By on January 27, 2010

Walking around some blocks of the student neighborhood near the University of Oregon on a gray winter’s 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.

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 mainly by the indifferent quality of the components it’s composed of. 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 downsized/full sized Caprice and Impala. We’ll get to that one soon. But you know what? As terrific of a design the four door version of the big Chevy was, the big coupe was 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 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 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 that those two cars were up on the wall when the designers penned this Malibu. In fact, there’s never been a car that better captured the overall stance, proportions and feel of the classic ’55 two door sedan.

mYou 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 hideous baroque platform-mate, the Monte Carlo. That stylistic disaster with its pretend hips and tits outsold the Malibu coupe by a four to one ratio in 1978.  What’s the line about no accounting for (Americans’) tastes? This Malibu 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 with under the hood, the most important part for a classic American RWD  car anyway. The late seventies were as bad engine-wise as the most of the styling. The Malibu’s palette started with a total POS: the 200 CI (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 CI 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.

But there’s probably 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 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 ’55 and ’64, the 350 still chuffed out a spadeful of torque, and 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 crate engine of choice with, the Malibu was the way to go. As for the rest of the car? With the right boxes checked, GM offered as good a handling and steering RWD car made in the land at the times. Let’s leave it there, because as is well known, GM quality control had already taken an early retirement. But the junk yards and Auto-Zone are still plentiful with whatever it takes to keep  these on the road, and bring cheer to a dull and dreary day.

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90 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1979 Chevrolet Malibu Coupe...”

  • avatar

    but they started with the worst SBC ever made: the 267 CI that managed all of 125 hp

    Word. The last couple of years I lived out west my dad had the wagon version of one of this as a company car. Honestly, even I run out of adjectives when describing that engines complete and utter lack of redeeming virtue. I can vividly remember taking my driving test in it…no danger of speeding. This car reminds me very much of it because the interior is the same colour.

    The author is right, the coupe, sedan, and wagon versions were all tidy designs. I’d trade their somewhat plain exteriors to the self-conscious excess of most new cars. What I don’t miss is the absolutely abominable fit and finish. Honestly, in our wagon a young child could fall out without ever opening a door or window.

  • avatar

    I agree, its a clean design, and a simple one.

    • 0 avatar

      Is it just me, or does anyone else, looking at the RR 3/4 shot see Nova design cues and proportions, esp the tail lights, just adapted to the linear styling of the period?

      I know it is quite different … but just stare at it like one of those mystery puzzle pictures and eventually a Nova comes into focus…

  • avatar

    Ok, It was the 1978 model year that first saw this style. We built them in what was called the A plant. We ran them with the Monte {agreed it was Toyota ugly} and the Lemans,also sort of goofy looking.

    The Malibu, [the plant people still called them Chevelles] was indeed the only looker of the bunch.From where I worked on the B side we could see the A cars going through the roll test. You could pick the ones out that were custom ordered. The reason being it was only very few that would option up a Chevelle, rather than go for the Monte.

    • 0 avatar

      Mikey, that brings to 2 the number of my cars you have built (or seen built). I am guessing you also built my 89 Celebrity.
      I had the wagon with the 267 in college, I remember that motor being pretty decent, I got speeding tickets aplenty. On one long highway ride going home it got 29 mpg! And the back seat folded flat for hijinx, whoa nelly. Good times.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Mikey, I enjoy your stories of the old days, please feel free to keep it up with as much colo(u)r and detail as possible!

      Maybe you could, like Bertel, write a ttac autobiography, telling us of your experiences during your career …

      I was an assy plant resident engineer (for body electrical) at Ford Lorain during my last summer in college, and while the UAW-Management craziness was gone, and there were good relations with the supplier-partners, there were still some stories … multiply that across a career, during some crazy times, UAW-CAW split, etc. and I bet you could entertain and educate us.


      Ed, if Mikey is hip, what sez you?

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Of course; I’ve been hearing snippets of Mikey’s stories for years. Bring it on, Mikey!

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the vote of confidents,but my writing and spelling skills are just so bad.

      Thanks Paul for the comment below. I kind’a like my role here as the resident blue collar/red neck,and I would like to keep it that way. But if I think of something I’ll let you know.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Mikey; we can do the editing. No pressure; but if you send me a story sometime, let me have a go at it.

    • 0 avatar

      Mikey, I would like to thank you for taking notice to my 79 Malibu. I found this site by accident. What are the odds, lol. I love this car. Some think i should park it and only drive it on sunny days, if you have something you like why park it. This is my daily driver. It has a 267 motor and i’m working on putting a small block 350 in it. so this summer i will drive by and show it off.

    • 0 avatar
      ken moore

      Mike: I saw that you worked on the assembly line at GM, and wanted to ask you a questions, I have a 79 gmc caballero which is restored, however the inside lower part of the drivers door is rotted and I think I will have to replace it. I have looked around local junk yards and finally hit upon a door in a local yard, it has the vin tag so I decoded it and it is off a olds cutlass 2 door 1980, will this be an exact match as the measurements and pictures match up?

      Please let me know if you get this message, it is important to me?

      Ken Moore

  • avatar

    Back from the time before GM lost the script completely…When I was in H.S. my mother had a brown ’80 Malibu Classic coupe as a company car and I remember it as being in-step with the times, smaller and lighter than the mid-70’s intermediates, but still comfortable, smooth and a decent drive.

    GM’s first round(s) of downsizing hit all the right notes, giving mainstream American buyers the room, smooth ride and easy driving performance they were used to in a smaller, lighter package.

    But the Japenese onslaught awaited, and within a few years, this Malibu would seem just as out-of-date as the land barges that preceded it. And Roger Smith’s tenure was an unmitigated disaster. Sad that it’s taken them almost 20 years to finally field products that can honestly compete with the imports…hope it’s not too late.

  • avatar

    The 1978 A Body was, in my opinion, the last really good car that GM built. They looked good and drove very well. The best part was the driving position: you sat up high and not on the floor like everything else GM. The cars were light and even with the 160 hp 305 they could scoot just fine and more hp was cheap and easy.

    And it typically GM style, they did some real boners with the car. The biggest one was that on the sedans and wagons the rear windows did not roll down. I have no idea what the engineers were smoking when they did that one. The 267 CID engine was a total dog but GM was being strangled by emission and CAFE laws. Even then everyone knew fuel injection was the way to go, but GM was totally obsessed with NIH syndrome and it had to wait for another decade or so!

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pretty sure the lack of rolling rear windows was due to EPA mileage ratings. As I understand it, the EPA had some formula it used to create its rating, and of course one component was weight. But instead of plugging in the actual weight, they were segmented by increments of two or three hundred pounds. So if your vehicle came in at 3405 pounds and the 3399 was the cut off for the lower segment, there was a lot of pressure to lose that 6 pounds. So getting rid of a few pounds of window mechanism could magically make your car get a couple more MPG in the EPA’s world.

      The imports didn’t play these games because the luxury brands didn’t care if they got slapped with the CAFE penalty tax, and the others got such good mileage they didn’t have to worry about it. But Detroit sure cared, and so they sold us cars with fixed rear windows and wondered why we hated them.

      I only remember seeing this on GM cars, did Ford or Chrysler release any with fixed rear windows?

    • 0 avatar

      The explanation for not allowing the rear windows roll down is simple: it’s cheaper.

    • 0 avatar

      I had read somewhere that the reason the cars didn’t have roll down rear windows was because in order to have enough people space in the back they had to recess the side armrests, and by doing that, there was no space for the windows to drop down into the doors.

      But despite the quirks, the 1978-1988 A, and later G bodies are by far my favorite GM cars of all time. I’ve spoken many times here about the ’87 Cutlass Brougham I had, and how it was so nice having all that luxury and style in such a trim package. Oddly enough, today’s full sizers all seem to be about the size of that Cutlass, which checked in at 200.1 inches long

    • 0 avatar

      I believe supremebrougham is right; GM was targeting the same rear hip room as the fuselage bodied Colonnade Malibu and achieved it by hollowing out the rear door panels.

      There cars were horribly cheap and ugly looking inside. And all the plastic discolored or crumbled after only a few years of sun exposure. Too bad, because the underlying platform was good. We need another generation of that platform, done right.

    • 0 avatar

      Russycle: I only remember seeing this on GM cars, did Ford or Chrysler release any with fixed rear windows?

      I seem to remember that Chrysler’s 4-Door K-Cars also had fixed rear windows, which was kind of stupid because the only reason that people bought Chrysler’s previous compacts (the Volare, Aspen, Diplomat & LeBaron) was to get away from the fixed rear windows on GM’s mid-sized cars.

    • 0 avatar

      The Big 3 built [and still do , stupidly] millions of 2 doors with the fixed rear glass something it started in the 70s when they were chasing VW’s Beetle and cutting corners, saving some bucks by having them fixed. You could get optional “flip out” style windows in some Mavericks and AMC Hornets.

      And no: the K car 4 doors did not have fixed rear glass.

      I despise this design “feature”. It’s no wonder 2 door vehicles lost favor: that fixed glass and tomb like useless rear seat make any 2 door almost a ridiculous waste of utility if you car passengers more than once a year. Baked in stupidity. Like consoles that eat up knee room and passenger space.

      Dumber still: 2 door SUVs with fixed glass.

      This is a beautiful car.Just right in it’s proportions.

      But: don’t know why it was ever acceptable for 2 doors to have fixed rear glass, but 4 doors it was an outrage. Go figure.

    • 0 avatar

      DweezilSFV: “And no: the K car 4 doors did not have fixed rear glass.”

      The 4 door K cars most certainly did have fixed rear door glass. They only had little flip out vent windows in the back; the main part of the window was fixed. I know for certain this was true of early examples, at least. My grandparents had an ’81 Aries with fixed rear glass.

  • avatar

    I purchased a 1981 model in 1991, brown 4-dr 267. A new cam, timing chain and lifters, and it became my young families primary wheels for 3 years. The bad things…rear windows didn’t roll down and no AC guaranteeing overheated kids in summer. Hard plastic interior panels that changed colour until they resembled well-chewed gum. The good things…just about everything else.Super reliable, decent gas mileage,great winter car.I was still driving it in 2001 and decided to drop in a small block 400 that I had laying around. What an awesome sleeper! In 2003 the trailer hitch bottomed out on a curb and the right rear sub-frame broke in half and I reluctantly retired it.

  • avatar


    Did the 3.3 V6 predate the 4.3, which as I am sure you will recall, was a 5.7 (350) with two cylinders lopped off? I thought that was the first attempt to make a SB6 from a SB8

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Yes. The 4.3 was Take 2, and vastly more successful, if still a bit rough at the edges.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Are you sure that 3.8 V6 was the Buick 231 and not the Chevy 229 V6 (chopped down from the 305 SBC)?

      In general, cars from this era were about as close as the domestics ever got to communist-bloc crapmobiles. It’s interesting to note that the Cruze is about the same size, weight, and power as these things.

  • avatar

    The one irritating trait of the wagon version: the barn-door rear window that incessantly rattled against the fold-up tailgate. Not a rigid enough body structure for that to work.

    • 0 avatar

      No in 1989 we were running Lumina W on the B side [we still called it the Chev line}With the Buick W Regal 2 dr on the A side, a sales flop untill they added a couple of doors.

      The 89 Celeb I think was ran in St Therese Quebec before they got the Camaro in 93-94?

      Paul I don’t remember the 3.3, we ran a a Chev 3.8 I think the production code was LC3. Now the Buick 3.8 Ld5 code was twice the motor and it went into some of the American B Chevs. I’m not sure if the A got it.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      My encyclopedia shows the Buick 3.8 V6 was optional. I forgot to mention it in the article, but have added it now. Thanks.

  • avatar

    I also prefer the look of a Monte Carlo from this era over the bland, boxy Malibu, despite Paul’s disdain for the Monte.

    About 10 years ago, a friend had one of the 4-door sedans with the non-functional rear windows, and they had been heavily tinted. That caused an interesting episode when crossing the US/Canada border once when I was in the back seat. “Roll down your window.” … I open the door…. “Close the door!” I close the door. “Open the window!” I shout, “The back windows do not open!” Of course, the border guard didn’t believe me, and more hilarity ensued.

    EDIT: I don’t know what happened to the comment that I was supposed to be replying to, but the one my comment is attached to isn’t it. Carry on.

  • avatar

    I have a the last of the 73-77 Malibu’s and a buddy had a string of 78-87 El Camino, Malibu Wagon, Monte Carlos and they all struck me at how cheap and spartan the interior was even compared to the Disco era 76 and 77 Chevelles.

    None of those El Camino’s, nor the wagon drove as nicely as my Chevelles did, plus they felt fragile while driving them. they were ergonomic nightmares for someone over 6 feet tall as the HVAC and radio controls were almost on the floor of the hump, the instrument cluster is tiny and cluttered and hard to read.

    The ’84 Monte Carlo SS he has now, still suffers from all of the above, but the fact it now sports a 454 CID V8 and a better thought-out suspension refresh, I still will hold my judgement. It looks dated even compared to it’s contemporaries at the time.

    The 4door A/G bodies had a curious rear windows, you could not roll the rear windows down, they had quarter windows to open or little vent windows to swing out, but the only roll-down windows were on the front doors. Supposedly it was to get the same amount of hip room out of them as the 73-77 cars.

    I have driven a 200 V6 ’78 Malibu sedan, and it had decent pep for what it was, a grocery-getter. It was a slug compared to even my less-than-enthusiastic 76 Chevelle with it’s 140hp 305. That same 305 with a set of heads from a ’90s Caprice went from a kitten to a wildcat, still keeping the two barrel carb and all the wonderful ’70s emission controls.

  • avatar

    My dad bought one of the “Iraqi Taxi’s” or “Iraqibu’s” in 1981/82.

    I was only about 5 when they got it and they kept it until 1987 when it was replaced with a Chevy Celebrity. The Malibu was the biggest POS I remember them owning. The Celebrity was actually slightly better. The awesome 3 speed on the floor shifter vibrated worse than an old Jetta diesel on a frigid day. That’s all I remember though, along with the friggin’ bench seat in the front and the tweed interior.

    • 0 avatar

      Hey Brett, lets not forget your parents paid $5000 CDN for your Iraqi taxi. A new Malibu went for 8500 in those days.

      I put those things together and I took them apart.

      For those not in the know. We built nearly 25K Malibus for the good people of Irag.They renaged on the deal and the Canadian taxpayer was on the hook.

      • 0 avatar

        mike i’m looking for an old friend..I had a 1979 malibu classic two-tone landau coupe, with buckets, center console w/ floor shifter, and chrome trim around all windows, with chrome at the bottom of the doors and over the wheels..she came with a 305, and a 200 metric, im searching for info to help me locate the same vehicle except maybe a 350 stock?? Were they available? I had one, sold it, now i’m ready for another one.. I have been told they were made in mexico.. The M80 means nothing to me, were the police Malibu’s around in 1979, with the LT1 motor? Any information to help me in my search would be greatly appreciated..THANK YOU ALL!! ( seattle )

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll second my brother’s memory of our family Iraqibu. Dad bought the car (an ’81 model) at Gary Mackie Chev in Tilbury, Ontario (the replacement for a ’70 LeMans coupe) in July of 1982. The car had already sat on a ship in Halifax for a year before GM decided to retail them at Canadian dealers. Ours was silver with a blue/grey vinyl/tweed interior. If I recall correctly, it had the Chev 3.8 V6, but it may have been a 3.3. Either way, it was gutless. It stalled when the A/C was turned on, and had terrible vapour lock issues in the summer. Ours had a 200 km/h speedo (very optimistic), A/C, an AM/FM cassette, and that’s it. And as the memories come flooding back, I do remember being trapped in the back seat like a common criminal with only vent windows for fresh air. My dad to this day loves cheap cars (cheap anything, really) and the Malibu, at around $6000.00 out the door, was right up his alley.

    • 0 avatar

      My spouse’s driver’s licence was granted via one of these Malibus (regular, not Iraqi). But a buddy did have one, complete with the tinted glass, A/C, and three-on-the-floor. That’s back when Saddam was still a frenemy.

    • 0 avatar

      GM didn’t have much luck in the Middle East at this time. They were the major US seller in that region, due to Ford opening a plant in Israel and a subsequent boycott in many Arab countries.

      In 1978 GM announced plans to build an assembly plan in Iran, when the Shah ran the place and was flush with oil money. Tehran then was a boomtown (as was Baghdad).

      They built the plant and shipped over loads of CKD Kits of Cadillac Sevilles, Blazers and another Chevy model (Malibu or Impala I guess)

      A month or too later, the Islamic revolution happened and ‘the Shah left town’ as Lee Iacocca put it.

      GM never got any compensation, but the Ayatollah rode around in GM products all through the 1980s!

  • avatar

    I was surprised to learn recently that the ’78 A/G-bodies could be had with a manual transmission. The take rate must have been near zero because I’ve never seen one except in very rare pictures like this one of a Grand Prix:

    • 0 avatar

      I saw a late 70s Malibu (I think it was a 4 door) with a 3.8 V6 and a three-speed floor shift manual at a car auction in Minot, ND in the early ’90s. I was a little tempted to bid on it, and probably should have…it sold for less than a grand.

    • 0 avatar

      My high school (in the early 90s) auto shop teacher had a Malibu wagon with a manual, I think it was a three speed but I’m not sure about that and have no idea what was under the hood.

  • avatar

    I was selling new Chevrolets in 1979 and had as my demo a Malibu Classic 4 door with 305 4 barrel and lots of options. It was a perfectly sized car and looked good in pale yellow with what they called oyster split cloth bench and some kind of rally wheel option. It was not a bad car except for the rear doors with fixed glass. After that I had a Citation, uh not so good.

    • 0 avatar

      Did the 79′ classic landau coupe with two-tone paint, bucket seats, center console w/ floor shifter ever offer the 350 as an option, instead of the 305-200 metric package?? I’ve been searching for years for info, and just started looking online. I had the above described car and was told they were made in Mexico..I wanted to buy another one but wanted a stock 350 if available..Thank you for any help you can offer..

  • avatar

    Classy, clean, elegant, and great power-to-weight for its day…Chevy designers really took hold of their senses with this one.

  • avatar

    My father had 2: 1 79 and 1 82 or 83. I was a small child when he brought home the 82. Sky blue and Marine Blue. Both of them V6.

    My uncle had one, 82. My grandmother had one, 78, V6 and white.

    A friend of mine had one during the university. 83 Malibu Classic with engine swapped from the original 3.2 V6 to 3.8.

    I drove my gradma in 2006. It was tired, TIRED, but what a soft and relaxing car to drive. I really liked the difference (being used to drive 1 AE82 Corolla and a Fiat).

    I like more the downsized Caprice, but both of them rock.

    I can only imagine what one of those things would do with a LSX swap. Gen III or IV and a bottle of nitrous.

  • avatar

    I hated these then, sort of like them now. The clean lines are refreshing, and these cars have outlasted a lot of FWD GMs built afterward.

    • 0 avatar

      I felt and feel the same. If GM designers didn’t have such a fascination for cheap looking chrome and plastic on the front and rear, these could be pretty cool looking

  • avatar

    Oh yeah, I had one of these back in the day, but my ’79 was pretty tired by the time I got it (’91 or ’92). But it got me back and forth to college (450 miles) for a couple of years without breaking down–much. Mine leaked power steering fluid, and it was cheaper to top it off every week or two than to try to get it fixed…

  • avatar

    I had one of those Malibu coupes. It was a hand-me-down from Grandma in the late 80s. It was a good car. It sprung an intake leak and I hacked it to fix it on a student budget but it got me through and beyond college.

    My parents had the Caprice Classic four door variant. It developed some sort of problem and went idle until my dad took it to the farm to live.

    I always liked the look of these. They were reasonably comfortable and the Malibu I had seemed to have enough power and drove nicely enough. Nowadays, here in San Diego, you tend to see some of the young kids with them along with the requisite 22″ wheels. Some don’t look half bad.

  • avatar

    I enjoy PN’s curbside classics–maybe I should move to Portland.

    I am puzzled about one thing wrote that in sales, the coupe held it’s own against the Malibu sedan, but the Monte outsold it 5 to 1. That doesn’t sound right—it implies the MC outsold the Malibu, did it?

    I remember the 78 GM mid-sizes…I was in HS, my dad looked at Malibus and LeMans in 1980, but they were about $1000 more than a 4-cyl Fairmont with a stick if I recall correctly, so we got the Ford. The X-cars cost about the same as the mid-sizes in 1980. My dad derisively referred to the Fairmont as “the tin can”, but in the early 80s found himself giving rides to coworkers with nicer GM cars of the era.

    You mentioned the anemic 200 ci (3.3) Chevy V8 derived V6. As a kid, I couldn’t understand how, for 30 or 40 lousy cubic inches, GM could sell these motors. Our other car at the time was a 75 Pontiac Ventura (Nova) 2-dr with an Olds 260-2V V8. It had the power of a six with the gas consumption of a V8..15mpg, 17-18 highway. Probably no better than any GM 350-2V of that era..but with the 350, the car would’ve hauled ass.

    I will say the 260-2V always started…hot, cold, and had flawless driveabilty, unlike the 80 Fairmont 4-cyl (but it got 21 mpg, 29-30 on the highway).

    Thanks for bringing back the memories Paul!

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Let me clarify, because I realize the way I said it might be confusing. The Malibu coupe sold almost as well as the sedan version, unlike the Impala/Caprice coupe. But yes, the MC grossly outsold the Malibu overall. It was the era of coupes, and sedans were losing their popularity.
      It’s Eugene, btw.

    • 0 avatar

      I drove a 78 Malibu a couple times with the 200. around town it was adequate, but I think that a low-revving 90hp engine in a 3600 pound car is a bit of a stretch for sane highway merging.

  • avatar

    My dad had a 78 Camaro when my parents got married…traded in for a 79 Malibu a year later. Both with a 305, and decently equipped. Both were great cars for him, as was my mom’s 79 Cutlass Supreme with a 260.

    Then he tried GM’s FWD sedans, 84 Cutlass Ciera and 85 Grand Am, both with Iron Dukes. Those ended his GM string, starting in 68 with a Nova. I remember him buying the Grand Am, and I remember even better him replacing it with an 86 Taurus MT-5 (and then a SHO). Like many, GM’s front-drivers turned him to Ford.

    He regrets getting rid of the two A/G-body cars, would have outlasted the other two cars. Ford and Honda (mainly lawn equipment!) since then.

  • avatar

    My dad got an 81 4door with a V6 in 82 or 83. What a POS!
    The car would always stall with the AC on in traffic, the mechanic said the computer and the carb could not be adjusted to fix the problem. With non opening back windows my sister and I would cook back there.
    A great memory was my mother driving us to school the week the catalytic converter took a dump, the car would not go over 15mph.
    My mother’s ’76 Malibu wagon was a much better car. They sold the ’81 Malibu in ’86 and the ’76 Malibu in ’90.
    Gives you an idea of the reliability of these things.

  • avatar

    My first car was an ’80 Malibu sedan, picked up in ’96. Lots of good memories with that old iron.

  • avatar

    This ’79 Malibu, or Chevelle, as per Mikey, is not a bad looking car, and it is certainly superior to most US cars of its vintage, except maybe the first gen Taurus. But it just doesn’t hold a candle to that ’64 Chevelle. That car has a magical something or other; I’m not sure what, but it has a beauty to which the ’79 bu doesn’t even come close. Of course, it’s very hard for me to think of a ’64 GM car that I don’t consider beautiful, although the Caddys don’t transport me quite the way the others do. And where do they transport me? To all the best of Southern California, especially the beaches.

    On the other hand, this ’79 looks at home where Paul found it. I’m surprised Eugene has such a run-down looking neighborhood. I guess what’s good about this car is its simplicity. They didn’t do too much, styling-wise, so they couldn’t do too much damage. The 1970 Valiant, on the other hand, is truly beautiful in its simplicity.

  • avatar

    Looking at the side view of the coupe you can see that there’s no place for a rolled-down rear window to go. It’s weird that they built the four-door sedans the same way; most of them have windows that will roll partway down at least.
    I’ve always liked the exterior styling of these cars, but the exceedingly ugly instrument panel with the big stupid box in the middle turned me off.

  • avatar

    Always liked these – the styling is just right.

  • avatar

    My first car was a ’78 Malibu wagon that my dad had dropped a 350 V8 in. The paint was faded and cracked, the body had quite a lot of rust, black vinyl upholstery was destroyed, and the AC didn’t work, but man was that thing fun to drive. My friends nicknamed it the Dragon Wagon.

  • avatar

    I had a 1979 2-door Malibu coupe with the filet-o-shit 200 V6. However, it got me to school and back, then took me across the country. I finally sold it in 1993. It was a good car, but was certainly showing its age when I traded it in. But it outlasted most of the later Malibus. If I’d had the money (ha!) I’d have fixed it back up, but the responsibilities of a family ruled that out.

    Man those two doors were heavy!! But there was plenty of room in the backseat for extracurriculars…

  • avatar

    GM also made big–really big–cars with fixed rear windows. My wife inherited a big ’74 Chevy two-door coupe(?) with non-opening rear windows and we drove it several years. What a Bronto. Designed just before the first oil panic, it was very heavy and big as a barge. (Underpowered, too, since the smog controls were pre-catalytic converter.) There was plenty of space for the rear windows to roll down, or for a bootlegger to store sixty quarts of whiskey for that matter, but the windows were fixed. I think GM left out roll-down mechanisms simply because in the early seventies they didn’t care about fuel economy and figured everyone could just run the air conditioning all the time.

  • avatar
    Green Destiny

    A ’79 Malibu was my first car. My father inherited it when his father passed away; it eventually passed into my hands. It had the 267 CID motor, and we put 100K miles on it. I remember it had a serious sludge problem after a PCV valve failure, but besides that it was a honest, square-jawed American sedan. Thanks for the memories, Paul. Your CC editorials keep me coming here on a daily basis.

  • avatar

    “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.”

    Paul, I admire you more than I can say, but I can’t go there with you on this one. I had one of these new (a GM employee A-Plan purchase), and hated it more than any of the 50 or 60 cars I’ve had in my life. I too thought the size was perfect, and it was less ugly than just about any other ’79 GM car, but it had no performance, no handling, no steering feel, and no brakes. To top it off, it had the lightweight Turbo Hydra-Matic 250 transmission that lurched and wheezed, but that GM denied had any problems. The whole car felt flimsy, and no two pieces of interior material were the same color even before it had sat out in the sun for a day. In fact, this was the car that made me decide to start looking for work elsewhere. Unfortunately, before I left GM I A-Planned the Malibu Classic Estate Wagon version of this turd for my father. I don’t think he ever completely forgave me, God rest his soul.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I think my article was too slanted in favor of the idea, or ideal of this car, and not the actual execution. I made several references to the quality problems. My whole focus of this CC is to point out that GM had the design and package right, but the execution was, as usual, flawed. Perhaps that didn’t come across clearly enough.

  • avatar

    My wife’s first car was a ’79 Malibu Coupe, light blue without the vinyl roof. I believe hers was the base model; it had the 3.3 V6 an automatic transmission and a radio and cost $5500 new. We were married in 1981 and the Mailbu was our primary car; I drove a succession of beaters.

    The 3.3V6 was indeed underpowered. However, the engine and tranny were reliable. We never had a problem with either and the car as a whole never needed anything more than regular maintenance. The car was a good winter car, perhaps because of the lack of horsepower. One negative: the paint was lousy and began to peel on the trunk lid after a few years.

    We sold it at 113K because we had started a family and a 2DR wasn’t cutting it any more. It’s the only car we’ve ever owned that I regret getting rid of. A couple bought it for their teenage daughter; they rather liked the combination of good brakes but not much horsepower.

    My cousin had also had a ’79 Mailbu but with the V8. He too considers it one of the best cars he’s owned.

    After the ’79 Malibu we owned a succession of Chevy’s & Pontiac’s. Then I bought a 3 yr old 2000 Malibu V6. Worst car we have ever owned. Transmission failure at 54K. Intake manifold/dexcool leaks at 60K. It is THE reason there is a Hyundai and a Toyota in our driveway today.

  • avatar

    I was never crazy about the Malibu, and you can mark me off as one of the tasteless Americans who drove a Monte Carlo (my choice was the Grand Prix, but I couldn’t find one I could afford, and we’re talking about one’s first car circa 1987…) of the same vintage. The lines are just too boring. I do like clean, but I don’t see the Malibu as clean in the same way as some of the imports pulled off (Audi Fox, BMW 3-series, Saab 900, etc.).

    The front end is ok, but the way the side windows are inset, combined with the weak rear end styling…just doesn’t light me up.

  • avatar

    JSF22 mentioned the lightweight Turbo Hydra-Matic 250 transmission that lurched and wheezed. I knew several people who owned mid-sized GM products of this time period that were equipped with 305 cubic inch V-8s and who suffered transmission failures after about 20,000 miles or so.

    The THM 250 was probably adequate to cope with the unspectacular performance of GM’s six-cylinder engines of the time, and even for GM’s smaller displacement V-8s (such as Chevy’s 267 or the Olds 260). But it couldn’t handle the torque from the Chevy 305 (or the Pontiac 301, or the Oldsmobile 307). Most of the people who experienced transmission failures replaced the THM 250 with a different model THM (I think they were rebuilt THM 400s) which handled the extra torque better.

    There were a handful of Chevy Malibu Coupes equipped with 4-speed manual transmissions, but it was a pretty clunky piece.

    Curiously, I seem to recall that 4-door sedan version of the Malibu (equipped with the 305) was moderately popular in European markets.

    • 0 avatar

      I remember some of those manual coupes. There was a limited edition Malibu M80 (largely a tape stripe mod) sold in North Carolina and I remember being somewhat interested in it–until I got a close look at it. For about the same money, a Mazda 626 was a MUCH better car.

  • avatar

    I have an ’83 Malibu Wagon which is almost the same car except for the quad headlights… and the back windows roll down. About 250,000 Km but still running OK. Used as a daily driver to work and for hauling stuff. Not too bad on gas but I sometimes wonder if there is a funnel on top of the 305 engine instead of a carb. Good to drive and easy to repair, although not much goes wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      My error about the rear door windows on my ’83 Malibu Wagon, I double checked this morning on the way to work and they do not roll down, just as others have stated about these cars. There are only quarter vent windows.

  • avatar

    I agree with the above posters–as nicely styled as they may have been, these cars were mostly junk. Lots of my friends bought either the Pontiac or Oldsmoblile variants. For a number of these friends, a GM A-body was the last American car they would ever own.

    My personal favorite out of this series of cars was the 1978-80 Grand Am. It had the same clean styling and roofline as the Malibu but with different end caps, and the vastly superior Grand Prix interior. It managed to avoid the clumsy lines of the LeMans and the garishness of the Grand Prix. Never numerous and apparently quite rare now.

  • avatar

    My first car was a used 1980 Pontiac Lemans “coupe” virtually identical to this Chevy. Yep, the 267 was a bona fide POS… it could be easily out-run by a Vespa scooter, and by 100,000 kilometers it was a boat anchor. So much for good old American iron.

    Other lowlights included defective brakes, sagging doors, rapidly-fading paint, and barge-like handling.

    It’s a classic all right. Like polyester pants, or bubonic plague.

  • avatar

    A 1961 Chevrolet Impala SS, with the 348, and trips, with a four speed is a classic. Not this: or maybe my 1965 L76 Corvette.

  • avatar

    I had a brown ’78 4-door with the gutless (yet smooth) 200 V6. Good looking, decent riding car, but as has been said, brakes and handling sucked. I was picking pieces of the windshield out of my forearms for two years after failing to negotiate a curve and putting it into a steel pole @ 40 MPH. The undersized Michelin radials that some shyster told me were “the right size for the car” were probably partially to blame for the wreck. Still liked the looks, though, almost bought a V8 coupe from a co-worker, but he wanted too much money.

    Whoa — thanks for the memories! :-( (wink, wink)

  • avatar

    The fixed rear windows were the result of a mistake in body engineering. The door sheet metal people didn’t allow enouigh room for a window regulator mechanism, the launch date was near, so GM punted and used fixed glass. There was a crash program to develop a window regulator that would work, but the public seemed to accept the fixed glass, so it never came to fruition.

    I was there for this debacle.


  • avatar

    I had a buddy in middle/high school whose family had a Malibu wagon with a 4bbl 305 and a 78 Impala coupe. In middle school I went to my first-ever drag race with his family in the wagon. By high school his parents divorced and he began driving the wagon. He and his dad painted it gunmetal metallic gray, cleaning up/off some of the brightwork in the process, and put rallye-style wheels and white letter tires on it. Also upgraded to true dual exhaust. After the minor go-over that wagon was pretty slick and, IMHO, looked as clean and classic as this coupe does.

  • avatar

    My dad was a Chevy/Olds guy growing up, and so when our Olds Custom Cruiser went t/u, he bought a brand-new pale yellow ’82 Malibu wagon. What a pile of shite. It had peeling paint, electrical problems, tranny issues, all manner of clunks/groans and finally there was some issue with the steering that was the last straw. He traded it less than a year later for an ’83 Nissan Stanza. That car went 150K without issue (and survived my teen driving years), and then followed a series of Toyotas and lately, Subarus. Classic case of GM producing such vile crap that you can never go back.

  • avatar

    Great article…I remember when these (and the other GM A-bodies) debuted. The Malibu was surprisingly clean and handsome for that era. The Monte Carlo was the stinker in the Chevrolet line-up. Attempting to downsize the swoopy fender blisters along with the rest of the platform just didn’t work.

    The Pontiac Grand Prix came across as both bland and awkward.

    The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal were the best looking of the “personal luxury” offerings.

    Especially interesting are the “aeroback” Oldsmobile Cutlass and Buick Century sedans and coupes. Those designs were pretty radical for that era, especially considering the conservatism of Buick and Olds buyers.

    The public didn’t like them, so by 1980, GM came out with conventional notchback sedans for the Cutlass and Regal. Both of them sold very well.

    A suprising number of 1978-83 GM intermediates show up in the car corral at the Carlisle swap meets. As others have noted, the interior plastic panels have faded to several different colors over the years. And the exterior panel gaps and door fits of even clean, all-original cars are atrocious.

  • avatar

    I have a lot of history with these cars.
    I had a 78 Malibu wagon as a company car. It had the 200 CID V6 and was metallic red with a red vinyl interior.
    This one was followed by a 79 Malibu Classic sedan. This one had the 231 CID V6.
    The 200 was the weakest engine I had ever experienced and the 231 (Buick-built I think) was pretty tepid as well.

    The irony is that I didn’t even know that the rear windows were fixed because I don’t think anyone ever sat in the back. The comments on this posting were the first I heard about it.

    The next company car was a 1980 LeMans coupe with the 231 CID V6.

    I recall liking all three of these cars even with the weak acceleration. I never had any trouble with them except for the driver’s side window exploding on the LeMans while driving on the interstate. Never figured out how that happened.

    It’s not that hard for a car to be trouble-free when you only keep it a year.

    At the same time, my Mom had a 79 Cutlass Supreme and Dad had a 79 Regal. Both were coupes and I thought they were beautiful.

    I imagine that liking these cars and not knowing about the rear windows on the sedan and wagon make me sound incredibly clueless.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    Well, this is a pretty car and someone apparently has taken the trouble to recondition it and care for it. For my money, this car’s antecedent, the mid- to late 1960s Chevelle, really was the sweet spot in Detroit front engine/rwd autodom. My high school’s driver training course, used, IIRC a 64 or 65 Chevelle with the 230 cu. in. 6-cylinder and “3-on-the-tree” column shifter manual transmission. That’s the car I used. The next year, after I took the course, this tame car was replaced by the rather hairy SS396 car with the 4-speed floor shifter and the “porcupine” head 396 cu. in. V-8 with a big 4-bbl. on top. Imagine that as a driver training car! Ostensibly, the reason for replacing the plain Jane with the hotrod version was “resale” of the plain Jane wasn’t so good. But, personally, I think whoever was in charge of purchasing decisions had a wicked sense of humor.

    Periodically, in those days of no air conditioning in schools, you would hear some newbie putting down a nice streak of rubber, accompanied by the full-throated roar that only a large displacement V-8 can make.

    Emission controls consisted solely of PCV and, when gas cost about 25 cents a gallon, no one cared too much about fuel economy.

    This car, appears to be a worthy heir to it’s mid-60s predecessor.

  • avatar

    It was what GM did best, an affordable, easy to fix, comfortable car, the 2-door had visibility I haven’t seen since. mine lasted over 20 years and never let me down. Fuel economy with the 229 was also great, considering a 3sp tranny and the weight of the car.

  • avatar

    That A-body was a good car for its time. It had been downsized 600-700 lbs. from the ’73-’77 Collenade models and mostly turned out well. That’s something today’s car-makers could learn from.

    I still like the look of that Chevy Malibu. My parents were Buick people, though. In December 1977, we got a blue ’78 Century Special 4dr aeroback with a 3.8L V-6. It was the low-trim model, but it did have A/C, AM/FM and, on my mother’s insistence, power windows. The quality control was truly awful, and it made several trips to the dealer that year. The right rear “wing” window broke every couple of years, and not having roll down windows sucked. It rattled a lot. The hood always shaked over bumps. At the time, GM cars were “better” than Fords and Chrysler, so that’s what we lived with.

    But you know what? It was a solid, reliable car for most of its long life. The 3.8 V-6 had decent mid-range pickup and I had it up to 90mph a few times. In high school, I even got my license suspended driving it. It got 18-20 mpg in suburban traffic, maybe 22-24mpg on the highway. It had lots of room, the brakes were good, it handled safely, and it was good in the snow.

    Later in college, my father passed it down to me when he got a Nissan Maxima – a real revelation to him after a lifetime of Big Three iron. The Century — often called “the thundering turtle” — soldiered on. It lasted almost 11 years and 130,000 miles. The old man used to joke that car would last forever as long as I kept pouring money into it.

    We’ll never know if he was right. In 1988, it was stolen off the street near my Brooklyn apartment. A friend saw it several weeks later, partially stripped and missing many critical parts from the engine.

    I figured it would take about $500-$700 to put it back together. My net worth at the time wasn’t much more than that. It really wasn’t worth it, so I had sanitation haul it away once I removed the plastic Yoda from the dashboard. And yes, I cried a little.

    Thanks, Paul, for writing this, and everybody else for their memories. Mike66’s story is hilarious.

  • avatar

    Learned to drive in 1991 on a variation of this, a 1981 buick century sedan (v8 267). My dad (gm mechanic) got one that was sucking oil and looking very beat (paint, rust, trim missing). He shaped her back up with a complete paint job and engine repair. Was a very luxurious and a great driver, felt good driving it. Just the right dimension as opposed to his Caprice wich was to big for me. Then he sold it after i bought my first car and i found it many year later and left a note on the windshield to buy it back…the owner was not willing to sell it back…it was a light greenish color, fully equiped rolling princess!

  • avatar

    Ah the famous A/G bodies of 1978-1988 fame. I have owned so many of these cars that it makes my head spin. Where I live in Upstate, NY one had to be diligent about under body washing or the rear frame rails would disintegrate after about 5 or 6 Winters of salt. The rear window issue actually lasted until the bitter end on all A/G sedans. The first 4 door to bite the dust was the Malibu sedan/wagon in 1983. I can vividly remember hearing the announcement on radio that GM was discontinuing it’s popular Malibu mid size sedan and wagon in favor of the FWD Celebrity and how upset my folks were at this news or in my mothers exact words” typical stupid GM. They finally get the Malibu right and then go and discontinue it”. The next 4 door to go was the Regal in 1984. Then the Bonneville in 1986 and finally the Cutlass in 1987. The 2 door personal luxury coupe Monte and Supreme lasted until the bitter end in 1988 with the GP and Regal leaving RWD behind in 1987. The Malibu debuted with the underpowered 94 HP 200 V6 which was basically a small block with 2 cylinders removed. It wasn’t the worst engine in the world but it was sluggish in the coupe and sedan and downright slow in the wagons. Thank goodness GM had the sense to offer Buicks 231 V6 as an option during the 1978 run due to loads of owner complaints regarding the 200. Owners did have the option to upgrade to a 305 2BBL 140 HP V8 also during 1978. In 1979 the 200 V6 got uprated to 105 HP, the 231 got new heads and breathing refinements and now made 115 HP and Chevy introduced it’s 267 V8 2BBL V8 with 125 HP. The 305 lost the 2BBL and was 4 BBL only for 49 state cars and now made 160 HP. The 170 HP 350 was also offered on wagons and certain high altitude emission cars. 1980 dropped both 200 V6 and Buick 231 in 49 state trim (California got the 231 instead)for the new 229 V6 with 115 HP and the 267 and 305 soldiered on but with 5 less HP on both for 120 and 155 ratings. 1981 and 1982 were the low points for these cars IMO. The 115 Hp 229 V6 was downrated for 110. The 305 was restricted to wagons, canadians or California only customers so us 49 staters only option was a detuned 115 Hp 267 V8 as the top coupe and sedan engine option! Speaking of the coupe it’s swan song was 1981. 1982-1983 was sedan and wagon only body styles. 1983, which was the last year for the Malibu gave back the 305 for all trims as an option with 150 HP and dropped the 115 HP 267 mill.
    Reliability varied from one car to the next. One car came with a picture perfect paint job while another had patchy spots and even slight runs. The interiors faded to the point that yout could write your name in the plastic panals and certain year cars with V6 engines and base suspensions(1981-1982 specifically) suffered mushy suspensions. One other fly on the oinment was the undersized 200 Metric that came on many V8 engines that was prone to early failure. It was a mystery as to which car got a 200 vs the better 250/350 units but as luck would have it all the Malibus I owned came with the 250/350 family and were bulletproof for well over 100K. Compared to my hand me down 1979 Fairmont with it’s 85 HP 200 L6 and a friends 90 HP Slant 6 1980 Dodge Aspen sedan my Malibus were superior cars for ride and drive and despite the 267 V8 not being very popular today it’s 125 HP was quite a jump in performance from those other two cars at the time. Consider also that my buddies 1980 Dodge Aspen’s top engine option was a 120 HP 318 2 BBL V8 with lean burn! UGGGhhhh
    My favorite Malibu was a 1979 burgandy coupe with bucket seats, 267 with auto trans and F41 suspension upgrade. Those options elevated this car miles ahead of the lesser V6 base suspension sedans I owned or drove and with a little tweaking that 267 would easily spin the open ended right rear tire at will.

  • avatar

    Theres a reason Ford made its ground up on GM in the late 70’s and early 80’s on smaller cars. Because GM sucked ass at making them. This car is no exception to that rule.
    Also this car was not better in anyway over the ’77+ GM large car designs. Those large GM cars were really excellent cars in all respect.

  • avatar

    I own one of the full dressed 1980 Malibu Classic Landau sport coupes that was custom ordered in september 79 and delivered in december 79.It’s only missing four options power windows and door locks, the thought was that power windows and door locks would eventually fail.The third option that we did not get was a radio, since at the time GM’s sound systems were not great. Oh yeah we did order the full gage cluster with tach and clock but I guess that Mikey’s coworkers didn’t read the option list and the dealer begged us to take the car along with a discount for the missing option.

    336000kms later my triple black landau coupe with dark claret interior, buckets and console, still looks and drives like she did on december 17th 1979
    Mikey despite the missing gage package you and your buddies built me one nice car that I will cherrish for decades to come.

    *note when I say tripple black I’m refering to the body colour since all landau coupes came with two tone paint and a landau vinyl roof. In my coupe’s case it has both the upper and lower body colour as well as the vinyl roof black. From what I was told by GM mine is one of only Four tripple black malibu classic landau coupes to have left Oshawa for the 1980 production year. I know that one got wrapped around a tree in Windsor in 81 and no idea where the other two are now. The odd thing about black malibu coupes is that very few black coupes ever left the factory.

    And yes the Dealer tried very hard to “Up grade” us into a nicer Monte Carlo ralley sport….for the same money and shorter delivery time. Thank fully by september 79 the chrome trim on the 78 monte carlo’s bumpers were already shrinking and peeling why buy a car that in less than two years time would start to look ragged…

    • 0 avatar

      I would LOVE ANY INFO/ MORE INFO about these triple black MALIBU’S . THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME. Please check out my profile for iformation i’m attemting to gather..

  • avatar

    In Lutz’s book, he briefly describes how GM had a choice in the mid-seventies: either design a new fleet of entirely new front-drive, more fuel-efficient vehicles, or use their existing midsize vehicles, improving them, and adding luxury versions of them. I’m guessing it was these vehicles that Lutz was referring to.

    Of course, they chose to go with an new fleet of vehicles with all-new parts, and the rest is history.

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