For an Uncool Car, the Chevy Malibu Made a Huge Mark on the Culture

For an Uncool Car, the Chevy Malibu Made a Huge Mark on the Culture

If you asked a child to draw a car, the result would probably be something that looked like the Chevrolet Malibu.

For decades, this dependable midsize vehicle was a stalwart of the American road. Because that kind of thing is no longer in demand, it came as no surprise when General Motors announced on Wednesday that it would discontinue the model as it shifts its focus to sport utility vehicles and electric cars.

The Malibu never had the back-alley glamour of the Chevrolet Camaro or the brute force of the Chevrolet Impala. It was the ultimate normcore-mobile, made for a time when Americans were content to drive simple, gas-powered sedans, rather than rugged S.U.V.s, high-riding pickup trucks or electric vehicles that cruise along in near silence.

The Malibu originally appeared in the 1960s as part of Chevrolet’s Chevelle line. It was a consistent seller through the 1970s. For a time, it was used as a patrol car by police departments across the country. General Motors took it off the market in 1983 and brought it back in 1997.

Upon its return, the critics were not exactly kind. “Ah, Malibu,” Car and Driver magazine wrote in a 1997 review. “The word evokes images of surf bunnies, movie stars and languid decadence by the sea. Not the sort of vision that comes to mind on first sight of this new Chevrolet sedan. Maybe Chevy misspelled it. Mallibu sounds more like it.”

But the very basicness of the Malibu was what made it so appealing to the more than 10 million people who bought one. And perhaps surprisingly for a vehicle so unassuming, it had a large cultural footprint. Again and again, filmmakers and songwriters created scenarios centered on the Malibu that seemed to comment on its plainness.

A customized version of a gray 1973 Malibu Coupe is the main vehicle for the protagonist of the moodily violent 2011 action film “Drive,” according to the automotive publications SlashGear and Car & Classic. Ryan Gosling, the film’s star, is said to have found the car in a junkyard and worked on it himself.

The Malibu was the right vehicle for a new kind of antihero. Mr. Gosling’s nameless character, a stunt driver for movies who works as a getaway driver on the side, is mild and taciturn. Like his prized Chevy, he is not a show-off.

Seventeen years before “Drive,” the director Quentin Tarantino gave a Malibu a key supporting role in “Pulp Fiction.”

Vincent Vega, the good-natured hit man played by John Travolta, is behind the wheel of a red 1964 Malibu when he takes his boss’s wife, played by Uma Thurman, on a date that goes horribly awry. Like the 1950s-style restaurant where they form a bond, the vintage Malibu harks back to an idealized America that is just a fantasy for these two characters, given how deeply they are mixed up in a life of drugs and murder.

A Malibu is a focal point of the 1984 cult film “Repo Man.” Like other filmmakers, the writer and director Alex Cox played against the car’s blandness. In the trunk of this unremarkable car is something remarkable indeed — perhaps a nuclear bomb. (Whatever is in the trunk is never explained.)

More recently, Lana Del Rey, who often comments on all-American tropes in her modern-day torch ballads, name-checks the Malibu in “Shades of Cool,” a 2014 song about a woman’s love for a tragic sort who seems lost in a haze of substance abuse and self-absorption.

Like Vincent Vega and the unnamed loner in “Drive,” the unreachable fellow in her song has only one thing that seems to bind him to the workaday world: “He drives a Chevy Malibu,” she sings.

But the car was used to best effect in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy-drama “Say Anything.”

The protagonist, Lloyd Dobler, an underachieving Everyman played by John Cusack, drives a 1977 Malibu sedan. The car sets him apart from the strutting yuppies of other 1980s films — think of the teenage cad played by James Spader in “Pretty in Pink,” who has his own Porsche, or the stockbroker played by Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street,” who drives a BMW.

Dobler embodies the slacker ethos that typified much of Generation X. When he is grilled by the father of the girl he loves, he explains that his main goal is to spend as much time with her as he can. When he is asked how he plans to make a living, he says, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career.”

For this kind of guy — proudly unambitious, except when it comes to love — the unflashy Malibu was the perfect car.

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