State Street in downtown Chicago’s Loop District has been a treasure trove of rolling, CC-worthy Detroit iron in the ten-plus years I’ve lived here. When winter’s thaw is fully underway (by April), a lot of cool cars come out of hiding. This ’78 Malibu Classic caught me off guard as it passed me as I was walking northbound, but heavy traffic and my quick reflexes allowed me a few, usable frames of it. Its condition may not have been even close to pristine, but my gosh – it just looked so good for a car that was once such a familiar sight.
I’m using the term “coupe” loosely instead of “two-door sedan” in following with GM’s own terminology (all two-door Malibus were “Sport Coupes”). Both the two- and four-door models also shared the same 108.1″ wheelbase, and there wasn’t a whole lot of differentiation between the basic outline of the rooflines of those two bodystyles. I’m calling this one a “coupe” simply because it looked much sportier than most proper two-door sedans I can think of, and also because it just looked so darned fine. This is one coupe that, in a perfect world, should have been a hardtop. In my mind, aesthetically, it was a completely modernized-for-the-late-70’s update of the original, linear, 1964 – ’65 Chevelle, emulating the earlier car’s clean, purposeful lines. That the ’78 Malibu’s basic styling was unadorned was one of its strengths and not a liability.
This newly-downsized Malibu coupe was “Sarah, plain and tall”, with a trim figure, decent face (even if it wasn’t the most memorable), pleasingly smooth sides, a nice rear, and a simple, honest, wholesome, down-to-Earth style. She may not have turned as many heads as some other cars of her era when new, but she certainly did right by her “Malibu” moniker. And also, like the ad copy stated, she was as American as “apple pie”. Instant likeability.
Across from the Malibu coupe in Chevrolet’s new-car showrooms sat her cosmetically-enhanced, A-Body sister, the ’78 Monte Carlo. With her voluptuous hips (thank you, Paul Niedermeyer, for that unforgettable imagery), exaggerated pucker (the neoclassic grille up front), and more-upright rear backlight, “Ms. Carlo” was just putting it all out there, screaming for attention, next to her quieter sister. And the boys (all of America, actually) came in droves and took Ms. Carlo home, to the tune of about 358,000 units for 1978. I found it interesting that the Malibu also sold about 358,000 units for ’78, though it did so with two additional body styles (sedan, wagon) contributing to that volume. The coupe accounted for about one-third of total Malibu production that year, with just 117,000 units finding homes.
Nonetheless, I found the most unappealing aspect of the Monte Carlo versus its Malibu platform-mate to be its droopy rear end, especially when viewed in profile. It always looked like it could have benefit from going to the gym and doing lunges. Or by pulling its pants up. Or something. Remember those derrière-flattening, completely unflattering Chic jeans that were so popular with the fairer sex in the late 70’s and early 80’s? The entire rear third of the third-generation Monte Carlo is the automotive embodiment of that look. Wasn’t the car that was more expensive also supposed to be better-looking? (I also found it interesting that the relationship between the attractiveness of this Monte compared with that of the Malibu was inversely proportional to that between the hideous, A-Body Cutlass Salon and the tasteful Cutlass Supreme over at Oldsmobile.)
The two-door version of the 1978 – ’81 Malibu had a somewhat abbreviated run of four, measly model years. However, in its visual simplicity, it succeeded in a way the 1978 – ’80 Monte Carlo (and its successor, the ’82 Celebrity two-door) failed in the Looks Department. The Malibu had the appearance of being healthily American, as if fed on meat and potatoes. It was neither too aggressive nor too weak, with an understated charm and just a touch of sex appeal without being ostentatious. Its style is such that I’ve found myself unwittingly staring at one, realizing it, and confounded as to why I liked it so much. Ultimately, no deep analysis is necessary – its looks just work for me.
Granted, some of the two-tone paint schemes on some models may have been a bit over the top and subsequently haven’t aged well, but this Bu’s bones were good. The market for proper coupes and two-doors in general has all but evaporated, with current offerings being more niche-type vehicles. But as for this dark-red Malibu, it represented – and continues to represent – for all of us introverts, everywhere. Carry on, Sarah.
The ’78 Malibu Classic was photographed by the author on Wednesday, March 2, 2011, with the ’79 Monte Carlo photographed by the author in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois on Thursday, April 7, 2014.