Curbside Classic: 1986 Chevrolet Nova Hatchback – Bad Acne

(first posted 1/28/2018)      I have often attributed human-like qualities to cars ever since I first began to identify them by their correct makes and models by sight, starting around age four.  For example, when I look straight-on at the front of a car, I see features not unlike those on a human face, as was the case with the furious-looking “1959 Dodgler 300” featured earlier this month.  Sculpted fenders and quarter panels can appear analogous to curves or muscles.  Flaking paint or clearcoat can have the appearance of dandruff.  The rust on this NUMMI-built, Toyota Corolla-based Nova hatchback reminds me of my face around the time I was in middle school.

Sadly, yes – at some point between the end of elementary school and graduation from eighth grade, the surface of my mug had morphed from being baby-smooth to resembling a plate of Jeno’s pizza rolls.  It probably didn’t help that, by that point, I had developed an affinity for greasy foods like Jeno’s pizza rolls.  My adolescent hormones also probably had something to do with it, but the speed with which my face had transformed with the onset of becoming a teenager shocked even me.  Thankfully, some better eating and a doctor’s prescription helped mitigate this situation, and my skin was (mostly) clear and scar-free again by my senior year of high school.  No miracle like that was too small, especially for a self-conscious teenager like me.

Getting back to this car, no amount of Doxycycline… ahem, Bondo is going to bring it back to its former glory as an example of probably one of the most reliable, Chevrolet-branded small passenger cars of all time (due in no small part to its Toyota “blood”).  At the time of these photographs five years ago, nobody probably cared enough to even try to patch its rust, as long as this Nova still ran, drove, and didn’t come apart on the street.

In contrast to the previous Chevys that had shared its model name, I can’t imagine any of the fifth-generation cars being even mildly collectible, save for perhaps a final-year, ’88 Twin Cam model (3,300 built) in pristine condition.  In my mind, anyway, even the very last, RWD X-Body Novas for ’79 – even in four-door form – seem to have a reasonable amount of homegrown, uncomplex lovability that these FWD Novas lack.

These cars were a reasonable sales success for Chevrolet, with close to 168,000 (125,000 notchbacks + 43,000 hatchbacks) sold for extended first-year ’86, with an additional 150,000 total sold for ’87 and 109,000 moved for ’88, which was the last year for this design before being replaced by the Geo Prizm.  It’s notable that with prices for the ’86 notchback starting at 8% over a comparable, 4-cylinder base Cavalier four-door ($7,435 vs. $6,888), overall Cavalier sales that year, at about 383,500, more than doubled that of the inaugural, reborn Nova, even in spite of the latter’s four-month head start in the model year.

My parents had purchased a used, silver ’87 Nova notchback in the summer of 1990 as our new “family car”.  It had many more-than-average miles on it, but Applegate Chevrolet in Flint, Michigan gave us a good deal.  Even having been a former commuter car with moderate wear, it was still a good bet being based on the bulletproof Corolla.  This Nova met with wholehearted approval from Ted, our mechanic – a good, trustworthy guy who by that point had probably come to groan (and probably curse) as a knee-jerk reaction to every time he saw our red ’84 Ford Tempo GL pull into the driveway of Autotech in downtown Flint.  I later inherited that Tempo as my official “first car”, so I soon came to witness Ted’s muted frustration, firsthand.

When searching for a newer, more reliable family car to replace the Tempo, Mom and Dad had initially looked at a then-new, ’90 Cavalier wagon, and also a very lightly-used, final-year ’89 Plymouth Reliant sedan as candidates for the place in our driveway that our ’87 Nova ultimately won.  My younger brother and I rejoiced when our parents returned with the “Silver Bullet” (a nickname bestowed on it with our tongues planted firmly in cheek) instead of either one of those other cars.  The bench seats in the Reliant, though they had been used as a(n evil) tool by the salesman at Chinonis Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge to try to convince my mom that the Reliant was a “full-size car!” (a line she almost bought), made the Plymouth seem completely dorky and unacceptable to us kids who were then forecasting ourselves driving it in the future.  (I would go on to earn my Learner’s Permit later that summer.)

The Nova was the first car I was allowed to drive, around the small complex of my grandparents’ farm in northwestern Ohio.  Our car is pictured above, in front of my grandpa’s grain elevator – which, coincidentally, was the very first grain elevator erected in Henry County, Ohio.  I diligently practiced signaling and parallel parking (I’m still a champ at the latter, if I do say so myself), all the while taking full advantage of the cassette deck with a center console bin full of my cassette singles.  (Our Tempo had just an AM radio with lousy reception and two dashboard-mounted speakers.)  That Nova served us well for about four years, from Michigan’s cold and salt to Florida’s heat, eventually being traded for another silver car – one about as geriatric as the Reliant, albeit nicer: a 1991 Olds Cutlass Ciera with (you guessed it) – bench seats.

When I had seen this example after work about five years ago, it stopped me dead in my tracks.  Suddenly, a car at which I wouldn’t have looked twice ten years earlier was the most interesting car I had seen in months.  The hatchback version had always seemed rarer than the conventional notchback, with the latter having been introduced as an ’86 model in June of ’85, and with the former following a few months later.  My clue as to the likely model year lies in the front grille, with the ’87 and ’88 models having more pronounced, bright horizontal trim on the grille which the earlier cars lacked.  All of these Novas (save for the DOHC Twin Cam notchback, which boasted 110-hp) were powered by Toyota’s 1.6L four-cylinder with 74 horses.   This mill seemed adequate in our car, though I do remember having to routinely turn off the A/C on expressway entrance ramps.

There always seemed something “anatomically incorrect” about the license plate holder’s position above the taillamp clusters on the hatchback.  The only examples of this styling feature that I can think of at this writing that ever seemed to look okay were the 1973 – ’82 GM A-Body wagons and utes.  As the saying goes, though, beauty is only skin-deep.  Perhaps the beauty of this rusty Nova was that in spite of its dermatological issues and unfortunate rear styling, it was still probably a reliable car as evidenced merely by its existence in 2013 – a distinction which is something few other GM products of that era could claim.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as often as in real-life relationships, sometimes there’s something to be said for dependability over physical attractiveness, or even just clear skin.

Downtown, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, January 12, 2013.

Related reading from Jeff Nelson: Automotive History: 1985 Chevrolet CorNova – Lessons Not Learned.