In high school, I wasn't smart enough to grasp geopolitical conflicts, the history of world civilizations, or foreign trade. My short attention span may have played a role, or the fact that I was more interested in cars and girls than anything else at that time. Desert Storm was over by the mid-1990s and Iran and Iraq were far-off lands. Why should I care? The troubles of an oil-rich Middle East were as remote to me as the moon.
As for Middle East history, one incident I do recall is the Kuwait invasion by Saddam's forces and the ensuing Gulf War. I watched it live on CNN in my parent's basement. Prior to that, I faintly remember reading about the earlier Iran-Iraq war in a long series of National Geographic articles when I was in grade school.
But that's about it. I was a regular guy with more pressing interests.
Meanwhile, American families such as my own were consuming oil in manatee-sized station wagons and conversion vans getting single-digit mileage. An oil-hungry nation didn't seem to mind where the product came from, even if we had to purchase it from war-torn regions with questionable leadership. When those leaders later came looking for a new set of wheels, (or a fleet of them), we gladly let them walk the lot and told the salesman to get the paperwork ready. And if we couldn't make a deal, perhaps our Candian subsidiary could.
Sound far-fetched? It isn't.
This is the story of oil, a brutal dictator, a protracted war, and the fleet of 1981 Chevy Malibus dubbed the 'Iraqi Taxis'.
|Gas & oil fields near Ahwaz, Khuzestan province, Iran.|
Photo Credit: Dynamosquito / Flickr
Following centuries of territorial battles, failed agreements over the use of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and rising tensions after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iraq invaded Iran in September of 1980. One major Iraqi goal: To capture the oil-rich Khuzestan province and keep the crude flowing to the West. Armed with $33 billion in U.S. money thanks to the 1979-1980 oil boom, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi government was able to arm itself with the tanks, fighter jets and ammunition for the massive assault on their neighbor. The ensuing air and land assault lasted for eight bloody years and included Soviet-sourced tanks, Gazelle helicopters from France, and Chevrolet Malibus from Canada.
That's right, a boatload of America's favorite mid-sized sedan headed to the Middle East en masse in 1981, but their role wasn't exactly crystal clear. Originally billed as an order destined for "Iraqi government fleet use and taxi service", their true destination may have actually been a bit more depressing.
|The mid-sized Chevy Malibu was a perfect export vehicle for markets such as Europe, where consumers and infrastructure required smaller vehicles. Note this 1979 Malibu's export tail lights with amber signals.|
Photo Credit: Roland Brunner / Flickr
By 1980, General Motors had firmly established the fact that they were a global corporation. They had subsidiaries on every continent except Antarctica, and they were shipping models like the G-body Malibus overseas in healthy amounts. It made sense that one of the world's most powerful dictators, a well-known car collector himself, would want to purchase a few thousand for his people. While they weren't as luxurious as the cars Saddam Hussein was used to riding in, the Malibus did have a nice full-size car ride while remaining nimble enough to handle like a small sport sedan. The fact that they were American cars also elevated them to 'celebrity' status in a region where most families didn't own basic transportation.
Shortly after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam's government special-ordered 25,000 Canadian-built 1981 Chevy Malibu sedans and paid a tidy sum (in the ballpark of $100 million at the time) for the order. Since Iran and Iraq were likely on the United States list of who's been naughty, General Motors of Canada actually sold the cars to Iraq. The corporate buffer would likely prevent any potential blowback down the road.
|An 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibu on display in Illinois in 2015.|
Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches
These Malibu sedans weren't your standard base model 'plain jane' models with zero options. No, sir. These were built for desert duty. Under the hood of each Iraqi-bound G-body sedan was the standard LC3 3.8 liter carbureted V6, a heavy duty cooling package, and the tough F41 sport suspension to soak up any big bumps the rugged landscape tossed their way. Like a Timex watch, the little full-frame sedans would have been able to take a beating and keep on ticking under the blistering Iraqi sun.
|No frills inside of the Iraqi Malibus, just starchy cloth and a big gearshift for you to row through the gears with.|
Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches
Creature comforts included air conditioning, an AM/FM stereo cassette player, and... that's it.
|The 1981 Chevrolet Malibu Sport Sedan as shown in official GM literature.|
Photo Credit: General Motors Heritage Center
You would think these cars would have been equipped with an automatic transmission, right? Well that option box wasn't checked off. Each one of the 25,000 cars came with the bottom-of-the-barrel Saginaw 3-speed manual transmission with a basic floor shift. This would prove to be the car's Achilles' heel.
|A Saginaw three-speed transmission diagram.|
Photo Credit: ChevyTalk.org
In an effort to remedy concerns, General Motors of Canada allegedly sent technicians to Iraq in 1982 to swap out clutch release bearings in what was later dubbed the "recall in the desert". Even shoring up the cars didn't persuade Saddam's government to finish the original transaction, and later that year GM of Canada was stuck with 12,500 G-body sedans built without U.S. or Canadian emissions equipment scattered between loading docks in Oshawa, Ontario and Halifax, Nova Scotia. GM would later come up with a way to salvage some cash on the deal. They would later sell them at deep discounts in Canada and the Eastern United States for $4000 below sticker price of a comparably-equipped Malibu
|A modified 'Iraqi Taxi' sold in Canada and later customized with a 350, 4bbl carb, 4 speed transmission, and flame paint job.|
You can read about it here.
Photo Credit: ChevyTalk.org
What if the infamous 'Iraqi Taxi' cars weren't built for their stated purpose?
This isn't a conspiracy theory... don't worry.
What if the so-called 'Iraqi Taxis' weren't taxis at all, but instead served as a consolation prize from a cash-strapped government fighting a petro-war with a rising death toll?
That may be exactly what they were, according to author Michelle McDonald.
|Photo Credit: Penguin Random House Australia|
In her book The Kiss of Saddam, McDonald chronicles the life of Selma Masson, wife of Iraqi diplomat Dr. Mohammad al Jabiri. Masson recalls seeing the special order Malibus roaming the streets of Baghdad with alarming frequency in 1982. With knowledge of the inner workings of the Iraqi government, Masson states the Malibus were often used as a pension payment for families of casualties of the Iran-Iraq war. If your son or husband died on the battlefield, you were entitled to a payment of 10,000 Dinar, (roughly $2500 U.S.) and a Chevrolet Malibu.
One can only assume the rationale for the gift of the Malibu was that it was a cheap way settle an obligation to the military families, and keep money flowing into the ongoing war instead of pension payouts. As an added bonus, young sons would presumably think highly of Saddam after receiving a shiny new American car, and eventually follow in their father's footsteps as a loyal Iraqi soldier. Widows were also allegedly encouraged to remarry quickly so that Saddam would be able to replenish his army that much sooner.
In another dark twist on the 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibu story, Masson notes the Iraqi people cleverly referred to the sedans as the "car of the mourning", by combining the Iraqi words mal for "belong to" and iubu, the sound a woman makes when she's crying. No doubt the sights of the car in your neighborhood would mean something bad happened.
This memoir certainly casts things in a different light.
|Photo Credit: Throwin' Wrenches|
Ironically, the cars that once symbolized power, influence, and grief are now a common nameplate on the streets of Saddam's hometown. General Motors will gladly sell you a new 2016 Chevy Malibu if you live in Iraq, only this time a friendly dealer in Erbil will help you with the transaction instead of a Canadian subsidiary.
The 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus are more than just a cruise night novelty. They were the cars that GM built for one of the most feared dictators in all the land, and a key figure in the major conflicts of our lifetime. We also now know they were a sign of loss and devastation in the villages where Saddam's soldiers and families lived. To many Canadians, they represent a unique economy car that turned into a stoplight racer after the warranty expired. In America they largely remain an urban legend.
If you see one, give it more than just a glance and you'll instantly be connected with a pupose-built car destined for far away shores. The 'Iraqi Taxi' Malibus a piece of rolling world history knocked off course.
We're lucky any survived.