Here’s ‘just a car.’ Never did I imagine I would ever stop to take photos of a ’68-’72 Chevy Nova. So familiar a shape throughout my whole life, that to me it was the quintessential idea of ‘ just a car.’ A common sight now uncommon, that now deserves a bit of respect and reflection. Especially in 4-door form, with an owner that prides on its 6-cyl. mill.
Not that these were ever common in El Salvador, where I found it. They certainly were in Puerto Rico, where I spent my childhood and high school years. The island was certainly GM territory, and these Novas were the most frequent of sights. So normal I can’t recall them precisely, but just knew they were part of the landscape.
While these were resilient and sturdy machines, extinction eventually came. As far as I know, these rarely show up on US streets anymore, and are now mainly Sunday rides or belong to auto show displays. With that said, let’s take a look at this surviving sample. A living fossil if you will.
This Nova’s fairly intact mechanicals are probably the result of two factors. First, American iron from this period is somewhat exotic in this region and has a small fan base that covets it. Second, and more likely, constrained finances. Many hands have probably wished for a heart transplant, but the cost is beyond most people’s finances. Hence, its 6-cyl. fossil nature.
Not that I’m claiming it is unmolested. Owners have certainly been creative with this fossil, and it’s far from being a museum piece. I mean, what color was this originally? How many resprays are in there?
In all honesty, I’m assuming this Nova still carries its original 6-cyl. Partly because V-8s were rarely ordered here. Partly because of it being a 4-door. And lastly, because its ‘6-cyl.’ power is proudly plastered all over the car.
Evidence number one: “CHEVY, SIX IN LINE,” right in that rear quarter window. But should I just take one sticker as sole evidence?
Evidence two and three: “230 cu in.” and “3.8” stickers on the trunk lid. I know I may be giving this owner’s testimonial too much favor in my reasoning, but he’s certainly insisting on the point. Also, he’s been kind enough to leave engine size clear regardless of the measuring system.
So there you have it; 230 cu in. equals 3.8 L. That’s one of Chevy’s inline sixes, providing 140hp of pure -modest- fury, and speeding from 0-60 MPH in about 14 sec. Not really what the muscle car crowd cared for, but nowadays probably more exotic than the many SS replicas roaming around.
I’m also taking this owner’s testimonial when it comes to model year. Look, there’s the slim “Chevy II” badge over the grille’s top, which only appeared in ’68. Yes, I’m aware there’s been much tampering with this face. The multitude of lights and the additional ‘Nova’ badge on the grille were never GM options, so I’m taking my chances with that 1968 claim. You’ll also notice there are some rivets on that “Chevy II” badge, but that proves little either way. It’s common practice to secure automotive trim in this nation, and my own car’s badges have been riddled with such rivets since day one.
That “Chevy II” badge was one of the few distinctive changes on the Nova, which had a rather long styling cycle. A sign that something was changing in Detroit and that the annual update tradition was starting to slip by the late ’60s. Launched in ’68, the “Chevy II” Nova remained mostly unmolested for 5 models years, before getting an update for ’73. The “Chevy II” badge was replaced in ’69 with a plain Chevrolet bowtie one, and the model became simply the Nova.
Of course, the Chevy Nova has multiple posts at CC (further below). After all, this was Chevrolet’s entry model, ready to satisfy many needs. A whole Swiss Army knife of possibilities, from humble people hauler to hardcore street racer.
The chief designer for these Chevy II/Novas was Irv Rybicki, with final production models created under the guidance of Henry C. Haga. And in the words of Rybicki, the Chevy II Nova “was an inexpensive car that doesn’t know it’s inexpensive.”
GM and Chevrolet had their styling skills well-honed when these Novas were conceived in the mid-60s. The new Novas had an uncomplicated appearance, with just enough sculpting and rakishness to seem more than they actually were. It spoke the affordable-yet-stylish language well, and it sold like hotcakes, with every year piling on better numbers. No wonder it’s such a familiar shape.
And on this occasion, I prefer that known shape to the styling mockups (above, dating from 1965 to 1966) that gave birth to its final form.
As it was Detroit’s wont, the new ’68 Nova had grown a bit over the previous generation. It was the ‘right size’ package for the time, as the market soon proved. However, by becoming less of a compact ‘compact,’ there was now a bigger opening for the imports. I guess someone at GM thought that was worth a look, as this ‘subcompact’ Chevy II Nova mockup shows.
Growth wasn’t an immediate problem for the Nova, as sales eventually showed. There were 1.3 million Novas built between 1968-72, with 349,733 sold just in 1972. For that last year, 40% of its buyers were women, 75% were coupes, and V-8s made up about 60% of the total.
Elsewhere, the steady growth of American cars was becoming a liability, and they were selling in ever-diminishing numbers. In places like Central America, they were just too cumbersome for local streets, and their fuel consumption was a growing concern. I’ll admit the Nova was a lesser sinner in those regards, but the die had been cast. By the late ’60s, Toyotas and Datsuns had almost taken over the local market.
So Chevys of this age are rare in San Salvador’s streets. For the local fans of these vintage cars, any ol’ Chevy is a good chance to rejoice, no matter its condition. And well, 6-cyl. sounds mighty in a land filled with 1L and 1.2L Korean compacts.
With that in mind, I can easily see the reasons for the owner’s pride in this 6-cyl.
I was about to be scuttled away by the street guard (a never-ending nuisance) just as I was to check out this Nova’s interior. So no idea on this one’s tranny. I would venture to say it has a manual, as that was the norm over here. There was much skepticism on automatics until recently.
Yet, from this shot, we can see the front seats have been replaced, and the license number is a low figure, likely a repurposed registration. That would mean the car spent some time unused before being revived. Good, if that’s the case.
I don’t even know how I feel about finding this Nova. Such a familiar shape of my past, which I hadn’t seen in ages. Yet, once I saw it, it was like all the time in between had never occurred. Have you ever visited your old hometown or school, years apart, and felt as if time had stood still?
Whatever the case, I hope time does stand still for this Nova. Or even better, reverses to a better version of itself. But always keeping that 6-cyl. under the hood. We need more such living fossils in our records.