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1979 Chevrolet Malibu SS Gets a 505-Horsepower LS7 Transplant

Smooth Runnings: Bill Crawford took this fourth-gen Malibu to higher ground

Rod Short May 1, 2015
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As it is when trying to describe jazz, brandy, or even the ways of a French Quarter courtesan, defining “smooth” can sometimes be difficult. Yet, even so, many say they know it when it’s there. In the case of Bill Crawford’s 1979 Malibu SS, we found the term repeatedly rolling off our tongues with no effort at all.

“I enjoy building cars that you don’t see so much,” Crawford said. “I had finished a project car and was just sitting around watching TV, so I started looking for another one to work on. I had one back in the ’80s and really liked it, but you don’t see a lot of these anymore. I finally found a bucket seat car down in Alabama. The car was so nice that the floors still had the original paint on them.”

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In 1979, Chevrolet made three different models of the base Malibu and four versions of the Malibu Classic. With a full perimeter frame underneath it, the two-door Sport Coupe was by far the most popular for hot rodders as many of these cars found their way into Sportsman stock car racing. (Former NASCAR driver Dave Marcis’ final race win was with one at the old Richmond Fairgrounds back in 1982.) With three V-8 engine options ranging from a 4.4L to a 5.0L (and then to a California-only 5.8L), buyers could order the car with the F41 sport suspension option made up of 205/70R14 tires, larger-diameter front and rear stabilizer bars, and higher rate springs with matching shocks. Throw in the MM4 four-speed manual and it was a decent pollution-era hot rod that could fly under the radar.

By modern standards, however, the anemic 165hp 5.0L V-8 that came with Crawford’s Malibu could be outrun by a Toyota Camry, so a serious horsepower injection was required for this makeover. Crawford set his sights on transplanting a race-oriented LS7 into his Malibu’s engine bay.

“I love the LS motors and wanted to go with an LS7 because of the unbelievable power they make,” Crawford said about his engine choice. “I found that other LS motors I’ve worked with have made about 10 percent more power by just reflashing the computer.”

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Handbuilt at the GM Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan, the LS7 was motivation for the 2006-’13 Corvette ZO6. This remarkable Gen IV engine has a 4.125-inch bore and 4.000-inch stroke with an 11.0:1 compression ratio. The aluminum short-block features a forged steel crank, lined siamesed cylinders, titanium rods, and Del West 2.20/1.61 valves. The output peaked at 505 hp at 6,200 rpm with 475 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm on 91 octane.

The fine print, however, says that the LS7 crate engine is intended for pre-1976 or off-road vehicles. As a result, the initial excitement over doing this swap soon gave way to knuckle-busting reality. But it wasn’t anything that Crawford couldn’t overcome.

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“When we went to put the LS7 in, one thing led to another,” Crawford said. “I could have converted the engine to a wet-sump by adding a Camaro oil pan, but I wanted to keep the dry-sump. That caused a problem because the longer oil pan on that engine was hitting the front crossmember, so I ended up having to move the engine back 2 to 3 inches. That got me into the firewall, so then I had to cut that out, too. That interfered with the stock dash, so my best solution was to just build a fiberglass replacement for it.”

Fortunately, Crawford had not only the fabrications skills, but also the forethought to think through and plan for other aspects of his project. Since the Malibu was factory-built as a perimeter frame and not a unibody car, he added a 2x4-inch box frame with a transmission crossmember and 6.5-inch mini-tubs to accommodate the Billet Specialties rims with 335/30R18 BFGoodrich tires at the rear. The floor of the rear seat footwell was raised several inches to accommodate the Flowmaster Series 40 mufflers.

Heidt’s in Lake Zurich, Illinois, provided the coilover front suspension that uses 2-inch dropped spindles with Fatman Fabrication tubular A-arms, F41 swaybar, and QA1 adjustable shocks. Wilwood calipers put the clamps to the 14-inch rotors mounted at each corner.

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Once the LS7 was acquired from Contemporary Corvette in Bristol, Pennsylvania, RaceKrafters Automotive Machine in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, helped with the LS7 engine prep, installation, and tuning. The net chassis dyno figures showed a hefty 490 rear-wheel-horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 543 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. Backing up the engine is a Tremec six-speed that connects to a 9-inch rearend with 3.70:1 gears.

“Most people are intrigued by the fiberglass work within the engine compartment,” Crawford continued. “The inner fender panels hide all the wiring and hoses, and the only thing you really see is the A/C compressor. Additional panels in the front hide the front engine accessories so when the hood closes it seals around the grille for true cowl induction.”

Donnie Doman and Crawford shaved the door handles, tucked-in the bumpers, bolted on the Goodmark ’glass hood, and added the front and rear spoilers. Miller’s Fabrication in Wardensville, West Virginia, painted the car in R-M Diamont Viper Red and Sierra Beige while Buckey’s LTD Auto Body in Martinsburg, West Virginia, did the graphics and painted emblems.

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Crawford fabricated the fiberglass console, which goes all the way back to the rear package shelf. The bucket seat treatment extends to the rear seat area, even to the package shelf, and was made using the smaller proportions of a 60/40 split bench seat. Craftsman Upholstery in Manassas, Virginia, covered the door and side panels and seats in beige and cream colored leather. A Billet Specialties steering wheel, Auto Meter Ultra-Lite gauges, power windows, remote power hood and trunk releases, and a killer sound system complete the custom interior. Ed Bohrer, Charles Tilley, and Tom VanDyke all helped set everything off with hand-polished aluminum trim.

Two full years of hard work resulted in not only the classic Malibu that Bill Crawford wanted, but also a slick hot rod that’s as smooth as they come.

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