BUILD THREAD Turning Back Time

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Living in the Past
Supporting Member
Jul 19, 2009
Permanent Temporary
Before the humiliation of the minivan, there was the station wagon. My family did not have a Vista Cruiser with a 455. We had a 1980 Malibu Classic Estate Wagon - 'light camel' and the sexy fake woodgrain siding. It was just a car, but when I got a driver's license, it changed my world. I scared my prom date when I managed to get air under all four tires on old Smithbridge Rd. I had two speeding tickets before I was 18, but no one got hurt, and other than some sparks and scrapes, no damage.
It had the almost-V8 267 with a screaming 2-barrel carb. When the cam started going flat, I had not quite hit Auto Shop yet, but I was already asking questions, and discovered that 1980 was an odd transition year for emissions. One could not swap in a larger motor, nor an older or newer one either. So my Dad forked over $900 for a new cam and lifters. It had power everything and hauled people, lumber, and all my worldly goods to college.
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It died an early death in 1988 when a drunk driver fell asleep at the wheel and drifted across the road into my lane. On my right, there was a retaining wall, so I had nowhere to go. I'm glad I didn't slow down because it would have been a head-on. The drunk hit me so hard, it twisted the body and tore the axle off that side of the car. I survived with a few cuts to my scalp from the imploded rear hatch glass.
When I started looking around for some new wheels, what I really wanted was a Chevy pickup. Not so common in Connecticut. I revisited the station wagon idea, and test drove a red 1982 wagon with the Olds 350 diesel. Gutless, but the smoke screen when you floored it on the highway was incredible. I offered the seller half of what they were asking and they turned me down. A week later, I ended up finding a blue 1983 with a V6. The diesel seller called me back three weeks later, and now would have taken my offer, but I had already bought the blue one. In retrospect, I could have turned that red one into a pretty cool car with what I learned later...
Florida Wagon 2.jpg

The blue 1983 Malibu wagon was nothing special. Navy interior, wind-up windows, and an Earl Scheib paint job that started peeling not long afterwards. But that car taught me a lot. I liked the 1980 front clip better than the egg-crate / four-headlight clip, so I swapped the header and chrome onto the blue car with a little help from Duplicolor. It had the rear wing, but no roof rack, and I swapped the rally rims over - looked pretty cool, in my opinion.
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I got a job driving a tow truck at the place that hauled the gold one home. I picked up a wrecked 1984 Firebird with the HO305. The old mechanic helped me swap the motor over, and I managed to make the four-barrel work without the computer. I wasn't staying in Connecticut, so I figured I'd deal with emissions later.
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Eventually it was rewarded with a balanced/forged 400 SBC plus a 200-4R and a 3.73 Auburn in the 7.5 rear axle. That car hauled everything. When I was in Hawaii with the Navy, I'd go to the old track at Barber's Point - my best time was 14.67 at 92mph, right after the gear change. I annoyed many a Camaro and Mustang owner who was still making payments while watching me haul the groceries ahead of him. If I did not have duty on the weekend, I'd pile in four friends, with five dive bags, and 10 air bottles in the back. The car was so ugly, we could just park it anywhere, even Ewa Beach, and just walk into the surf. Never got broken into. I still have the Alpine two-knob radio in a box somewhere.

The car came back to the mainland with me, and I learned the hard way that antifreeze is important. Distilled water and 'Water Wetter' does not cut it when you show up back in Connecticut in February. It was a long cold ride home with the heater core bypassed...

The salt rot and surf rot wavefronts eventually met. My (now) ex-wife forbade me bringing the car out to New Mexico, so I parted it out and bought a hammered Chevy pickup in New Hampshire for a song. Changed the cam in the 400 and swapped the 200-4R and $100 for a built medium-duty truck TH400, and the wagon lived on as a heart and lung donor.
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Thanks for putting up with the preamble. There is an actual build thread coming....
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On to the build. Fifteen years later, I decided I wanted another Malibu wagon. I'd been looking around and finally found one on EBay not too far from me. 1980 Chevrolet Malibu wagon, same light camel exterior and tan vinyl interior, with white below the beltline instead of the woodgrain stuff, plus roll-up windows and a roof rack.
While waiting to change planes at Dallas Love, I called my wife and persuaded her that this was a good idea. I talked the seller into putting up a 'Buy It Now' and it was mine. I rerouted the return flight from my business trip and picked it up in Colorado Springs. I drove it 300 miles home, taking notes on all the things that didn't quite work. I had to put a nut and bolt through the kickdown cable to make it go into 3rd gear, but it did get me home. After all these years, I had forgotten how big old GM cars handle like a waterbed during an earthquake.

Although the car had over 100K on the odometer, it came with a Goodwrench 350 under a Quadrajet. Fair engine swap from the 229 V6 some years before. The A/C ran, but was not very cold, and the TH200C was on its last legs. The previous owner had bathed it in new paint, but the shop just put the old window fuzzies and dew wipers back in, which were falling apart. It had the factory 14″ rims with whitewall tires and honeycomb hubcaps. Had to deal with that immediately - the sidewalls' days were numbered from the high-altitude Colorado sun.

Ah. That's better. 1994 S-10 ZQ8 16x8 aluminum rims with 235/60-16s. They rub a little in the front at full lock on the plastic fender filler panels. The wagon had a nice stance on the 30-year-old springs. I'm not sure that the V6 springs were replaced when the PO did the engine swap. I next launched into fixing the waterbed. I picked up new Moog steering parts (made in USA - cool) from
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I'l also be tuned into your continuing progress. :)
Before I tore into the drivetrain to make it faster, I decided to make it safer. The suspension appeared to be original factory parts, so it was time to replace and upgrade the front suspension and steering. The first thing to do was to take it all apart....

Smooth garage floor makes a much better surface for extensive creeper work than gravel... BTDT.

I elected to drop the entire front suspension in one go, including the steering box and pump. Note the round top on the steering gear - that's the less-desirable 605 series. Goes in the trash if you can afford an upgrade.

When removing the idler arm, I found a free bonus. One rattle solved.

Legless! Protective anti-rust oil leak. Better than Ziebart.

You'll never see this shot anywhere else.

That's the rubber coil spring insulator. By the way, Moog sells a replacement.
Coil Spring Insulator.JPG

At this point, it would have been a good idea to wire brush, degrease and paint the exposed frame rails. But I wanted the car back on its feet, so I focused on getting the parts done first.
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Finally, haha, I'll be following this one for sure!
Next, I started cleaning and painting the suspension and steering parts I planned to reuse.

Soaked the spindles overnight in a tub of Spic'n'Span, then scrubbed with a stiff nylon brush.

Scrubbed the gravel shields until you could make out the grain of the zinc coating. Who knew brake dust was an anti-rust compound?

I pressed out the old lower ball joints using a tool borrowed from AutoZone. I whacked the old ball joint with a hammer a couple times to break the corrosion bond, then clamped the arm in a vise. You have to find the right combination of rings and plates to fully clear the ball joint. Lube the acme thread on the tool so you don't wreck it and have to buy it for $100.

After scrubbing and degreasing the control arms, I hit them with some primer and two coats of Krylon semi-gloss black. I have only found this paint in the auto parts store. Old shower curtain, crusty side down, makes a great painting mat.

Along the way, I'll admit that I cheated and had a shop replace the control arm bushings. The right way to do it is a hydraulic press, but I suspect the ball joint tool might also be sworn at enough to work.

The cross-shaft is captured between the two bushings when they are pressed in. I highly recommend Moog's aftermarket Problem Solver upper control arm cross-shafts - they add a some negative camber instead of using a huge stack of alignment shims.
Offset Cross Shafts.JPG

The upper ball joints just bolt in. No comments, please, on my messy work space...

Next up...installation.
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that's actually super clean compared to my workspace!
Time to put the wagon back on its feet.

While the suspension was apart, I ordered replacement control arm bolts. I have seen complete kits, but I was able to pick up metric M12x1.75 10.9 hardness 100mm and 110mm zinc plated bolts, washers and conical locknuts from McMaster-Carr. I was rewarded with bolts labelled 'Made in Canada'.

The control arms went in without problems. None of the frame holes were damaged after 30+ years of service. I was prepared to weld in a washer if I had to restore the right size hole. But, once the bolts are tightened down, they clamp the sleeve through the center of the bushing. Note: don't fully torque the nuts until the car is sitting on its wheels. You want the bushings to be indexed to their 'rest' position.

At this point, I inserted a pair of Hotchkis G-body lowering coil springs. They were a lot shorter than stock, so it was a easier to squish them and align the tang in the pocket. There are a pair of alignment holes - I made sure to align to the same one of both sides to match ride height. I taped the isolators to the top coil so they stayed put up inside the frame pocket.



I cleaned and painted a 12.7:1 IROC Camaro steering gear and 34 mm sway bar. Mine had no pitman arm, so I pulled one off an old 800-series Malibu steering gear I had in the back of the shed. It took a puller and a few whacks with a heavy hammer to break it loose from the splined shaft. I planned to use the Camaro serpentine system, so I picked up new hoses from

The low pressure return hose needed a new output pipe, so I ordered Edelman 39106.
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I installed new bearing races in the spiffy cross-drilled rotors (who cares if they don't add performance, they'll look cool through the rims...

Finally, I installed drilled and slotted Raybestos stock G-body (10.5") rotors, calipers and severe-duty pads.

I also put in new hoses and master cylinder. I painted this one with black appliance epoxy spray paint, in hopes that it would survive brake fluid better than Krylon.
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