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Our Cars--1983 Chevrolet Malibu Wagon

Side_cemetaryI've been a bit quiet for the last few days because I wanted to spend the time I needed to get this one right. This car, and the car I'll be featuring tomorrow, are the two cars I've cared most about, and so I want to commemorate them correctly.

In early 2002 I had an empty parking spot, a need for semi-reliable transportation, and $1,500 of cash to spend. In my world, this is a rare and delicious situation ripe with promise.

I narrowed my search immediately to the rare, the strange, and the interesting. I test-drove a Saab 900 Turbo with a broken driver's seat--you had to hold yourself up with the steering wheel. I drove a Merkur XR4ti that still had a lot of punch despite spewing plumes of white smoke in its wake. I drove a first-generation Volkswagen GTI that had a steering wheel that smelled strongly of Cool Ranch Doritos. I looked at, but did not drive, a late-1970s BMW 320 that appeared to have a family of birds living in the engine compartment.

Grille_detailI was having a blast shopping and wasn't in a huge hurry to buy--a bit like being interested in dating but not ready to get married. But when I saw this Malibu, I was ready to settle down and make a real commitment.

The ad sounded good. It was a 1983 Chevy Malibu Wagon, only two owners, and with only 130,000 miles despite its 19 years of life. As is painfully obvious to anybody who reads this blog, I've always had a weakness for older rear-wheel-drive American cars, and an equally strong weakness for wagons. The Malibu seemed like an interesting alternative to the European sports coupes on which I had been focusing.

OverheadThere's a lot of debate as to whether love at first sight really exists, but it worked in this case. I can say that when I saw the Malibu, I just knew it was right. It was a feeling that goes beyond all rational thought--I knew this was the car.

To begin with, the owner genuinely seemed like a forthright, honest guy--the type of person you always hope is on the other end of the phone when you call about a used car, but rarely is. He was an older gentleman, and was actually selling the car on behalf of his father, who had recently passed away. The car hadn't been driven much in the previous few years and needed a new gas tank; he was willing to replace the tank free of charge.

InteriorThe car itself was--to my unique taste, at least--completely gorgeous. It was completely straight, with only a small dent in the tailgate to mar its lines. The chrome was intact, the hood ornament was in place, and the Malibu even had its original wheel covers. The patina of time had mellowed the paint, softening the original silver finish into a sublimely subtle silver/gray. I'm sure any sane used-car buyer would turn up their nose at that paint, but I thought it was fantastic. If I could adequately replicate the color on another car, I would.

The interior was similarly pristine. With the exception of a small cigarette ash burn hole in the front bench seat and an aftermarket steering wheel cover, the Malibu was just like new. The gray upholstery was in great condition, with no rips or tears; the gauges and lights all worked; and it still had its original pushbutton AC Delco AM/FM radio. The air conditioning needed a charge, but aside from that, everything worked.

CargoAnd, wonder of all wonders, the wagon glass and rear door opened up onto a massive cargo space. The Malibu was the wagon I've always dreamed of.

With a thudding heartbeat and sweaty palms, I eagerly paid the $1,100 asking price and drove the Malibu home.

I tend to think of lust as the frantic desire for something unattainable, so I've always thought it would be hard to lust after something you already have. But even after I bought the Malibu and drove it home, I lusted for it. I caught myself looking out the window at it when I was at home; when I drove by office buildings, I'd look at the windows to see its reflection driving by. Every so often I'd grab my camera to capture an angle I'd missed. Even now I'm finding it hard to concentrate on writing this--I really just want to gaze at the pictures.

Malibu_2I was so besotten with the Malibu that I made a fundamental mistake. The weekend after I bought the car, I loaded up three friends and their gear and headed up into the mountains for a camping trip--before I had the Malibu thoroughly checked out. This after it had sat for most of the last few years. Not smart.

Everybody loved the car, and it swallowed my friends and their gear easily. What we didn't love was that the 'Bu refused to start after we stopped for dinner. Then, after we finally did get it started, the automatic transmission showed a disconcerting tendency to slip when driving up somewhat steep grades. Which, since we were driving up into the mountains, was pretty much the whole time. When we stopped for gas, it refused to start again. My friends showed commendable restraint in not striking me with their fists.

Upon our eventual safe--if frazzled--return, a simple tune-up and carburetor tweaking put the warm-starting problems to rights. A transmission fluid flush seemed to solve the slip.

With_flowersAfter this, the 'Bu was a rock-solid companion. It wasn't particularly easy to start and keep running when cold, but once I learned how to work its throttle with the appropriate dexterity, that quirk actually became a point of pride. Try to drive the 'Bu away immediately after cold-start, and it would be a wicked mistress; let it warm up for a few minutes, and it was an absolute sweetheart.

By any traditional enthusiast's evaluation, the 'Bu was an absolute pig to drive. Its 3.8-liter V-6 only put out 105 horsepower, which wasn't a lot considering the car's size and heft. Unlike our Volvo 240, the Malibu had no problem holding its speed going up hills, but it didn't like to be hustled. The same was true of the suspension, which was as floaty as any of the great American luxury yachts of the past and completely non-responsive in the corners.

All of this was fine with me. I've driven my share of performance cars, and the Malibu experience was just as intoxicating. It was made to cruise comfortably. I'd roll down the windows, instinctively assume the typical American car bench-seat slouch*, and float along with the engine burbling happily. At night, the 'Bu would motor along placidly while I listened to the vintage radio, the warm yellow instrument lighting illuminating my smiling face.

In fact, the Malibu's slow-revving engine and generally languid driving experience spoiled me for high-compression performance V-8s. In the times in which I'd inevitably start thinking about mechanical upgrades to the car, I'd invariably consider a big, torquey cruising engine well before something hyper-aggressive that wouldn't be as comfortable to drive. Likewise, even if I added more power, I would have done nothing to upgrade the handling. The floaty ride was part of the 'Bu's character and could not be changed.

RearI'm describing the Malibu here as a big, old American car, which of course isn't entirely accurate. In the context of modern cars, the Malibu looks and feels awfully big. But compared to its peers and immediate predecessors, it was positively petite.

The Malibu was the mid-size sedan in the Chevrolet lineup, slotting in below the full-size Impala and Caprice. This generation of Malibu was actually considered dramatically downsized when it debuted in 1978; it was an early pioneer into a more rational age. Certainly, compared to David Drucker's Imperial, it was downright Lilliputian.

Even so, with its rear seats folded down, the Malibu fit a miraculous amount of cargo into its wagon body. I once fit a shocking percentage of a two-bedroom apartment into its cargo hold.

In a parking lot full of serious modern sedans, the Malibu stood out, highlighting the changes in automotive design in the last 25 years. In contrast to today's cars, which wear little chrome, sit right down on their haunches, and have minimal overhang past the front and rear axles, the Malibu sat defiantly high, with long overhangs, and proud chrome and side sculpting.

I love the look. I love the Malibu's clean lines, pleasing grille treatment, and rough-hewn good looks. I like its looks so much that I once did a photo shoot with a talented artist/musician friend of mine that prominently featured the Malibu.

GordonBefore the Malibu, I had very little experience with big, floaty American cars. The Malibu taught me that as much as I love quirky European cars - and I do - that the big American car experience strikes a very primal chord for me.

So, why don't I still have it? Basically, I made the biggest mistake of my automotive life by lapsing into a short, regrettable period of common sense.

I eventually wound up acquiring tomorrow's Car Lust, a car that I was also very fond of, and that didn't need time to warm up in the morning. Since I constantly run late in the morning, the more modern car became my daily driver by default. My wife was at best bemused by the Malibu, so she continued to drive her Volvo. As a result, I only drove the Malibu when I had time to properly warm it up, so it sat for longer and longer stretches.

I didn't want the Malibu just to sit, so I put my automotive sentimentality on hold and made a rational decision--a decision I've regretted ever since. I sold the 'Bu to a gentleman who professed to like it as much as I did. Unfortunately--I've tried to block this out ever since--he wanted to paint it bright red and put sport wheels on it.

This model year was actually the last of what I think of as the real Malibus--the simple, rear-wheel-drive family cars. Chevy would re-introduce the Malibu name in 1997 on a car now mostly remembered as a rental car. That would be succeeded by a more worthy Malibu, which was available in interesting Maxx trim. Now there's a brand new Malibu out, which is supposed to be worthy of the proud name.

LatchBut forget about these newer Malibus--mention the name Malibu to me, and I'll break into a bittersweet smile as I think back to my gray lady.

--Chris H.

* If you've never experienced the American car bench-seat slouch, you're missing out. There are two derivations. In one, you steer lazily with your left hand; your left hand rests on the window sill, with your right arm extended along the bench. In the second, your left arm goes out the window, and you steer lazily with your right hand. Either way, it's virtually impossible to keep from slouching.

Comments

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Oh, what I would kill to have a real station wagon... I'm sorry, but minivans just don't do it for me. Yes, they can haul more, and yes, they're more practical, but there's something about having something that sits at car height, handles (mostly) like a car, yet can seat ridiculous numbers of people if configured right that helps me wake up in the morning. I remember my friend's '87 Chevy Celebrity wagon in high regard because of this - it had the fold-up back seat, so it could legally seat eight(!). Sure, you weren't hauling much more than that, and yeah, the suspension in the rear would drop perilously close to the ground if you actually had eight teenagers in the thing, but, oh man... eight people in a car. Anyone can put eight people in a van or a large SUV. It takes real engineering talent to put eight people in a CAR.

Chris, this was the nicest piece of writing you've ever given us. I do not share your affection for cars of this ilk, but, darn it! I was all misty-eyed there at the end.

Beautiful piece. Beautiful writing. Truly moving. Very very nice.

Here's what I like about this car. Clean lines. A large car but a completely efficient cargo area - it actually uses ALL the available interior space. Beautiful glass. Look at the rear window on this car - amazing. And one other thing... yes it is large but clearly the lines of sight out of this car have almost no obstruction.

Thank you Chris. Great work.

This was probably my car back in 1983! I was a young, single salesman for a large electronics firm and the only available car they had for me was this one. So I move to Boston at the tender age of 23 driving this very un-hip ride. Not really what I pictured as a great car to impress the ladies with. Had two interesting comments on first dates as a result: 1 - "What kind of dog do you have?" and 2 - "Why didn't you tell me you were divorced?". The good news? I could put a whole bunch of lobsters on dry ice in the back and drive them home to Philly, selling them to my home office co-workers for a tidy profit once a month. Thanks for bringing back those memories...

This was probably my car back in 1983! I was a young, single salesman for a large electronics firm and the only available car they had for me was this one. So I move to Boston at the tender age of 23 driving this very un-hip ride. Not really what I pictured as a great car to impress the ladies with. Had two interesting comments on first dates as a result: 1 - "What kind of dog do you have?" and 2 - "Why didn't you tell me you were divorced?". The good news? I could put a whole bunch of lobsters on dry ice in the back and drive them home to Philly, selling them to my home office co-workers for a tidy profit once a month. Thanks for bringing back those memories...

I owned a 1979 version of the same wagon. In that color, even. To this day it is the car I miss cruising in the most. I owned faster, better, sportier and more reliable, but that one was a beast of a cow of a pig and I loved her.

Plus the engine compartment was so enormous I could work on it in comfort.

Mine was bigger, and rounder lines, but the same driving experience. Like a 70's Caddy - you didn't so much drive as float along the road. God help you if you had to turn sharply.

Loved it.

Wagons rock, even if they have to be called "crossovers" to sneak into the marketplace. I've always liked the fade-into-the-background styling of this series of GM wagons. You'd have to be doing 100 in one of those things before a non-radar-using cop would notice you. (I'm a big fan of Q-ships!)

I just have to love these old Malibu's. I have the four door sedan myself. My first car, and I'm loving the old girl. It's just as quirky and cantankerous in the cold as you described it, but by far the one of the most comfortable cars (I've developed the slouch) I've ridden or driven.

i'm a proud owner of a 1983 chevy malibu myself it's a car that i'll love forever.

I had a a 83 malibu, it waswhite w/ red border, 350small block with 300 double punp heads & a holley 650 carb... It was the best car I ever owned, raced a couple of Honda's but they could not catch me HAHA....!!!
I raced a 86 olds cutlass 442, he said he couldn't catch in the quater mile, Right now I have a 84 cutlass sepreme I'm fixing the bugs out of..
I think the mid-80's were good year for chevy & olds!!!!

From Luxembourg, Europe :

My english is not perfet but really nice writting.

I have the same in V8 (not really more powerful than a V6...) and I really love it. Simple, robust car. whith 305 CI low output, TH350, positraction rear axle and some heavy features like radiator. Not a classic trim, a basic trim just whith A/C.

This car come from US, come on Germany in middle 2002, go on Luxembourg in 2006, and a few month after I bought it for little money.

It's not my daily driver. But when a more recent car had a minor problem sometimes, I be sure the brave, old Malibu start without any problem. Often she's asleep from 3 or 4 months ... a good batterie and run !

Best regards

im lookin for parts for my 80 wagon,can you help!(i.e)tail gate latch and seat locks.pls help

Hi, I bought a 83 Malibu Wagon 3.8 in Kelowna BC after the car I was driving broke down and they wanted 5,000 to fix her. Almost the same exact story,the son was selling her because his father died and his mother bought a new car.That was two years ago and I'm still driving her.
I'm now thinking of selling her. If know someone who would give her agood home drop me a line with an offer.

I am the proud owner of an 83 Olds Cutlass V8wagon - same as Chevy Malibu. Original engine, changed to a 4-speed Transmission 3 years ago, and am getting 16+ miles/gal. The only engine work was carb rebuild 7-8 years ago, requiring installing a rebuild kit and done by my son in my garage. Runs greata after 400,000+ miles. The only attention has been regular change of oil.

All it needs is the rubber seal on the tailgate. Any recommendation will be welcome at jjsingh1@sbcglobal.net

Ummm...Yum. I just bought an in-much-far-worse-shape version of this car. The ad called it ugly. I tend to relate more to your perspective.

if you still have 1983 Malibu wagon how much you want and can you send pictures thankyou

I bought an 83 Malibu, with 56 000 kms and in absolute pristine condition as the previous owner had never winter driven and kept the seats covered.I purchased it for $250.00. You read right.I spent about $800.00 making her tip top. I know exactly how you feel about this car. However, my feelingsr never had the chance to develop. My experience lasted only 6 weeks as I was rear ended by a minivan on the highway at 90 km/h.At the time I didn't realize I was sitting on a classic and happily accepted a thousand dollars from my insurance company.

I have spent the last two years trying to avenge that loss.I now own a 1995 Lexus LS400 as a compensatory measure.That saying quite a bit as this car fetched close to 60 thousand dollars in 95.Yet, the Malibu was so much more distinctive and memorable.It seats six adults and that's how many we were on its maiden voyage of about 350 kms.That was one week before it was totaled.My friends often reminisce about how that day made them feel like kids again on a genuine road trip.I'd trade in my Lexus in a flash for a mint condition Malibu. They somehow just don't compare.

Your article echoes my sentiments so eloquently. Just wish I could have had her for as long as possible.

Man, I love your wagon. If I were you I would raise some funds to sup the baby up. Some months ago I got a 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser C wagon from the original owner and it has under 100,000 miles to boot (currently around 85,000)! IT a 3.1L V6 FWD car but man it hauls ass and your stuff at the same time.

I only wish more real wagons like these cars were still being offered today by manufacturers instead of all those silly crossovers, SUVs, and minivans. More people would like them, they are certainly more useful than small wagon/hatchback combos we have been getting as of late, and offer a fun but reasonable alternative to so many SUV/CUVs that can't quite perform like a real sedan.

I have 83 Chevrolet Malibu Wagon I'm the third owner with under 100,000 miles . I got it about a year a go had all the windows tinted because the california sun can burn the inside, a alarm system, also a touch screen stereo ( i still have the original stereo) . Nice V6 Engine fills with about $40.00 worth of gas . Im also taking of all the moldings and that wing on the back window so it can have a clean look to it but now I lost interest on it and now I don't know if I should sell it or save it for my five year old son. I think if the right price comes along I think I will sell it MAN WHAT TO DO!!!

In the early-80s my mom had this vehicle's corporate cousin: a 1981 Pontiac Grand LeMans Safari. It was a company car she got for being a manager with Tupperware. It's exterior was white & festooned with the 3 W's: whitewalls, wire wheel covers, & woodgrain. The interior was tan vinyl. It had power locks but not power windows. We only had it for less than 2 years: my mom quit Tupperware & had to return the car.

I own my Malibu wagon since 10 years and I love it, I been to many place with it, and have a lot of memories.
I went to get my wifes wedding dress on it, to my honeymoon, took my wife to deliver both my kids on it.
I been thinking about selling it, but I choose to sell my 11 sec street bug.
The plan its to make a 10 sec street car out of the wagon
I see a427 cid single turbo engine on it.

Oh, man I miss my Olds cutl. cruiser! Thank you for the article.
Alf
Oslo,
Norway

whats up i also have a 1983 chevy malibu with a 350 4bolt and 350 turbo trans.....ive owned this car since i was 16 10years so far ive changed the motor from a 305 to a 350 and added 20in wheels and tires new paint and chevy bowtie painted on the hood tinted windows and lots of smaller parts including bucket seats and new back seat......its the best car ive ever owned plenty of room and lots of power....if i were to sell i wouldnt take less then 10,000 but its my project its very clean and runs strong so good look on restoring your old mali

JM,
I spotted your old 1981 Pontiac Grand LeMans Safari wagon in the city impound lot, fell in love with the Smokey and the Bandit grill, and won the bid at $166.
She's still white but flames replaced the woodgrain, and TransAm rims and tires replaced the whitewalls and wire backets. Sandalwood interior still a beauty.
I drive her 2+ hrs every day and relish every minute of the American car bench-seat slouch.

Frank,
i found your old '83 malibu and im fixing her up!

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