Curbside Classic: 1977 Chevrolet Concours – The Concours de Minimis

1977 Chevrolet Nova Concours left front

Stories get interesting when the plot deviates from an expected script.  In automotive stories this can happen when a brand tries to sell a car that it probably shouldn’t.  Here we have such an example: When Chevrolet dressed up its compact Nova in an attempt to step a few rungs up the Sloanian Ladder.  This foray into Buick territory wasn’t exactly successful, but in retrospect it makes for a head-scratchingly interesting story.  Instead of a concours d’elegance, this car ended up being more like a concours de minimis.

1962 Chevy II Nova ad

Our story starts with Chevrolet’s compact Chevy II, introduced for 1962.  While largely billed as “modern basic transportation,” a top-of-the-line Chevy II model, called Nova, added some sophistication into the mix, with nicer trim, a more comfortable interior and special identification.  This proved successful; Novas captured over a third of total Chevy II sales that first year, and never looked back.

In 1969 the Chevy II name was dropped, and Chevy’s entire compact model range became “Nova.”  Through the early 1970s, Novas still functioned mostly as basic transport, but customers could still spec a little more ornamentation.  “Custom” interior and exterior packages, offering somewhat nicer surroundings for a modest cost, became popular choices for Nova buyers.

1973 Chevrolet Nova brochure

The Custom option packages were popular enough that Chevrolet made this a separate Nova series for 1973.  For between $150 and $200, Nova Custom buyers received deluxe trim, additional sound insulation, upgraded upholstery and other niceties.  In 1973 and ’74, one-third of all Novas were Customs… pointing the way to a more heavily optioned future.

1975 Chevrolet Nova LN ad

For 1975, the Nova line received new sheetmetal, and Chevrolet created a top-of-the-line version called the LN (for Luxury Nova).  LNs didn’t replace the Custom series, which remained, but rather “out-Customed” the Custom, upping the ante with even plusher upholstery, color-coordinated interior trim, and thicker carpeting.  Exterior enhancements included additional brightwork, upgraded bumpers, pinstriping and a half-dozen LN badges.  LNs also featured special wheel covers with body-colored inserts that (were supposed to) give the Nova that elusive Mercedes look.

So the Nova LN was a Chevy with fancy trim – kind of like a Buick.  Which was a bit odd because Buick also had an X-body car that was remarkably similar.  As did Pontiac… and Oldsmobile.  These models all had overlapping price ranges, and similar equipment.

Officially, GM’s upmarket X-cars were seen as competitors to Ford’s Granada and its Mercury Monarch clone.  But certainly GM knew that its model overlap cannibalized its own sales.  Such overlap made little business sense, though without it, we wouldn’t have the joy of examining a fancy Chevy that tried to out-Buick Buick.  So let’s dive in and look at the Concours.

1976 Chevrolet Concours ad

Nova’s LN was rebranded as the Concours for 1976.  Maybe Chevrolet felt that a French name was more suggestive of luxury than two seemingly random letters?  Whatever the reason, Chevy reached into its recent past for this moniker, since the Concours name was also used on a few late-1960s Chevelle models.

For 1976, the Custom ceased being its own model series, and instead reverted to option packages like they were before 1973.  Another change in Nova’s model shuffling was that the Concours was made available in the hatchback body style, which was unavailable on ’75 LNs.

Source of production numbers:

All of this shuffling makes gauging the success of these various upmarket Novas a challenge, but the above chart gives a rough representation.  While in 1973-74, the Custom made up about a third of all Nova sales, as the decade wore on, customers seemed less inclined to think of Novas and Luxury in the same thought.  For the following three model years, sales of the Custom, LN and Concours combined accounted for only 23 percent of Nova sales.

This likely surprised the folks at Chevrolet since the Great Brougham Epoch was in full swing by then, and it must have seemed that anything with a vinyl roof and a stodgy name would sell.  But even great epochs have their limit, and this was one such example.

1977 Chevrolet Concours

That brings us to our featured car – one of 39,272 Concours sedans manufactured for 1977.  Incidentally, this car was officially just “Concours.”  The Nova name was nowhere to be seen, though since the car was 99.9% Nova, its lineage was impossible to conceal.

1977 Chevrolet Concours ad

Though the 1970s are often viewed as the American car industry’s nadir, GM’s X-body design was well executed.  With decent proportions and no exaggerations, this was a sophisticated-looking design for its day.  Road & Track said of the Nova sedan that its greenhouse looked as if it came straight from a BMW Bavaria.  Novas handled well, too, since the ’75 models debuted an upgraded front suspension borrowed from the Camaro.  If there was a problem with the Concours’ design, it was one of ubiquity.  Chevy sold an average of 300,000 Novas each year during the 1970s, so it wasn’t unusual to see multiple Novas on a city block.

1977 Chevrolet Concours cabriolet roof

Like many cars of this era, this Concours displays an interesting mixture of options, suggesting a custom-ordered vehicle.  The most noticeable option here is the Cabriolet roof, a $150 option that bought a heavily-padded vinyl quarter roof, as well as some additional bright moldings and a unique side window.

1977 Chevrolet Concours left rear

In this car’s case, the white roof was matched to Firethorn metallic paint and a matching Firethorn interior.  Buying a 1977 Nova brought a mind-boggling array of color options.  Fourteen exterior paint colors, 7 vinyl roof colors, and 5 interior colors could be mixed and matched in myriad ways.  I would never have thought that a dark red car with a matching interior and a contrasting white roof would look attractive, but whoever ordered this Concours did a good job.

1977 Chevrolet Concours left side

This car also sports the optional Rally wheels, which serve as a visual counterpoint to the broughamy padded roof and Concours brightwork.  Surprisingly, wire wheel covers weren’t offered on the Concours – they became available on Novas for 1978, after Concours departed the lineup.

1977 Chevrolet Concours front

Only a sharp eye can spot the changes between the various LN and Concours model years.  Chevy’s marketing folks anticipated some cynicism by writing in the 1977 Concours brochure that:

…in the continental manner, styling changes this year are subtle rather than extreme.

Aha… just like those classic-looking BMWs!  The copywriter who coined that phrase deserved a raise.  For those who are curious, a redesigned hood ornament featuring a stylized “C” was one of those subtle changes.  As was a redesigned grille.  According to Chevy’s flowery prose, the grille’s thin vertical slats produce “an illusion of massiveness.”

1977 Chevrolet Concours rear

At the car’s other end, the tail light design happens to be the easiest way to definitively identify the ’77 Concours – these three-section tail lights were unique within the Nova species.

1977 Chevrolet Concours interior

The original owner specified vinyl upholstery, rather than the knit cloth that most Concours featured.  Although a one-piece bench, the Concours provided a folding armrest unavailable on regular Novas.  Also, from this angle we can see the Concours-specific “simulated butterfly walnut” on the dash, door panel, and steering wheel.

All Novas received a redesigned instrument panel for 1977 featuring round gauges instead of the previous creeping-needle speedometer.  Only Concours, however, featured a steering wheel color-keyed with the dash.

1977 Chevrolet Concours interior rear

In back we see minimal legroom for a family car (the short seat cushion gives the illusion of space, but passengers’ legs knew better).  Otherwise, this was a pleasant place to be.  Concours such as this one received simulated wood, as well as softer plastic trim in the rear seating area than their Nova counterparts.

1977 Chevrolet Concours left front

Concours drivetrains were identical to those in Novas.  A 250-cu. in. 6-cylinder engine came standard, though our featured car was built with the optional 305 V-8.  Developing 145 hp., this was better suited to the 3,500-lb. X-body than the 100-hp. six.  Customers who wished to splurge on power and gas could opt for a 350 V-8 that brought another 25 horsepower.

The Concours’ standard suspension was pretty good for its day, and sport and heavy-duty suspensions were also available.  Both came with front and rear stabilizers and upgraded shocks.

1977 Chevrolet Concours right rear

One option worth some attention here is the forced-air rear window defogger, which can be seen on the rear shelf in this image.  This consisted of a covered fan in the center of the parcel shelf that cleared mist from the window, and was a $48 option in 1977.

As is probably clear by now, Concours’ appeal was rather shallow.  Offering just a veneer of embellishments tacked on to an otherwise ordinary car, it earned the phrase de minimis used in this article’s title.

Overall, the Concours was neither a success nor a failure.  Its two-year life span, and relatively modest capture of total Nova sales attest to customer ambivalence.  Chevy likely had grander expectations, given that offering upgraded trim levels was generally a successful sales tactic at the time.  Then again, maybe GM executives realized that Chevy didn’t build a better Buick than Buick did, and that this car competed with other GM products rather than expanding the company’s base.  Whatever the reason, the Concours quietly departed the scene after 1977.

1979 Chevrolet Nova Custom ad

Trim upgrades didn’t quite vanish in the Nova’s two post-Concours years.  The Custom returned as a separate model, largely carrying on the Concours’ mission, though without the hood ornament and some other features.  Even this didn’t quite hit the market’s sweet spot; the 1978-79 Custom achieved a slightly smaller proportion of total Nova sales than did the Concours.

1977 Chevrolet Concours right front

On the whole, the story of Chevrolet’s Concours is barely remembered.  Not frugal enough for a Chevy, nor fancy enough to be luxurious, and ultimately not a better Buick than Buick itself.  Perhaps Chevy shouldn’t have made this car, and instead kept its Nova focused on the thrifty compact car market.  However, that storyline wouldn’t be nearly so interesting for those of us who stumble on one of these cars a few decades later.  While there wasn’t much actual luxury substance to this car, the Concours de Minimis, was certainly fun to admire.


Photographed in Falls Church, Virginia in July 2023.


Related Reading:

1977 Chevrolet Nova Concours: Proof That Sizzle Trumps Steak by Paul Niedermeyer