COAL: 1982 Chevrolet Malibu Classic – Deja Vu All Over Again


After the Honda handoff, I found myself looking for another car in the fall of 2002. I had graduated college a few months earlier, but the job market for Information Technology wasn’t in very good shape, the tech bubble having recently burst. So I was working on campus in the same part-time job I’d had as an undergrad, putting in full-time hours but at a part-time pay rate. In other words, I was in no position to buy new, or anything that required financing.

Thankfully I lived within an easy walk of work. But I still needed a car, among other reasons because my girlfriend at the time lived a half hour’s drive away. So the budget was $1000 or less, and the criteria were “runs and drives, passes inspection.” I wasn’t going to be picky. And, again, the right car proved to be back in my hometown of Greensboro. While perusing the few cars available with three digit prices, one caught my eye–a 1982 Malibu. I knew those cars quite well, a ’79 being my “first love”. The $800 price tag was well within my budget. The ad was vague, with no pictures, but a call to the seller was promising. Again recruited Dad to go check it out, again it checked out well, and for the third consecutive time, I purchased a car sight unseen.


Probably the best photo of the car in its original color.  The paint looks a lot better than it actually was.

It was an ’82 Malibu Classic sedan, light blue over dark blue cloth interior, with the 3.8 (229) Chevy V6. Only 89K miles, which was a definite plus in a 20 year old car. It had some flaws, I was told–neither the A/C nor the radio worked, and there was “some surface rust” on the hood, roof, and trunk. That worried me, but I was hoping I hadn’t forked over $800 on a rustbucket. Once I got home to pick the car up, my fears were relieved. There was most certainly surface rust, in large swathes that made the car look worse than it actually was. But it was clearly not structural; there was no rust-through on the car anywhere. And the interior was in excellent shape. The back seat, in particular, looked brand ndw. The Malibu had belonged to an older lady originally, and then her son drove it for a few years, but kids were clearly not frequent travelers.


This is what the paint actually looked like.  Pretty terrible.

The ’82 versus the ’79 used the same basic shell but had a somewhat different look, having adopted a more formal C-pillar in ’81 (rationalization with Olds and Buick, the Chevy/Pontiac six-window roofline was phased out) and a new quad-lamp front clip for ’82. 1982 was a year of high gas price hysteria in which Pontiac completely discontinued the B-body Bonneville, moving the nameplate to the G-body formerly known as the LeMans. There were rumblings that Chevy might do the same, fueled by the fact that the Malibu’s new nose styling was similar to the Caprice. Turned out to be very wrong when gas prices rebounded the next year, but who knows what they might have been thinking in Detroit. The box Caprice ended up outlasting the Malibu by seven model years, as it turned out. Personally I liked the styling of the ’79 much better, but the ’82 certainly wasn’t a bad-looking car. Handsome, but in a more generic way.


As to driving impresions, it felt like my Other Malibu…if somebody had stolen half the engine. This thing was S-L-O-W. If I remember correctly the torque difference between the ’82 229 and the ’79 267 wasn’t vast, maybe 50 lb-ft, but the two cars clearly fell on opposite sides of the “acceptable acceleration” dividing line. The roof had an odd reverberation over bumps, like the sound deadening had been removed. Considering the headliner was immaculate, which meant it was a replacement (the original headliners invariably started falling down after about 7 or 8 years), they could have forgotten the insulation when putting it back together. It had a slight oil leak on the driver’s side somewhere, resulting in a slight oil smell in the cabin when driving with the windows down, resulting in my smelling slightly like oil after drives of any length. My girlfriend was none too pleased (though the car rather significantly outlasted that relationship). And, like any A/G body with a lot of miles and worn springs, handling was not a priority. But all together it was a predictable and familar driving experience for me, if a little disappointing after a year with my previous ’91 Accord.


Sadly, the best interior photo I have.  It does show the car having just passed 100K miles, turning over the 5-digit odometer.

Job number one was appearance improvement. Even though I was driving a cheap car, I didn’t want it to look like total crap, and my parents graciously agreed to contribute to a paint job seeing as how they were now driving my former Accord. So off to the good folks at Econo Paint (that’s actually what it was called), and $200 later, what was once blue and rusty was now black and shiny. Mostly shiny, anyway–it was a $200 respray after all. But it looked quite good enough, if you ignored the orange peel. In retrospect black didn’t go all that well with the dark blue interior, but I’d wanted a black car. Now I had one, and discovered how hard it was to keep clean…


My ownership of this car coincided with a somewhat difficult part of my life. I was a graduate with a lousy job, which meant no money, and continuing to share a house with three other people. I went through a breakup, and then a short period of working two jobs to make ends meet and pay off some debt. I thought about moving out of state to try to make a new start, decided not to, thought about it again, decided not to. Having an old beater with no radio and no A/C as my transportation through all this did not necessarily help, but the car was what I needed it to be. It started when I needed it to start on cold mornings and nights and got me where I needed to go. Plus, it helped me to learn some DIY skills.

My work on previous cars had been generally limited to radio installation. Embarrasingly, I hadn’t ever even changed my own oil, as that wasn’t a skill anyone ever taught me (my Dad is *not* mechanically inclined and just takes the car in for all types of service). But on this car, I bought a Haynes manual and a set of ramps, and set about getting my hands dirty. Nothing huge–oil changes, plugs and wires, replacement of an alternator, another stereo install, but it was a start. The biggest thing to fail while I had the ’82 was the carburetor, which went out to lunch while I was in Greensboro one weekend. That was $450 I didn’t want to spend, but I had a plan.

I had another Malibu sitting a few feet away that wasn’t going anywhere under its own power, and both carburetors said “Rochester DualJet” on the side, so I decided to swap them. And, lo and behold, everything bolted right up, though there were a few places where the ’82 carb had spots to plug in vacuum lines that didn’t have corresponding ports on the ’79 edition. It started though! I drove it around the block, once, stumbling and running like crap the whole time, and then refused to even start again. That was the day I learned that the early computer control on the ’82 engine made it a whole different animal than the computerless ’79, with vasty different vacuum plumbing. I had the carb replaced with a new, correct one the next day.


The “mini Caprice” styling for ’82 is most evident up front.

Things looked up eventually, as usually happens. In April of ’04 I applied for and was hired for a far better job than I had–still not a fat salary but legitimately full-time with benefits and a nice raise from what I had been making. Around the same time I finally got my own place, as I was able to find one not far from campus that was affordable. And, of course, after I’d been in my new spot for a few months, someone put a good-sized dent in the back door of the Malibu, leaving no trace and no note. I accepted that, but it set thoughts moving in my head, and the dent turned out to be the last straw. I had a pretty good job now, living on my own, feeling better about myself overall than I had in some time, yet I was still driving a 22 year old Chevy with no A/C and an asmthatic V6, now with a large dent in the rear door, plus it needed brake work. I just didn’t feel like dealing with it anymore. So what’s the next step in Modern American Adulthood? Getting a car loan, of course.


So in October of ’04, after a touch over two years with the ’82 Malibu, I purchased the car that will be the next installment in this series. Listed the Malibu for sale shortly afterward, and got an inquiry after a few days from a student at the university where I worked. He showed up in a very nice ’78 Buick Century wagon in two-tone blue. An A/G-body kindred spirit? Turns out he also owned an ’82 Malibu, a wagon thatI had seen around campus a couple of times. Nice car, the same color blue as mine before the repaint, in better shape with Rally wheels. He’d been in a collision and had originally planned to use mine for parts to repair his, but after driving it, he said he was also considering fixing what needed to be fixed and giving it to his younger brother, who was soon to receive a driver’s license. So he bought the car, left with the keys, and when I got home from work the next day, it was gone. Maybe it had more driving left to do, or maybe its parts allowed another ’82 to get back on the road. Either way, not a bad run.