Curbside Classic: 1970 Chevrolet Nova – Have It Your Way

(first published 10/24/2011)    How to best describe the 1968-1974 Nova? A plain brown wrapper for your choice of Chevrolet engine. And what a choice there was, more than any other car ever built. That’s come to define the Nova of this generation, and it’s still doing duty as an ever-eager receptacle of an engine swap. So don’t even ask what’s under the hood of this one; factory choices started with a 90 hp four cylinder, ended with a 375 hp L-89 396 big block; and in between just about every Chevy motor in production. And what all have folks stuffed into Novas? Everything known to man. This one might well have a Mazda rotary, for all I know. The Chevy Nova: it should have come with quick-release hood hinges: open wide!

Even the ads kept showing the Nova without a hood. The more mild-mannered ones featured the Nova SS with the 300 hp 350 V8. Was the hood an option?

The more serious ones were for the SS 396, which offered a choice of hydraulic-lifter 350 (gross) hp version, or the mechanical-lifter L-89 that was rated here at 375 hp, but had once been rated at 425 hp, before the bigger-bore 427 came along. Speaking of which, the 427 was the only engine that didn’t come (installed) from the factory, but a number of dealers did brisk business ordering 427 short blocks, and swapping them for the L-89 block. Have it your way.

And just who was having it their way on the other end of the spectrum? It’s been a life ambition of mine to find a Chevy II or Nova with the 153 CID (2.5 L) four. Even as a kid, I used to try and figure out if a Chevy II had the four or not, and a couple of times I thought I’d found one, but never long enough to open the hood and confirm it really existed. Has anyone out there ever driven one?

The four might have been a half-way suffer-able economy motor in the lightweight first generation Chevy II, which weighed as little as 2400 lbs with the four. But the all-new 1968 models were hardly compacts anymore, with a 111″ wheelbase just one inch shorter than a Malibu’s, and having packed on some 400-500 lbs. Is there an original four cylinder ’68-’70 Nova left in the world? (all of 2062 fours were built in 1970) If so, shouldn’t it be more valuable than the much-sought L-89 SS 396? Am I the only person in the world asking these important questions?

And to really up the ante, how about a 1970 Nova four with the optional Torque-Drive? It was Chevy’s answer to a fad that inexplicably erupted in the automotive world, and presumably had its origins in the VW automatic stick shift: the semi-automatic transmission. Suddenly, it’s 1940!

The Torque-Drive was basically a manual-shifting Powerglide. And how many cents did Chevy save by doing that? The one consolation was that with only two gears, not a lot of shifting was involved. You could even just leave it in Hi and let the 90 hp four’s torque do the rest. Too poky? Order a Muncie “rock-crusher” four speed behind the 396. Has a car ever had such a bi-polar personality?

In between these book-ends, almost every permutation of Chevy six and V8 was available, in configurations that changed somewhat from year to year. 230 and 250 inch sixes. And small-block V8s in 307, 327, and 350 inch formats, in low, moderate or high performance trim. Needless to say, they were the mainstay of the hot-rod crowd that soon saw the Nova coupe as the second coming of the of the holy trinity of ’55-’56-’57 Chevys: cheap, plentiful, and plug-and-play compatible. Just make sure it’s been sprayed with a half-dozen cans of gray primer.

Even though the Nova was designed to be a cheap and willing receptacle for engines, it did have a passenger compartment, strictly speaking. Obviously, it was an afterthought, not really designed to accommodate humans for any extended time, and then only in the front seat. The fact that the 1968-up Nova now shared much of its platform with the Camaro was all-too obvious. Space utilization was the lowest priority in its development, and interior ambiance, material quality and visibility were right there on the same low level. Nobody ever looked forward to getting into a Nova coupe, except for the thrill of unleashing what might be under the hood.

And yet folks bought them for basic transportation. Oh well. By 1968, GM had already given up on true compacts, at least until the Vega would show up. Of course, the Vega’s interior accommodations followed the Nova’s pattern, but on an even smaller scale. Anybody stupid enough to want a “compact” car should be made to suffer. Hey; it’s bigger inside than a VW! Next time you’ll know better and buy a Biscayne, sucker!

My brother’s girlfriend’s parents bought her a new stripper Nova six coupe in 1969. “Just the thing to drive to the community college, dear”. Kind of like buying your teenage daughter an obsolete cheap flip-phone. Oh the loathing! What she wanted was…a Datsun 510, an MG, or just a Beetle, even an old one, at the least. With its balky three-speed column shifter, slow and heavy manual steering, dinky drum brakes and depressing black interior; oh did we feel sorry for her, especially when she found out she had to make the payments.

Fast forward a dozen years, and my then-secretary was driving a similar Nova coupe, but at least it had a V8, automatic and power steering. It was a hand me-down form her dad, and although not exactly loved, she came to appreciate its simple ruggedness. It just ran and ran, and if it needed to be fixed; well, any greasy nincompoop with a set of cheap tools knew how to keep a Chevy going. No hunting for Peugeot dealers.

The comparison to my Peugeot 404 at the time was mighty stark though. The Nova had the interior ambiance of a bus station waiting room, rode like truck, and sucked gas mightily. There wasn’t one thing in or on it that expressed anything resembling attention to detail, craftsmanship, or quality. A joyless car, which is perhaps why Chevy offered consolations like the L-89 under the hood. When it finally croaked, she bought a new 1985 Corolla. And started smiling more.

So just what’s under the hood of this Nova? We’ll never know. That is the whole point of brown paper bags.

Related reading:

Chevrolet’s Torque Driver: A Dumber Powerglide