The international reputation of American carmakers during the Malaise Era—the period of successive oil crises, regulation-choked engines and general crap quality lasting from 1973 to the mid-1980s—was, in a word, bad. So bad that former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein once nixed a deal to buy 25,000 specially-built 1981 Chevrolet Malibus from General Motors after the first 12,500 reportedly arrived in Iraq riddled with defects, inadvertently creating a now-rare piece of automotive history in the process.
Now, the exact origins of this 1980 deal between GM and Saddam are unclear, beyond the fact that Iraq had no domestic auto industry and needed fleets of hardy cars for government business and taxi service. Typically murderous dictators pick something more interesting, but Saddam settled on the G-Body Chevrolet Malibu probably because American products were en vogue at the time. Also, he was a weird guy.
However, even if he wanted the Malibus, he couldn’t get them directly from the United States. The U.S. government had instituted sanctions on Iraq following Saddam’s bloody rise to power in 1979 because it believed the Ba’ath Party was supporting terrorism, even as relations between the two countries were gradually warming for other geopolitical reasons. So it fell to GM of Canada to broker the deal, with the cars being made at its Oshawa, Ontario plant and shipped out from the Port of Halifax. GM would get its money—over $200 million in 2020 bucks—Iraq would get its taxis, and the Canadian government would catch a little piece of the action as well.
But by late 1981, with around 12,500 Malibu delivered unto the desert so far, it all fell apart. Though you might’ve expected the Malibu’s inadequate cooling system to be its undoing, GM knew it was going to be hot over in the desert, believe it or not. With the cars intended for fleet work, it built them to what’s become known as the “Iraqi Taxi” spec—heavy-duty cooling and suspension, upgraded air conditioning, crank windows, tough cloth seats, a three-on-the-floor manual transmission, and a carbureted 3.8-liter V6 making all of 110 horsepower.
Unfortunately, the Iraqi government claimed the cars were total lemons. Between a litany of reported build quality issues and a notoriously sticky clutch on the Saginaw three-speed transmission, well… I think a reporter from the CBC put it best at the time: “They’ve been running so badly and breaking so often, that the Iraqis aren’t much interesting in having 12,500 more.” Saddam called off the deal.
Despite GM’s efforts to salvage the deal by sending nearly 100 mechanics and a squad of executives to change the Iraqi government’s mind, it was over. The cars remained parked at the Port of Halifax as GM considered its options.