Curbside Classic: 1977 Chevrolet Nova – Incognito Camaro

The Chevrolet Chevy II/Nova, introduced in 1962 to supplement (and eventually replace) the Corvair, stayed true to its roots during its production run in the 1960s and 1970s. The second generation was also the basis for the new for ’67 Camaro. While the ’66-’67 327 V8-powered Nova SS is clearly a muscle car and very collectible today, the 1975-79 models, with the right options, can make for an agreeable Camaro in disguise.

The Chevrolet Chevy II came out in 1962. Ralph Nader had not yet emerged, but Corvair sales were less than expected and it was thought that a conventional compact could pick up the slack. The top-level model was the Nova and included a convertible and two-door hardtop. Initial sales were strong, and the Nova would remain in the Chevy lineup for years to come.

Initially offered only in 153 CID four cylinder and 194 CID straight six versions, a V8 was finally made available for the 1964 model year. The 283 CID engine made 195 horsepower.

Updated Chevy IIs and Novas were introduced for 1966. While it appeared to be all new, it was the same platform underneath the revised sheetmetal. Chevy IIs continued to be offered in coupe, sedan and station wagon versions.

The redesigned ’68 Chevy II would be the basis for the 1967 Camaro. The Camaro actually debuted one year earlier than the new Chevy II. Most likely, GM wanted to get its Mustang-fighter out as soon as possible, and the new Chevy II’s wider engine compartment and body meant that big-block V8s could be installed.

The 1968s featured a much smoother semi-fastback design and like the Camaro, could now accommodate larger V8s. Only two-door and four-door sedans were available, as the station wagon and two-door hardtop were discontinued after 1967. This was the last year for the Chevy II name; starting in 1969 all the cars in the lineup became Novas.  Novas now looked very much like the also new for ’68 Chevelles. This generation set the stage for our featured car.

1973 Novas received a facelift that was largely due to the new federal bumper standards. Other than the bumpers and some slight sheetmetal changes, they were very much like the 1968-72s. I remember the 1973 Novas well from the James Bond film Live And Let Die, when nearly every car in the movie was a 1973 Chevrolet. It was pretty memorable when the top level of the double-decker bus Roger Moore is driving lands on the Nova police car after going under the low bridge.

The 1975 Nova looked like a clean sheet design, but it was actually an improved and cleverly restyled version of the 1968-vintage platform. The new design featured squared-off sheetmetal and increased glass area. This year, the Novas got the very same front suspension as the F-body Camaro and Firebird. Front disc brakes were now standard, as well as steel-belted radial tires. All of these upgrades resulted in much-improved ride and handling. Compared to earlier Novas, it was very much more European in the way it drove.

As had been the case since 1973, a coupe, sedan and hatchback were available. A new Nova LN was the luxury model, with added sound insulation, plush interior and bucket seats. The ‘regular’ Nova continued in base and Custom versions.

Not much changed for 1976. The Custom was now an interior option package for the base Nova instead of a separate model. The Nova LN was renamed Concours, perhaps in an effort to distance the Nova name from the luxury version. For 1977, the instrument panel was changed from the strip speedometer to round gauges. The Nova and Concours continued. Engine choices were a 250 CID 110 hp six, 145 hp 305 CID 2 BBL V8 and a 170 hp 350 4 BBL V8.

With the F41 suspension and 350, you could have a car that was pretty close to a Camaro performance-wise. In fact, a properly-equipped Nova was good enough for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, who used Novas in the late ’70s. Other police departments would follow suit. Sure, just about any modern car will toast one of these Novas, but in their time, these were decent handling and performing cars. Just don’t mistake them for a similar-vintage Mercedes 280 or BMW 530i.

As good as the Nova was, it was quickly becoming outdated. Modern, front wheel drive compacts like the VW Rabbit and Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon were paving the way to the future, and the Nova and its Ventura, Omega and Skylark brethren were going to have to change with the times.

The Concours was dropped for ’78. Nobody seemed much interested in a luxury Nova, and those who were interested may have been put off by prices running about $500 over a regular Nova. Many Concours features were added to the newly-reinstated Nova Custom, however.

For the short 1979 model year, Novas received rectangular headlights but not much else was new as production only ran through November of 1978. Its replacement, the front wheel drive Citation, was introduced early in 1979 as an ’80 model and would be a disaster. Paul’s extensive article on the Citation can be found here.

I ran across this Nova a few days ago. While somewhat rusty, it is in pretty decent shape for a 1970s Nova here in the Rust Belt. Other than an original-owner ’75 Nova LN coupe I see at the local car cruises, I rarely see these cars anymore. While these were compacts at the time, they don’t seem very small compared to modern cars. It looks to be about the same size as a current Camry or Fusion. The 1975-79 Novas were Detroit’s first attempt to bring European driving dynamics to their bread-and-butter lineups. These Novas might not be the first choice for a collectible Chevrolet, but they have their merits.