CC Capsule: 1977 Chevrolet Malibu Classic Estate – Long-Roof Liftback

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There haven’t been a whole lot of cars in the American market whereof the wagon variant seems as prominent in metal and mind as the betrunked models, or more so. The Volvo 240 might be such a one, and so are the ’73-’77 GM A-bodies. That platform gets a fair good lot of love here at CC; much has been written on the Colonnade 2-door hardtops and on the 4-door sedans. But there were also wagons—lots of them.

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Americans still bought station wagons back then, and still called them that; marketeers were still content to brand them “Estate”, having not yet filled their collective diaper with the silly term “crossover”. SUVs existed—Wagoneer, Suburban—but they weren’t nearly so popular in those pre-CAFE days.

These A-body wagons offered the winsome elements of the 4-doors, but replaced the sedans’ cramped trunk with a capacious “wayback” (as we kids used to say when calling dibs on riding back there in what is now called the crumple zone), and married the front to the rear with a neatly-reworked rear door. Or rather, a reworked rear door window, fully rectangular without the sedan’s downward curve at the upper trailing edge. Abaft of that, the C-pillar was almost a cut-and-paste copy of the B-pillar, which allowed for a clean, uncomplicated quarter glass. The overall effect in conjunction with the front doors’ design and the arrow-straight beltline, was a greenhouse pleasantly trapezoidal as viewed side-on. This was a solution much more artful than some of the fussy contortions and unfortunate distortions done in the name of pressing sedan doors into wagon service. The tailgate, too, was a tidy top-hinged hatch design, though that tidiness came at the cost of banishing the taillamps to the bumper bar where they were difficult to see, easy to break, and even easier to obscure with mud or salt.

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The backglass didn’t roll down or swing up; it was gasketed into the hatchgate (and, equipped, at least optionally, with a defogger grid—still not a very common item at that time, except in New York where back glass defoggers became mandatory for 1974).

The roads used to seemingly crawl with these wagons (maybe not to the degree as the boxy ’77-’90 GM B-body wagons, but those were made for almost triple the timespan of these). For most of their production run they had round headlamps, one per side, but the ’77 Chev featured here has stacked rectangulars, two per side.

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The automakers, especially GM, wheedled and cajoled NHTSA into approving small rectangular headlamps by arguing—with a straight face—that they were needed for fuel economy: the 7-inch round headlamp was too tall; it was getting in the way of good aerodynamics, they said. Small low-profile rectangular headlamps just 4-inches tall wouldn’t reduce nighttime vision too awful badly, they said, and would bring about low-profile, wind-cheating frontal design, they said. NHTSA eventually said okeh, and the automakers, especially GM, immediately started perching them one atop the other. Four plus four equals less than 7; it was the era of new math.

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I spotted this ’77 Malibu parked in a mixed industrial area of Seattle. Its owner, a virtuoso mechanic of expensive cars, came round the corner and wondered why I was photographing the interestingly-sunfaded starter-generator-alternator rebuild shop sign on the block. Once he figured out I wasn’t casing the place, we had a nice little chat about the wagon. He says it’s the only one still plying Seattle’s streets, and I don’t doubt it. Originally a 350, it’s now got a warmed-up three-sixty-some and a 4-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 700R4 has supplanted the 3-speed TH350. He was on his way home from work, and he probably still had his doubts about me, so we didn’t chat long before he hopped in. The engine started immediately and ran flawlessly, as Consumer Reports used to say back when that wasn’t a given. By the sound and smell of things, this particular car’s breathing seems no longer impeded by the pathetic GM pellet-type catalytic converter it would’ve come with from the factory—or any other type, for that matter.

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Although they were certainly available in a variety of colours, the metallic sky blue (officially “Light Blue Poly”) of this example seems especially correct for this kind of car. Some colours are like that on some cars. But regardless of Light Blue Poly or Cream Gold or Firethorn Poly or d’you suppose anyone ordered one of these in Light Lime, this would still be a very well preserved and maintained example of a breed no longer often seen.