Curbside Classic: 1977 Chevrolet Nova Concours – Proof That Sizzle Trumps Steak

In 1975, a somewhat curious convergence happened: all of the Big Three came out with broughamized luxury variants of their compact cars. Ford and Chevrolet had new compacts on tap that year; the Granada and the Nova. The Granada conformed to the LTD formula and was quite nicely trimmed even in the base version, as there was also the Maverick for cheapskates; the Nova had to cover the full compact spectrum, but there was a new top-trim LN, which became the Concours in 1976.

And although they both were targeting the same segment of the market, the two cars couldn’t be more different. And their respective success in the sales charts couldn’t be more different.

A while back we bestowed the 1975 Ford Granada with “The Most Malaise Car Ever” award, with the subtitle “A Triumph of (Imitative) Style Over Substance”.  It won that distinction thanks to some remarkable stats (with the optional 250 CID six):

  1. lowest hp per cubic inch:  0.28 hp per cubic inch. 70hp total.
  2. lowest rpm at max. power: 2800rpm
  3. worst power-to weight ratio 48.46 lbs per hp
  4. slowest 0-60 time: 23.15 seconds

The Granada sat on an enlarged 1960 Falcon platform/chassis; it’s handling, in a PS comparison test evoked these words: “The Granada..has excessive freedom to roll, pitch and bounce”. In other words, dynamic qualities took a major back seat to the sizzle, which is something Ford and its President Lee Iacocca was well versed in.

But Iacocca’s genius was in marketing, and it really shone here. The energy crisis of 1974-1974 had sent a lot of big car buyers scurrying to smaller cars. In 1974, peak year of that freak-out, the Pinto was the best selling name plate in the land. By 1975, buyers were willing to move up a notch into compacts, but wanted the amenities (and looks) they had been used to in their LTD.

The Granada was originally developed to be the replacement for the Maverick, but when Lee read the tea leaves, he decided to push the Granada upmarket, and keep the Maverick around as the bottom feeder.


Meanwhile, things over at GM were quite different. The Brougham Era had essentially been a Ford invention, and GM was still a bit ambivalent. The styling on the ’75 Nova makes it clear that they had BMW much more in their visors than a Ford LTD, or Ford’s bastardized idea of Mercedes styling.

The 1975 Nova had to cover all the bases, from cheap to sporty to luxury, although there’s little doubt that the LN was a fairly last minute addition in reaction to the coming of the Granada.

Just looking at its long-hood proportions makes its Camaro DNA all too obvious. The ’68 Chevy II/Nova shared its platform and undoubtedly many of its key hard points with the ’67 Camaro.

The ’75 redo involved some changes to the body from the cowl back, especially in opening up the greenhouse, but not really as deep as might be assumed. But from the cowl forward, the Nova now shared the subframe, suspension and steering from the ’71-up Camaro, generally regarded as the best handling sporty car at the time.

The difference in their respective stylistic missions is really acute in comparing the two coupe versions. One could see these two different roof styles reflect styling traditions at the two respective makers going back all the way to 1959.

That’s the year that Chevy’s bubble-top roof and the Ford’s formal roof tradition began, and although they were a bit modified for the Nova and Granada coupes, the traditions cannot be denied.

The Camaro genes explain the Nova’s long front end; it really was a Camaro under the skin with three inches more wheelbase at the rear to better accommodate a rear seat. As it was, that rear seat was not as roomy as the one in the Granada’s boxy body; the one advantage the Granada had over the Nova.

The driver’s seat was the place to be in one of these. This was flat out the best domestic driver’s sedan in 1975-1977. Well, the new ’77 Impala/Caprice gave it some competition in that regard, but the Nova was smaller and nimbler. And equipped with a 350 V8, faster too.

I speak from experience. At Iowa City Transit in 1976-1976, a new white Nova sedan was used by the drivers to shuttle ourselves back and forth from the bus depot to the main transit hub downtown. It also had the tell-tale of a rear sway bar, so it had the HD of F-41 suspension, along with rather meaty tires. It also had the 250 six, but that wasn’t all that much of a penalty as it ran pretty well (110 hp compared to the Granada’s 70) and it was all city driving. That didn’t stop me from probing its abilities in plenty of corners and such. And in 1975, I had never driven anything quite like this: its steering was very quick (2.3 turns), and it corner flat, and fast. The difference compared to the American cars I had driven (I’m looking at the 1971 Ford family of Total Performance sedans) was almost astounding. And in a stupid six cylinder four door sedan!

The 305 and 350 V8s were optional, and with the latter, the Nova was about as quick as it got at the time, for a sedan. And a four speed manual was available. Properly-equipped, a Nova was a…four door Camaro. It’s the easiest (and laziest) way to describe it.

Of course the leaf-sprung solid rear axle would have gotten the shakes on uneven surfaces, especially while cornering briskly. That’s where the BMW facade really fell apart. That and its weight and poor space utilization, fuel economy, etc.  But then this was the traditional big compact’s last hurrah; in 1980 the Nova would be replaced by the Citation, which was a drastically more sophisticated and modern car, albeit hampered by its rather severe birthing pangs.

I made up this chart to graphically illustrate the sales of these 1975-1979 luxury compacts. The Granada includes all versions; the Nova just the LN/Concours, which was priced right around the same as the Granada. I also included the Mopar competitors, which in 1975 were the Dart SE and Valiant Brougham, and the 1976-1977 Aspen and Volare SE.

The Nova Concours’ last year was 1977; there was a 1978-1979 Nova Custom that kept some of its external affectations like the grille, but was not as well trimmed and priced accordingly. The Aspen was replaced by the Diplomat, but that was a fair bit more expensive. Plymouth just threw in the towel on the segment. And even the Granada showed a strong downward trend; by 1980 sales had sunk in half again. This really was a short-lived phenomenon.

Of course I didn’t include comparable cars, like the X-Body clones from B-O-P, and the Mercury Monarch. It gets a bit complicated, but the story is pretty obvious: by 1977, buyers had a wide range of new down-sized GM B-Bodies to savor, and in 1978, the new A/G Bodies only added to the allure of something a bit more modern and spacious without the penalty at the pump. Of course that would all be turned on its head again in 1980-1981, and cars like the Buick Skylark were suddenly hot sellers in this field.

But the pendulum swung seriously away from Ford, as its boxy 1980-1982 Fox-body alternatives (Granada, Cougar, T-Bird) were all rather quite ungainly, and contributed to Ford’s near-bankruptcy in 1980.

It’s all word play, of course, but by 1977 Chevrolet was so eager to try to give its languishing Concours a bit of cachet, they even went as far as changing its name to “Concours by Chevrolet”.

That included its own brochure.

But buyers weren’t…buying it. And she looks like she belongs in a genuine BMW Bavaria, not a cheap imitation, even with its optional fine cloth upholstery.

Not even its stand-up hood ornament was doing the trick. Not very BMW-like at all; mixed messages.

This Concours is sporting dual exhausts, so we can safely surmise it’s not a six. Which raises the question: how many times have you seen a Granada with dual exhausts? Ok, I’m sure they exist, but you get my drift. These two cars couldn’t have been more different, considering they were fighting for the same slice of the pie. One is the crust; the other is the cream filling.


Here’s a R&T Vintage review of the 1975 Nova LN