Initially when I was crafting the “Chevrolets of Bewitched” piece a few months back, it was solely to be focused on the 1964-65 Chevelles. I had serious doubts that I’d ever find an actual Malibu convertible on the streets. Never mind a rather unmolested example. But as the story of the Chevelle goes, better late than never.
General Motors, and Chevrolet in particular were finding themselves a little bit off their game in the early 1960s. Cumulatively at the end of each model year, Chevrolet still found itself at the top of the United States Automobile sales chart. But that happened despite quite a few missteps in product planning between 1958 and 1964. From leaving the Corvette to be a two seater, to the Corvair being wildly radical where the Falcon wasn’t, the next misstep was not seeing the nearly three foot gap between the Chevy II/Nova and Corvair and the Impala. Ford saw it, and plopped a re-imagined mid-sized Fairlane in that slot.
Where the Fairlane (and the finally updated Rambler Classic/Ambassador for 1963) stumbled was in image. Although the above ad tries to portray the Fairlane as a rabble rousing go getter that would inspire you to buy driving gloves, other than the Thunderbolt series of Fairlanes all you could get was a Challenger 289 V8 in the new Sports Hardtop Coupe. There was no glamorous Convertible, or real performance option. It was fine with being a Galaxie 500-Lite.
If Chevrolet was gonna be two years late for the party, they were coming out well dressed. Like the Nova before, the Malibu came with a convertible ahead of its Dearborn rival (the Nova also had a hardtop coupe before the Falcon brought out one belatedly in 1963). And as long as you didn’t mind your automatic transmission being flavored in Powerglide, you were faced with a myriad of powertrain choices, from the thrifty 194 Cube 120 horsepower 6 borrowed from the Chevy II line, all the way through a 300 horsepower 327 that became available by mid-season.
What was probably most surprising is that a healthy number of the top-of-the-line SS trimmed Malibu (approximately 76,000) went out the door the first season. The closest comparable Fairlane, the 500 Sports Coupe, could only dream of bringing in that kind of sales traffic.
You can’t discount the slightly subliminal tie-in that the Chevelle/Malibu was a spiritual successor, in size and in boxy handsome looks, to what was in the early 1960s everyone’s favorite used car: the 1955-57 Chevrolet. Many a first time new car buyer finally glad to be able to step out of their used Bel-Air arrived in showrooms to find something with a familiar Chevy Small Block, the sturdy powerglide and something that was remarkably close in size to their beloved, but most likely tired shoebox Chevy.
Dimensionally the only big change would be in height. At 195 inches long on a 115 inch wheelbase, weighing around 3,200 lbs, the Chevelle like a 1957 Bel-Air that traded in a crinoline skirt for an A-frame skirt. Performance was even a pleasant flashback, as a 220 horsepower 283 equipped Malibu SS dashed to 60 in under 10 seconds, like a top of the line 283 equipped tri-five Bel-Air once could. Interior room gave up precious little to the foot and a half longer current Biscayne/Bel-Air/Impala.
Possibly the biggest disappointment with the new Chevelle/Malibu is that it probably didn’t drive all that much better than a 1955 Bel-Air. Numb power steering and soft spring rates meant all the Malibu had over a comparable base Impala of the time was size maneuverability. If you wanted a decent handling version of the all new Malibu, you either had to know your Chevrolet heavy duty spring rates well, or just point yourself to the nearest Oldsmobile dealership for a 4-4-2.
Of course, it wouldn’t be long before the good sensible style thing came to an end. Surprising to me, the 1965 model was actually up a couple of inches in length, and then again for the rebodied 1966 models, then the split wheelbase 1968 models, and then the colossal 1973 Colonnade models. And the American Car market as a whole abandoned the “ideal size with sensible style” part of the market until, well… What would you consider more glamorous?
A Dodge Dart Swinger 2 door Hardtop?
Or a Ford Granada Ghia Coupe?
But for a short period, it paid to be late for Chevrolet. None of their other belated responses resounded so well with the public.