers a ton of options. For a simple upgrade over stock brakes, consider going to a set of performance brake pads and perhaps new rotors. There are plenty of high performance pad manufacturers out there and most offer some great products. We’ve had personal experience with EBC YellowStuff pads on two different vehicles. They work very well, are not noisy, and don’t produce excessive brake dust during daily driving. We’ve included the YellowStuff part number for your car in the parts list.

The stock alignment specs are not going to help handling, so seek out an alignment shop that will allow you to set the specifications. Many shops only do what their machine tells them. These are shops to avoid as they often don’t even know how each of these specs affect handling and tire wear.

Once you’ve found a shop that will set the alignment to your specs, tell them you want a minimum of 3 to as much as 5 degrees of positive caster on both sides. This creates high speed stability. Camber is the tilt of the top ball joint as viewed from the front of the car. Negative camber tilts the top of the tire inward while positive camber tilts it outward. A good street camber setting is 0.5 degrees negative.  This improves front end grip without sacrificing tire wear. Toe-in should be a total of 1/16 inch, or 1/32 inch per side. Sometimes shops will deliver this spec in terms of degrees instead of as a linear figure. Toe-in in degrees varies with tire diameter and it gets a little complicated. Ask them if they can convert that number to a decimal. For example, 1/16 inch total toe-in would be 0.0625 inch.

This should put you on the road with a far better handling Monte. A good set of performance tires will really wake up the car’s handling, but we’ll save that discussion for another time as that gets long winded.

Parts List

These are just some of the potential choices for parts. You can also do your own research to find similar parts from other brands.

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Author: Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith has had a passion for cars since he began working at his grandfather's gas station at the age 10. After graduating from Iowa State University with a journalism degree in 1978, he combined his two passions: cars and writing. Smith began writing for Car Craft magazine in 1979 and became editor in 1984. In 1987, he assumed the role of editor for Hot Rod magazine before returning to his first love of writing technical stories. Since 2003, Jeff has held various positions at Car Craft (including editor), has written books on small block Chevy performance, and even cultivated an impressive collection of 1965 and 1966 Chevelles. Now he serves as a regular contributor to OnAllCylinders.