COAL: 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic – Unsung Hero

Here at CC we have the COAL series that looks at the cars from our past and present.  Other than my Torino, a car that has been in my family nearly 48 years now, I haven’t written about any of my vehicles.  I suppose for me, a car of the lifetime is something I take a little too literally. For me, a COAL is a car that has played a major role in my life. Undoubtedly my Torino, a car that has been with me my entire life, fits that category.  However, there is definitely another car that meets that criterion, one that has also been heavily intertwined with my personal history – my 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic.

One of the only pictures I could find of Mom’s Pontiac Parisienne.

 

To tell its story, I am going to go back to one of the most significant events of my childhood, my parents’ separation.  Just before I started high school my parents went through a separation which resulted in my Dad moving out of the house.  At that time, we had three vehicles, Mom’s 1984 Pontiac Parisienne wagon, Dad’s ’72 Torino and his ‘79 Ford F-150.  Since my siblings and I were to primarily live with my Mom, she got the newest car, the Pontiac wagon, which was also our main family car.  Dad ended up with the Torino and the truck.   The Torino became Dad’s family car for the warmer six months of the year.  However, he never considered driving the Torino during winter despite the new living situation.  So during winter his sole transportation was his ’79 Ford pick-up, which had a regular cab and an 8 foot box.  There was no way we could squeeze 5 people into that cab, but we made do.  The pickup had a cap which meant a couple of us could ride in the back and be sheltered from the weather.  It worked okay for the mostly in town trips we did, albeit, the rides were chilly.

Dad’s ’79 Ford wasn’t ideal family transportation.

 

A couple of years later, Dad’s office closed down.  Luckily he kept his job, but he was to be transferred to a new city about 80 miles away.  No longer would we be just walking up the road to see Dad.  He would have to drive the 160 mile round trip to come and pick us up for a visit every other weekend.  Dad’s 460 powered Ford pickup was okay for local trips, but Dad knew that he needed a safer and more fuel efficient vehicle.  So the hunt for a replacement vehicle began.

Okay, maybe the cars we looked at weren’t this rough, but they didn’t meet Dad’s standards.

 

My Dad bought the Parisienne wagon when it was almost brand new.  It had proven to be an excellent, comfortable and reliable car for our family of six.  So, Dad figured an easy solution was to stick with what he knew and find another GM B-body.  Of course, as the resident family car nut, I was all over helping Dad find a new car.   We scoured the Auto Trader, the newspaper classifieds and the used car lots.  My Dad is very meticulous in caring for his vehicles, and of course has high standards for a used car.   Unfortunately, with the family income cut in half, Dad’s budget was limited.  We quickly discovered that the GM B-bodies had high resale value, and those in his price range were too rough for him to consider.  Dad had a horrible experience with his ’79 Fairmont which almost swore him off Fords, but in desperation he expanded to looking at Panther Fords.  The result was the same, nothing decent in his price range.

Despite not yet having a driver’s licence, at the time I owned a 1972 Chevelle that I was attempting to fix up.  Consequentially, I had become a bit of a Chevelle enthusiast and loved to hunt the classifieds for anything Chevelle related.  One day as I searched the local classified ads, an ad immediately jumped out at me:   “1976 Chevrolet Chevelle – never winter driven, low miles, excellent condition.”  Dad hadn’t noticed it, because he glazed over anything that old, and he certainly wasn’t looking for an old Chevelle as a daily driver.  I convinced Dad to check it out, citing the low mileage, the fact it had never seen a winter and the price being within his budget.  As an early Chevelle owner, I admit that I looked down on these mid-70s Chevelles, which I didn’t even classify as real Chevelles – they were Malibus.  I figured these “uncollectable” mid-70s Malibus weren’t worth saving but deemed it would be a decent everyday car that could be sacrificed in winter conditions.

Dad called the car’s owner to schedule a meeting, while I looked up all the specs and features for a 1976 Chevelle Malibu.  We went to look at the car during the early spring when there were still some remnants of snow banks.  The car was still in winter storage in a small garage.  As we looked over the car, it was like opening a long lost time capsule.  Both of us were very impressed with the car’s condition, which literally was like new.

These are my oldest pictures of the Malibu. This is what it looked like when he first bought it.

 

The seller knew we were serious about the car, so he pulled it out of the garage and we took it for a test drive.  Dad drove, the owner sat in the front passenger seat and I sat in the back. The seller claimed the back seat was never used, and it looked like it.  I distinctly remember being engulfed in that GM interior smell.  While Dad was normally a pretty conservative driver, on the road test his Mr. Hyde came out.  He really put the car through its paces.  I remember Dad taking it on the highway and kicking it down into second gear and winding out that 350.  The seller commented that Dad was an aggressive driver, subtlety implying for him to take it easy.  The seller also asked if Dad was impressed with the power of the car, commenting that the Malibu was a stronger performer than his 302 powered Grand Marquis.  Dad said it was okay, but mentioned it wasn’t in the same league as his Torino or his 460 powered Ford truck.

When we got back from the road test, I could tell Dad wanted to buy the car. Dad and the seller talked cars a bit, as I gushed over the Malibu.   That didn’t play to Dad’s advantage.  As he tried to negotiate, I told Dad to just pay asking price, “It’s a great price Dad!”  In the end, I killed his leverage, and he paid the asking price, something he never did.  Sorry Dad!

The new Malibu was immediately put into daily driver service as Dad’s commuter car. At that time I walked to school and Dad’s route to work was similar to what I walked.  I remember many mornings hoping I’d see Dad on the way to school so he’d pick me up and give me a ride to school. While I wanted to ride in Dad’s new car, it was also a way I could visit and chat with Dad a little more often.

Within a couple of months of Dad buying the Malibu, he moved away.  The Malibu quickly started to rack up highway miles, shuttling us back and forth.  While a 2-door coupe from the 70s isn’t the roomiest car around, it did fine holding five people and even six in a pinch if my Grandfather came along.

That fall I finally got my driver’s licence.  I remember doing my driver’s test on a Thursday and the Friday we were headed for a visit at Dad’s place.  Dad was very proud that I got my licence and he let me drive half the trip to his house.  It was my first time driving a longer trip on the highway, and Dad said I did pretty well.

Not long after dad bought the car he had to fix a water leak in the back window. He had the vinyl landau top removed at that time as it was causing the window sealing problem. The body shop painted the landau section to appear like a vinyl roof.

 

I had a lot of wheel time in the Malibu as a teenager and it is ingrained in many of memories.  I learned to drive on several family cars, but the Malibu was the one I put the most miles on.  Although Dad was very particular about how his car was driven, he was more than willing to let his four kids learn to drive with the trusty Malibu.  Nevertheless, it survived unscathed.  As I got more driving experience, Dad eventually allowed me to drive it alone.  Since the Malibu was just the everyday car, I got way more solo seat time in it compared to the Torino.  One of my more frequent duties was to shuttle my Grandfather back home after a visit with us at Dad’s house.  I really enjoyed this responsibility as I got to spend some quality one-on-one time with my Grandfather on the long drive from one end of town to the other.

I have to admit though, I also used these solo times to do some “self-education.”  I put the Malibu through the typical teenage antics, fast driving, skidding and donuts in the snow, and pushing the car to the limits in the corners.  Although it was only a malaise era 350 under the hood, compared to the 4-cylinder econoboxes most of my friends were saddled with or Mom’s heavy wagon, the Malibu was the most powerful and best performing car by a long shot.  Plus, it could easily do a burn-out, which allowed me to perfect my technique.  I just had to be careful not to go too crazy otherwise Dad would notice!

Dad also replaced the white walls with white letter tires for a sportier look.

 

I remember one time on a visit at Dad’s place I had forgotten some of my clothing at my Mom’s house.  I was able to convince Dad to let me take the car on the 160 mile round trip back to Mom’s.  He warned me to “take it easy” on the car, which I did – for about the first five miles.  After that, I was exploring the second gear kick-down and the nether regions of the 100 mph speedometer on that two lane highway as I passed everything in sight.  I ended up making my personal record time, one that stands to this day. I never told my Dad about any of these antics, so he will learn about them for the first time as he reads these words.  See Dad, I told you I wouldn’t hurt the car – it’s still here today and running fine.  I was just cleaning the carbon out of the engine!

As Dad got more involved with his motorcycles, his old cars took a back seat. This one of his older bikes, a Yamaha Virago.  The Malibu can be seen in the garage. Dad used the Malibu to tow home some of his motorcycles.

 

Despite my teenaged abuse, the Malibu served admirably without complaint for many years.  After Dad sold his truck, he had a hitch installed on the Malibu to perform towing duties.  He was able to find a well-designed hitch that was almost completely hidden when the drawbar was removed.  It is still on the car today, but unfortunately the draw bar has gone missing and that style is no longer available.   The car was used for our summer trips to Mantoulin Island.  With my Dad, my Grandfather, me and my three siblings in the Malibu which had no air conditioning; it was a tight hot ride.

Nevertheless, the Malibu performed without complaint, with the small trunk packed to the brim, and the boat behind loaded with the rest of the stuff that didn’t fit in the jammed car. Dad loves to drive but he let me do about half the driving on those vacations.  These trips are also how I learned to pull a trailer. I have fond memories of cruising the Mantoulin Island back roads while Dad blasted his Jimmy Buffet cassette on the Kenwood tape deck.  To this day, hearing “Cheese Burger in Paradise” brings me back to those summer cruises.

For six months of the year the Malibu sat outside in the elements while the Torino got the garage.

 

The Malibu taught me a lot of my early automotive maintenance skills.  I helped Dad with oil changes, chassis greasing and tire changes.  As my skills improved, I did tune-ups, coolant flushes, and transmission and differential fluid changes.  My older cousin, who was a professional mechanic, taught me how to replace the shocks, when we upgraded the wallowy stock Delco hydraulic shocks to some firmer gas shocks.  They helped eliminate some of the wallow but the car was still too softly sprung.  I also installed an aftermarket auxiliary transmission cooler to help keep the transmission healthy when towing.  When the road salt got the better of the original rad, I had a rad shop make a custom 3-core rad which I installed to replace the original 2-core unit.

Dad had the car repainted in 2003 with a base/clear coat paint job. He decided to have the car painted all one colour and he had the vinyl roof trim and lower body trim removed to give the car a cleaner look.

 

As time went on and I entered adulthood, I went away to school, and eventually got decent vehicles of my own.  I used the Malibu less and less.  My Dad has an amazing ability to preserve his vehicles, and as the Malibu slugged away tirelessly serving his daily transportation duties, Dad kept it in meticulous condition. It was a lot of work though.  He habitually had it rustproofed with oil spray twice a year, it was garaged in winter, and he kept it washed and waxed.  He was religious about his maintenance, which is probably why this car proved to be mechanically bullet-proof.  That said, even with Dad’s maintenance, after more than 25 years the GM lacquer paint was starting to check on of the one quarter panels.  Dad and I tried to refinish it.  It was good enough to get through the winter, but it was an amateur job.  So, he ended up investing in a new paint job. The body shop did an excellent job, stripping the car down to the bare metal and applying a modern base-coat clear coat paint job.  He removed much of the trim to give the car a cleaner look. Amazingly, no rust repair was required.

Dad bought his first new motorcycle in 2004, a Yamaha Road Star, and the Malibu really moved into the background.

 

It was around this time, Dad had decided to pass the Torino down to me.  Having two older cars to maintain was getting hard, especially since Dad was getting much more involved with motorcycling.  While Dad never held the Malibu in the same light as the Torino, he had a lot of respect for its unwavering dependability.  He loves to tell the story of how one time he and his colleagues were discussing vehicles at lunch.  Several were complaining about their cars.  One said their 1995 car was getting old and unreliable and another said their 1994 car needed to be traded because he didn’t trust it.  One of them asked my Dad what he drove, and he replied “A 1976 Chevy Malibu, and I will drive across the country right now without blinking an eye.”  His reply promptly ended any further complaints.

New and old. The Honda was Dad’s first new car since 1972 and it replaced his 1976 Malibu as his new daily driver.

 

In 2007, Dad was on the verge of retirement after more than 3 and half decades in his job.  He decided it was time to treat himself to a new car – something he hadn’t done since 1972.   After three decades of driving 70s era cars, he figured it was time to move into the 21st century.  So he went out and ordered a brand new Honda Civic coupe, and my brother ended up with the Malibu.  Dad retired shortly afterwards.  My brother and I brought the Malibu and Torino to the party, both of which were highlighted in several speeches as they had become part of his identity.

Once my brother took ownership of the Malibu, it and the Torino were often reunited at family events. This picture was taken at Dad’s retirement party.

Here the pair meet up again at a family wedding. The two cars were also used as my wedding cars.

 

My brother used the Malibu as a summer classic, which meant it would never again be exposed to winter driving.  Although my brother likes cars, his mechanical abilities are limited.  Luckily, I lived close by, so I gladly helped him with any of the upkeep as needed.  He wanted to improve the performance of the car, so I also helped with that.  The old stock single exhaust was replaced with dual exhaust.  The soft suspension was updated with stiffer performance oriented coil springs, Bilstein shocks, and larger front and rear sway bars.  These changes improved the handling, and in my opinion improved the ride by eliminating the wallow.  We also ditched Dad’s old Kenwood tape deck and installed a modern radio.  My brother added Cragar rims, and later I converted the car to the Malibu round headlights, ditching the stacked rectangular lights, which neither of us cared for.

One of the first upgrades my brother added was dual exhaust. The exhaust shop didn’t do the tips the way he wanted and are too obnoxious.  I plan to change them at some point.

 

After several years my brother got a new job and had to move away. This made it much more difficult for me to help with vehicle maintenance, but we’d try to plan it around visits.  My brother enjoyed the Malibu, but as time went on he had less and less time for it.  We had talked about plans in updating the old powertrain as he didn’t have the love for carburetors that I do.  We discussed an LS engine swap with an OD transmission, bigger brakes, and updated steering.  It was going to be pricey and difficult for me to find the time to work on his project.  Ultimately he decided he’d rather have a modern performance car and he bought a late model Camaro SS.   This resulted in the Malibu being parked in his garage where it sat untouched for nearly two years.  After the two year slumber, I had told my brother we needed to get the Malibu out of storage as it had been sitting too long.  I volunteered to change the fluids and drive it around to get everything working again.  That’s when he told me his job required him to relocate to a new city, and he had decided he wasn’t taking the Malibu with him.

Later my bother added Cragar wheels with larger tires.

 

I wasn’t surprised by this news, as I knew his heart wasn’t in the Malibu anymore.  With countless memories in that car, there was no way I could let it go.  So my brother made a deal I couldn’t refuse and the car became mine.  This all happened in the summer of 2018.  At that time, my Torino had been off the road since the fall of 2017 and I wasn’t going to have it roadworthy again until the following year.  For the first time ever, the Torino missed a driving season and I didn’t have ready access to an old car.  I was missing driving old iron big time and needed a fix.   The Malibu fulfilled that need.

My brother was okay to do basic maintenance, like tire changes and oil changes. I installed a blacked out grille from a 1976 base model Malibu. Later I’d change the car to have the round lights to match (we kept original parts).

 

My brother and I made arrangements to pick up the car.  He tried to get the Malibu running before I came but couldn’t get it to start before I arrived.   I quickly figured out that the carb was dry from sitting so long.  I added some fuel into the fuel bowl and the car fired up instantly.  I pulled it out of the garage, and I took it for a run around the neighbourhood.  I deemed it ran well enough to make the 100 mile trip home.  After a quick swap of the storage wheels to the road worthy tires, I crossed my fingers and hit the highway, with a friend following behind, just in case. The Malibu drove great all the way home, cruising effortlessly at 75 mph.

The Malibu after waking from its two year slumber. I had just changed the wheels and was getting ready for the 100 mile trek home.

 

Even though I readily accepted another car into my fleet, I really didn’t have the space for another car.  Luckily, a friend of mine offered me winter storage.  My lovely and understanding wife even sacrificed her garage bay during the summer to keep it out of the elements.  With the Torino off the road, the Malibu filled in as our fair weather family cruiser.  Both my son and daughter instantly loved the car.

That summer I drove the Malibu often and even used it to commute back and forth to work on occasion.  It was a fantastic commuter and even got reasonably decent gas mileage.  Despite its pretty stock 350 being far from powerful, it kept up with modern traffic quite effortlessly. I was even able to merge with ease despite my onramp being drastically shortened due to construction.  As much as cars from this era are maligned for having terrible driveability, this Malibu has always run nearly flawlessly.  With a simple old 350 Chevrolet with minimal emission controls, an HEI ignition, a TH350 transmission, and an 8.5” rear axle, it is undoubtedly among the best and most reliable powertrains of 1976.

At the present, other than the minor modifications, it is almost all original including the engine, transmission, body and interior.  In fact, mechanically, it has been one of the most reliable cars ever in our family.  The only mechanical failures it has had over its entire life were the alternator, the radiator (due to salt corrosion), and a vacuum advance canister.  That’s it.  All other parts, other than the upgraded suspension parts, and some wear items are the same parts it left the factory with in 1976.  In Ontario a fairly strict mechanical fitness inspection is required with any used vehicle purchase.  The Malibu passed with flying colours.  The only parts I replaced, prior to the inspection, were the rear brake shoes (due to a crack in the brake lining), and the cracked windshield.  Even the original GM rear drums still measure in-spec.

While my family has owned the Malibu for the majority of its life, my Dad didn’t buy it from the original owner so we didn’t know about all of its past.  Over the years through research I have pieced most of the rest of its story together.  While we knew the second owner owned the car for a few years and didn’t drive it much.  All we knew of the original owner was that the car was originally from Saskatchewan but was later sold in the Ottawa area during the late 80s.  Shortly after my Dad bought the car, I was looking through my collection of Old Car Traders (yes I used to collect them).  By sheer luck, I ended up finding the original ad for the car.  It looked pretty much the same as when we bought it, except it had the original wheel covers instead of the Rally wheels that were installed by the second owner.  The ad said that the car was a one owner car from Saskatchewan, and had never seen winter.  It had around 20,000 miles on it at the time, meaning the second owner put less than 10,000 miles on it.

GM of Canada has extensive historical records on Canadian made GM products.   Since my Malibu was an Oshawa built car, I sent away to get this information.  From this I learned my Malibu was built on June 23rd 1976 at GM’s Oshawa plant, and was later sold by Saskatoon Motor Products Limited in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The dealership still exists today, but when I reached out to them, they told me they had no sales records from that era. My car was one of 11,997 Malibu Classics coupes made in Canada and only one of 1,761 with the Z/03 Landau package.  As you see, the car’s option list, it was not heavily optioned, but I’d say this was pretty typical of Canadian market cars during this time.

Now that I have had the car for a while, I have had a chance to go over it fairly thoroughly.  After 44 years of service there are things that need some attention, and there are things I plan to change or update.  Years ago the original carpeting was damaged and poorly repaired on the driver’s side, so I’d like to replace it.  Some of the weather stripping needs replacing, and there is a minor electrical short that needs to be sorted out.  I plan to update the carburetor, with a slightly modified Q-Jet I am currently building.   I will replace the hideous exhaust tips and go to a much more subtle exit location.  I will probably go back to Rally wheels too.

The unrestored engine compartment.

 

Although the car is mostly untouched, I won’t leave it that way. I will drive it as is and enjoy it for now, but as time and money allow, I will slowly overhaul and restore most of the car. Half the fun of owning an old car is working on it, restoring it and making it my own.  This will be a family affair and I will have the kids help out.   At some point the 350 will get pulled and rebuilt.  I want to keep the engine stock appearing but will wake it up with some updates including ditching the terrible smog era heads and installing a mild roller cam. I will be sticking with a Q-jet carb and a HEI ignition, but I’d consider upgrading to an overdrive transmission since it’s so cheap to do on a Chevrolet.  A corresponding differential gear and posi-swap will also follow-suit.  The interior plastics need some restoration work, especially the crack-o-matic dash pad, but most are decent considering their age.  Overall, I want the car to stay stock appearing, but I will improve it in subtle ways.

Reunited. After 15 years apart, the two cars I grew up with are back together again. It’s hard to see in this picture, but above the garage window two of the Malibu’s original wheel covers serve as wall art.

 

Many think of a car as a piece of history and that we as the owners are simply the care takers of this historical artifact. I understand the historical significance of preserving some of these old cars, but cars are ultimately meant to be used and enjoyed and that’s what I plan to do. For me, this old Malibu is my time machine. It can take me back into time, to the countless memories of my youth.  But it can also bring me to the future, as I enjoy the car with my family and restore it with my kids to make it our own.  Making this car a family project will create a whole new set of memories for my kids.  And when the time is right, if one of them has the interest, I plan to pass it down the line to keep it in the family.

So while many turn their noses up at an old brown Chevy from the mid-70s, I for one think this is one of the best cars around and I have a lot of respect for it.  For years it toiled away in the background, serving my family without complaint.  It will never be collectible, worth a lot of money, or even turn a lot of heads.  To me though, this car is truly priceless and will forever be our family’s unsung hero.