COAL: 1973 Chevrolet Nova SS 350 – Torque Wins Out

Nova 1973 ss

I sold my Vega in the summer of 1976 and decided to try to go carless and build up a nest egg before purchasing something else. My roommate worked in the same office as me and I was able to go back and forth to work with him. Most of my friends had wheels so off-base excursions were generally no problem. However, after several months of pedestrianism, I got tired of having to depend on others to go anywhere or do anything; even something as simple as going to McDonald’s was a major undertaking.

I looked at and considered several cars before buying the Nova. One of them was a Fiat 124 Spider; it was certainly fun to drive but the legendary Fiat “reliability” kept me from purchasing. I semi-seriously considered a 1972 Dodge Dart; it was in good shape but after several years of driving a VW Beetle and then a Vega I wanted something with more suds under the hood. The Dodge had the slant six and automatic, it would have been economical (and probably reliable) but it wasn’t what I wanted.

Nova 1973 int

As it turned out one of the guys at work was being reassigned to a base in Japan and wanted to sell his car before he left. The good news was that the car was a 1973 Nova SS, complete with the 350 CID V8 and four barrel carb, and the wide ratio four speed. The bad news was that Drew lived in Berkeley (about an hour away) which allowed him to go home on a frequent basis. This was good for him but bad for the car as he had to park overnight on the street. The poor Nova was rumpled on all four fenders and the drivers’ door had a huge dent. Someone had taken the AM radio out of its opening and replaced it with an inexpensive radio/tape player combo; apparently the opening needed to be enlarged and this had been done with what appeared to be a hack saw. Of course none of this had any effect on the car’s performance and the body damage enabled me to negotiate the price down.

After purchasing the Nova I decided to keep the California registration as that was easier than trying to deal with licensing the car back home in Kentucky, via long distance. At that time in California anytime a car changed hands it had to pass a smog inspection, this was done by sticking a probe into the exhaust pipe and measuring whatever stray hydrocarbons they were looking for. In the back of my mind I suspected that the Nova might have some issues passing the sniffer test. I asked around and through a friend I found a gas station with the equipment to conduct the test, who might be open to working around difficulties. Sure enough, the first time they ran the test the results were nearly off the chart. To make a long story short, the Hernandez brothers kept bumping up the Nova’s idle speed until it passed the sniffer test and they signed off on the inspection. A small block Chevy typically would idle at around 600-650 RPM, I think this one needed about 1200 RPM to pass. Intellectually I know that this was not the right thing to do but I was able to rationalize it because 1) it was only one car, and 2) I didn’t have the money to do whatever was needed to make it right.

Nova 1973 burnout

The Nova was certainly an interesting and entertaining car to drive. The combination of the 350 V8, relatively light weight, skinny ER78-14 tires and a 3.73 final drive made for outstanding acceleration. If desired the Nova was capable of leaving two black stripes on the pavement as long as you were willing to keep your foot in it while in first gear. The downside to this performance was 11-12 MPG around town and 15-16 MPG at highway speeds; this was a car that really needed an overdrive gear or two.

In the spring of 1977 a friend and I decided to drive the Nova back to Kentucky on leave, rather than flying. We had plenty of time and wanted to see more of the country than you could from an airplane at 30,000 feet. In addition Karl’s sister and brother in law lived in Denver and we could stop there for a couple of days to break up the trip. This part of the journey was uneventful, we made it to Denver in two days and then did the tourist thing. Karl, his brother in law and I played 18 holes of golf while we were there; I wanted to see if you could hit the ball farther at the high altitude. As it turned out I was not a good enough golfer to notice any difference but I can tell you that walking around for several hours, at the mile high altitude, will wear you out if you are not used to it.

After a couple of days of sightseeing and just hanging out it was time to get back on the road; Karl’s sister even baked us some cookies to take with us. Our plan was to drive to Topeka, Kansas, spend the night there, and then go on to Louisville, where Karl was going to stay with friends and then go to the Kentucky Derby before going on to his home in Tennessee. We pulled out of Denver on I70 and it was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, yada yada yada. Just about the time that the Denver FM station we were listening to started to fade out we passed the exit for Limon, Colorado.

Nova 1973 ss red

Just past that exit I noticed steam coming up around the hood; I pulled over, raised the hood and quickly determined that the upper radiator hose had a six inch split in it. At first I thought I might be able to affect a temporary fix with my ever-present duct tape but the split was just too big. It was less than a mile back to the Limon exit and, from where we were parked, I could see a sign for a gas station. I hiked back to the station, purchased an upper radiator hose and walked back to the car. I got the remains of the old one off without any problem but, when I went to install the new hose, I somehow managed to snap the clamp in two. This was one of those spring wire clamps and not the type that tightens around the hose with a screw-driven ratchet. Not only did I break the clamp, I also managed to gash my hand on the jagged edge of the broken clamp. Needless to say I was not a happy camper.

Karl, bless his heart, then volunteered to walk to the station and find some screw clamps. Apparently the guy running the station took pity on us, or at least on Karl, because he drove him back to the car, put the radiator hose on for me, and even brought some gauze for my hand. When he was finished he refused any payment; stating that years previous, when he was in the Army, someone had stopped to help when his car was broken down and this was his way of paying this back.

All of this adventure took a couple of hours but we finally got back on the road and made it to Topeka for our overnight stop. We actually had a “real” reason for wanting to stop in Topeka (or at least before we got out of Kansas), and that was to purchase some Coors beer. Back in the seventies Coors was not distributed in the east, which contributed to its mystique, and we had promised to bring some back with us. When we got up the next morning we went to the grocery store and bought something like 15 cases of Coors beer; it was enough so that we filled up what empty space we had remaining in the car. I’m not sure what the woman who checked us out at the grocery thought; for all we knew this was an everyday occurrence, people buying mass quantities of suds.

We were happy to be on the final leg of the trip; the Nova was running well, we had found a good FM station to listen to as we approached Kansas City, all was right with the world. That is, until I stopped to pay the toll to exit the Kansas Turnpike and the clutch, without any warning, failed. It had given no hint at all that anything was wrong, the clutch hadn’t been slipping, it didn’t chatter when you engaged, nothing. The guy at the toll booth called a tow truck for us and helped us push the car out of the way.

nova 1973 tow truck

We ended up going to a Chevrolet dealer in downtown Kansas City; on the Kansas side of the border if that matters. This was about 10:00 AM on Friday morning and at first the service manager said they couldn’t fix the car until Monday. We played the poor travelling serviceman card and they agreed to replace the clutch right then. It was about 4:30 when the Nova was finally ready to go. Neither Karl nor I had any kind of credit card; I paid for the repairs by signing something like 400 dollars’ worth of 20 dollar traveler’s checks. By this point I would have cheerfully burnt the Nova to the ground if there had been any chance I could have gotten away with it.

In any event we got back on the road, in the middle of the Friday afternoon rush hour, and in the midst of a severe weather outbreak. It was your typical mid-western early spring weather event; thunderstorms, gusty winds and the occasional tornado or three. This didn’t matter to us, we going to make it to Louisville or die trying. From then on we only stopped for gas and the occasional soft drink; Karl did call his friend to let him know that we would be later than expected. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with I64 as it traverses southern Indiana; there isn’t a whole there between the Evansville exits and the Louisville suburbs; believe me, in 1977 there was a lot less civilization than now. We got so tired that we were slap happy; I remember that we stopped at a rest stop around 2:00 AM and got out to throw a Frisbee for a few minutes, anything to keep the blood circulating. I can’t tell you how happy I was when we arrived in Louisville and I could get out of the car.

Nova 1972 engine

Fortunately the rest of my stewardship of the Nova was uneventful. While home on leave I took the trouble to perform some preventative maintenance on the car; I changed the other radiator hose, changed the heater hoses, replaced the front brake pads and changed the points/plugs/condenser. I started to rebuild the carburetor but decided to leave well enough alone and just clean and adjust the four barrel. On the trip back to California the Nova ran like the proverbial top, no trouble at all.

I ended up driving the Nova until the spring of 1978, when I traded it in on a new car (you will have to read the next installment to see what this car was). My Air Force enlistment was going to be up in January, 1979 and I had made the decision to go back home to Kentucky. I figured the Nova had survived the one trip east and back and I didn’t trust it to make another.