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A 'sterling' discovery in the OCW archives

With all the recent deadlines, I've been spending a large amount of time running to OCW's photographic archives (one of my favorite places to hang from 8-5 each day). After 10 years, I rarely discover new things any longer, but I was surprised when I stumbled into the 1978 Chevrolet file and found a few shots of a little-known Malibu Classic show car from that year.

Since my first car was a hand-me-down in the form of my mother's beloved 1978 Chevrolet Malibu Classic Landau coupe, the 1978 Chevrolet Malibu Classic Black Sterling caught my eye, but unless you know Malibus of this era, the car wouldn't stand out — it would simply appear to be a modified car.

Granted, Chevrolet didn't spend much in building the black-and-silver Black Sterling. The car is clearly a loaded production-based Malibu Classic coupe with a special paint treatment, aftermarket turbine-type wheels, a front air dam, a rear spoiler angled to match the tail lamps and unique decals. From these factory photos, the car appears to have the optional buckets (and probably a center console), and also a non-stock steering wheel with thin spokes, perhaps three or the four-spoke style of the Camaro coupes of that era (production Malibus used a steering wheel with two wide spokes that pointed at 4 and 8 o'clock).

Interestingly, the car uses the Landau coupe divider between the front and rear side windows, but for the Black Sterling, Chevrolet didn't include the vinyl top that was part of the Landau package. As such, the "Landau" name has been deleted from this divider. The car also lacks the rocker trim, side moldings and bright wheel opening moldings found on Malibu Classics. Instead, the Black Sterling appears to have black paint or decals around the wheel openings to make the lighter flanks appear to be panel painted.

The rear spoiler is clearly a unique (and pretty cool) component, and one I've never seen offered by an aftermarket company during the period. Meanwhile, the front air dam is straight out of the Chevrolet El Camino/GMC Caballero parts bin and was found on Royal Knight Super Sport (Chevrolet) and Caballero Diablo (GMC) versions of those car-truck hybrids. Also like these car-trucks, the Malibu Classic Black Sterling features color-keyed mirrors and sport-type wheels.

The car is said to have appeared at several shows, but the only appearance I can verify is a showing on an elevated stand at the Chicago Auto Show from Feb. 25-March 5, 1978. There, Chevrolet billed the Black Sterling as a "designer's version" of the newly downsized Malibu intermediate.

Some sources state the car was powered by a 350-cid V-8, although when it comes to 1978 Malibu-based intermediates, I've only seen these engines in El Caminos and station wagons. As a show car, this would not be surprising. Unfortunately, whether the car had an automatic or manual transmission is unknown to me.

To speculate, I believe the Black Sterling was intended to test the waters for a sporty (read: Super Sporty?) Malibu coupe, a la the Chevelle SS's of the past, and one that maintained a familial resemblance with the production Royal Knight El Camino. Either public reception was cool or there wasn't room for the similar 1978 Pontiac Grand Am and Chevrolet Black Sterling in the new-car market that year. In a potential battle among sporty intermediates, Pontiac won.

All in all, it's a handsome package, and one the company should have built. Instead, all we have are a few old photos and facts and many more questions.

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