Curbside Classic: 1981 Chevrolet Malibu Classic – A Wallflower from Turbulent Times

001 Malibu Pic 01

You could be forgiven for not remembering much about Chevy’s Malibu.  This was a car conservatively-styled to the point where it still blends into the background three decades after it was produced.  There was no sport model Malibu, no Brougham, no special edition; instead, its purpose was to sell in large numbers in the mid-priced, mid-sized market segment.  This it did successfully for several years, after which it was unceremoniously discontinued.  But despite its bland exterior, the Malibu arose from a turbulent time in the automotive world, and represents a bridge between the oversized cars of the ‘70s and the front-wheel drive compacts of the ‘80s.

This well-preserved example is representative of the Malibu line, and is in remarkably original condition for its age.  It’s hard to imagine what this car’s history has been – it is clearly well-driven, but nearly free of visible damage, and virtually intact, right down to the original AM radio.

002 Malibu Brochure 1978 back cover

When General Motors overhauled its mid-size cars in 1978, the process represented GM’s second round of downsizing, one year after its full-size cars went through a similar process.  For these mid-size cars (initially called the A-body cars, but later changed to the G-bodies), the same formula was followed as was done for their larger cousins – reduce exterior dimensions, but keep interior size close to the same.  This goal was largely achieved, with the newer cars shedding over 600 pounds, but maintaining most measurements of interior size.

003 Malibu Pic Right Rear 1

The late 1970s and early 1980s were marked by a rapidly changing car market, brought about by economic turmoil, with wildly fluctuating oil prices and interest rates. As a result, it was very difficult for automakers to predict what buyers would be looking for a year or two in the future. In such an environment, it was best to play it safe, and while taking a big chance regarding downsizing, GM played it safe with the Malibu’s design and powertrain. One big gamble at a time was enough.

004 Malibu Brochure 1981

The end result was a conservatively-styled but handsome sedan, wagon and coupe that wound up being the same size as a Mercedes-Benz W123 – a coincidence that was probably not unintentional.  Like with GM’s full-size cars, extra size and weight were shed by trimming unneeded space – reducing the dashboard’s depth, trimming down seat thickness, and making door panels slimmer.  This last effort resulted (according to GM) in one of the G-cars’ most memorable characteristics – rear door windows that were fixed, with no ability to raise or lower.

 

005 Malibu chart final large

Source of Production Numbers: “Standard Catalog of Chevrolet, 1912-2003”

 

Buyers seemed not to care much about the rear windows, though.  In 1978 and ‘79 alone, the Malibu sold nearly 800,000 copies, and it quickly became another seeming success story in GM “right sizing.” Like many other cars of its era, the Malibu was offered in sedan, wagon and coupe configurations. Something unusual about the Malibu was that in those first two years, coupes accounted for one-third of all Malibu sales. This proportion dropped dramatically starting in 1980, however, and by 1982 the coupe was dropped from the Malibu line altogether (sales were likely lost to its fellow Chevy G-body coupe, the Monte Carlo). The wagon faced similar troubles, with Malibu wagon sales dropping by 50% between 1980 and 1981. Intriguingly, sedan sales remained relatively constant throughout the first four years of production, always hitting between 141,000 and 163,000 units. Ironically, three decades later, the sedans appear to be the rarest-seen of all three body styles.

006 Malibu Ad 1981

Value was a selling point. The base price equates to $17,740 in 2015 dollars.

 

The final blow to the Malibu’s sales success came in 1982 with the introduction of GM’s new A-body cars, including the Chevrolet Celebrity. At first, GM was unsure whether buyers would accept a front-wheel drive mid-size sedan, so the Malibu was kept in production as a ‘safe choice’ alongside the more pioneering Celebrity. Initially, Malibu sales were stronger than the front-wheel drive newcomer, but eventually buyers warmed up to the smaller 4- and 6-cylinder Celebrity. After two years of side-by-side sales, it was clear that the Celebrity won the battle, and the Malibu was taken out of production after 1983.

007 Inaug ad 3

One curiosity about Chevy’s showroom dynamics from our featured year of 1981 is that Malibus were generally selling at about the same price (or less) than the smaller Citation. The dealer ad above reflects this phenomenon, but it was far from the only ad of its sort. Despite the Citation being widely reviled today, it caused quite a stir when introduced in 1980 (“The First Chevy of the ‘80s!”), and high demand for the compact X-cars lingered into 1981, before buyers became aware of the Citation’s many faults. Consumer interest in Malibus was waning in 1981, and while sales were still relatively robust, many of those sales came at the expense of heavy discounting and marketing to fleets. It is likely that in 1981, many would-be Malibu buyers were steered instead to other GM products… and it’s equally likely that those buyers who chose a Citation regretted that decision rather quickly.

008 Malibu Comparison

For 1981, Chevy tried to inject some more interest in the Malibu line by giving it a modest makeover. The main feature of this update was a more formal, upright roofline for sedans that provided slightly more rear headroom, and presaged many similar rooflines in GM cars over the following decade. It’s debatable whether the new roofline was really an aesthetic improvement; the original sloping rear-window and C-pillar window provided a graceful, airy look that the ’81 cars lacked. But it underscored the Malibu’s niche as a traditional choice over more daring newcomers.  The 1981 update also included a new “horizontal design” grille, restyled headlights and taillights, as well as a new instrument cluster, and other minor features.

009 Malibu Pic Right Front

This featured car is a 1981 Malibu Classic sedan, with the Classic being the higher-end version of the Malibu.  The Classic added a variety of relatively minor appearance and convenience touches to the base Malibu such as a hood ornament, upgraded interior door panels, and additional chrome trim pieces, and carried a starting price of $7,074 ($343 more than the base model, but 57% of ’81 Malibu sedan buyers opted for the Classic trim).

010 Malibu Pic Interior

Aside from an automatic transmission, air conditioning, and the AM radio, this car appears to have no other significant options. (There was no standard radio in 1981 Malibus; the AM radio was a $90 option.)

011 Malibu Colors 2

Cars of the early 1980s may not have had the build quality or performance capabilities of modern cars, but there is an area where they excelled – color options.  Customers could order an ’81 Malibu in one of 14 colors, not to mention 7 available two-tone paint combinations, 7 available vinyl roof colors, and 6 interior colors.  By comparison, a 2015 Malibu LTZ comes in only 9 exterior and 2 interior colors… so much for progress!  This particular car features champagne metallic paint with a matching champagne vinyl interior.  The car still appears to have its original paint, which is in excellent shape for a 34-year-old car.

This Malibu was likely equipped with the standard 3.8L V-6, although an optional 4.4L V-8 was available as well.  In its day, the V-6’s 110 horsepower sufficiently powered the 3,138-pound car, though describing it as “peppy” (as Chevrolet did its 1981 advertisements) was perhaps an exaggeration.

012 Malibu Pic Front

If you see this grille, it’s an ’81 Malibu. Both the ’80 and ’82 models featured a crosshatch design grille.

 

The Malibu did still have some showroom life after this car was produced in 1981. In 1982, a new front end was added, featuring more modern-looking quad headlights. However, with sales sluggish in the face of new front-wheel drive competition, the Malibu was living on borrowed time. It managed to make it through the 1983 model year before being discontinued.

013 Malibu Pic Rear

Oddly, most other G-body cars had considerably longer life spans. The nearly identical Buick Regal sedan continued until 1984, the Pontiac Bonneville survived until 1986 and Oldsmobile’s Cutlass Supreme soldiered on through 1987. Meanwhile the G-body coupes (Monte Carlo, etc.), as well as the El Camino, all made it through to 1987.

014 Malibu Pic Badge

The longest-living element to our story is the Malibu name itself, which was resurrected in 1997, and is now in its fourth (soon to be fifth) generation since its reintroduction. But despite its perhaps unmemorable styling, the 1978-83 Malibu served an important function for GM and for car buyers in general. Instead of a revolutionary car, it was a transitional one – a halfway point between the excessively large and ponderous sedans of the 1970s to the smaller and front-drive cars that emerged in the 1980s. Thanks to the Malibu, that transition went fairly smoothly – and for a company that often bungled new-car introductions, that is a meaningful success. Not a bad badge of honor for a wallflower.