The story begins in May 2015; I was home visiting my son, Danny, for his 15th birthday and we were driving around Akron, Ohio, killing time when I saw the Malibu. It was sitting on a used-car lot like a beacon, proudly showing off its rust-free body in a landscape riddled with rusted-out cars less than half the age of this 37-year-old Chevy. I practically flipped my rental car on its lid making a U-turn back to the lot for a closer look.
The Malibu was everything a car from the Rust Belt shouldn’t have been, meaning the bottoms of the doors, fenders, rocker panels, and quarters were all intact. Being a Sunday, there was no one to talk with about the car. Later at Danny’s house, the car came up during the family dinner. I described the car, how rare it was for something from this area to be as clean as it was, and how it would be an excellent car for us to work on in Car Craft. We joked about how I should buy it and drive it back to California with Danny, who’s been out to visit me several times, but always by an airplane. The drive would be a great opportunity for us to spend more time together than we have ever been able to since I left for my job in Los Angeles. The seed was planted.
After Danny got off the school bus the following day, we went back to Akron and talked with a salesman who told us this was a one-owner car that was traded back in to the dealership in Pennsylvania where it was originally purchased from. That dealership put the Malibu in its showroom and basically stored it for the next decade or so. It had only been driven for 68,000 miles. The $5,000 selling price was way out of my range, so we left.
The car came up at dinner that night again. People were fascinated by the car’s story, and my enthusiasm about how nice it would be to have such a clean G-body to work on for Car Craft. Ultimately, I headed back to Los Angeles carless. But with the help of some very generous friends, I got fronted enough money to buy the car and told the dealer in Akron I’d be back to pick the car up after the Car Craft Summer Nationals in July 2015. My idea was to drive the car back to Los Angeles, stopping at various places to install performance products along the way, in a feat I jokingly referred to as the Car Craft Tour of Power.
Summit Racing and Trick Flow Specialties were the first to answer the call and even offered to pick the car up ahead of my arrival at the Akron Canton airport. They decided to swap the car’s original two-barrel 305 for a Vortec 350 with a Trick Flow Top End kit, dual-plane intake, and a Holley vacuum secondary carburetor, far more generous than I had ever expected. I’d have been more than happy with a set of headers, or maybe wheels and tires.
Since they had the car a couple days before I got to Akron, I asked Bill McGhee—the manager of Auto Dynamics, Trick Flow’s in-house install shop—how the car was. He scared me a bit; his text message simply read, “It’s ugly.”
“Ugly how?” I replied, “Ugly mechanically or ugly rusty?”
“It’s just ugly,” was all I got back.
For the next two days, I fretted. Did I miss something in my initial inspection of the car? Was it in worse shape than I was able to see?
Danny and I were at Auto Dynamics the day I arrived in town. In person, Bill clarified: “Look at it—its ugly! It’s brown!” A wave of calm ran through me; I can fix brown ugly, and brown ugly won’t leave us stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.
Danny’s take was a little more charitable: “At first, I thought you were never going to get the car, so I didn’t think anything of it when we were looking at it in Akron. It was sweet to see it at Auto Dynamics with the engine out of it.”
About it’s orange-brown exterior: “It’s weird looking, but I guess it’s OK for the ’70s. You should hang a disco ball from the roof. I asked and, thankfully, he doesn’t think of me as a product of the 1970s—after all, I was just 6 years old when the car was built and never had the opportunity to don a pair of bellbottom jeans.
Auto Dynamics operates out of the manufacturing facility of Trick Flow specialties, which, along with Summit Racing, contributed an engine to our Malibu road-tripper. Engine builder Ron Greczarik, a 19-year employee of Trick Flow Specialties, walked us through the components. Starting with a Vortec engine block, they added a Scat crank and rods, Sealed Power flat-top pistons, and a hydraulic roller cam with specs of 218/224 degrees duration and 0.500-inch valve lift, ground on a 110-degree lobe-separation angle. To that they added a set of Trick Flow 195 cylinder heads, and Trick Flow’s dual-plane intake manifold.
With a 10.0:1 compression ratio, this is basically the package Summit and Trick Flow offer as a 400hp, top-end kit for small-block Chevys. Bill McGhee, Auto Dynamics manager, wrangled the parts and Jim Perdue, their technician, installed the engine, which took about three days to get it in the car and hook everything back up. Obviously, we couldn’t reuse the car’s original two-barrel carburetor, so Summit contributed a vacuum-secondary Holley and also supplied the belts, hoses, air cleaner, distributor, plugs, wires, and a new water pump.
Vortec engine blocks still have the cast-in boss for a mechanical fuel pump, but the passages aren’t drilled for a fuel-pump pushrod, so we wired in a Holley fuel pump, which is via a relay off the 12-volt, key-on feed to the distributor. We fired the engine late Friday afternoon, and I made a few laps around their industrial park to see how everything ran. Things felt pretty good, so we all went home, and I was eager for our on-time departure for California the next morning.
By the time I got to my son Danny’s house about 15 miles away, it was clear that the brakes weren’t working right. The master cylinder was leaking past the rear seal, and the pedal was going to the floor on each stop. I found a replacement Friday evening at an AutoZone in Akron, and it was an easy fix that night. Saturday’s mishap, however, would leave us stranded on the road.
Anticipation was high as we set out Saturday. Danny and I hit the road after a big breakfast and an extended goodbye with the family. The car felt good as we pulled onto I-76 heading west. The brakes were solid, the engine sounded good, and we had the windows down heading west. About 120 miles down the road, I noticed the gas gauge hadn’t budged since the day before. I stopped at the next exit and pumped nearly 14 gallons into the car’s 18-gallon tank that our gas gauge was telling us was half full. “No worries,” I explained to Danny, “the speedometer and odometer are working. We know how much the tank holds, and the next time we fill up, we’ll know about how many miles per gallon the car is getting, so we can figure a safe range to travel between fill-ups.”
As we left the gas station, my girlfriend called. “Everything is good. The car is running well. We’re having a great time.” I hadn’t even finished saying those words when the car started to vibrate. It wasn’t too noticeable at first, but the vibrating was gaining in intensity to the point that the whole car began to shake. I pulled off at the next exit. Ironically, there was a Costco there, which was a relief, because I suspected a tire was going flat. In the parking lot, I discovered a bulge forming in the center of the tread on the right rear tire, indicating that the tread was separating from the rest of the tire. Neither Costco, nor any of the other tire stores in the area had any 195/45R-14 tires in stock. Of course, the space-saver spare in the trunk was flat. Someone at the tire store filled it up for me, but when I used the stock bumper jack to lift the car up, it began to pull the bumper off the mount.
At that point, I pulled the plug and called AAA. In addition to the tire problem, the engine was flooding each time I tried to start it. A flatbead tow truck hauled us back to Auto Dynamics in Tallmadge, Ohio, and Danny’s uncle and cousin took us back to their house.
Looking over the car that night, I decided to replace all the tires. Though they looked OK, I realized they’d probably been on the car the whole time it was in storage. If one had started to come apart on us less than two hours into the trip, the rest were soon to follow. I also decided to replace the radiator, which looked like it was moments away from springing a leak. We went back to AutoZone for a new radiator and Walmart for a set of inexpensive tires.
I took the car back to Auto Dynamics Monday morning, where we adjusted the carburetor, and at that point we felt brave enough to venture back onto the freeway—a few days late, but still bound for Los Angeles. “I hope we make it farther than Columbus this time,” Danny and I said, nearly in unison. It was a relief when we reached the Ohio/Illinois boarder. The car was doing OK.
We made it to Terre Haute, Indiana, with no problems and made our way to the Midwest Distribution center for VP Racing Fuels, where we met with friend and G-body owner Jason Rueckert. VP’s Terra Haute center moves about 100,000 gallons of fuel per month during the busy season and about 1.3 million gallons per year. Fuel comes to them from VP’s refinery in Texas by the pail, drum, semi trailers, or colossal 29,000-gallon train cars. They also move ethanol-free, small-engine fuel and VP’s new line of lubricants.
I planned to shoot some pictures of Jason’s Oldsmobile after he was done with work, so Danny and I checked out some of the sights in Terre Haute, including a cemetery with grave markers dating back to the Civil War.
That evening at Jason’s house, we readjusted the carburetor floats. The front float was sticking, causing a geyser of fuel to shoot out of the bowl vent each time the fuel pump was activated.
Jason’s Oldsmobile is a stellar machine that he races in Radial vs. The World and Pro Drag Radial classes. It’s Jason’s first car; he bought it in high school. Powered by a twin-turbo big-block, he still calls it the Slowsmobile.
After the shoot, Danny and I hit the road for Chicago to visit Schwartz Performance, manufacturers of tube chassis for a wide variety of muscle cars, including the G-body.
The next day’s adventure took us to Schwartz Performance in Woodstock, Illinois. We arrived around 11 a.m, and Dale Schwartz, son of owner Jeff Schwartz, gave us the tour. Known for their made-from-scratch tube chassis, the business is much more than a frame shop. They repair and maintain high-end exotics, finish off ill-fated repairs other shops started, and do ground-up builds for customers all over the world.
Dale asked one of the technicians to roll out one of their G-body chassis for us to check out, and the thing is a work of art. The design for one of their chassis begins by taking dimensions and making fixtures from a stock frame, then improving the stock design for more strength, rigidity, and better suspension geometry. This design is turned into a CNC program, which is sent to a local tubing-bending company. The tube is all mandrel bent and delivered to Schwartz Performance, where the components are welded together by hand. “Stock frames are usually heavier than they need to be in certain areas, and too light in others,” Dale explained. “We fix those issues, and in the process, we typically offer about a 300-pound weight savings over the stock frame.” That is obviously good for weight distribution and weight transfer while driving, no matter which type of motorsports you’re into. Though their chassis are expensive, Dale explained that though you can make a stock car handle and perform well with bolt-on parts, they are ultimately a Band-Aid, and at some point, a person who is competing in motorsports will ultimately be hindered by the inherent lack of strength of a car’s stock frame (or unibody, Schwartz makes chassis for Mopars and Fords) and will need to stiffen and reinforce the frame, or get rid of it all together. Spending more money from the start can ultimately save their customers money later as the build evolves.
After drooling over some really nice hardware at Schwartz Performance, Danny and I hit the road for St. Louis and the Gateway Arch, something we both wanted to see. We made it to St. Louis that evening only to be turned away from our first three hotel choices because they were all full. We ended up in a sketchy motel where the front-desk people cracked jokes about using my credit card to buy themselves groceries. Funny, right?
The Gateway Arch was far more interesting than either of us imagined; Danny and I scraped the money together to ride the tram to the top of the arch and were treated to breathtaking views of St. Louis and the Mississippi River. The tram itself is an engineering marvel—you ride up in these little tram cars that look like aspirin tablets turned on edge, and the cars rotate to stay upright as they ascend and descend the legs of the arch. It was fascinating.
Back on the ground after our trip to the top of the Gateway Arch, Danny and I continued our westward trek, a journey that became increasingly fraught with problems. We made it to Springfield, Missouri, that night and spent the following morning exploring Springfield’s Bass Pro Shops. Danny loves to fish, and I’ve never been inside one of those stores, though I’ve heard all about them. Still, the spectacle was impressive. We lingered over tanks of fish, turtles, and even alligators, scoped out some bait and lures, and joked about possibly needing some of the camping gear in case things went south with the car.
Out in the parking lot, the Malibu mocked us by dumping what looked like two pints of coolant on the asphalt. I quickly traced the source of the leak to a rubber plug blocking off an unused port in the passenger-side radiator tank of the supposedly direct-fit radiator I had replaced just days earlier. The cheap hose clamp chewed a hole in the cheap rubber plug blocking the port. I repositioned the plug, and we limped to a parts store, fortunately located just two blocks away, where I bought better-quality block-off plugs and clamps. We continued on to Oklahoma.
To be honest, the engine always ran hotter than I felt was right. For the next few hours, I pondered possible causes and solutions: was the thermostat stuck or slow to operate? Was the timing too retarded? I had lofty plans of visiting Don Dial’s Race Shop in Seminole, Oklahoma, along with Midwest Street Cars, where I’d try to install a performance part or two on the Malibu. Those plans began to shift to something more along the lines of self-preservation, and I planned instead to replace the thermostat and double-check the timing and carburetor settings wherever we stopped.
Most of my Oklahoma City connections were not home the next day, but John “Baron” Gentry was and offered up his garage and tools to our cause. He even picked up the thermostat for us while we were on our way to his house. We dropped in a 160-degree thermostat and got back on the road. Destination: Gallup, New Mexico, and on to the Four Corners Monument.
It’s only fitting that a road trip that begins on the back of a flatbed tow truck, ends in a similar manner. This time, however, we outdid ourselves, as it took two tow trucks and a friend’s trailer to get our ill-fated Malibu to its final destination.
As mentioned previously, I was suspicious of the engine for most of the trip; it always seemed to run hotter than it should. Nothing I did helped—new radiator, new thermostat, and ignition timing and carburetor adjustments—none of these seemed to reduce underhood temperatures, which were so high, you couldn’t touch anything under the hood, even after just a short time driving. Things really fell apart on the last leg of our trip, when a blown head gasket boiled a massive amount of coolant out of the ’Bu’s overflow reservoir, leaving us stranded in the desert outside of Needles, California. I was pulling my AAA card out of my wallet before we made it to the side of the road. The desert isn’t a place to screw around. Out of money, I just had enough mileage left in my AAA Premium membership to have the car towed to Westech Performance Group in Mira Loma, California, approximately 140 miles from where we were. As ignominious as it was sitting on the side of I-40 waiting for a tow truck was, the ride to Westech felt even more humiliating as the first tow-truck driver took us as far as Bakersfield, then handed us off to another guy who hauled us the remainder of the distance to Mira Loma. “We made it to California, at least!” Danny and I joked, but it was only a small consolation.
Steve and the crew at Westech did a preliminary diagnosis and determined the Malibu had suffered a head-gasket failure. Vette Magazine’s Steven Rupp then trailered the car to our tech center in Santa Ana, where the car remains until one of us has time to fix it.
At first, I beat myself up quite a bit for leaving my son and I stranded in the desert, but that was shortsighted. Really, it was the trip of a lifetime. We got to meet new friends, catch up with old ones, and see the majestic beauty our country has to offer if you take the time to look. Even more important that all that was the amount of time my son and I got to spend time with each other, and you can’t put a price on that. Even after we made finally made it to Los Angeles, Danny and I both agreed we’d make the trip again. Next time, we will cheat, however, by driving a car with a better-functioning cooling system. As for the Malibu, well, it did deliver us to California and everything that went wrong is fixable. It’s a G-body, so tons of parts are available for it. I have visions of making it a hot, street sleeper disguised in a plain, beige wrapper. Stay tuned, the saga never ends.