Curbside Classic: 1963 Chevrolet Chevy II Nova 400 – It’s Exciting!

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After Ford spent the 1950s trying (and mostly failing) to be a better Chevrolet, the following decade would see the reverse, and the 1962 Chevy II was Chevrolet’s first attempt to build a better Ford – in this case, a better version of the super-successful Ford Falcon.

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The ’60s was the decade that Ford relentlessly advertised that it had a better idea.  One by one, those better ideas kept coming, and Chevrolet was left scratching its head.  Ford’s first was the 1960 Falcon.  What do people who want a smaller, cheaper Ford really want?  Chevy’s answer was “Groundbreaking air-cooled rear-engined car styled like nothing else”.  “Bzzzzt – I’m sorry” was the public’s response.  Ford simply shrunk the regular Ford to 5/8 scale and called it good, and the Falcon was an amazing success.

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Chevy scrambled to react with a shrunken Bel Air and hit the market in 1962 with the not-very-imaginatively-named Chevy II.  At eighteen months from management’s approval to production, the Chevy II was possibly the shortest development time in GM’s modern history.  No wonder they didn’t have time to come up with a better name.  Unfortunately, the Chevy Falcon, er, Chevy II hit showrooms just in time for Ford to introduce another better idea – that people might like a car sized in the gap between the compact Falcon and the big regular Ford line.  Chevy would react again two years hence with its new Chevelle, but that is another story.

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Chevy was probably ready to take a breather and rake in money on the Chevy II in 1963.  After all, they had a competent, attractive, well-built car that was little-changed from 1962, and Chevrolet’s wonderfully expansive dealer network was sure to move plenty of Chevy II’s out the doors.  And Chevy did just that, producing and selling about 372,000 units, a record that would stand until the 1974 model year.  The Chevy II outsold the Falcon by about 50,000 cars in 1963, although it had no answer for the roughly 344,000 Fairlanes that drove out of Ford dealers that year.

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The Chevy II came in multiple series, from the base 100 model, the midrange 300 line and this Nova 400 that was trimmed in a way to mimick the big Chevrolet.  Of course, Ford had the Falcon Futura which offered Galaxie-level luxury in a small package, so the playing field was pretty even.  Until midway through the model year when Ford added the availability of the 260 V8 for the Falcon Sprint.  However, that was offered only in two door models, so sedan buyers all got sixes, no matter where you bought your compact.

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It is a pretty sure bet that not many Nova 400s were equipped with the 153 cubic inch (2.4 L) “Super Thrift” four banger.  Even if it had more displacement and five horsepower over Ford’s amemic 144 cubic inch six, the idea of a four cylinder engine in a modern American sedan was just not taken seriously in 1963.  Four cylinders might have been alright for those poor deprived folks in Europe and Japan, but we just didn’t do that here.

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But even though the car acquitted itself well in the sales charts, the evidence was there for all to see that Chevrolet did not consider this as a serious car for serious people.  One look inside at this, the highest trimmed version, that if you wanted a Chevy with any pizzazz at all, you were just going to have to pony up some more cash and get an Impala.

Not that the Chevy II was a bad car, it was not.  It was arguably a better car than the Falcon, given it’s highly durable engines and the proven Powerglide.  But where the Falcon spawned virtually an entire line of Ford and Mercury compacts and mid-sized cars like the Mustang, Cougar, Fairlane, Torino, Montego, the Chevy II was a little island to itself.  Until Chevy was forced to use it as the starting place for a new car to compete with that crazy Mustang.

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How long since anyone here has seen an early first-generation Chevy II sedan, particularly one of the high-trim Novas?  As for me, I have no idea, because when I came across this one, I just sort of stopped and stared.  It is apparent that this one has had a few mods.  The extra gauges, the wheels that are not the stock thirteen inchers and those dual exhausts coming out the back make me guess that this one is packing a 350 V8.  This one is lacking the fender badge for the six, but that might have been left off in a repaint.  Or could this have been one of the fours?.  I think I would have stuck an SBC into Grandma’s four cylinder Nova too.  And what is it with Chevy people and that “USA-1” license plate?  Chevy has not been the number one sales brand for twenty-five years.  Isn’t that plate just a little sad?  But I can’t be too hard on the owner who has resisted the ubiquitous Chevy rally wheels.

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I spent a bit of time in a couple of these as a kid.  A neighbor lady drove a maroon one, a strippo with manual steering and a three speed.  This was in the days when the two car family meant one good family car for dad to take to the office and a second, smaller, cheaper car for mom to use for shopping and kid hauling.  Or pretty much the opposite of my married life.  The other one, a white sedan, was owned by the lady who would become my stepmom.  I only rode in it a couple of times and as soon as they were married, it was traded in on a new 68 Cutlass Supreme.  The cars never made much of an impression on me then, other than that they were competent cars with no character at all.

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This car would have been an even hotter seller in 1962-63 had the 283 V8 been on the option list.  Unfortunately, that engine was not offered until 1964.  Neither Ford nor Plymouth had a V8 engine that would physically fit in a compact until mid ’63 or later, so other than Studebaker (which had offered its 259 V8 in the Lark from day one), Chevy would have had the market for a V8 compact all to itself.  What was Chevy’s excuse, except failure of imagination and the belief that the Chevy II was a sub-car?

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But perhaps Chevy had it right – for every customer who spent more money on the big Chevrolet, a lot of people were made better off.  The customer got a demonstrably superior car and everyone from the salesman to Divisional Manager Bunkie Knudsen made more money.  Ford may have had a Fairlane, but the regular, more profitable Ford line badly trailed its Chevrolet counterpart in the sales charts in the early ’60s.

But hey, librarians and secretaries needed cars too, and Chevrolet offered them the competent car they needed for the budget they had.  And an attractive one, at that.  Isn’t that what a Chevy was supposed to be?

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Further reading:

1962-65 Chevy II by Paul Niedermeyer