(first posted 8/23/2013) Walking around certain blocks of the student neighborhood near the University of Oregon on a gray drizzly day can be as depressing as recalling much of GM’s decline and fall products from the seventies on. It’s a sea of dull and cheap apartments already looking shabby and run-down rental houses, fronted by waves of drab colored hand-me-down Toyotas, Nissans, and the like.
But every so often, a cheery sight appears, like this cherry-red 1979 Malibu coupe. It’s there to remind me that GM was still able to hit a few high notes while cranking out Vegas, Monzas and Citations; and that it hadn’t yet totally forgotten the magic formula that it first hit upon in 1955 and reprised with the ’64 Chevelle: a trim and tidy RWD coupe weighing about 3,000 pounds and powered by the SBC V8. Quite the mood elevator indeed, especially if one avoids thinking about some of its less perky realities.
One of the key aspects of the story of GM (and the rest of Detroit) can be summed up by this: the lure of the “bigger is better” is followed to an extreme, and a crash diet follows. This has led to a sea of monstrosities as well as a few genuine moments of clarity and even a hint of brilliance, which this Malibu is a prime example of. It’s far from perfect, marred by a number GM’s typical quality shortcuts of the times. But as a design, or even an ideal, it hits a note of near-perfection. Smack dab in a sea of bulbous and obscene landau-roofed “mid-sized” barges from Ford and Chrysler, GM dropped this clean, compact, elegant, handsome coupe in our midst like manna from heaven in 1978.
Of course, it was the second punch of the combination Chevrolet set up with the prior year’s new ’77 downsized/full sized Caprice and Impala. But as terrific of a design the four door version of the big Chevy was, thebig Impala and Caprice coupes were a flop, stylistically and sales-wise. Not downright bad, but it just didn’t click, and utterly failed to recapture the magic (and sales) of Impala coupes of yore. Curiously, the stylistically similar but smaller Malibu turned out just the opposite. The coupe hit it just right, and the sedan very much didn’t. Whereas the Impala and Caprice Coupe were outsold by the sedans 5 to 1, the Malibu coupe held its own against the slightly awkward sedan.
It’s not just in comparison to its bigger brother where the Malibu shone; after the bloated ’73-’77 Malibu Colonnade monsters that weighed almost 4,000 lbs, this anorexic 3100 lb Malibu was an even more drastic downsizing than the big Chevys. And it put it square into the same weight class as the legendary ’55 and the lithe ’64 Chevelle.
It doesn’t take a genius to see what was up on the wall when the designers penned this Malibu. The Colonnades were a stylistic dead end, and the ’78 Malibu coupe was a deliberate attempt to recapture the simple and clean pleasures of the ’64-’65 Malibu coupe, which was already well on its way to becoming a classic at the time.
You can’t fault Chevy for trying with this gem, but it was wasted on Americans’ fickle and questionable taste. Because the irony of this Malibu is that it was a mediocre seller, completely overshadowed by its baroque platform-mate, the downsized Monte Carlo. That stylistic disaster with its pretend hips and tits outsold the Malibu coupe by a four to one ratio in 1978. I’m sure some of you loved it…to each their own. Meanwhile, the clean Malibu coupe could well have been an Opel from the era, except for the somewhat overdone grille.
Enough waxing on this bright spot in a notoriously dull decade. What about beneath the skin? Let’s start under the hood, the most important part for a classic American RWD car anyway. The late seventies were of course notoriously bad engine-wise. The Malibu’s palette started off with a whimper: the 200 CID (3.3 liter) V6 that wheezed out all of 94 hp. This was Chevy’s first shot at lopping off two cylinders from the venerable small-block V8, but they started with the worst SBC ever made: the 267 CID V8 that managed all of 125 hp. Both of these mutations were soon chucked on the ash heap of GM engine blunders, but a lot of these A-bodies suffered their indignities. The Buick 3.8 V6 with 115 hp was also available, as a better V6 alternative.
But there’s possibly a good reason this particular Malibu is a 1979. That was the one relatively bright spot year in the engine option list; not only was the 160 hp four-barrel 305 available for a couple of years, but in 1979 only, the 170 hp four-barrel 350 was also at hand. Not quite as rev-happy as its smaller forerunners in the good old days, the 350 chuffed out a spadeful of torque. In the lightweight Malibu, the combination may well have been one of the fastest in that year, especially from a price/performance equation perspective.
The real beauty of these cars is of course the easiness of swapping in anything ever to have the bow-tie stamped on it. And for a compact box to wrap a junkyard or crate engine of choice with, the Malibu was the way to go. As for the rest of the car? With the right boxes checked (F 41), GM offered as good a handling and steering RWD car made in the land at the times.
Perhaps it’s best to leave it there, as the depressing aspects are…just that: notoriously weak THM 250 transmissions, non-opening rear Zackman™ windows, cheap interior materials, and a general lackadaisical attitude to quality; GM quality control had already taken an early retirement. But the junk yards and Auto-Zone are still (hopefully) plentiful with whatever it takes to keep these on the road, and bring some cheer to a dull and dreary day.