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1973-1977 Chevrolet Malibu

Malibu2_2 The mid-1970s Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu lived in a no-man's land for Malibus, coming as it did after the legendary muscle-car Chevelles and Malibus of the late 1960s, and just before the popular ground-breaking Malibus that debuted in 1978. In that context, it's difficult to argue that the mid-1970s Malibus were anything other than gutless, tawdry, disappointing (and, to me, stunningly desirable) dinosaurs so typical of the era. In fact, I made that very point a few months ago in excoriating the Malibu's fancypants sibling, the adorably atrocious Chevelle Laguna Type S-3 454.

It is true that the mid-1970s Malibus were vastly less powerful and purposeful in line than their predecessors, yet bulkier, more wasteful, and more bloated than their successors. Big on the outside, small on the inside, and slow and floaty regardless of trim choice, even a fresh-off-the-showroom-floor 1973 Malibu would be a hopeless anachronism today.

Malibu1_2But, as I so often say, cars should be judged within the context of their time. The Malibu was boldly good-looking, with the muscular contours and rounded detailing typical of Chevrolets of the time. While the sedan and wagons were attractive, the look was very potent on the two-door, especially at the rear. The effect was a pleasing (though thoroughly unsubstantiated) 1970s muscle car look that was somewhat reminiscent of the AMC Matador Coupe. That, by the way, was meant as a compliment--I'm probably one of about four people on Earth who would use a Matador as a positive comparison.

It was also comfortable and doggedly reliable. As I pointed out when discussing the Malibu's cousin, the mechanically similar Oldsmobile Cutlass, in the mid-1970s America still knew how to make quality cars that ran forever--so long as they were simple, front-engine, rear-wheel-drive leviathans without any shred of electronic assistance. The Malibu was among the best of those, and for doggedly dependable transportation I'd take a Malibu long before one of the later and more advanced Citations.

Malibu3 And, of course, the Malibu shares the true genius of all large American cars of the time--a wonderful cruising experience. I know I've written about this before, but it bears repeating. There are very, very few things I find more compelling than the idea of cruising along the freeway in a Malibu at night, the V-8 burbling contentedly as it inhales the mileage, the suspension undulating softly, the steering hunting mildly at speed, the instruments glowing in a dim yellow light, and the radio crooning with tinny country songs. I'm probably alone in this, but for me that's a Car Lust moment equal to a rapid blast through the gears in a sports car.

The first image is from Jim's Classic Corner.com, and the second and third are from How Stuff Works.

--Chris H.

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There was an older family that lived down the street from me when I was a kid. Dad, Mom, Mom's Sister, and the grown sort of hot Daughter (a school teacher who lived at home and vaguely resembled Mary Tyler Moore). They were all chain smokers and had a couple of the Oldsmobile versions of this car. I did snow removal as a kid for my "snow day" job. And they were one of my customers.

I often had to move the cars in order to clear the drive way. My memories of these cars were how insanely challenging they were in snow. Basically a smallest amount of throttle would cause a single rear wheel to light up, melt the snow, and form a patch (or worse - a rut) of snow, ice, and water. From that point forward there was absolutely zero traction. The inertia of the beast was so enormous that friction at the contact pact would instantly yield. Sometimes I observed others trying to move these cars. I remember the frightening high-pitched tone of the tire as the drivers would push it to highway rotational speeds. Given the differential gearing I think that might approach double the speed indicated on the speedometer. It sounded like things were going to fly apart at any moment. The cars which seemed so geared towards forward motion could be on a perfectly flat surface but completely immobile while the tires just spun faster and faster. It was often not even possible to get the cars rocking - forward, reverse - they just sat there.

By contrast my father purchased our Falcon 289V8 wagon with a limited slip differential and an optional traction drive setting in the automatic. It was nearly as remarkable in the snow as our Squareback. When I asked one day about what a "Limited Slip Differential" was our neighbor's cars were the counter example.

But all that crap said, I really like the looks of the black one - the tail section and the roof lines are beautiful. It looks really nice on those rims. The wagon looks nice too - the vertically set quad rectangular headlights are something that could only appear on a 70's American car.

I'm reminded... We haven't done the 1974 Dodge Monaco Police Edition with a 440 magnum yet have we? That would be fun. "It's got a cop motor, a four hundred and forty cubic inch plant, it's got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks, it was a model made before catalytic converters so it'll run good on regular gas"

Just for old times I went back to check the posting on the 73 Cutlass... interestingly and oddly that was the post that inspired the great "SUV Throw Down".

I learned to drive on such cars, and they were absolutely terrible in snow. Unless you had a limited-slip differential--and practically no one did--the rear end (usually the right rear) would break traction at the drop of a stocking cap, and it would even drop the stocking cap for you. Either it would dig itself into a rut as Mochi describes, or it would start going sideways and threaten to bash the rear quarter into your neighbor's mailbox or the adjacent lane of traffic. You learned to steer into a skid real fast.

Chris, you're right about the drive train being reasonably bulletproof--gutless, but bulletproof. The power steering and power brakes were engineered to suppress every last bit of road feel, so the driving dynamics were a bit . . . disconnected.

The build quality left a lot to be desired, though. Even a new car fresh out of the showroom would have all sorts of annoying little rattles that only got worse with time. Detroit iron in this period was also very prone to corrosion, especially in snow country. About the time you paid off the loan, the tinworms would be feasting on lower quarters and rocker panels and the interior would be shaking itself apart.

Nope, you're not alone, Chris. Many a time I got something close to that freeway-at-night experience, except in its 4-door Century cousin. This was probably my favorite car from back then, together with the Olds 442. We've been all over the styling of these things and I guess it's just one of those things you either love or hate and we just have to agree to disagree.

My engine experience wasn't the same as yours though; the V6 on the Century was abysmal. Underpowered and completely unreliable. I ended up hating that car, but it was superb to cruise long Interstate distances. There's something comforting about having 7 feet of hood in front of you, too.

For what it's worth, I like the old Matadors. I even ran across an old AMC Rebel a few years ago that, if I had the money, I absolutely would've bought. Naturally, it was owned by some trailer trash guy who was trying to shoehorn some sort of Chevy engine in it, which made me want to scream in agony and pain, but that's a story for another time...

No limited slip... ugh. Pass. Sorry, but there are some modern "conveniences" that I do enjoy, and, between the lack of a limited slip and the smaller tires of the time, I can just imagine what life would've been like back then trying to drive those things without throwing on snow chains at the first sign of a flurry.

I was conceived in a '73 Chevelle SS, That car is the only thing I can say about my childhood that I am proud of. Everytime I see one I want to say, "Mamma"...

"The power steering and power brakes were engineered to suppress every last bit of road feel, so the driving dynamics were a bit . . . disconnected."
Ha! Nice write up. I too have shared the cruising-at-night-in-a-car-that's-way-way-way-to-big-with-a-big-honkin'-engine
experience. '72 Toronado, with an 8-track player, which did not have the same traction problems as it was front-wheel-drive. But believe me, in Alaska in there were a good share of people (me) who got stuck all the time in snow with their big rear-wheel-drive GM & Ford cars.
Two things can be said for them -- high top speed and lots of cargo room. Well, more so than in a 911.

If memory serves, these cars were originally intended to be introduced as 1972 models. The reason for this eludes me, but based on my experience with a few of them -- from all four divisions over their entire run -- the reason could be the same one that kept there from being a 1983 Corvette: they were so monumentally craptastic that an extra year was needed to whip them into even vaguely marketable shape.

Of course, GM had an excuse, and it was the same one the rest of Detroit used: so much engineering effort was being expended on meeting new safety and emissions laws that very little was available for core concerns. Thus, we had engines that were very hard to start, and once started were reluctant to shut down. We had secondary electrical systems that were so weirdly configured that (for example) slamming one door might cause the window on another to open. Or turning on the radio would cause the wipers to switch on. These are actual experiences I had with a nearly-new 76 LeMans owned by my then-wife's stepmother. And remember: this was the fourth model year of the body style, so GM had plenty of time to work out the kinks.

In addition to the mechanical woes that were common to almost all cars of that era, the 73-77 mid-sized GM cars were poorly built, using truly awful parts. I know: my father-in-law was one of the suppliers of interior and exterior trim, including the plastic chrome that surrounded the opera windows.

Still, I wouldn't mind owning one today, but it would have to be a wagon. Maybe a 455ci Buick, painted flat black, towing a trailer made from the aft-end of a sedan from the same era.

@DD - As I told my wife about these cars, what they lacked in power, they made up for in sheer bulk.

I'll stick with the Impala's from this same period that you very much. There's not a Chevelle/Malibu from the 70's that I'd be interested in owning.

Mochi Mochi: "We haven't done the 1974 Dodge Monaco Police Edition with a 440 magnum yet have we?"

Oh, it's coming. Rest assured, it's coming.

In response to a lot of these comments, I'd say these two things are categorically true:

1. These cars, in fact all big American iron of this era, were horrifyingly bad in the snow, or really on any kind of low-traction surface. Given the preference for rear-wheel-drive cars in today's market to get the best handling, it's funny to see commercials and read magazines from the late 1970s and early 1980s trumpeting the confident handling of front-wheel drive. Cars like this Malibu made front-drivers seem as if they handled like Ferraris.

2. American cars of this era weren't made particularly well, but in the case of these cars the drivetrain would carry on virtually forever. As Cookie the Dog's Owner notes, they were sluggish but bulletproof. I believe I read this truism in one of the comments in the last few weeks - "I've seen GM cars run poorly for longer than many other cars run."

@Chris - that is, the best handling on DRY pavement. I remember one snowy January pushing a bunch of these cars out of a parking lot with some friends. For the record, it takes at least three 12 year old boys to push a mid-70s American car out of a snowy parking lot.

I had a new '73 Malibu, root beer brown with creme vinyl top and interior, power everything. Great car. Then came the oil embargo. Dumped it for a Vega (supposed better gas mileage). What a dumb decision that was. The Vega was probably THE worst car I have ever owned. Be careful about dumping your current car for a high MPG rated car.

I think it's safe to say I've hated everything GM has made since the early 70's, including their pickup trucks (Have you seen the bizarre "styling" of the current Silverado?). I had to make due with a Monza for a brief period, and I still haven't fully recovered.

My mom did have a cool Monte Carlo circa 1980 that wasn't overly fugly though. I really liked how the driver's seat swiveled. That car was actually fun to cruise downtown with. Everybody from eighteen to 80, it seemed, thought it was gorgeous. I think it had every possible option too.

I had a 72 Cutlass Supreme (forest green body, tan vinyl top) for 20 years and 220K miles. It always ran great even when I was cruising around 90 mph in rural Canada. However, I had to do two body jobs. I ditched the car when it was time for the third. Also, had lots of small repairs on almost everything except the drive train. Positives: when the body work was fresh it was a lovely looking car, the engine/transmission were indestructable and it never let me down. When I see a GM car from that vintage, my heart still skips a beat. But I never owned a Detroit car again.

At the time I remember thinking they couldn't possibly make a better looking car than the Malibu 2 door. Really liked its looks.

I also liked the El Camino from that era. That was Malibu based wasn't it? A true classic. Remember following one through Syracuse, NY and suddenly seeing the right rear wheel and axle slowly depart from the axle housing. The guy hit a pothole or something and I watched with amazement as the car got wider and wider until it finally crunched onto the pavement. Stopped to see if the guy needed help. He just stood there shaking his head. Because of that I was never too impressed with GM mechanicals from that era.

I had '77 Malibu Classic 2 door with the 305 V8 my senior year of high school and first years of college back in the late '80s. The engine ran a little rough but that was because of a small oil leak, it ran turbine smooth when properly maintained. I don't care what anyone says the interior was really nice, and yes it was a smooth cruiser.

My and my friends used to cruise around the back roads and dirt roads of south Alabama. Good times, good times.

I remember my Dad paying $800 cash for a used AMC Matador. It rode pretty well, and it lasted a surprisingly long time given its beat-up condition at the time of purchsse, and it certainly was unique looking car. Not a bad looking car.

One of my high school buds had the 454 SS version of the '73 Malibu. I thought it looked great. I don't know if it was fast - but I guarantee you it used lots of gas!

My best-friend's mom had the four-door version with the 350. It was a green pig of a car, but it would carry three juvenile delinquient streakers plus the driver.

DD - We used to have a Buick station wagon with the 455. It was the huge one with the tailgate and window that was electrically operated that "disappeared" into the lower and upper part of the wagon, respectively. Best car we ever had, by far. Sold it to a demo derby guy from Ohio. They use the wagons up there, aparently.

Another friend's mom had a Monte Carlo with the swiveling seat. That was pretty danged cool.

Bryan,
Yeah, that was the "full-sized" Buick, built on the LeSabre platform. I never had, or even drove, a wagon on the platform, but really liked the Olds sedan and convertibles that I had. I remember wondering, when the wagon came out, how long the motorized mechanisms would last, and how tight the seals were.

The Chevrolets were godawful ugly, and most everything Detroit did in that era was pretty badly screwed together. The Oldsmobiles were a bit more attractive, at least through '73 - the even more grotesque bumpers that came along in '74 screwed up a whole generation of cars.

This generation of intermediates was notable primarily for contributing the basic chassis to the '77 B-body cars, which were design-wise (if not in terms of build quality) a big step forward for Detroit from both these blobby A-bodies and the grotesque oversize B- and C-bodies they replaced.

As for powertrain longevity - Chevrolet had a big problem with soft cams in the small-block V8s through the mid and late '70s, my parents' '78 Caprice ate its cam at 44284 miles. Not sure why I remember that number, but I do. At any rate, it was an excuse to park it and do a nicely built-up 350 for it, which was still happy and healthy when the car was finally scrapped 140K miles later. Single pellet cat, 2.41 rearend; in retrospect a little (borderline illegal) exhaust work and 3.23 gears and it'd have been a much happier car.

Oh, and as for the steering on these cars (and most compact-and-larger GM cars from the middle '60s through the '80s excepting the '78-on A-bodies) - they all use a Saginaw 800-series steering box, and there's a little piece in there called a spool valve that controls the steering effort. The difference between the steering in a WS6 Trans Am and a where-the-hell's-the-road Buick is that spool valve, and if you're throwing money at an old GM car a good steering-box rebuilder like Lee Mfg in SoCal can put whatever you want in there. The WS6 TAs were IIRC 35 oz/in and the Z/28s 33 oz/in. Even on my old Suburban a 33 oz/in valve made a world of difference.

I can see a case being made for the styling of this Malibu . . . except for the rear side windows. I never could look past those windows, so they ruined the entire automobile for me.

I'm with you about freeway cruising in GM V-8 powered vehicles, though. Floating along, cruise-control set, watching the world reflected in an enormous, heavy, well-waxed hood was one of those special American motoring pleasures. Also it didn't hurt that you could have several good friends along for the ride, and they were all comfortable with plenty of room to stretch. And let's not forget one of GM's best contribution to the automobile: their A/C systems. None can compare. (Note: I can still come pretty close to the complete experience in my 2000 Suburban.)

I have to say it is nice to see someone write an article on the 73-77 A bodies, though not a very flattering one. They are an easy target to pick on and will never live up to the “legendary” no scratch that “mythical” status of the 60’s era cars. The 70’s era cars never had the freedom the 60’s era cars had from high fuel costs, higher emissions and raised safety standards. But really other than the afore mentioned emission and safety equipment the 73-77 cars are not that much different than 66-72 A-bodies. The chassis and drive train on the 73-77 A body is virtually identical in design to the earlier 66-72 A-bodies but have improved suspension geometry and larger brakes both front and rear with front discs standard, even on the base model cars. In the engine compartment these cars had similar motors as the earlier cars with small blocks from 305 – 400c.i. and the big block 454. The compression ratios were dropped in order to run on the new low octane no lead fuel. Do any of you remember trying to find a place with high-octane fuel for your old high compression motor in the 70’s or early 80’s? Basically the same hot rodding parts, tricks and tuning worked just as well on these motors as they did in the early cars except they would actually run on the low octane gas.
Looks are subjective, but you need to take into consideration that the bulk of the styling and engineering was already complete on this model before the government bumper mandate went into effect, and it is clearly obvious when you see how the federally regulated crash bumpers hang off the car, and ruin what could have been a much more attractive car. Also, those engineered shock-absorbing bumpers were the biggest contribution to that models weight increase. Front and rear combining to as much as 300lbs. Depending on options A 70-72 big block Chevelle weighs 3800-3900 lbs. and a 73-77 big block Chevelle weighs 4100- 4200lbs. Subtract the massive bumper weight and they are even similar in weight.
What about build quality? Really, lets be honest, the build quality on these cars was not that much if any worse than the 60’era cars that came before them, But I would agree that the materials used, mostly in the interior, was not as good, and carried on into the 80’s.
I have to say I thought it was silly to compare these cars to one year only or low production cars like the like a 1970 L-S6 SS Chevelle (less than 6000 made) and ultra rare SD-445 Trans-Am/Formula Firebird, as was done in the Laguna “Disgust” article. There are not many cars new or old that compare to those iconic automobiles.
It has been my experience that a comparably configured 73-77 is as fun to drive as the 66-72 cars, they just look different. Over the years I have owned several Chevelles, a 68-Malibu, 70-Malibu, 70-SS396, 71-SS396 71-SS454, 73-Malibu and two 76-Laguna’s big block and small block powered. To be honest I like the 73-77 cars just as much as I like the older ones. Good artical, I enjoyed it reading it and the comments from other readers.

hi i just came into a chevy malibu classic that needs mega work i am wanting to get parts for it so it can be a fixer upper project for my husband and i. he was suprised when i bought just the body of a car for extremely cheap. he loves all the shows that fix up cars so i thought he and i could do it to since i like them as well. i just do not know where to start. can someone please tell me

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