Curbside Classic: 1967 Chevelle Malibu Sedan – The American Big Opel

(first posted 1/18/2014)    Ok, that headline is not what one would usually expect to see associated with a sixties Malibu. But Malibus of that vintage have been stereotyped to death: coupes with big V8s, and typically resto-modded to Frankensteinish degrees. Nothing wrong with that, except that we try to avoid redoing the obvious here. So let’s take as different a tack with this Malibu sedan as possible; a more global perspective. If that’s a bit too foreign for you Malibu lovers, worry not; we’ll add in a dash of American apple pie too.

(Kapitän picture flipped for comparison)

We all know that the first Chevelle appeared in 1964. That just happens to coincide with the appearance of the new Opel “Big Three”, the Kapitän, Admiral and Diplomat (“KAD”). These were big cars indeed for Europe at the time, and expensive ones too. I don’t have prices at my fingertips, but let’s just say that these were not the equivalent of a Chevelle in terms of what it took to buy one. The big Opels competed against the big Mercedes sedans, and by that I mean even the new W108 S class that appeared in 1966.

At least it tried to. Obviously, Opel sedans were not quite up to the technological levels of Mercedes. In size, they did pretty well; the new KAD Opels rode on a 112″ wheelbase, longer than the 108″ standard wheelbase W108, and equal to the 112″ SEL models. The Opels were a bit cheaper than the Benzes, but not quite the stuff of ordinary folks; not in 1964, anyway. Within a few more years, somewhat more so. It’s hard to equate the three with comparable American trim/prestige levels. In one sense, they might be compared to the Chevy Biscayne, Bel Air and Impala. But in terms of cost and prestige value, they were much higher, more like an Olds, Buick, and even

the top of the line Diplomat (above), comparable to a Cadillac. The Diplomat came standard with a Chevy 283 (4.7 L) four-barrel V8 in 1964, and beginning in 1966, with a 327 (5.4 L) V8. That put the Diplomat in a class all by itself, considering that the biggest engine then available in any Mercedes (other than the Grosse 600) was a three liter six. Unparalleled V8 power and refinement in a European sedan at the time. Bread and butter stuff over here.

The Diplomat even came in a handsome coupe (by Karmann). Looks a lot like a Malibu coupe (and of course, like Pininfarina’s Flaminia coupe), eh? With a 327 and Powerglide, it ran like one too. The price? Quite a different ballgame indeed. This coupe was priced at 25,000 DM, which at the old exchange rate that was very favorable to the dollar, still came out to $6250. That’s exactly what a 1967 Eldorado coupe cost that year. A ’67 V8 Malibu coupe listed for $2540.  So why the hell didn’t they just import Chevelles?

And doesn’t this Diplomat coupe interior look mighty familiar too? Yes this was the last hurrah for American style still being considered en vogue, at least to some extent, in Europe. Mercedes, BMW and other European cars quickly showed the world how to do it better, and everyone ended up copying them.

Now this CC is not about big Opels, although I’d love to find one on my next trip to the home country. It’s about how the Chevelle–and other American intermediate cars–were actually perfectly sized for European large-car consumption, and just how they were regarded as such. And of course, the obvious similarities of the Chevelle to the KAD Opels.

What led me to all of this are two things: the obvious similarities in size and styling of the Chevelle and big Opels, and a European review of a 1967 Mercury Comet Caliente in the 1967 Auto-Universum that a CC reader just sent to me. As a reader of auto, motor und sport from the late sixties until a few years ago, it’s always been fascinating to see how Europeans see and review American cars.

This particular review was of course not about a Chevelle, but I doubt it would have been much different. The Comet had the 289 V8 and automatic, as well as a suspension firmed up for European consumption, which almost all American exports to Europe had. It also represented the tail end of the period when American cars were still popular imports there, and by this time, it was mainly Switzerland, Sweden and Holland that still had a moderate appetite for them.

European cars were getting bigger and more powerful, and American cars were mostly too big, and increasingly judged unfavorably in influential countries like Germany, for chauvinistic as well as legitimate complaints about handling, brakes, fuel consumption, etc., as well as their bloated size.

But the intermediates that arrived in the early-mid sixties were suddenly right-sized again, like the new Opels. And their dynamic qualities were quite similar too. The Comet was praised for its superb performance, roomy interior, decent build and material quality, and even appropriate fuel economy (15 to 19 L/100 km). The only negatives were the fade-prone drum brakes and some rear axle hop over rough surfaces.

I apologize: I’ve already written almost 800 words, and nary a one about the Chevelle. But I have other Chevelles that will be 100% all-American beefsteak Curbside Classics. Let’s take at least a brief look at this German luxury/performance Mercedes fighter.

Strictly speaking, there were both substantial similarities and major differences between the two. The sizes do line up remarkably well, though. The Chevelle wheelbase is a bit longer, at 115″. That explains why it doesn’t need those little fixed windows at the rear of the rear doors. Its back wheel wells don’t intrude into the rear doors as much as the Opel, and the rear window has room for the whole pane to roll down into the door. Aren’t little details like that fascinating?

Otherwise, their exterior dimensions are almost identical: length: 195″ (Opel), 197″ (Chevelle). Same 75″ width. And weight varied with engines and options, but both ran about 3300 lbs, give or take a hundred or two.  Of course, the two lesser Opels used their own six cylinder engines, 2.6 and 2.8 liter units; both the old OHV and the later cam-in-head versions. The 283 Chevy V8 was optional for them.

The variations in dimensions are minor, compared to the differences in their basic construction. GM made an interesting choice to build their A-Bodies on a separate frame (BOF), despite their experience with the unibody Y-Bodies (Corvair and 1961-1963 Tempest/F-88 and Special) and the unibody Chevy II. Presumably, it was to give them a quieter ride, which was particularly important for the Olds and Buick versions.

These Opels, like all Opels since way back, were unibodies. It would be interesting to compare them side-by-side. Well, that’s an understatement, and the whole premise and question of this article: just how would a set of 327/Powerglide powered Chevelle and Diplomat fare in a head-to-head test? I have no memory of auto, motor und sport conducting such a comparison. But then it might have been embarrassing, and that would never do.

Yes, the Opel had better brakes. But by 1967, disc brakes were finally optional on Chevelles too. Anyway, it makes for something to speculate on. One thing is clear: the Chevelle and its ilk were back to the size that the illustrious ’55-’57 Chevys and all big American cars of that era were, before they exploded and bloated, starting with the ’57 Chrysler products.

That makes them right sized. And that’s not just because they’re Opel sized. Some things just want to be a certain size, and any substantial deviation creates an inevitable imbalance that nature abhors. Today’s Camcordia class has almost the exact dimensions of the Chevelle and KAD Opels, about 190″ in length, and 110″ in wheelbase. The global sedan; it just took a while to figure that out, hereabouts, anyway.