Our Cars--1983 Chevrolet Malibu Wagon
I'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.
I 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.
There'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.
The 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.
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.
I 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.
After 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.
I'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.
Before 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.
* 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.