Our Cars--1977 Chevrolet Nova Concours
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.
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 The cheerfully oblivious focus on high performance that had typified the 1960s had been replaced by real-world concerns such as gas prices, pollution, and safety; a big-block compact would have been completely out of step with reality.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.
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."
All 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.
"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. I 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.
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. ...