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We Lower Our Expectations - And Succeed Magnificently

Years ago I was brainstorming with my buddy Hank about future car projects.  Normally our wives don't leave us alone without adult supervision for any length of time, because this is usually a recipe for disaster.  For example:

  • The time Hank launched a stillborn plan to build a street legal version of Gapp and Roush's "Tijuana Taxi" and ended up with a Maverick sedan in his driveway that was so ugly - abutting property values dropped by 50%
  • Our 1,600 mile, 29 hour Ohio roadtrip to pick up a new old stock quarter panel - and returning the rented minivan with torn upholstery, missing 75% of its forward gears and smelling like a horse stable.  

But sometimes we get lucky, and the combination of beer and our wild imaginations generates something so completely stupid and outrageous that it's absolutely beautiful.

Our topic of conversation that night was building a low buck sleeper.  We'd both had our fill of fussy, over budget restorations and recalled with nostalgia the cars we'd owned in our youth. Often purchased with little more than the coins found under car seats and couch cushions, these cheap cars nearly always exceeded our expectations - mostly because we had none.  

We decided on a few guiding principles for the ultimate low-buck sleeper:

  • The car had to be totally low key (that's kind of central to the whole sleeper concept)
  • The car had to be so common that spare parts could be purchased in the automotive aisle of the local supermarket
  • The project needed to be cheap and easy

We decided to limit our list of potential candidates to cars from the 70-80s, because rust is a constant problem in New England and most neat 60s cars had already turned into dust.  So, the short list was indeed short; The GM "A/G" body (Malibu, Cutlass, Regal, Etc),  Ford Fairmont and MoPar Aspen/Volare.  The Ford was our sentimental favorite, but the wimpy driveline and 4 lug suspension ulimately ruled it out.  With the MoPar, there just weren't any to be found.  So, we settled on the GM.  

Normally, these brainstorming sessions with Hank netted little more than a fierce hangover and only the vaguest recollection of the "great ideas" spewed forth the prior night. But we uncharacteristically stuck to the plan this time.

A search of the local classifieds quickly turned up the ideal project candidate.  A $500, one owner 1981 Malibu station wagon with a 229 V6, floor shifted 3 speed stick and exactly ONE factory option - a $90 AM radio (that seemed to play "Brandy" by Looking Glass 24 hours a day) .  Aside from a multitude of parking lot dings and badly faded paint, the Malibu was very solid. The 3 speed stick shift was just an unbelievable bonus. Manual tranny equipped Malibus are extremely rare (wagons even more so) and highly sought after.  We slapped down our best offer of $400 cash and brought it home.

Exactly One Factory Option.  You Only Live Once, So Why Not Treat Yourself?

Considering our project guiding principles, this 'Bu longroof was an absolute bullseye.  Low key?  You simply can't get any more low key than a Ward Cleaver station wagon. Common with good parts availability? GM made millions of 78-83 Malibus. Local junkyards are overflowing with them and parts interchange among the 1978-87 GM A and G bodies is simply epic. Cheap and easy?  It's a Chevy, say no more.  

The plan was to build a 400 small block that we had laying around the shop, drop in a T-10 or Muncie M-20 4 speed and have a ball.  Running the numbers on the 400 machine work proved it would be cheaper, faster and easier to buy a GM 350 HO crate motor.  Doble's Chevrolet had several in stock and our business relationship allowed me to snag one at $100 over cost including free next day delivery.  A brand new, 330 horsepower, 380 Lb/Foot 4 bolt small block for $1,700 - not bad!

Another search of the classifieds turned up a Muncie M-20 4 speed transmission for $150.  These wide ratio boxes typically cost anywhere from $500-1,000 depending on condition - so $150 was a steal.  Better yet, the M-20 was in great condition - with a mint countergear, forward gears, blocking rings and only minor synchro wear. All the same, it made sense to tear it down, clean, inspect and reassemble with new bearings, needles, thrust washers and synchros.  Cheap and easy insurance.  A Ram clutch and Hurst Comp Plus shifter was installed.

The factory 2.73 rear end had to go.  Aside from the lame ratio, it was also a 7.65" 10 bolt - not a particularly strong component.  Again, luck smiled upon us in the form of a totalled 1983 Monte Carlo SS for $400.  We pulled the 3.42 rear end, quick ratio steering box, sway bars, coil springs and sport steering wheel.  Again, this was a major league score, though we were disappointed to find that the 3.42 differential was not a posi.  Our wagon came factory equipped with the highly sought after aluminum rear brake drums.  These lightweight drums really cut down on rotational mass and unsprung weight, which helps both acceleration and handling.  

For rolling stock, our buddy Chris donated a set of 15X8" GM Ralley Wheels, which we shod with used Yokohama A378 tires and decorated with "low hat" ralley wheel caps.  This made the Malibu wagon look exactly like a Malibu wagon - with bigger tires.


Ram-Air Trans Am Feeling Confident......And...

.....Ram-Air Trans Am Gets Owned By A Wagon.  Yeah, That Just Happened.....But Wait.

...My Malibu Wagon Gets Spanked By ANOTHER Malibu Wagon. You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up!

Project "low expectations" was finally done - and was absolutely everything we hoped it would be.  Totally ugly, 100% uncool, invisibly low key, dirt cheap and an absolute rocket.  

Despite serious traction problems and a resultingly pathetic 2.5 short time, our first blasts down the strip at New England Dragway netted a best run of 14.10 at 99 MPH.    With the Monte SS suspension, the handling was also superb.   With a full 2.5" dual exhaust and a cross over pipe, my favorite part of the Malibu was the sound - the whine of the Muncie, intake roar and exhaust bellow was just incredible!

Actual Malibu Sound Track - Losing Traction In Second Gear (Poor Sound, So Turn Up Your PC Volume)

For 2 years and 40,000 miles, I flogged that Malibu like a rented mule - and it never broke.  Parking lot dings? Didn't care. Road salt? Oh well.  Greasy engine parts in the way back?  Toss 'em in!  Such was life with a low buck beater - damn the torpedoes and just drive the wheels off the thing.

A Fistful Of Time Slips and Rubber Chunks On The Quarter Panels - Evidence Of A Good Saturday Night!

New England road salt finally took its inevitable toll.  The rear frame horns rotted to the point the Malibu would no longer pull a state safety inspection sticker.  With a heavy heart we pulled the engine, driveline,  clutch pedal assembly/linkages, manual transmission column, quick steer box, sport wheel, sway bars.  The parts were ultimately sold for far more than the cost of the entire project 2 years earlier.  With real sadness I watched the flatbed haul the gutted carcass of the Malibu away.  I've owned many dozens of cars over the years, but for some reason this ugly, dirt cheap, piece of crap Malibu is still the one that I miss the most.  

There's an object lesson in their somewhere.

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