Curbside Classic: 1983 Malibu Wagon – What’s Got Six Cylinders, Four Wheels and Is Not a Deadly Sin?

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Why, this 1983 Malibu!  We have run the full gamut GM Deadly Sins, and I figured this would make for a nice break from the topic of failures bearing “the mark of excellence.”  Many A/G body cars have run on these pages, from hallowed models in the pantheon of GM greatness, to those which we’d prefer to forget.  This true blue ’83 wagon definitely slots in closer to the former category, as it’s made of the most evolved classic midsize architecture.  While it’s unremarkable insofar as it doesn’t show what the platform is capable of, it’s one of the final example of what led to the company’s dominance.  At some point, this was the least you could expect from a GM family car, so let’s take a closer look.

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The ’78 A body is fondly remembered by some, not so fondly remembered by others.  It birthed the incomparable Buick Grand National, the final, all-American El Camino and the last real Monte Carlo.  At the same time, the unloved aeroback sedans by Olds and Buick were cut from the same cloth, and seeing as this A/G generation spanned the height of the malaise era, there’s ample room for diversity of opinion.

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The late production Chevrolet wagon is something of a rarity as far as I’m concerned, because I don’t often see this updated front-end on a wagon body.  I also rarely see these cars quite this stripped.  Other than air conditioning which the owner says still functions and a one-speaker AM radio, this car has zero in the way of add-ons.

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With a 229 Chevy V6, it’s probably not the most enjoyable car to run as a daily, but as a rolling tribute to the most basic American family car of yesteryear, it’s hard to out-do.  Not everyone had the loaded Country Squires or Vista Cruisers more popularly remembered today.  If you are of a certain age and your parents took frugality seriously, cars like this hold a special place in your heart (even if it’s just nostalgia).  And while said B-body and Panther wagons kept on keeping on for a while longer, cars like the were logically replaced by the likes of the Celebrity.

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Mechanically, there aren’t many standout features to explore or critique, but the ’78 A-bodies were shrewdly conceived, losing hundreds of pounds while still maintaining space, safety and a perimeter frame.  The only major flaw was the fixed rear door glass.  In a big, glassy box like this car, you need the A/C this car’s shrewd first buyer ordered.

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One thing the buyer didn’t order, as mentioned, is anything in the way of powertrain upgrades.  Restomods are, by and large, unpopular here at CC, where preservation is king. 45,332 Malibu wagons sold in 1983.  When it came to sedans, the Celeb outsold the four-door, 120,000 to 60,000.  When the Celebrity wagon finally did come along, it sold 71,000 units.  That means that this wagon was relatively uncommon when new, and there can’t be many so-equipped on the road today.

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Still, the options for a resto-mod are endless and very tempting.  All sorts of small block Chevy engines can be made to fit easily, with the major obstacle being engine management.  All this can be done while staying true to the car’s appearance, even if including an F41 suspension package.

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Instead of removing the Chevy 229, and plopping in a 305, the most exciting power train swap prospect for me would be to ditch the Chevy 229 out and swap in an old even-fire Buick 231 (California cars came with that block to begin with) with 3800 series II heads.  Those in the know will tell me if a Franken-Buick V6 of such a variety is possible.  I know various changes have been made to the Buick 231 to change it into the GM 3800.  But if it’s possible, a supercharged 3800 marks the engine of choice for me.  A manic buyer might elect to stuff a turbocharged 4.3 Vortec a la GMC Typhoon.  And now that I’m digressing, that GMC Typoon 4.3 would be perfect in my ultimate B body, the Electra/LeSabre estate.

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The owner of the car was nice enough to let me get in and take pictures.  Having no first-hand experience with these cars, a few items stood out.  One, the rear seat is quite snug.  Paul has remarked about the poor space utilization of the ’73 A-body; I now believe him, since this much-touted car’s packing efficiency still results in a small space by today’s expectations.  The second thing was the slight heft in the steering.  I’ve been in a number of Lexuses and Hondas which are easier to turn at low speed.  Finally, the windshield was much closer than expected.

While the X-cars which followed have been labelled a deadly sin, the front-drive A bodies which replaced this car haven’t.  Not because of substantial difference, but because they weren’t expected to be breakthroughs.  Having extensive experience with those models, I have to say they made excellent replacements for cars like this Malibu, as well.  While there were no fire-breathing Grand National or Monte Carlo replacements, the likes of the Celebrity carried the virtues of this Malibu forward, with greater comfort and efficiency, once the Malaise-era powertrains were sufficiently overhauled.  A Celebrity wagon with a multi-port 2.8 really was an effective family transportation device in much the same way a Malibu with a 305 was, even if enthusiast credentials are lacking.  And between you and me, I might choose an ’86 Cutlass Cruiser with 3800 over an equivalent Taurus with its wheezy Vulcan 6 and fragile transmission.

Cars like the Cruze and Malibu show that Chevy is doing an excellent job making high-quality, low-key passenger cars these days.  Of course, that has a lot to do with the fact that Chevy isn’t really building their own cars, when you consider how much engineering is imported from Russelheim and Incheon.  Detroit is free to take care of Cadillac, and full-size trucks, well-funded by selling cars that carry forth the virtues of this blue station wagon.  But we’re unlikely to see a real Chevy like this Malibu ever again.

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The Chevies which succeeded this one, rightfully called Deadly Sins, hold a place in my heart as offering virtues my parents’ ’80s imports never could.  That’s why I often find myself defensive in the comment section of GM DSs.

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But I’m losing sight of my main argument.  This true blue Chevy is one of the last truly American middle class station wagons, along with the Volare and Fairmont.  Once an institution, they were replaced by minivans or cars with a more continental influence.  I am glad its owner keeps it alive with frequent warm weather drives from his farm to downtown Bloomington.