COAL: 1979 Chevrolet Malibu – A Lifetime of Memories


(please welcome our newest COAL series contributor, Chris M. This is a wonderful start.  PN)      I have a confession to make. I’m one of those people. The kind that some other car people disdain. You see, I have a non-running car. I’ve had this car for a long time, and it hasn’t run in a long time. I keep saying I’ll fix it up one day, but that day hasn’t come yet. And, no, I won’t sell it. So it sits quietly under a car cover, awaiting resurrection. Fifteen years since it last moved under its own power. But the ties that bind me to this car are strong, forged over 35 years. So this is my confession, and the story of my 1979 Malibu.

It started out in 1979 when Dan Violante needed a new car. I wasn’t around yet, then. But my grandfather Dan was, and his search took him to Traders Chevrolet in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. He was doing well financially, but having grown up poor in the Great Depression, he was thrifty. So a Chevrolet was quite good enough. And not a Caprice or the fancier Malibu Classic, but a base Malibu 4-door sedan. But the standard specs were solid, plus he specified an automatic transmission (though finding one with the ostensibly standard 3-speed column shift wasn’t common). Air conditioning, an essential in North Carolina summers. Perhaps most importantly the V6 engines were passed over for a proper V8. This being the malaise era, the 4.4 Liter (267 cubic inch) V8 delivered all of 125 horsepower. Maybe proper is an overstatement, but I digress. This Malibu, in yellow beige over camel sport cloth, came home to take up residence in Grandpa’s driveway. I came along a year later, in 1980.


Me, Grandpa, and the Malibu, circa 1982.

And for the next 6 years, it lived an uneventful life in Grandpa Dan’s care. Sometime in early ’86, however, he decided it was again time for a new car, and a smaller one. And so, the Malibu was replaced by an ’86 Plymouth Reliant in almost the same yellow beige. To be traded in on a K-car would have been a slap in the face to any good RWD Detroit sedan…but it wasn’t traded. Instead, typical to his character, Grandpa decided on generosity instead over profit, and gave the Malibu to Mom. We weren’t in the best financial situation at that point, and the ’68 Impala Mom had been driving had expired in early 1984. So it gave us a second car again, and the Malibu passed down a generation, from Grandpa to Mom, and became our family car of the rest of my childhood.

Probably 75% of my childhood memories involving a car involve this Malibu. Dad had several other cars, but Mom drove the Malibu for 10 years as our workhorse. It took us to New Jersey and Virginia to visit family, to Myrtle Beach every summer for vacation, and everywhere else. And with more hours of rear seat time in that car than I could possibly count, I believe I’m qualified to offer a word about the A/G-body sedans’ most infamous feature–the fixed rear windows. Two words, actually: Air Conditioning. Despite the car’s prodigious appetite for compressors (it went through one every couple years) my folks kept the A/C functional. And, it made the fixed windows a total non-issue. The flip-out rear quarter lights helped draw hot air out when starting, and then the A/C took over. If someone was to order one of these cars without A/C, then being trapped back there in summer would be a special kind of hell. But luckily ours had it, and I was a happy kid.

The car changed colors, several times. In winter 1989, Dad had been in a minor accident involving a Rambler (of all things). When that was repaired, it was decided the paint could use a refresh. Showing a lack of judgment, Mom simply declared “blue” and let me pick which shade. Note to parents–giving a 9 year-old control of color choice may result in unintended consequences. The Malibu was duly repainted a shade of blue (“Electric Blue” to be exact) better suited to a compact. But it certainly suited the times.


Dad with the Malibu, 1989.  One of the few pictures which survives from the “Electric Blue Era.”

That paint job looked like crap a few years later, so the car was repainted again in 1992, a more dignified dark metallic blue. Also my call, but I had evidently developed a sense of taste by that time. And again in 1995, dark blue but going to a specific shade, 1992 Cadillac “Black Sapphire”. In 1997, Dad had taken the car for the day, and someone hit him exiting a parking lot, damaging the front fender. The insurance company wanted to total the car and pay us all of $250. Um…no. It was worth more than that and we weren’t giving it up.

A battle with the insurance company ensued, and finally they agreed to give us $900 and we kept the car. While in the shop, it was repainted. Same color, or so I thought, until I saw the car afterward. It was dark blue, but the wrong dark blue. Back to the paint shop, argue, compare color chip to finished product, check original order, their mistake. So it was resprayed for the second time in a month. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s five repaints. And the underside of the trunk is still yellow beige to this day.

In September 1995, I turned 15, and acquired my learner’s permit. Most of my learning came behind the wheel of the Malibu. And as my 16th birthday approached, discussion turned to my future ride. While a large Malaise sedan wasn’t what most kids imagined as their first set of wheels, my choice was made. One small problem—I didn’t have the money to purchase it from Mom and Dad. However Mom didn’t work at that point, so it was decided that the car would become mine, with the caveat that if she needed it, she could use it. Fair enough, I could tell my friends that I had my own car, key to maintaining one’s status in High School. I even played up the fact that it had a V8, glossing over the lackluster power ratings.

So on September 1, 1996, the Malibu passed down another generation, and the car became mine. Did I proceed to have great adventures? Not really. I wasn’t lucky with the ladies, and while I did spend plenty of time with friends, rather than road trips and shenanigans my main focus was school. I wanted to get out of Greensboro, which meant getting a scholarship so I could afford to live away from home. So I spent a significant amount of time buried in the books. Nonetheless, driving was still a feeling of freedom, and I’d take any excuse to go for a spin.

The car-sharing setup wasn’t a burden, and the next summer, another car was purchased for Mom. I did do my share of irresponsible teenage driving; got pulled over a few times but avoided tickets by dumb luck…one minor accident, no damage. I had planned a number of upgrades—engine work, dual exhaust, bigger wheels/tires, stereo, the usual stuff. Problem is, most of my money paid for guitar equipment (my other passion at the time) and for gas. So the only one that ever happened was the stereo. My parents had gifted me a Pioneer cassette deck and speakers when they gave me the car, and as an early graduation gift, I upgraded to an Alpine CD unit.  However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself as that almost didn’t happen.


Very nearly my second COAL.  

Once it was clear that I was going away to school in Raleigh, 90 miles away, we decided I should seek more reliable transportation. The Malibu never once left me stranded on the road, but it had on more than a few occasions failed to start in the morning, and it was getting rather old. I had no intention of giving the car up, but Dad agreed to drive it while I was away at school since he could drive Mom’s car to work if it decided not to start. I saved up $900, the parents matched, and went shopping. We ended up with an ’84 Honda Accord LX sedan, white over blue, 4-speed. So begins, and ends, my career with a manual-equipped car. I got good enough where I wasn’t a danger to other motorists, but I never loved the car. The Honda was fun to drive despite its small displacement, but I was used to a big V8 cruiser. So the Honda became Dad’s car and the Malibu stayed with me. My contribution properly bought me the Malibu in the end.

That summer I had a full-circle moment. Grandpa Dan still lived nearby, but had started to show signs of cognitive decline and had surrendered his driver’s license the previous year. We went to play golf several times that summer and I drove. I asked him if he remembered his old car, and while he had some trouble finding the words, it was clear that he did. I wonder if, back when the car was new, he imagined being a passenger in the car 19 years later with his grandson at the wheel? Probably not. But it’s funny how life works out sometimes.

It turned out I wasn’t allowed to have a car on campus as a freshman, so the Malibu stayed back home. I did drive the car to the beach for Spring Break, picking it up in Greensboro and collecting some friends on the way back through Raleigh headed for the beach. Late at night on Highway 17 in Eastern North Carolina, I ended up in what was my only top-speed run and maybe the world’s slowest race–my Malibu versus a 3.0-equipped ’95 Taurus. I had the speedometer needle pegged at the 85 MPH limiter, but sadly I lost. To this day I claim wind resistance played a part.

That summer, I discovered an Interesting Fact: a 267 -powered Malibu will do 75 MPH in second gear flat out. The transmission inexplicably stopped shifting into 3rd for a while, but it actually didn’t seem to mind 55 in second. Enough to get me to work. Towards the end of the summer, it started picking up 3rd again. Weird problem, never did figure it out, but perhaps it presaged future problems?


Surprisingly, the only interior image I can find.

I moved off campus for sophomore year, so I brought the Malibu along. And before too long the car acquired a nickname from my friends. They called it Fireball–not because it went like a ball of fire, but because they were sure that I would die in a ball of fire after driving off the road and over a cliff. Maybe I was a bit of a scary driver? My wife might still claim that I am. Oh well…not like there are many cliffs in central NC anyway. Plus I only had one working seat belt in back… As the car passed 21 years, minor problems did occur with some regularity. But I’d decided I was in it for the long haul, and would drive it until I couldn’t anymore, then set it aside for restoration.

Ever have one of those spooky coincidences? Back home for Christmas in 2000, opening presents, I found one tucked into the branches at the back of the tree. It was a Hot Wheels Corvette, and taped to the back of the package was a $500 check with the memo line “New Car Fund”. Evidently the parents wanted me to start saving for something newer and more reliable before it became immediately necessary. A very nice gift, and it seemed like a good idea. So on the 2nd of January 2001, I went out to start the Malibu, and it caught briefly and then immediately died with a rattle. After that, nothing. Had it towed to our longtime mechanic, and he reported that the timing chain had broken. 174,000 miles, 21 years. Game over. Maybe the car knew that it was going to be replaced? I have a way of personifying inanimate objects, and it almost seemed like it was giving me a reproachful look as I left to return to Raleigh.


The beginning of retirement…

The last day of 2000 was the last day the Malibu ever ran under its own power. But I had always planned to restore it, so it was a temporary setback rather than an end. Just leave it in the driveway of my parents’ house, drop a car cover on it, and come back and fetch it in a few years when I had time and space to work on it. Then, life happened. Years passed. I graduated and found work, but had no space as I lived in a series of apartments with one parking spot. More years passed. I met my future wife, and in time she accepted that the car and I were a package deal. We moved into a rental house with a garage, and I had the space. Then budget cuts claimed my job, and I took a substantial pay cut. There went the budget. More years passed. We moved to Richmond, into an apartment that had no parking whatsoever except for street spaces. Finally this summer, we bought a house. And while it doesn’t have a garage, it does have a long driveway, a fence, and no HOA. I have the space, and once we get done furnishing the house, I should have the funds as well.


Circa 2011, the most recent photos I have.

Plans? Oh, I still have those. Given the reputation of the 267, it’ll be going—a 350 will bolt right up. Depending on what the transmission is (not sure if it’s a TH200 or a TH350) that might need replacing too. Otherwise? Replace wear items, and see what else it needs to run again. Paint can wait. The interior is a mess with the GM Vari-Fade™ plastics, plus worn seat fabric. It can wait too. I just want to get it running, get behind the wheel again, get it back on the road. And prove wrong all the doubters.

My biggest concern, on the other hand? Rust. There is damage around the rear windshield, which is troubling. The rear passenger door is in bad shape internally; it took in water through bad weatherstripping for years, and under cornering, you could sometimes hear it sloshing as the drain holes would fill with crud. But otherwise there’s nothing visible. North Carolina doesn’t use a lot of salt on the roads due to mild winters, so I’m hoping the frame isn’t hiding advanced cancer. Every time I’m back in Greensboro, I run my hand along the car’s fender as I pass it in the driveway. Reassuring to me, and maybe to the car too? 36 years and still here.


The once and future Malibu.

And so ends my confession, the object of great and neglect still under a car cover in Greensboro, 214 miles away. But there is more hope now than there has been in some time; hope to atone for my sins. Hope to finish what I started. Hope to put Grandpa’s car, my first car, back on the road again. Penance will be served with a wrench in my hand.