How Your Mom’s Car Learned to Go Fast
The second coming of the little deuce coupe, or how your mom’s car learned to go fast. Real fast. During the muscle car years, you might have witnessed some rather unlikely happenings. For example, a little economy economy blasting down the quarter mile at over a hundred miles an hour, walking all over a real muscle car, with its stripes, air grabber hoods and the rest of that muscle car stuff. This is Chevrolet’s Nova Super Sport and between 1965 and 1970, this little car was transformed from Mom’s little grocery getter to one of the most feared cars on the street or on the strip. The Nova didn’t look very much like a muscle car and it wasn’t supposed to. The Nova always looked exactly like what it was created to be: Chevrolet’s answer to Ford’s Falcon.
The 1960 Chevy II
Starting in 1960, there was a new thing showing up in America’s driveways, the compact car. This was post-Eisenhower America and Detroit was rolling out a whole menu of slow, economical cars. Ford led this line up with the Falcon, followed by Plymouth’s Valiant surprise entry into this little parade was the Chevrolet the first rear engine car to come out of Detroit in almost 50 years. Basically, the Corvair was a good economy car. IN the early 60s though, it was just a little too out there to compete and win against the Falcon And, at GM, they’re not interested in coming in second. So the designers went back to work and by 1962, they had created a cute little car called the Chevy II. It stickered for around $2000, weighed about 2000 pounds and you could get it with either 153 cubic inch four cylinder engine or the ubiquitous stone hole six.
Paul Zazarine of Amos Automotive Publishing talks about the Chevy II: “When the Chevy II came out, the reason for being was to compete in this new compact car market that was growing.” The automotive process greeted the Nova by applauding the arrival of another economy car and by measuring the space between the front fenders to see if a V8 would fit in there. The Chevy II boosted Chevrolet’s sales by 326,600- cars during its first year. These were the kind of numbers Chevy was looking for. Encouraged by this success, Chevrolet immediately began upgrading this car’s look and feel, even giving it the Super Sport option,w which made the Chevy II into a pretty classy car.
Says Zazarine: “By 1965 it was re-styled, ’66 because the muscle car high performance market was heating up it seemed perfectly normal to go ahead and put a little hot air engine in it.”
The 1970 Chevrolet Nova
By 1970, the car had completely evolved from bare bones econo-box to one of the most respected muscle cars ever built. The 1970 SS 396 Nova was more than a match for any of other car on the street. With a power to play ratio approaching a rocket sled. The 1970 Nova also made an excellent platform for some memorable specialty cars. The Yenko Deuce is one of the fastest street cars ever sold. Its plain Jane cousin, the Copo Nova sold only by special order from select Chevrolet dealers, is one of the best factory engineered muscle cars ever. Both cars are highly prized collector cars today, a far cry from the Chevy II’s humble beginnings.
The History of the Chevy Nova
The story of how the Nova metamorphosed from a four cylinder economy car into one of the most brutal ground pounders of the muscle era is a perfect example of how the horsepower was escalated.
Chevrolet always had an eye to the day when the Chevy II would pack some serious punch, even as the first 62 models were being delivered to the dealerships, a bulletin was being issued, telling service departments had to shoe horn a a 283 V8 into its engine compartment. in 1864, with a 195 horsepower 283 and again in 1965 with a 250 horsepower 327, Chevrolet poured performance into this car. In the three years between 1962 and 1965, the car picked up 160 horsepower, just in time for its first styling change. The ’66 Chevy II body design was sporty, racy, and attractive from every angle. With a few minor changes here and there, the Chevrolet designers had totally transformed the Chevy II from a humble little sedan into an almost European looking Sports Coupe. It was the perfect mate for Chevrolet’s screaming 350 horse 327.
“Chevrolet dropped he old ’79, which was the 350 horsepower 327. Things changed right then and there because this was a serious performance car. The 350 horsepower L79 was literally a screamer. With a Muncie N21 four speed and about 355 rear end, this was a tremendous car to drive. I have personal recollections of driving one of these and its the only car that I can ever remember when you would bang gears with it. You could feel the motor do this and the body would catch up a split second later. It’s the strangest sensation I ever experienced.” Zazarine recollects.
Among the street performance crowd, the Chevy II was becoming known as the Deuce. Just like the 32 Ford Coupe of three decades earlier, the Nova was a hot rodder’s car. It was plentiful, it was still inexpensive and it was really a nice looking car. Most importantly, it was fun to work on. And you could make it go just about as fast as you wanted for not very much money. Chevy may only have made 200 L79 versions of the little car but they made thousands of ’66 Novas and all the parts to make your own awesome street machine were available at the Chevy parts counter. You could get aluminum four barrel intake manifolds, high compression pistons, stronger rods, a Muncie four speed, and racing gear ratios. You could build your own killer Nova over a weekend with all factory parts. With a 350 horse 327, this car wasn’t just fast, it was sudden.
“Detroit’s not known for balancing their engineering. It wasn’t unusual for a car with that kind of horsepower to have the same brakes as a six cylinder car to have the same suspension as a six cylinder car. They didn’t want to put the money into it and that wasn’t their engineering philosophy. It was, put motor in it and you go fast. You want to handle? You want it to brake? So sorry, not from the factory.” States Zazarine.
By now the car companies had discovered the impact of image on sales. the Detroit auto makers were working into the night to create aggressive performance images for their hot cars. Unfortunately, this was beginning to attract some unwelcome attention. Cars like the GTO and some of the street Hemi cars were already on a short but growing list of surcharge vehicles. And some cars would eventually become all but uninsurable.
Zazarine goes on to say: “By the late ’60s, the insurance companies had earmarked quite an extensive list of high performance cars for what were called surcharges. And the surcharge on a performance car could be up to 50% of your regular insurance premium. Cars like the Nova gave you a loophole. You could have the L79 350 horse, the insurance company still saw the 327 engine. ‘Well, that’s okay it’s a Nova, that’s no big deal.’”
\The SS Nova with a 327 attracted no adverse attention from anybody. It as just a little economy car with a small V8 engine. The car wasn’t just a street sleeper, it was an insurance sleeper, too. Even though its power to weight ratio put it right at the top of the heap performance wise. As the model year changed, 1967 saw little change in the Chevy II. Chevy’s big news that year was the introduction of the Camaro.
The Camaro was Chevy’s entry into the pony car market. The Camaro had absolutely no econo-box bloodlines. It was, however, aimed right at the Super Sport Nova’s prime market: the young, sporty car buyer. When the 1967 production figures were released, thecCamaro hadn’t killed the Nova as some within GM had feared. 10,100 Nova Super Sports were built in 1967. The same number as the 1966. On the plus side, across the hall from the Camaro department, the Nova team was saying, “Hey, what’s good for you is good for me!” What works for the Camaro would work for the SS Nova, right? How about an SS 396 Nova for 1968?
The 1968 Chevrolet Nova
1968 was the start of another GM redesign cycle. All Chevy IIs were now called Novas and the car had finally come into its own. Still, though, it was the most inexpensive of any car in Chevrolet’s line up. Only 2$2367. The Super Sport options sold for $210.65 and included a special steering wheel, blackout grill treatment, SS ID badges, red lined tires on six inch wide steel wheels and a bar new for 1968 350 cubic inch engine, which made 295 horsepower. The one magic option on th list was labeled L78, the code that unlocked the gates of unheard of horsepower. L78 was the 375 horsepower 396: Chevy’s famous rat motor.
“Now you had a car that weighed less than 3500 pounds with 375 horsepower. This thing was a rocket. And , probably one of the best sleepers on the street with the standard wheels , basic hub caps, no trim, bench seat, rubber floor mat, four speed 375 horsepower. Man, I’ll tell you what, you could blow a lot of people away and they thought they were just going up against Grandma’s Nova.” Zazarine points out.
Low 13 second quarter mile times were now an easy possibility for the Nova, assuming you could get traction with the big rat motor churning out horsepower and torque with only the slightest massaging you were into the twelves. Still, for around $2800. Chevy’s new body style was a crowd pleaser. Nova’s sheet metal would remain practically unchanged form 1968 through 1974 with just minor trim and option changes. The Nova continued to ride a wave of popularity, particularly the SS 396s, with their excellent performance on the drag strip and the street.
Tom Shaw of Musclecar Power Magazine remembers: “It didn’t take long for guys on the street to start looking as a Nova pulled up beside, looking at those badges up on the front fender and seeing if it said 396. If it did, you tread very likely.”
The Chevy Nova in 1970
By 1970 the 396 engine was a proven horsepower maker. The engine was actually enlarged to a 402 in 1969 but Chevrolet still called it 396 for two reasons. First, until 1970, GM would not permit engines larger than 400 cubic inches in any car smaller than their full sized models. Second, the SS 396 nameplate was so strong with consumers that Chevy dared not tamper with it. Well, whatever you wanted to call it, to the muscle car fans it was still the rat motor and the one they put in the ’70 Nova was the baddest one yet.
To arrive at 402 cubic inches, Chevrolet used a four inch borer stroke. The big block used 350 horsepower with a hydraulic cab shaft and 375 horses with a larger rectangular port heads. The solid lifter cam, aluminum intake, and factory headers. The amazing ability of the big block engine to rev freely to 6000 RPM and beyond is what made it such a world beater. In 1970, with all the other muscle car engines being bored out to over 450 cubic inches, the 402 rat motor still produced enough horsepower to blow the doors off the competition. Particularly in the lightweight body of the ’70 Nova.
Over the years, the Nova had acquired a level of sophistication far beyond that to which it was born. Part of this was due, of course, to the Super Sport option package, which added a lot of luxury and style. SS Novas were well appointed with custom steering wheels, full instrumentation, fine upholstery and carpeting and all the goodies like air conditioning and 8 track. The body of the Nova had lost every hint of its economy car heritage. It shared a basic silhouette with a Super Sport Chevelle with a long nose and fast back roof line. Its sides were smooth and the wheel opening were sized just right for six inch wide wheels and S70 fourteen wide oval tires. With a Super Sport and other SS badges and the ominous 396 emblem on the front fenders, it was no long possible to take this car lightly. But Chevy was all about giving the customer choices and some people just loved the small block engines. So Chevy built a small block Nova that was just as fast as the big block car.
During the 50s and 60s, there was no busier place on earth than Chevrolet’s engine development laboratory. Between 1955 and 1970, they brought out dozens of high performance power plans from 265 to 494 cubic inches and, at one time or another, every one of them found their way into a regular production line Chevrolet. Some of these cars you could buy off the showroom floor, but to get your hands on the really fun ones, you needed a little extra paperwork. Central office production orders were Chevrolet’s way of bypassing the regular production apparatus to create special cars.
The 1970 Chevrolet Copo
Copo cars, as they’re known, are the rarest of the rare to collectors and restorers sand are among the most valuable muscle cars today. This is the 1970 Copo Nova. The car is bare bone, the engine is full house, and the performance is awesome.
“This 350 horse to four speed transmission which is a M21 Muncie and 410 twelve bolt rear end. The suspension part, they called it an S41 suspension and basically that’s the only option in the car.” Says Jim Johnson of London, Ontario.
The engine in the Copo was one of the most aggressive small blocks Chevy ever made. The LT1 was a 350 horsepower, 350 cubic inch stormer. In 1970, this engine became the power plant in the Z28 and the top of the line small block in the Corvette. It cranked out the same horsepower as the hydraulic cam big block but weighed 70 pounds less. If you’ve never seen a Copo Nova before, you’re in the majority. Chevy made less than 200 Copo Novas in 1970 and only three survived as just plain Copos
“One of the dealers in London, Ontario, Canada found out about these orders and decided that he’d like a few and we ended up with two Novas left in Canada and 176 went to the US to Don Yenko.” Explains Johnson.
The three Coops destined for Canada were about as plain Jane as you can get. And that’s how they were sold to the three customers who walked into Central Chevy and simply lucked out. That accounts for three Copo Novas, so what happened to the rest? They became Yenko super cars. Some of the highlights of the muscle era were the special editions of Chevy’s brawniest models. Maybe the most famous of these were created at Yenko Chevrolet, owned by businessman and racer, Don Yenko. Yenko Chevrolet made cars for people who wanted to go very fast.
Shaw talks about the lethal properties of the Yenko Nova: “One of the interesting things about the Yenko Nova was that Don Yenko felt that it was so fast and so powerful it was almost lethal. He put new marketing push behind the car because he wanted to keep that very low key. It was so explosively powerful.”
Yenko’s Nova was a 350 horse LT1 and was plenty fast enough to qualify it as a super car. And after Yenko finished dressing the car in their famous stripes and graphics, it was a pretty fancy little cruising machine.
Neal Robbins of Pulteney, New York explains: “Mr. Yenko ordered 173 of these cars from Chevrolet and had them specially built with a LT1 motor, 360 horse, heavy duty high end twelve bolt positraction and it came with four speeds and automatics. The automatics had a cruise shifter, which Mr. Yenko sent the cars out and had installed.”
The Yenko Deuce and the Copo Nova happened at the end of the muscle car era, when big block engines were becoming too costly to feed and insure.
The End of the Performance Market
As the performance decade drew to a close, thanks to pressure from the insurance companies, oil shortages, and engine strangling emission controls, one of the first casualties was the 396 Nova.
“The whole performance market just died. It went away overnight, you know? It was huge, it was building in intensity all through the 60s. It peaked, some say ’69, some say ’70. But after that, the insurance companies conspired, not officially, the market had kind of run its course. It was a lot of political pressure to kill the muscle car and then Nova went away. They kept building 396 but I don’t think they sold very many of them.” Says Shaw, regretfully.
The Nova itself lasted until 1979. In its 18 year run, close to 3 million were produced, making it one of Chevy’s most successful models. In 1962, if you had asked the average Chevy dealer, he might have said the ultimate Nova was a car that got 30 miles per gallon and managed to do 0 to 60 in under a minute. But somewhere along the way, the need for speed that old muscle car thing took over and the Nova became a very memorable piece of American automotive history.
“Years gone by, the uniqueness of the body style, it was very easy to distinguish automobiles by shape, size, style, unlike today’s automobiles that are all designed by computer and all taking the same shape. These cars had a uniqueness about them that you could tell them blocks away as to what they were.” Remembers Randall Gerber of Hoschton, Georgia
And Kayo Erwin of Chattanooga, Tennessee goes on to recall: “I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to afford something like this when I was in high school, so my cars were basically just old junkers and so I always felt like someday I’d have a car like this and that’s what this is all about. All the chrome on it and the red on red combination and the high performance engine. This car’s very peppy. Lots of fun to drive.”
“Restoring automobiles, I think, is a passion that has to be born into an individual. The automobile has been a part of America for so many years, the older body styles I think are just a piece of art.” Says Gerber.
Oh, and by the way, the little 90 horsepower four cylinder engine lasted until 1970. Chevy sold 2470 Novas that year. And, they too, are considered collectors items but not by muscle car enthusiasts.