Curbside Classic: 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic – GM’s Deadly Sin #7 – Gluttony

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(first posted on 3/25/2010 at TTAC. New to CC)

You want to know one of the reasons why the Honda Accord took the country by storm in 1976? You’re looking at its ugly face. That grille looks positively unreal, like something cobbled up by a high school shop class with some leftover extruded sheetmetal. And then those stacked rectangular headlights to really set it off. Where were you, Bill Mitchell, when this abomination was approved? Under a drafting table with one of the secretaries? In the Accord CC I said Detroit didn’t just open the portcullis with its obese “mid-sized cars” of the seventies. It actively invited the invasion, and Honda led the charge. Well, here are GM’s gates swung wide open. And the problem wasn’t just the front end, but a face does reveal much of what’s behind it. And this mug wasn’t lying. 

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The 1976 Malibu Classic Coupe was about the same price ($3926 for the six) as the Accord. Given that it weighed almost twice as much, on a price per pound basis, it was a hell of a bargain. In other respects, not so much so. GM’s mega-mid-sized cars of the seventies were the perfect embodiment of why cars like the Accord strated to take the country by storm. The Collonades were longer, wider and heavier than full-sized Chevys not that many years earlier. Their arrival in 1973 on the eve of the energy crisis didn’t help, but it’s not completely fair to say that GM didn’t have any idea which way the wind was blowing. Small cars were already booming, and GM launched its own Vega just two years earlier.

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GM was just following the path of least resistance; to obesity. And boy, did they time it badly. Not only because of the spiraling cost of gas, but also emissions. Tightening standards and lower compression sent performance running of to the hills. The solution? Bigger engines to push fatter cars. The 454 (7.4 liter) big block made all of 235 hp, and was optional in Malibus through the 1975 model. Not that this was an SS or performance model; just something to keep from getting left in the dust. By 1976, the 11 mpg big block was gone; and the biggest gun in the arsenal was the 175hp 400 CI (6.6 liter) that managed maybe 12 mpg. I’ve never seen a six in one of these, and given its 105 hp rating, that was probably a good thing.

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The real shocker was space utilization. These two-ton coupes had little if any advantage over the tiny Accord, save for width. The rear seat was a veritable cave, lacking visibility, light or adequate leg room. And the front seat gave a chance to gaze lovingly on GM’s new-found love of cheap and hard plastics as well as the fauxest wood hydrocarbons ever gave their lives for. And that trunk was as misleading as the opera windows: a remarkably shallow and pathetic affair, given the real estate it occupied.

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Any redeeming qualities? Of the Big Three, only GM really applied itself to the black magic science of handling. Yes, Chrysler products were generally the best handling of the three in the sixties, but for the most part Chrysler thought it best to try to chase GM and Ford in the quest of a quieter and softer ride in the seventies, at the expense of precision. Not that Mopar power steering ever had any. But GM actually decided that what the Europeans had been perfecting for many decades was not really impossible: a compliant ride as well as a modicum of handling control. It started with the new 1970 Camaro; and new front suspension geometry in these intermediates resulted in some perceptible degree of improvement, especially in comparison to the terminally wallowing Fords of the era.

In the standard suspension, the benefits were mostly obliterated by the sheer size and poor structural rigidity of these cars. But with the optional HD or sport package, they could be hustled, if one was so inspired. I know this from first hand experience, from a GM aficionado at the time who ordered his Malibu wagon with every trick in the option book. But how many buyers were so inclined or inspired? Especially so when brisk driving dropped mileage in the single digits. GM’s steering was also the best of Detroit, and the disc brakes inspired a type of confidence that wasn’t there a few years earlier. It was the usual GM personality-disorder issue: engineers capable of almost anything, hamstrung by lousy product planning and the bean counters.

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I realize that GM’s stylists were a bit hampered by the dreadful 5 mph bumper law, but it did go in effect the same year the new Malibu arrived in 1973. So its not like that is an excuse for the Malibu’s pathetic mug. In the first couple of years, if you wanted to fork over some extras bucks, you could get the Laguna, a high-end Malibu with a body-colored Endura nose job. But that wasn’t all too hot either, and faded away in a couple of years.

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This won’t be our last look at these big-boy intermediates. Strangely enough, I sort of found the sedan roof line to be of some visual interest. It at least was a change from the typical sedan lines of the times, and I suspect it looked great when it was first conceived on the drawing board. The Collonade Coupe? Well, everyone who really would have rather bought a Camaro probably loved it.

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In 1973, it was a bit of fresh air, but it quickly lost its appeal, especially when the side panels were closed up in later years like this one, except for those ridiculous gun slits. And some of the Malibu’s corporate cousins at least tried to make their front ends a bit interesting. No effort went into this one, though. And when the enemy is at the door, its a good idea to put your best face forward.

 

Postscript: Undoubtedly this a somewhat questionable/iffy choice for a GM Deadly Sin, as these cars sold well enough and had no egregious faults. But they were disappointments in many ways, most of all the very iffy-to-poor quality (other than the basic drivetrain), had terrible space utilization, and were of course unnecessarily big and heavy. As such, they were the wrong car for the times, although once the first energy crisis abated, they sold well enough. But GM showed it was once again out of step with the times, and the next generation was a drastic change and step in the right direction. Although many undoubtedly gave decent service to their owners, it was a dinosaur from the day it arrived, and likely turned many potential buyers to start considering alternatives. And it’s just so sad looking…