COAL: 1986 Chevrolet Nova …and Some Days, You’re the Statue

Feeling like the bird when we stumbled upon our 1994.5 Nissan Sentra, we were hoping not to be the statue the second time around.  With moving to Central Virginia, my wife starting medical school, and me no longer having access to press cars, we needed another car.  As we did not like any of the apartments we toured, we took advantage of the abundance of inexpensive properties in the area and bought a townhouse.  This, of course, nixed the idea of financing a car.  And guess how much we had to spend on a car?  Yup, about $3,000.

My brilliant plan was to buy a $1,000 car and put $2,000 worth of work into it.  That should leave me with something reasonably reliable, at least for a couple of years.  Unfortunately, this famous article had not yet been written, or I most assuredly would have gone in a different direction.

Overall, the plan sounded reasonable since I wasn’t looking at starting with something like a Lexus LS400, with its large, high-tech engine and expensive-to-fix-or-replace gadgets.  I was going back to basics, with air conditioning and a history of good long-term reliability my only requirements.  After being warned away from another Colt (I still missed mine), the car at the top of my list was the 1985-88 Nova.  This Chevrolet-branded Toyota had a much lower resale value than its Corolla counterpart.  After a short search, I found a 1986 Nova with power steering, power brakes, air and 100,000 miles for $1,500.

Ed looked a lot like this when we first saw him.


We went to look at the car, and what a sad, sorry thing it was.  Abused within an inch of its life with badly faded paint, drooping headliner, evidence of previous damage, and, strangely, 150,000 miles on the odometer.  When I mentioned this to the owner, a girl in her early 20s, she told us that the timing belt snapped at 125,000 miles.  Being an interference design, this meant the engine was a goner.  The “new” engine had 75,000 miles on it at the time, hence the “100,000” miles in the ad.  I could have mentioned that there are a lot more parts on a car that are affected by mileage, but I just let it go since at least I now knew the timing belt had only 25,000 miles on it.  Plus, there was also a service history going back to 1993.

Internet photo of a 1983 Toyota Sprinter – the sporty Corolla


She did stress that the car had a Toyota engine.  During the entire time I owned the car, people kept telling me this, and it bugged the hell out of me.  It didn’t have a Toyota engine; it was a Toyota.  Specifically, it was the JDM Toyota Sprinter, which was the sporty version of the Corolla (sporty being a relative term).  The only things GM contributed were the (joint venture) factory where it was built, badging, grill, stereo, and maybe the headliner.  I used to carry a picture like the one above to prove it to people.

All I can remember about the test drive, which we went on by ourselves, was that it started pouring, and we got lost.  We should have taken that as a sign, but when I asked my wife what she thought, her response was, “It needs me.”  Then I asked her if she wanted to drive.  “No.”

The next step in this strange odyssey involved having the car checked out, and the owner offered to take it to the mechanic that had been servicing the car.  Not really knowing any better, we agreed.  She did end up knocking $300 of the price due to the $500 bill that included a new CV boot, wheel cylinder, front brake pads, EGR valve (which enabled it to pass the emissions test), and an oil change.  We named him Ed and took him home.

Internet photo of the base Nova interior.


Within the first couple of days, while driving Ed to work, the clutch suddenly felt significantly lighter, and I was consistently grinding the gears.  You guessed it – the clutch cable snapped.  Remember, though, we’d planned to put about $2,000 into the car.  So, the $250 for the new master and slave cylinder, plus bleeding the system, was all part of the plan.  After I picked up the car, I headed over to NTB for four new Michelin tires.  The salesman tried to talk me out of it, noting that the left-front tire appeared new, and the right-rear looked like it had some life left in it.  I insisted on replacing them all, since I like symmetry.  With the alignment, the bill was $315.

I then had to address the fact that Ed ran like Suzie the Little Blue Coupe before she was unceremoniously dumped.  Back at the Exxon station that fixed the clutch, they replaced the cap, rotor, spark plug wires, and air & fuel filters.  I also asked them to look at why the fuel gauge only started working at about half tank, which turned out to be a bad sending unit.  The cost to replace it was more than I wanted to spend, and you only really need the gauge for the last half of the tank, anyway.

Next stop was MAACO for some rust work, a fresh coat of red paint, and a new headliner.  Only $555, and Ed never looked better.  I also purchased some cheap wheel covers to cover up the ratty-looking styled steel wheels.  At this point, we had spent all of our planned $3,000, and now had a car that we could probably put back on the market for not much more than the $1,200 we paid.  Ed still didn’t run very well and vibrated at highway speeds.  Also, I noticed that when I washed him, the sponge turned red.  Shortly thereafter, I discovered the trunk leaked, and I never found the source.

After closing on our townhouse and moving in, I ended up with an entry-level job as technical support at a local internet service provider.  The job only paid $18,000 per year (it would soon rise all the way to $25,000).  I was very happy not to have a car payment.  The office was only a few miles away, which meant that Ed at least didn’t have to get me very far.

The Holy Grail of Corollnovas – the Twin-Cam SS.  I would have preferred this model, since the fuel-injected engine wouldn’t have given me all the problems I had with the 2bbl Venturi.


A couple of months later, the exhaust pipe separated from the manifold.  I also asked the mechanic to look at the carburetor since there was a consistent problem with the choke.  When cold, I would have to sit there revving the car at about 2,500 RPMs until the engine warmed, or it would stall.  He cleaned and adjusted the choke, replaced part of the exhaust pipe, resurfaced the front rotors and adjusted the rear brake shoes.  The bill for that trip was $335, and it still didn’t fix the cold-start problem.

I was able to hobble along for about 5 months until I needed to replace the left front axle.  With an oil change and another carburetor adjustment, there went another $211.  My next brilliant move, after a particularly bad night spent relocating our network operations center, was to mouth off to the secretary Chief Operating Officer (who also happened to be having an affair with the owner).  I was summarily dismissed.  The silver lining was quickly landing another job at a local telecommunications company at almost double the salary.  The touch of gray was the new commute, which was 33 miles and over a mountain, each way.

I’d already invested so much money in Ed, how could I give up on him now?  If this was Vegas, I’d be that disheveled guy in the rumpled suit and 5 o’clock shadow, down several thousand dollars, sitting at the blackjack table doubling down on a 16 in a desperate attempt to break even.

New front struts, inner tie rod ends, front tower bearings, right-front bearing, machine press bearing, transmission mount, new wheel, right-front axle, four wheel alignment and an oil change, and for about $1,200 Ed was ready to take on the world road.  A few weeks later, impatience got the best of me again when I tried to pass a slow-moving car in a lane that turned out to be the end of a merge lane.  After bouncing between a Volvo and the curb, I had to shell out $100 for a used wheel and tire.

This went on for another year and a few thousand more dollars when, back again at the shop, my mechanic just shook his head and said, “It’s time.”  All in, I had invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 – including the purchase price – for almost three years of service and 37,000 miles (I don’t know the exact figure because my service history mysteriously ends in December 2000).  Ed was still not worth that much more than we initially paid for him.  Mind you, Ed never left me stranded, the air conditioning always blew strong in the hot Virginia summers, and the heat kept me toasty in the cold winters.  However, when your mechanic tells you a car is not worth fixing, it’s in your best interest to listen.

Ed with his brother, Nelson.


I had no real interest in selling Ed privately or trading him in.  I wanted to donate him, but not to an outfit that would just wholesale him to a scrap yard and keep the money.  Ed was still a great car that just could not handle a long daily commute.  I could have switched cars with my wife, but not only did she (still) not want to drive him, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea, either.  Her third year of medical school also required her to spend considerable time traveling to different types of practices throughout Virginia, which is not something I’d want her to do regularly in the Nova.  I was nervous enough driving him to visit her on the occasional weekend when she stayed over.

After a little research, I discovered the Good News Mountaineer Garage in Charleston, WV.  They take the donated cars, refurbish them, and give them to people who need dependable transportation to help raise themselves out of poverty.  When I called, they asked if I’d like them to send a tow truck.  “How about if I just drive it out to you?”  They were thrilled not only to be receiving a running car, but one that can [hands in praying position] handle a 250-mile trip.  Fortunately, we made it out there just fine.

The lesson learned, referenced by Jack in his article, is that only people who can confidently perform the mechanical work themselves, and maybe own a backup car, should buy something like this.  I have no mechanical ability.  Dad did, but his impatience mixed with my un-diagnosed ADHD ensured that knowledge would never be passed down.  I also had no garage or driveway in which to work.  If I did attempt a repair and things went pear shaped, I wouldn’t have any way to get to work.  Working from home wasn’t an option, so that would mean having to take one of the few sick or vacation days I’d accumulated.  I really didn’t want to take that chance.  Being one of the fortunate “privileged,”  I just threw money at my mechanic in a manner not unlike the way the villagers threw stones at Tessie Hutchinson, with a mixture of anger, fear, anticipation, and confusion.

After doing the math, I came out no further ahead than if I’d leased a new car for 3 years and 36,000 miles.  Of course, I can’t regret that decision because leasing wasn’t an option.  I probably should have just bought another car when I got the new job, but I’m glad I didn’t.  Not only because Ed provided great fodder for this post, but the new car we bought, which had just come on the market, would end up being in our family for much longer and many more miles.