Curbside Classic: GM's Deadly Sin #7 – 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic gm s deadly sin 7 1976 chevrolet malibu classic

You want to know why the Honda Accord took the country by storm in 1976? You’re looking at its ugly face. That grille looks positively unreal, like something cobbled up by a high school shop class with some leftover extruded sheetmetal. Where were you, Bill Mitchell, when this abomination was approved? In the Accord CC I said Detroit didn’t just open the portcullis with its obese “mid-sized cars” of the seventies. It actively invited the invasion, and Honda led the charge. Well, here are GM’s gates swung wide open. And the problem wasn’t just the front end, but a face does reveal much of what’s behind it. And this mug wasn’t lying.

The 1976 Malibu Classic Coupe was about the same price ($3926 for the six) as the Accord. Given that it weighed almost twice as much, on a price per pound basis, it was a hell of a bargain. In other respects, not so much so. GM’s mega-mid-sized cars of the seventies were the perfect embodiment of why the Accord took the country by storm. They were longer, wider and heavier than full-sized Chevys not that many years earlier. Their arrival in 1973 on the eve of the energy crisis didn’t help, but it’s not completely fair to say that GM didn’t have any idea which way the wind was blowing. Small cars were booming, and GM launched its own Vega just two years earlier.

GM was just following the path of least resistance; to obesity. And boy, did they time it badly. Not only because of the spiraling cost of gas, but also emissions. Tightening standards and lower compression sent performance running of to the hills. The solution? Bigger engines to push fatter cars. The 454 (7.4 liter) big block made all of 235 hp, and was optional in Malibus through the 1975 model. Not that this was an SS or performance model; just something to keep from getting left in the dust. By 1976, the 11 mpg big block was gone; and the biggest gun in the arsenal was the 175hp 400 CI (6.6 liter) that managed maybe 12 mpg. I’ve never seen a six in one of these, and given its 105 hp rating, that was probably a good thing.

The real shocker was space utilization. These two-ton coupes had little if any advantage over the tiny Accord, save for width. The rear seat was a veritable cave, lacking visibility, light or adequate leg room. And the front seat gave a chance to gaze lovingly on GM’s new-found love of cheap and hard plastics as well as the fauxest wood hydrocarbons ever gave their lives for. And that trunk was as misleading as the opera windows: a remarkably shallow and pathetic affair, given the real estate it occupied.

Any redeeming qualities? Of the Big Three, only GM really applied itself to the black magic science of handling. Yes, Chrysler products were the best handling of the three in the sixties, but for the most part Chrysler thought it best to try to chase GM and Ford in the quest of a quieter and softer ride in the seventies, at the expense of precision. Not that Mopar power steering ever had any. But GM actually decided that what the Europeans had been perfecting for many decades was not really impossible: a compliant ride as well as a modicum of handling control. It started with the new 1970 Camaro; and new geometry in these intermediates resulted in some perceptible degree of improvement, especially in comparison to the terminally wallowing Fords of the era.

In the standard suspension, the benefits were mostly obliterated by the sheer size and poor structural rigidity of these cars. But with the optional HD or sport package, they could be hustled, if one was so inspired. I know this from first hand experience, from a GM aficionado at the time who ordered his Malibu wagon with every trick in the option book. But how many buyers were so inclined or inspired? Especially so when brisk driving dropped mileage in the single digits. GM’s steering was also the best of Detroit, and the disc brakes inspired a type of confidence that wasn’t there a few years earlier. It was the usual GM personality-disorder issue: engineers capable of almost anything, hamstrung by lousy product planning and the bean counters.

I realize that GM’s stylists were a bit hampered by the dreadful 5 mph bumper law, but it did go in effect the same year the new Malibu arrived in 1973. So its not like that is an excuse for the Malibu’s pathetic mug. In the first couple of years, if you wanted to fork over some extras bucks, you could get the Laguna, a high-end Malibu with a body-colored Endura nose job. But that wasn’t all too hot either, and faded away in a couple of years.

This won’t be our last look at these big-boy intermediates. Strangely enough, I sort of found the sedan roof line to be of some visual interest. It at least was a change from the typical sedan lines of the times, and I suspect it looked great when it was first conceived on the drawing board. The Collonade Coupe? Well, everyone who really would have rather bought a Camaro probably loved it. In 1973, it was a bit of fresh air, but it quickly lost its appeal, especially when the side panels were closed up in later years like this one, except for those ridiculous gun slits. And some of the Malibu’s corporate cousins at least tried to make their front ends a bit interesting. No effort went into this one, though. And when the enemy is at the door, its a good idea to put your best face forward.

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  • Weeza71 Weeza71 on Jul 04, 2015

    Wow this car is from my town. I drove by it for years and wanted it. I watched it sit and rot to this condition. When it was first parked there it looked pretty good. The owners recently moved and the car disappeared. I would have loved to have gotten it and restored it. My cousin had one that was beefed up a little bit under the hood. The ultimate sleeper that would haul ass!

  • Bobbycowen Bobbycowen on Mar 22, 2016

    I have a 1976 Chevelle 4-d sedan . Its silver with blue top and blue interior. I bought it from an old man who's sister bought it new . he said the back seat had never been sat in . Its a 305 auto.It had sat in his garage since his sister passed. I bought it with 40,000 original miles ,has almost 43 k now. So far not any real problems ,radio or air does not work I put a set of GM rally wheels on it which did makes it look some better but the more I look at this car the uglier it gets . I have thought about changing the front clip to a 73 with single headlights and changing the rear to the round lights I do know of where a 2 dr blue coupe is in a junk yard rusting away . Some days I look at that front and see overtones of a Matador or something in that era . I think sometimes when they designed this thing they may have set back and said ,lets see just how ugly we can make this one. . I use it for a daily driver and I have a Lincoln town car . If just something would happen to it I could send it packin but it starts and runs daily `I feel Im cursed owning it.

  • ToolGuy CXXVIII comments?!?
  • ToolGuy I did truck things with my truck this past week, twenty-odd miles from home (farther than usual). Recall that the interior bed space of my (modified) truck is 98" x 74". On the ride home yesterday the bed carried a 20 foot extension ladder (10 feet long, flagged 14 inches past the rear bumper), two other ladders, a smallish air compressor, a largish shop vac, three large bins, some materials, some scrap, and a slew of tool cases/bags. It was pretty full, is what I'm saying.The range of the Cybertruck would have been just fine. Nothing I carried had any substantial weight to it, in truck terms. The frunk would have been extremely useful (lock the tool cases there, out of the way of the Bed Stuff, away from prying eyes and grasping fingers -- you say I can charge my cordless tools there? bonus). Stainless steel plus no paint is a plus.Apparently the Cybertruck bed will be 78" long (but over 96" with the tailgate folded down) and 60-65" wide. And then Tesla promises "100 cubic feet of exterior, lockable storage — including the under-bed, frunk and sail pillars." Underbed storage requires the bed to be clear of other stuff, but bottom line everything would have fit, especially when we consider the second row of seats (tools and some materials out of the weather).Some days I was hauling mostly air on one leg of the trip. There were several store runs involved, some for 8-foot stock. One day I bummed a ride in a Roush Mustang. Three separate times other drivers tried to run into my truck (stainless steel panels, yes please). The fuel savings would be large enough for me to notice and to care.TL;DR: This truck would work for me, as a truck. Sample size = 1.
  • Art Vandelay Dodge should bring this back. They could sell it as the classic classic classic model
  • Surferjoe Still have a 2013 RDX, naturally aspirated V6, just can't get behind a 4 banger turbo.Also gloriously absent, ESS, lane departure warnings, etc.
  • ToolGuy Is it a genuine Top Hand? Oh, I forgot, I don't care. 🙂