Curbside Classic: 1988 Chevy Twin Cam Nova- A Hot Toyota from Chevrolet


(first posted 8/23/2013)   This Toyota is officially called the 1988 Chevrolet Nova Twin Cam. While Chevy built many Nova’s over the years, this is one of only 3,300 cars offered with dual overhead cams, and the only Chevy with Toyota engineering. Built for a single year, this car provides the backdrop for many different tales, including unusual partnerships, changing car markets, and model miscalculations.


For those unfamiliar with the Chevy Nova, it was the result of a unusual partnership between Toyota and General Motors. The story goes something like this- In the early eighties, US car manufacturers found themselves losing the market share battle. Poor quality and a model mix emphasizing larger cars combined to place the domestics behind the eight ball in a market dominated by high fuel prices. To help protect the home team, Washington legislators discussed import restrictions. To control the situaiton, in 1981 Japanese manufacturers agreed to voluntary trade restraints. This avoided unwanted regulations, and allowed the Japanese to write in a loop hole that allowed greater sales volumes- US manufactured cars with a Japanese nameplate did not count against the voluntary restraints.


With the restraints in place, Japanese manufacturers immediately explored US production options. Most chose to build their own plant, but Toyota picked a different option- A joint production plant with General Motors. To accomplish this, the two organizations formed a new company called New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated (NUMMI). General Motors anted up a recently shuttered plant in Fremont California, while Toyota provided the product and production expertise.


NUMMI began production in 1984. The plant built a version of the fifth generation Corolla called the Sprinter in other markets, but marketed by GM as the Chevy Nova.  A basic front wheel drive economy car, the first NUMMI Nova included a low output eight valve engine, and competed in the low price subcompact market.

More information on the Nova and NUMMI plant can be found in Jeff Nelson’s article linked here.


The initial Chevy Nova did not meet sales expectations for several reasons. After the voluntary import restrictions kicked in, American and Japanese compact cars had swapped places in the marketplace. While Japanese models had started out as low priced alternatives to US models, Japanese manufacturers had moved their cars up market since 1981, to increase the per car markup and maintain profits. At the same time, US manufacturers allowed the prices of their small cars to drop below the competition, in order to maintain production levels and spread profits over more units.

Because of this, the 1984 Chevy Nova was neither fish nor fowl- Its Japanese features and high quality components made it expensive to build, while its Chevy nameplate lacked the cachet required to justify a higher price.

Back-sideTo remedy this problem, GM rolled out this Twin Cam model. By building a car with the best features available on the Corolla platform, GM hoped to charge a premium price for a premium car.


In addition to the 4A-GE twin-cam motor, the Twin Cam Nova offered a standard five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. Features included fuel injection, sport suspension, power steering, leather-covered steering wheel, tachometer, four-wheel disc brakes, and wider tires on aluminum wheels. There were no color choices; all Nova Twin-Cams came with black metallic paint and a grey interior.

Note- These floral seat covers were NOT part if the Twin Cam package.


I should also note the wheels on this Twin Cam are not the original Chevy wheels. Somewhere along the line, someone substituted Toyota alloys. It’s a bit of a shame, given that  the rest of the car is very original, but the fact that these wheels bolt on does help to confirm this Nova’s Toyota pedigree.

Speaking of pedigrees, this Chevy is also one of the last cars manufactured in California. In the nineteen fifties, California ran a close second to Michigan in auto manufacturing, but by the mid eighties only NUMMI and GM’s Van Nuys assembly plant remained. In 1992, Van Nuys closed, leaving NUMMI as the remaining California auto plant (Hino maintained a small truck assembly operation in Long Beach up until the last year or so). Yes, you can count on me to cover the California connection whenever possible.


Anyway, back to the market battles. In 1988 (the only year Chevy offered the Twin Cam), the base Nova listed at about $8,800, but the Twin-Cam went for $11,395. At the start of the year, Chevy planned to sell about 10% of their Nova production as Twin Cams. However, the $2,600 price premium over the base model limited Twin Cam sales to 3,300 cars, or about 3% of the production. Clearly, the premium car at a premium price strategy did not work.


So ends the story of the Twin Cam Nova. Because the 4A-GE motor is one of the most popular Toyota powerplants, many Twin Cams have been sent to the salvage yard after providing a “real” Toyota with a fresh engine transplant. The cars themselves are certainly as good as any other Corolla, and provide the best driving dynamics of any NUMMI Nova. But in their day Chevy owners could not justify the purchase price, and Toyota owners preferred the real thing. That leaves this Curbside Classic parked alone on a Narbonne Avenue curb, just north of PCH.

An unloved and unknown model, the Twin Cam represents another example of General Motor’s search for relevance in the mid eighties. The next year, GM tried yet another approached, marketing their NUMMI Corolla as the Geo Prizm. Based on the next generation Corolla Sprinter, GM hoped the Geo namplate could stand with the imported namplates, and give them higher transaction prices. You can debate the virtues of this approach, but I’ll simply note that GM has since abandoned the Geo nameplate…