Just the other day I was cruising along Interstate 80 when I noticed a particularly bland car. It helped garner my attention as it was racing by in the slow lane before it cut across two lanes to make a pass through a dangerously narrow gap, only to exit the interstate at the very next off-ramp. The antics of this driver forced me to take notice, but the vapid design is what made it memorable. The sheer dullness made the lasting impression on me. The insipid dryness of the car left me asking myself, “What has Chevy done to the Malibu?”. Furthermore, should automakers even try bringing cars back from the dead?
As a kid, my good friend’s Dad had a ’64 Chevrolet Malibu. It was a two door and had enough room for the whole family (plus a friend) to go for a cruise comfortably. Although I am certain it was not stock, the brutally powerful rumble emanating from the interminable expanse of an engine bay was indeed from a 327 small block. The 327 was OEM in 1964 for the Malibu SS and it rolled off the showroom floor with 300hp.
Not only was the original Malibu roomy and powerful, but it looked good too. The low roof line gives the impression of seriousness, like the furrowed brow of an orthopedic surgeon preparing to conduct reconstructive surgery… with a chainsaw. Even at a standstill when the burbling V8 coupe wasn’t gulping gasoline and growling down the asphalt, it has an heir of strength, resembling a big shiny Mama bear watchfully on guard, while its cubs enjoy a strawberry milkshake at the local drive-in burger joint. The classic lines and endless fenders are a timeless design that hearken back to an era of Muscle cars that are as unmistakably American, as Pabst Blue Ribbon and shotgun golf.
This 2 door rear wheel drive sport coupe is a far cry from the timid front wheel drive, 155hp, 4 door, entirely unexciting litter-box that was reintroduced as the “new” Chevy Malibu in 1997. This late model Chevy could be summed up in three words: Double-u Tee Eff. The Chevy ‘Mundane’ would have been a much more suitable name for such an automobile. As tasteless and undistinctive as this model was at its reintroduction, leaps and bounds have been made over the 20 years it has remained in production. It’s now a solid midsize sedan. Still, it has little semblance of the rousing stalwart of the 60’s.
Another rehashed bruiser of the past is the Dodge Charger. Although it did go through a period of malaise in the late 70’s-early 80’s, it completely disappeared in 1984. When the beast awakened in 2008 it had none of the compromise seen in the revived Malibu or its own previous renditions. This throwback took all the classic design cues of its muscle-car predecessor. The front end is seemingly a quarter mile long and home to a mighty V8 Hemi. The sweeping rear quarter panels are a handsomely reworked reflection of the original. By any measure of the term, the reintroduction was a success. The 2008 Challenger re-release was originally only offered in the SRT8 variant, and equipped with the 6.1 L (370 cu in) motor boasting 425bhp, lending itself to the past as an indisputable ground-pounder. The entire 2008 U.S. run of 6,400 cars were pre-sold (many above MSRP).
Some other examples of once heralded models that have been resurrected to lesser affect consist of; the Mercury Cougar, Ford Thunderbird, Chevy
Nova, Pontiac GTO, the list goes on and on. These later iterations conjure up mental images of a Voodoo witch doctor handing over a magic potion, warning an unsuspecting non-Voodooist about raising the dead and all the horrors that could befall those who try. The flip side of that coin is the Challenger, Charger, Camaro, Mini, and more recently the Fiat 124. These examples rouse images of a great Super hero commencing in an epic battle of life and death with an evil version of himself, reaching a crescendo when the hero is conveyed into a junkyard grinder that renders complete automobiles to shreds of twisted steel; coming face to face with certain doom only to explode out of the other side triumphantly slaying the antagonist with his bare hands.
Yes! Abso-flipping-lutely! If waking the dead legends results in one single success (as it has already), then the endeavor is well worth while. Hell, I say even if it’s a stinking flaming turd of a failure, do it anyway! Keep at it until the essence of what made the original version great is captured once again. The Malibu is somewhat an example of this. On one hand, it was brought back in 1997, and was God-awful until just a few years ago. On the other hand, Chevy kept at it and ended up with a vehicle that is regarded as a good mid-sized sedan, among most reputable automotive journalistic outlets.
What’s more is, this attempt by car manufacturers to revive their glory days could prove to be not only beneficial to the consumer, but a form of automotive Darwinism. Take Pontiac for example, recycling and re-badging Chevys was not attracting buyers, so they tried to capture the interest of the market with the GTO. The “Goat” had plenty of power, in fact it had the same LS1 power plant found in the Corvette of the time. What it was missing is any semblance of the original GTO despite the moniker it bared on the fender well. Actually, it was a rebadged version of an import designed by the Australian Holden company, with the power plant of an American sports car. The GTO production ran from 2004-2006, and by 2010 the GM operated Pontiac company ceased to exist. Similar stories can be told for many car companies, AMC, Plymouth, Mercury and a slew of others around the world.
One can only hope that more manufacturers take the lead of Chevrolet and Dodge and bring back some of the cars that we once loved, or die trying. Personally, I would love to see Porsche manufacture a Targa variant of the Cayman, a’ la’ 914 (the damn thing already has a mid-mounted flat 4, is a big sunroof too much to ask for?).
I leave you with one question, what automotive Idol would you raise from the dead and why?