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Our Cars--1977 Chevrolet Nova Concours

Chevrolet-nova-27 There's no way that I could sit back and watch our readers have all the fun during the Our Cars event. Nor could I allow you all to escape without me droning on and on about cars from my own past--not when I haven't already bored you with stories of the family cars from my childhood.

Back in GM's heyday during the 1960s and early 1970s, the compact, rear-wheel-drive Chevy II/Nova series acquitted itself well with a line of cars that mixed relative frugality, practicality, good looks, and available high performance. That's a winning combination in any era, and even today the high-performance Novas are remembered with reverence unmatched by compact-car competition from Ford or Mopar.

The legendary mid-1960s Chevy II SS327 was perhaps the ultimate sleeper, with its compact chassis powered by a fuel-injected, 350-horsepower V-8 borrowed from the Corvette. In its Car Lust post, I called it Michael J. Fox, infused with Rocky Balboa's heart and muscle. Its successor, the 1968-1974 Nova, had swoopier, more aggressive lines and was available in 375-horsepower, 396-cubic-inch big-block form. That kind of power, when matched with the Nova's diminuitive size, made for some serious acceleration. Even the tamer examples of the 1968-1974 Novas, which sold by the bushel-load, have found new life nowadays as SS396 clones and resto-modded muscle cars. These Novas were about as desirable as a domestic compact has ever been.

Chevrolet-nova-32 The 1975-1979 Nova described here does not have nearly as alluring a reputation. It never sported a fuel-injected Corvette engine, and it wasn't available with a big block. I have never seen one of these resto-modded with disc brakes, a blinged-out interior, and a crate motor; nor have I seen it in a muscle-car calendar. There was a sporty SS edition available, but it was strictly a paint-and-stickers affair.

This Nova wasn't a giant killer, a sleeper, or a pocket muscle car, and as a result it hasn't been as venerated as its predecessors. It was just a car, built primarily for practical family transportation.

In a way, this was inevitable--by the time this Nova debuted in 1975, the automotive world had changed dramatically. The cheerfully oblivious focus on high performance that had typified the 1960s had been replaced by real-world concerns such as gas prices, pollution, and safety; a big-block compact would have been completely out of step with reality.

This is not to say that the Nova was a boring car; it may not have performed quite like its forebears, but it certainly held its own in the context of its time. In my bloody battle with Ford Mustang II partisans in the comment section of that car's Poseur Muscle Car post, I contrasted the Mustang II with a Chevy Nova that sprinted from 0-60 in 8.7 seconds in a Car and Driver comparison test. That's mundane performance now, but it was borderline astonishing during those dark times.

Nova SS For context, that time demolished the nominally sportier nameplates with which the Nova shared the test (Audi Fox: 10.7; Lancia Beta: 11.2; Mazda RX-4: 10.1; Opel 1900: 11.2; Saab 99 EMS: 9.5). The Nova was also much quicker than both of the American mini-pony cars, the Ford Mustang II V-8 (10.1) and Chevy Monza 262 (11.4), and was less than a second behind the mighty Pontiac Trans Am 440 (7.8). This is difficult to admit, but that time also made the Nova quicker than my 1986 Audi Coupe GT--a car produced a full decade later and viewed as a premium German sports coupe.

 Lest you think the Nova was just a straight-line brute, Car and Driver also raved about the Nova's handling--surprising, given the European cars with which it was being compared. "Under the Nova sheetmetal lies the chassis of a Camaro," C/D said. "(Chevy makes) the Nova act like a Camaro with close communication with the pavement through the wheel, quick steering, and enough roll stiffness to keep you fairly flat in the turns. In steady cornering, the Nova LN set the pace among the cars in this test with a 0.75 G on the skidpad ... if you need to get down a mountain quickly, it's nice to know you've got a four-door version of the (Camaro) Z-28 under you."

Nova  002All of this capability came with spacious acommodations, cushy comfort, and a big trunk. The Nova was a small car compared with contemporary American cars, but it was a much more practical prospect than one of its compact European competitors.

The Nova's one major downside in the test came in the form of fuel economy; that straight-line speed came courtesy of the optional 350 V-8, which generated a robust 155 horsepower but returned a dismal 13 MPG ... on the highway. Happily, there were more efficient engines available.

This post qualifies as an Our Cars post because my family's primary car during my early childhood was the silver 1977 Chevy Nova Concours that you see pictured here. By this point, my gearhead father had finished plugging a V-8 into a Chevy Vega and was ready to drive his wife and newborn son around in something slightly more practical; so he traded a Jeep Wagoneer that he had purchased from my grandfather for this Nova. He wasn't quite ready to turn in his car enthusiast papers, though, so he opted for the 140-horsepower, 305-cubic-inch V-8 rather than the four- or six-cylinder options.

Nova  001"The Nova had the 305 V-8, and it was fast," recalls my father. "It had the color-keyed rally wheels, so the car was silver with silver rally wheels and a red interior. We had a great time touring with that car all over the West. We thought we were being really great parents by setting up the play pen in the back seat so you could roam around and play while we drove. You would play for hours back there and smile, but we'd be serving in San Quentin if we did that today."

That Nova served us faithfully until 1987, when it had accumulated significant mileage and wear and was better suited for more occasional use. At that point we sold it to an elderly woman who was a friend of the family, and from what we heard it served as rock-solid, dependable transportation for her for at least another decade.

For most of the time that we owned the Nova, I was too young to view it as an object of lust; my attention as a child was squarely on sports cars and European sedans. Nova 003I remember thinking the Nova was attractive, but ultimately it was so reliable and competent that it was more a beloved family member than a true object of lust.

The Nova ended its production run in 1979, replaced by the revolutionary, front-wheel-drive Chevy Citation--the car that was meant to take GM into the 1980s. I have a well-known weakness for the Citation, but I'm very happy to go on the record to state that as a car, it doesn't hold a candle to its predecessor.

American cars of the 1970s are almost universally disparaged as poorly built, unreliable, and weirdly styled. I think that's a short-sighted viewpoint, and one of my primary bits of evidence is the fact that there was a period of time in the 1970s when Chevrolet was offering this Nova alongside the mid-size Malibu and full-size Impala--both revolutionary cars that were purchased in incredible quantities and still revered as some of the best sedans that GM has ever built.

Nova 004 That Nova/Malibu/Impala lineup was a murderer's row of good-looking, dependable, traditional American cars. I realize that this might not mean much given my well-known prediliction for bad cars, but I would happily purchase and regularly drive any of the three. I did see a couple of nicely kept-up and lust-worthy Nova SS examples at the Greenwood Car Show this year, so it's possible that the 1975-1979 Nova is finally developing something of a following.

The top three photos in this story are from HowStuffWorks' excellent series on the 1975-1979 Novas. The remaining photos are from our family archives. If you look closely, you can see the jury-rigged playpen in the back seat; I know that my daughter, who will likely be hermetically sealed into a car seat until the age of 18, is envious of that setup. The last photo is a picture of me as a toddler, flinching when my family tormented me by throwing snowballs at my window. Thankfully, the Nova prevented me from the snow's cold bite.

I have to say, it's amazing to see pictures of this car again; speaking personally, there's really nothing quite like the attachment to the first car around which your memories formed. And even taking a dispassionate view, I think it's a pretty nice-looking car. The body-colored alloys, in particular, look very contemporary. Of course, now I'm wondering just how much a 1975-1979 Nova would cost. ...

--Chris H.

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This story is going to generate a LOT of comments. At least a couple of generations of kids grew up in the backs of, or behind the steering wheels of Chevy Novas. They are like the mighty buffalo that once thundered across America in uncountable numbers, virtally gone now, but not forgotten.

In 1983, I got my first car, a plain Jane 1974 nova 2 door coupe with a 250 cid six cylinder and a three-on-the-tree manual transmission. It was as bare bones a car as you could ask, a plain interior with a bench seat, hubcaps and not a bit of chrome on it - other than the two enormous bumpers it mounted, anyhow.

Like all teenagers of the era, I did my best to fix it up but my efforts were limited to a set of Rally wheels I inherited from my brother's 1978 Nova and various stereo upgrades. In my 20s, I purchased a Hurst conversion kit and relocated my shifter from the column to the floor. Of course I dreamed of more power and, in 1988, replaced it with my first brand new car, a Turbo charged Dodge Shadow.

I owned several other Novas, too. I made a habit of buying dead Novas, making simple repairs and then reselling them for a small profit. I never lost money on a deal when there was a Nova involved, everyone loved them, little old men and women all the way down to young hot rodders. I don't think any car since has had that kind of broad based appeal.

For reference, if anybody's interested, here's some info on the Nova that immediately preceded Chris' family's '77 Concours: http://www.carlustblog.com/2009/11/1968-1974-chevy-nova.html

I'm so sorry, Chuck - I completely zoned on adding the link to your story on the 1968-1974 Nova. That link has now been added, and I would recommend that anybody who wants to learn about the most overt muscle-car Novas check out that post.

These are some great pictures of the car from back in the day. I like your comment that it was like Michael J Fox infused with Rocky's heart and muscle. What a great analogy!

Oh the irony love the post and the Camaro floorpan reference really does ring a bell out here in the antipodes. GMHoldens best seller ever was the HQ Holden built 71-74 with minor facelifts thru till 1980 also on the Camaro chassis. 173/202 cube 6 or 253/308/350 V8 engines great cars my father had 3 new I owned 7 well used and abused in NZ and Aussie includind 2 panel vans very tough with 3/4 or full length chassis in the commercials but much nicer styling than the US Nova. Funny part is tho the new Camaro is built on an Australian HOLDEN chassis as are all GM rwd cars including Caddy and all the worlds RWD Chevvys are Holdens.

Thanks, Ron, but the Michael J. Fox line actually referred to the mid-1960s Chevy II with the fuelie Corvette motor. This car was quick for its time, but innately more modest.

The X bodies were an institution in and of themselves; I just hope there are enough of them left to develop (and sustain) a following because they are certainly under appreciated. I learned to drive in a 74 Nova, and as I noted in my post, I have fond memories of my 76 Omega. It was a step up from the Nova, which had indeed continued along its path of reliable transportation for a modest price. I borrowed many a part from them to keep mine going, as I had a habit of wanting to learn body work and engine skills by breaking things. If I had kept it, the plan was for a Rocket 350 out a late-60s Cutlass that had ended up in the local boneyard. Not because it needed it, just because we could.

Since a 1969 Nova coupe was my first car I have some sympathy for this lust, but my main memory of this generation of Novas was the way so many of them "crabbed-walked" when they drove, i.e., the frames twisted or bent in such a way that the front and rear wheels didn't line up correctly (I'm sure there's a technical term for that, help me out here).

Also of interest, the St. Louis Police Dept. used late-70s Novas as cruisers for a while in that period ... I assume other departments did as well.

I can fully back up the claim of the 1975-79 Chevrolet Nova's interior being comfortable. For a short time my uncle owned a 4-door much like Chris' but with hubcaps. It is by far the most comfortable back seat I've ever sat in. The only downside on that particular car was that water some got through the roof and wet the interior.

These cars are tough! You still see them chugging along the roads around here, bodies barely held together due to rust and damage but never missing a beat. Someone once mentioned that GM got rid of the car because it was too good. Hard to believe, eh? XD

I remember the crab walking! Up here we called it dog tracking (why I have no clue). There was one in the area that was so bad it used to jump the track of the car wash I worked at.

Stephen, it's called dog-tracking because dogs, though not all of them, walk in a way that their hind legs, while walking forward, tend to no be aligned with their front ones so their bodies move forward but in a slightly sideways way. I read about it in a book when the author was describing the ride of his price-is-too-good-to-be-true Porsche 356.
Hope this is a good enough explanation.

I had a '77 nova back in the early '90s.. Easy to work on and cheap parts, but it would stall on left-hand turns, its spare tire took up at least 1/3 of the trunk, and it had the typical GM keys (2 sets of keys, one-sided).

I kinda wish I had it still, but only if I had a garage in which I could trick out the V8..

I had one when I was much younger . It had multiple problems -paint which faded and came off in sheets and an interior which which fell apart prematurely. On the other hand, it wasn't very good mechanically either! no one could make it accelerate without hesitating (except when the accelerator stuck).

Had a '74 Nova. 350 V-8. Of course, the radiator HAD to let go on the coldest day of the year. You have not lived until you have swapped out a Nova radiator in -35 wind chills. Ever try to run a mechanic's creeper on packed snow and ice? Don't. Gave up and just used a toboggan.

Great to read about the mid-late '70's Novas -- not a subject often seen. In 1976 I bought a dealer-demonstrator 4-dr with police package, so it was never owned or used by a force. Snow white, 350 V-8, HD radiator, alternator, valve train, two dome lights, HD vinyl interior, rubber floor covering instead of carpet, etc. Quick in town, fast on the highway, and one of the most dependable cars I've ever owned.
Only mods were beefier radials on aluminum wheels popular at the time -- black wire wheel look with polished rims -- and two tranny fluid coolers mounted behind the grille. Re-plumbed the fluid through its own circuit, not through the radiator, and never had a problem with the tranny, ever. Time for valves, rings at around 110K miles, so replaced it with a crate motor instead. Sold it at 160K miles, that guy sold it at 310K miles and the tranny was still fine.
I was considering replacing the live axle with an independent rear from a Vette -- to make an Americanische 5 Series BMW -- but didn't get there for other reasons. I've always thought that was a perfect size car in many ways -- too bad GM didn't stick with it and just keep making it better.
Thanks for doing this article.

Whenever I traveled with my aged friend Sam in his 77 Nova, I insisted on driving. (If you had ever rode with him driving, you would know why) For whatever reason, he had a phobia about breaking springs, and if we crossed a railroad track or other bumps in the road, he insisted I drive at a crawl, so as to save his springs.

Don't you know, one day, when he himself was driving, he broke a spring! That's what I think of when I see a Nova.

Sorry, but I couldn't even read the whole article. Had one in my driveway ('77) for too long - after '74 they totally sucked. There is no comparison between that crapbucket and the '67 wagon I grew up with. Nova died in '74, as did all American cars, due to government intervention. Okay, it was '71, but the models still looked fast. By '74, we knew the greenies in California were in control. America's been downhill ever since.

I liked the 75-79 Nova...but I've never driven one.
Let me explain...
Back in the day (when I was in college) our neighbor was the GM of the local Cadillac dealer.
He loaned my mom a brand new Seville...silver with silver vinyl top, red interior, IIRC the first couple of thousand were made that way to help the factory get up and running...it was a great car driving wise. At least compared to the other yachts (Lincolns and Cadillacs) I got to drove that belonged to mom and her friends.

In '77 I got an internship with a local TV station Their three-car new fleet consisted of new Buick Slylarks, the Buick version of the Nova. Not a bad car, even in strippo form.
But no where near as nice as the Seville.

John B, I'm doing a post on the 1976 Seville, and I found that though the body started out as a Nova "X" Body (Not to be confused with GM's front-wheel-drive "X" Cars), there eventually were enough differences for the Seville to have a "K" Body designation all its own. The floor pan was stretched, new rear doors were built, and the roofline... well, that's a story in itself.

I hope to have the Seville post done soon... please stay tuned.

My folks had a '76 Nova Hatchback for about 5 years when I was growing up. It had the straight six, which gave decent fuel economy and adequate power. I recall that it had ample room for a couple of young kids in the back, and if you folded the back seat down it also could carry a surprising amount of cargo. Also fairly comfortable - I could wedge into a corner of the back seat, my head against the side window, and sleep for hours. If given the choice between a bus pass and the keys to a late 70's Nova, I'd take the Nova in a heartbeat. Granted, I'd swap in suspension from a contemporary Z28 and the drivetrain from a late S-10, but I'd gladly take a Nova.

I had a '76 Nova coupe base model I purchased new. It had the 305 V8, AC and an AM radio. It was painted white with a dark red interior - vinyl bench seats that would stick to your legs on hot days. I upgraded to a Craig 8-track stereo, added a CB radio and a couple of under-dash gauges (outside of the speedo and fuel gauge it only had idiot lights). It was a great car - dependable and handled pretty well. The 305 was pretty anemic, but it was reliable and easy to work on. The brakes were only so-so, but I never tried to take it beyond its limits. Eventually, the vinyl seats split as did the dashboard - victims of the sun in south Florida. For all its faults, I really liked the car and wish I still had it.

My 2nd car was a 1978 Nova. It was "maroon" (faded to a horrible flaky brown) with a white half-roof vinyl top and opera windows. Horrible.

The interior was red, and actually in great condition.

Ya know what? I miss that car. I used to powerslide it on dirt roads, in the rain and in the snow and had a blast hooning it out in the deserts of western Colorado. I got pulled over doing just over 95 MPH in that car, and it was just a lot of fun.

It still lives... After I joined the military it sat for years before being given to a friend of my younger brother. He did exactly what I always wanted to in high school, fixed up the wheezy 350 by removing all the emissions crap, giving it a fresh carb and exhaust and speeding the whole thing up a bit.

Still looks ugly as hell though.

I found some interesting cars on this site: www.chevynovabroker.com

Regards

Yea I had one ,77 Nova Concours A head turner back in my day High Grad @ 80 She had bucket seats "Factory" auto shifter on the floor "factory" fire engine red Interior Black exterior red pin stripe, rally wheels, Caboret top two door coupe That car flew and would blow the doors off of camaros and pontiac alike I had put dunlops60s for legs and I custom did the interior roof with Black Pincushion velor , a red dome light We stole from the Junk yard out of a "Lincoln Town car" and a mini pillow to match ,as not to be outdown by all my friends custom vans ,a big craze and fun back then HA "Mini Vans" quiet a car the best! I am still looking for her Oh Yea a huge chic magnet with a Alpine system of 200 watts Friday nights usally were for cruis..N to AC/DC and pounders and Sat were spent with the buckets pushed foward and Boones Farm wine in hand ..Im still looking for that car Ran..D

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