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Reader Ride: Dream '73

A frame-off-restored 1973 Chevelle Malibu is rare anywhere
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Jim Hibbert is probably the first person to complete a frame-off
restoration on a 1973 Chevelle Malibu. His attention to detail in
the restoration included finding a sticker from the original selling
dealership for the car’s deck lid. This car is powered by the
145-hp, 350-cid V-8 (below).

Guiness doesn’t keep records for such a feat, but 38-year-old Jim Hibbert has probably spent more time in a 1973 Chevelle than any other person his age or younger. It’s also likely that he’s the only person of any age who has completed a frame-off restoration of a 1973 Chevelle that wasn’t a big-block Super Sport model.

“I always liked the body styles, and my parents owned one when I was really young,” Hibbert said. “I always find myself looking at the early to mid-1970s cars.”

Hibbert’s parents bought a green 1973 Chevelle coupe with the famous Colonnade roof as a new car, and after a childhood of riding in the back seat, Hibbert came to own that car. In 1989, he sold it to buy his second 1973 Chevelle coupe, a gold 30,000-mile car Hibbert still shows at car shows around his home in Oshkosh, Wis. To this day, the odometer numbers on that gold Chevelle continue to flip, and it currently reads of 204,000 miles. But that green Chevelle eventually came back into his life.

“I sold it to a guy who bought it for his girlfriend, then he sold it, and I ended up buying it back from him,” Hibbert said. “It was a chance encounter; I saw that car at a lot and recognized it... And the [last] owner is now my best friend. I ended up parting it out for inventory.”

By the time Hibbert re-purchased the green Chevelle his parents had bought new, the car had 160,000 miles and had suffered like so many other 1973-’77 GM A bodies: it had rusted to oblivion. Many of the cars that didn’t completely succumb to corrosion faced a bittersweet end as stock cars and enduro race cars on local tracks throughout the country. Those that did survive were often modified with jacked-up rear ends, aftermarket sunroofs and engine transplants, then were driven into the ground.

One of the few Chevelles that did not face an early end was Hibbert’s third 1973 Chevelle, a blue Malibu Colonnade coupe with only 6,800 miles. Despite such a low odometer reading, Hibbert found this Chevelle in a condition that wasn’t as pristine as other cars with similar mileage and age.

“I saw it in the Auto Buyer in 1999,” he said, “and they advertised it with 6,800 miles. They had a pretty high price on it, and I thought if I didn’t have to tamper with it, it was worth it. I went down to Illinois to look at it and it was evident this car had been in some kind of wreck. You could tell it had a replacement passenger front fender and they had blended the paint. It was also missing a bumper bolt and had other signs of being damaged [in the front].”

Hibbert had traveled from northeast Wisconsin to Illinois to view the car and was disappointed to find the Chevelle Malibu had been misrepresented by the consignment dealership advertising it.

“I was holding the air conditioning fuse in my hand and asked the salesman how the a/c worked, and he said, ‘It blows cold,’” Hibbert said.

Despite a few other minor issues, the car showed signs of being a low-mileage Chevelle Malibu. Hibbert also knew the chances of finding another solid mid-1970s Chevelle were slim, so he made an offer.

“The guy lied to me at the consignment lot, so I low-balled him and he showed me the door,” Hibbert said.

Over the next few months, the car continued to appear in advertisements by the consignment dealership, and every month, Hibbert would pester the dealership with another phone call to see if they would accept his earlier offer. Each time, the dealer turned him down. Finally, the car’s owner directly contacted Hibbert and was ready to negotiate.

The seller was a car collector and gave Hibbert the story on the Chevelle, saying it was owned by an older couple who parked it for a long period of time. The seller had purchased it with a group of Cadillacs and had no specific interest in the 1973 Chevelle so he put it up for sale. Given Hibbert’s previous experience in trying to purchase the car, he had a friend in Illinois verify the seller’s facts. Hibbert’s friend learned the elderly couple had damaged the car and repaired it, but a deal was struck regardless.

“Eventually, I did go and buy the car,” Hibbert said. “The patina was there. I’m sure it was the original mileage, because stuff matched up. The guy gave me a price and I probably paid too much.”

Hibbert knew from the beginning he wanted to complete a frame-off restoration of the car to its factory configuration, and hoped to begin work in 2001. Unfortunately, duties at home prevented the work from starting, but it didn’t stop him from driving the car. That summer, he added 10,000 miles to the car’s odometer, and by 2002, he was ready to begin the restoration.

From disassembly to reassembly and detailing the car’s components, Hibbert did all the work himself but the paint. Since the car had such low mileage, the engine was simply given a new gasket set, painted and then reinstalled. Hibbert had another painter shoot the car’s light blue metallic exterior paint. In the end, he had the nicest stock 1973 Chevelle Malibu on the road.

“I like them stock,” Hibbert said. “I see a lot of people with modified cars constantly upkeeping their car to make them run right. It’s enough work to keep them clean.”

Hibbert said that the biggest restoration challenge was removing the original brake and fuel lines, sending them out to be reproduced in stainless-steel and waiting for the new lines to be returned.

Parts hunting was relatively easy, he said. Since the car had so few miles, it didn’t need much. On top of that, Hibbert worked at a Chevrolet dealership and was able to get what few parts he did need from the Chevrolet parts counter.

“There were a few trim pieces I had to get, but I worked at a Chevrolet dealership and so I ordered them,” he said. “I was able to get two rocker trim pieces for about $20 each; I didn’t have to pay the prices you have to pay for them now – I’ve seen sets sell for $1,000.”

However, the savings stopped when it came time to replace the grille.

“The front grille was the biggest pain to find,” Hibbert said. “There was a slight warp in the original grille; there was one angle where I could notice a warp and it just bugged me. The grille took four months to find, and another dealer had one. If it had been a normally stocked item, it would have been less, but the dealer gouged me. But how perfect do you want the car?”

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That quest for perfection has earned Hibbert multiple best-of-show, best-paint and best-engine awards for his Chevelle since it was completed in 2003 after a 10-month restoration.

It’s very rare to see these cars restored to such a level, and Hibbert said he notices two distinct reactions to his work when showing his blue 1973 Chevelle Malibu.

“The older crowd is like, ‘Wow, it’s just a Malibu. But people that are used to seeing them around, they say, ‘Holy (expletive), I can’t believe there’s one around.’”

Neither of those reactions phase Hibbert.

“I built both of these [Chevelles] for myself,” he said. “With that body style of Chevelle, you are kind of like a MoPar guy — you are out on your own with parts availability and appreciation. If I didn’t have those Chevelles, and if GM didn’t exist, I would be looking at early 1970s Mopars.”
Despite all of his work to make his blue 1973 Chevelle Malibu the best example and its tremendously low mileage, Hibbert isn’t afraid to watch its odometer spin from time to time.

“I came up with parameters for that blue one,” he said. “If there is rain in the forecast, I don’t take that one — I take the gold Chevelle. As far as I am concerned, I don’t drive the blue Chevelle enough, but one car is enough to keep clean after the rain.”

Today, the blue Chevelle shows 25,000 miles, and with its mileage added to the 204,000 miles of the gold Chevelle he also owns and the 160,000-mile Chevelle he parted out, Hibbert’s time in 1973 Chevelles is well into the 300,000-mile range and counting.

And thanks to Hibbert, hobbyists have a chance of seeing at least one mint 1973 Chevelle that didn’t meet an end in the grips of the tin worm. And that’s a rare opportunity.

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