Vintage Review: Chevrolet Nova 9C1 – “Super Nova”

Last week Paul posted an article about the Chevrolet Nova and the Ford Granada. The article focused on how the hot selling Granada handily beat the Nova in the luxury compact market.   Clearly, the American public at that time had more interest in the sizzle of the Ford Granada despite its lack of engineering prowess compared to the Nova.  The Granada was just fancy new clothes over the ancient Falcon chassis, while the Nova was the opposite.  The outside may have been a plain Chevrolet Nova wrapper, but it was built over top of one of North America’s best handling chassis of the time.  When it came to handling performance, the Granada wasn’t even in the same league.

For the mid and late 1970s the Nova was undoubtedly the best in class handler, but it didn’t start that way.  So, let’s do a bit of history refresher.  The Nova was fully redesigned in 1968 and it shared much in common with the 1967 Camaro/Firebird (F-bodies).  This included using a unitized body structure with a bolt on front subframe.  This subframe used a short-long control arm suspension with the coil spring mounted on the lower arm, similar in design to GM’s body–on-frame cars.

A 1968-74 subframe. Note the steering linkage is mounted behind the front axle.


For 1970, the GM F-bodies were full redesigned.  They still used a unitized body with a bolt on subframe, but the 1970 subframe and suspension was fully redesigned.  The steering box and linkage were relocated to be ahead of the front axle, and the control arm geometry was heavily revised and improved.  The result was the F-bodies were among the best handling cars of their time, arguable the best of the North American cars in the 1970s.  The Nova, however, continued on unchanged until 1974, still using the older subframe and suspension with its antiquated geometry.

A 1975-79 subframe, note the new steering location in front of the axle.


For the 1975 model year the Nova was heavily revamped, and was updated to use the new subframe that Camaro had been using since 1970. The 1975 model year may have been one of the worst years ever for horsepower per cubic inch at Chevrolet, but at least the new Nova handled well to compensate for its lack of power.  Along with the F-bodies and X-bodies, this same basic suspension geometry and control arm design was also used in GM Colonnade intermediates. This is why these A-bodies handled so much better than there much loved predecessors despite their extra weight and girth.  This same front suspension was likewise the basis of the much lauded downsized B-body cars introduced in 1977.

The 1973 OPEC oil embargo had a big short-term impact on auto sales, but it also had some fleet managers starting to think about more fuel efficient options. The Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department (LASD) with its massive fleet of gas guzzling police cars was one organization that started to look at more fuel efficient options.  John Christy, Executive Editor of Motor Trend Magazine was a Specialist Reserve Deputy with the LASD.  He was also a big proponent of finding more fuel efficient and cost effective police cars, which he argued would save the taxpayers millions of dollars. He believed that a smaller more fuel efficient police car was a much better choice for police work.  Consequentially, Christy acted as a consultant with the LASD to help design a vehicle test procedure that would identify the best police car to meet needs of LASD.

Intermediates like this Matador were used by the LASD up until the mid 1970s.


John Christy, LASD Lieutenant Bill Kirley and some GM engineers met and discussed the future of police cars.  They agreed that it was time to move to smaller patrol cars.  Christy ended up drafting a letter to Jim Williams of Chevrolet Motor Divisions Public Relations Department in January of 1974.  He told Williams that Motor Trend was working in conjunction with the LASD to test the feasibility of using compact cars for law enforcement functions.  His guidelines were that the car must be a 4-door sedan with a wheelbase of 96 – 112”, have a six cylinder or V8 engine with a maximum displacement of 350 cubic inches, an automatic transmission, front disc brakes and air conditioning.  Any carburetion could be used but there needed to be a balance of economy and performance.  Christy ended the letter by saying, “Due to the current energy crisis and the wide interest of government agencies and the public at large in energy saving alternatives, we feel that this program will have wide-spread impact and value for all concerned.  May we count on your assistance?”

Chevrolet for years had offered police packages for their cars, but Chevrolet’s police packages were never as comprehensive as Ford and Chrysler’s.  That fact was that Chevrolet really didn’t need those police car sales and only put in a half-hearted effort compared to the competition.  Chevrolet police car sales reflected this, being dominated by Ford and then Chrysler.  Nevertheless, after receiving this letter from Christy, Chevrolet decided to take up this challenge and put forth a real effort to make a good police car.

Chevrolet assigned two experienced engineers to lead the project.  They were Jim Ingle, a suspension specialist engineer from the F-body program and Harry Hammond of Special Projects, who formerly worked on Chevrolet Taxi projects.  The two engineers started out with a plain white 1973 Nova taxi cab.  The 6-cylinder drivetrain was yanked and replaced with an L48 350-4bbl with dual exhaust rated at 185 hp (SAE net) and a specially tuned TH350 transmission.  The taxi interior remained but they added a heavy-duty radiator and alternator, front disc brakes, larger drum rear brakes and a 3.08:1 limited slip differential.  The Nova got some parts from the Z/28 parts bin including the dual snorkel air cleaner, the 4-spoke steering wheel, and the quick ratio steering box.   The engineers tested several suspension combinations to find the best springs, shocks, bushings, anti-roll bars and eventually found a combination that made Nova handle well.

Once the car was complete, Ingle and Hammond drove the Nova prototype hard and fast from Detroit to California to put it through its paces. It performed admirably. The Nova prototype was tested in LASD’s tests with MT and it did exceedingly well.  The LASD vehicle test used traditional police cars as the baseline.  These cars were a Plymouth Satellite, Dodge Coronet and AMC Matador.  However, the Nova wasn’t the only compact in the competition.  Other compacts included a 350 powered Pontiac Ventura, AMC Hornet with a 232 six, a Dodge Dart with a 360, and a slant-six Plymouth Valiant.  In addition, there was a specially prepared Volvo 164E that participated, a car that had an excellent track record as a police vehicle in a Europe.

The much more powerful Dart easily outran all the other cars, but wasn’t the winner as this test was about overall performance and functionality as a police car. Beside straight line performance the cars were scored on handling, braking, fuel economy, ergonomics, mechanical repair, major component heat test, and communications evaluation.  When the overall test results were calculated the Nova came out as the best American car.  The Nova virtually tied the Volvo, with the Volvo scoring slightly higher at 78.17 versus 78.14 points overall.   MT said the Nova “does everything the Volvo does, though where the Volvo is mannerly, the Nova is Muscular.”  In comparison, the traditional Plymouth Satellite, Dodge Coronet and AMC Matador scored 69.831, 68.503 and 67.672 points respectively, scoring significantly lower than the Volvo, Nova and Dart.

The surviving 1974 Nova Police car demonstrator.


The LASD was highly impressed by the Nova, and immediately placed an order for 11 1974 Nova police cars for further evaluation.  The City of Fountain Valley Police also ordered 4 Novas.  In addition to these 15 cars, there was one more Nova built for the Fleet Sales Manager at Chevrolet’s Los Angeles Zone Office to be used as a demonstrator.  That car was later sold to LASD and put into police service.  That demonstrator Nova till exists today, probably the only original 1974 Nova Police car to survive.

One of the first 11 1974 Chevrolet Nova Police cars received by the LASD.


These 1974 Nova police cars were essentially prototypes and they were a little on the crude side.  Regardless, they were highly successful in field use and it resulted in Chevrolet making the Nova 9C1 a regular production vehicle available as a COPO vehicle for 1975.  Unlike the full-size and intermediate size Chevrolet police cars, which could be ordered a la carte, the Nova 9C1 only came in one format:  4-door sedan, 350 LM1 engine, TH350 transmission, and 3.08:1 rear axle ratio.  There were no wimpy six-cylinders or half-assed versions.   Chevrolet specifically designed the Nova 9C1 as a complete package.

There were some changes for 1975 production from the 1974 prototypes.  The 350-4bbl LM1 350 replaced the L48 used in the 1974 cars.  The Nova 9C1 LM1 engine didn’t see any performance upgrades over the civilian version; however, it did have more heavy duty valve train components to cope with police service. The 1975 model year marked the first year that GM used the catalytic converter, so the true dual exhaust was no longer used.  The Nova had “dual outlet” exhaust where a single exhaust pipe entered a transversely mounted muffler which had dual outlets.  Like civilian models, the Nova 9C1 used GM’s new HEI ignition and the dual snorkel air cleaner was replaced with a new cold air intake setup.

For 1975 the LM1 used this cold air intake rather than the dual snorkel air cleaner of the L48. A 1977 Nova is shown.


Since California was a big market for these police Novas, the engine was designed to use the California emission package in all versions.  Doing so allowed Chevrolet to better engineer the carb jetting, ignition timing, and camshaft profile to work well with the emissions package. This resulted in a much better overall engine, especially compared to so many engines where the California emissions package was just added on after the fact.  The 1975 LM1 was rated at 155 hp (SAE net), which was a 30 hp drop from the 1974 L48 engine.  Despite this big loss in power on paper the 1975 Nova 9C1 performed better overall than the 1974 car in the LASD police tests.

In addition to the mechanical changes, the redesigned body resulted in significantly improved visibility, a great asset for a police car.  The total glass area increased, in particular the rear door window was larger and the windshield saw a 15% increase in size.

The Nova 9C1 would become LASD’s main police car for several years.


While the 1974 Nova police car prototype had good handling, it came at the compromise of a harsh ride.  The 1975 Nova was redesigned using the formerly mentioned improved front suspension geometry.  This improved suspension design allowed engineers to not only improved handling, but improve the ride comfort.  Motor Trend even went as far to call the ’75 Nova 9C1 the first American car to have “European ride.”  While, the handling was good, it was not quite in the same league as a Mercedes, in particular on rough roads where its leaf spring axle will hop about. Nonetheless, the point is, this suspension setup was a massive improvement over anything previously offered by the Big Three.

The Nova competed in the 1975 LASD test against the 401 powered AMC Matador and the 360 Powered Plymouth Fury.  While acceleration wasn’t the quickest, it handily out braked and out handled the larger police cars.  The Nova was also the most fuel efficient.  The Nova was declared the overall winner and the LASD recommended that one-third of its 1975 fleet become Nova 9C1s.  This was the beginning of the Nova becoming one of the most popular police cars for urban police departments.

That brings us to this MT article on the “Super Nova.”  The Nova 9C1 was a hidden gem during the dark ages of the mid-1970s and MT knew it.  Those looking for a true driver’s car in the 1970s from the Big Three were pretty limited.  Those in the know could spec out an American BMW for a fraction of the price of the real thing. Of course, the Nova didn’t have the European cachet.  And let’s also hope the buyer had no aspirations for a nice high quality interior, because the Nova couldn’t even compete with the Ford, let alone the Germans.  Nonetheless, a true driving enthusiast could easily be satisfied with this little Nova despite its other shortcomings, if one followed the option check boxes that MT set out.

The Nova 9C1 continued in production until 1978, with a few changes occurring along the way. In 1976, the 9C1 package was also available on the 2-door Nova, and a new special police rear seat option for the 4-doors gave improved knee room and easier entry and exit.  It continued to be the top performer on the LASD police tests, and in fact became the exclusive police car for LASD for 1976, 1977 and 1978.  By 1978 though, other cars were catching up to the Nova.  Chevrolet had its new downsized Impala, which was closing the gap between the former leviathan police cars and the compact Nova.  While the 1977 Impala 9C1 wasn’t a game changer out of the gate, its performance was fairly close to the Nova. It also had fuel economy that was drastically improved over previous large police cars.  Chrysler was also making a more competitive compact police car with the 360 powered Volare and Aspen.  These Mopars performed and scored close to the Nova.  Like Chevrolet’s B-body, these Mopars wouldn’t come into their own until the 1980s when they evolved into the M-body Dodge Diplomat and Plymouth Fury.

By 1979, the Nova 9C1 was gone, replaced by the new downsized A-body Malibu. While also a successful police car that became the LASDs next police car of choice, it certainly wasn’t the game changer the Nova 9C1 had been.  Before the Nova, the vast majority of police cars were large cars that guzzled gas, and often didn’t have the brakes or handling to match their powerful engines.  The Nova was arguably the best police package of the 1970s and it resulted in the LASD and many other police departments moving to smaller, more fuel efficient police cars.

The special rear seat option for Nova 9C1 created more room.

And so, while Chevrolet was revolutionizing the police car market, where was Ford?  They were pumping out as many Falcon Broughams Granadas they could make, and handily beating the Nova in that sales race.  However, a bunch of sizzle on an antiquated chassis does not make a good police car.  Ford never offered any police package on the Granada, nevertheless, it didn’t seem like Ford had intention to take the compact police car market seriously.  In fact, Ford didn’t offer any sort of compact police car until 1977 when it introduced a police package on the Maverick.

The police Maverick, which shared its same basic chassis design with the Granada, was far from a successful.  Unlike Chevrolet who took the time to engineer a complete package for police duty, the Maverick was basically beefed up with the most heavy-duty items for the parts bin.  It included heavy duty cooling, suspension, alternator, battery, and seat fabric.  Ford reinforced the ancient Falcon chassis to withstand the police duty, knowing it wasn’t up to the task.  Yet even with all of this, Ford still warned that the Maverick wasn’t suited for pursuit work, and was only intended for suburban assignments.   The NYPD bought numerous Mavericks as detective units, and the Maverick couldn’t even handle that duty. They were nose heavy with a light rear end and had no limited slip option.  This made it a car that suffered from poor traction and terrible handling.  The cars were so bad, that the NYPD actually returned the cars to the dealership and demanded their money back.  Ford cancelled the police Maverick before the end of 1977 model year.

Clearly, the old Falcon chassis was not up to police duty so Ford quickly replaced it with the much more competent Fox-body Fairmont.  Despite this new modern chassis design and Fords extensive experience in the police market, the Fairmont police car was a half-baked effort that was a bust, unable to compete with Chevrolet’s offerings.   The Fox body would eventually see success as a police car, most notably as the Mustang purist cars, but also later as the LTD in the mid-1980s.  Even then though, the LTD wasn’t a well-balanced package, having woefully in adequate brakes.

So while Ford may have been cleaning up selling the sizzle of the Granada, Chevrolet was revolutionizing the police car market. The Nova 9C1 first of Chevrolet’s specialized police cars and unlike past Chevrolet police cars, it was a highly tuned package specially engineered for police duty. It was the beginning of Chevrolet’s future success with police vehicles that eventually allowed Chevrolet to become the leader in police vehicles during the 1980s, overtaking Chrysler products from their long reign at the top.  Chevrolet would remain at the top until 1996, when the last Caprice 9C1 rolled off the line.