We’re back to our old tricks. No more o’ them goddayum, tea-drinkin’ Yooropeans. This is our old stomping ground, the Big Apple, and this is a good old-fashioned muscle car. It’s been too long. Now, I know what you’re thinking: wait, that can’t be New York City. I can see trees and greenery and living things! But it is. This is a relatively unknown neighborhood-Harding Park– in the borough that everyone overlooks- the Bronx. It was designed as a beach resort community for rich Manhattanites in the 1920s to escape to after a long day of helping to crash the stock market. It’s very quaint. It’s also not bad on cars. This is a 1970 Chevrolet Nova.
In order to talk about how the Nova got started, we first have to talk about a car called the Chevy II. The II was intended to go head to head with GM’s crosstown rival, Ford, who had just introduced a car called the Falcon (which, depending on who you ask, got the ball rolling on a little car called the Mustang). Chevrolet did have a car that was intended to be a competitor to the Falcon called the Corvair, but they decided to be weird about it by putting the engine in the middle and giving it no grille. The staunchly conservative fifties were only a few years past, so maybe people weren’t ready for that yet (“But your kids are gonna love it!”). Also Ralph Nader got involved- that was strange- but I’m saving that story for when we actually find a Corvair.
Anyway, people weren’t into the Corvair, so the engineers decided to try again with the Chevy II. The II’s purpose in life was to be uncomplicated, familiar transportation for suburban communities: as inoffensive and unchallenging as Fig Newtons or The Dave Matthew’s Band. The II was supposed to be the car you stopped thinking about the moment after you bought it. This was reflected in the car’s marketing campaign. Ad copy for the Chevy II was sprinkled with hits like “the thrift car” and “fits neatly in garages.” Did it work? Well, kind of. The Ford outsold the Chevy, but the II was popular enough to warrant sticking around for a few more generations. This particular car was introduced in 1968, and is technically the third generation of the II, but is actually the first official generation of the Nova. See, if you were looking at a Chevy II but wanted something a little more luxurious and powerful, you got a Chevy II Nova. For the third iteration of the car, the “II” name was replaced by “Nova,” making this the first Chevy Nova.
It has come to the point where we talk about engines, which is really the bread and butter of the whole Nova story. Over its life, the Nova housed just about every engine that Chevy could cram under its hood. People who needed to go places quickly opted for the top-of-the-line SS model, which featured a 5.7 liter V8 developing 300 horsepower. There was also the option of the 6.5 liter V8 called the Big Block 396, which could be had in 350 or 375 horsepower flavors. You could also get that engine in the El Camino, among others. If you were a less interesting person, you could have a V8 with 200 horsepower, or an inline-6 with 155 horsepower. It’s not the one I’d necessarily buy, but the engine that I find most interesting is the 2.5 liter four cylinder, clocking in at a paltry 90 horsepower. I mean- why? What would inspire someone to buy this? Are there any still around? Is there like, a 4 cylinder Chevy Nova Owners Club out there? I have so many questions. Anyway, most engines were paired with a four speed manual or a three speed automatic named the Turbo-Hydramatic 400. I don’t know why it was called that, the Nova wasn’t turbocharged, involved in Marvel’s evil secret society, or in any way related to the number 400.
In the same way that the Falcon gave rise to the Mustang, people say the Nova (or at least the Chevy II) was really the origin story for the Camaro. I don’t know if I believe that. I do think that the Nova is a bit of a lost soul, though. It’s not like people don’t remember it- they do- but among all the the other Chevrolets that the Nova coexisted with- the Vega, the Malibu, the Chevelle, the Biscayne- it was easy for this not-quite-small car to get misplaced. Today, there’s a new Camaro. You can buy new versions of the Malibu and the Impala. But the Nova? Nope. And honestly, I don’t think the name will ever make a reappearance. It was good for its time. It bore its cross of pragmatism admirably, and for a long time. But, like the Lawrence Welk Show and my career in short films, some things are best left in the past.
- One remarkable aspect of the Nova was its development time: just eighteen months from the moment GM greenlighted the project until the first car was rolling off the assembly line.
- Hot rodders are big fans of the Nova, mainly for its ability to house such a variety of engines. That’s why I shied away from naming this particular car’s engine- you really can’t tell with the hood down.
- Some people will try to tell you that the Nova didn’t sell well in Spanish speaking countries because the name translates to “doesn’t go.” Don’t believe them. That myth was debunked.
- In 1963, three fastback Novas were built for road racing.