The Chevy II/Nova was Chevrolet‘s back-to-basics compact car for the 1960s. As designer Clare MacKichan put it: “There was no time for experimentation or doodling around with new ideas from either the engineers or from us in design; and it had to be a basic-type car.”. Its 110 inch wheelbase placed it squarely in the compact market, aiming at the Ford Falcon that was released two years earlier in particular; the Falcon‘s wheelbase was but half an inch shy of the new Chevy II. When the new Chevrolet Corvair with its air-cooled rear engine, unique in American cars at the time, was outsold by the Falcon in 1960 GM decided that it needed more competition for the new Ford. GM brass soon green-lit Chevrolet‘s own new compact car project and it went from concept to production in only 18 months, one of the fastest new-car development programs in GM history.
The decision on the “Chevy II” name came late in the process, with Nova being another contender although that name was reserved for the top-of-the-line model until 1969 when the “Chevy II” nameplate was dropped altogether. It was made in a variety of styles, sedan and station wagon as well as the familiar 2-door hardtop. A convertible was available as well.
Having their radical new design, the Corvair, outsold by the Falcon convinced Chevrolet to take a more traditional approach to the compact car with no revolutionary features like the Corvair, and thus the Chevy II was born. It was functional, utilitarian and inexpensive. The car had a semi-unibody construction with a bolt-on front joined to its unitized cabin and trunk sections. The available engines were as basic as the car: a 153 cu. in. four-cylinder, the first four-cylinder in a Chevrolet since the 1928 Chevrolet National, and a194 cu. in. straight-six. No V-8 was initially available in the Chevy II in 1962 or 1963. The car came in three series’: the 100, 300 and 400. A 200 series was introduced and discontinued almost immediately. The top-of-the-line Nova 400 series was available in 2-door hardtop, marketed as “Sport Coupe” like all Chevy 2-door hardtops of the time, and convertible versions. In 1963 the Super Sport version was released with special emblems, instrument package, wheel covers, side moldings and a floor-mounted shifter, albeit with only the 6-cylinder available, the V-8 option being another year off. Enthusiasts, however, did swap the six for V-8s from other Chevrolet models.
In 1964 a 195 HP 283 cu. in. V-8 became available as well as a new 230 cu. in. straight-six to compete with Chrysler’s 225 cu. in “Slant-Six” engine in the Plymouth Valiant compact. The 2-door hardtop was not initially available when the car was released in the fall, this and competition from Chevrolet‘s own new Chevelle mid-size car hurt sales. The Sport Coupe made its way into the lineup later in the year and remained through 1967.
A new full-width grill with integrated headlight bezels gave the Chevy II a fresh look for 1965. Parking lights moved into the bumper and the rear end as well as the taillights and backup lights were restyled. The 300 Series was dropped, leaving the base 100 Series and the Nova 400 Series as the only options. Either could be had in three body styles. The Nova Super Sport was only available in the Sport Coupe version. Super Sports had a brushed-chrome console with either a floor-mounted four-speed manual or two-speed Powerglide automatic. A column-mounted three speed manual was the standard transmission in lesser models. Vinyl bucket seats graced the interior of Super Sports as well as a dashboard with ammeter, oil pressure and temperature gauges. Six engine choices became available including an upgraded 283 with 220 HP or a new 327 with 300 HP, which moved the Nova SS up into the same league as the GTO, the Olds 442 and the 289-equipped Mustang. 1965 was the year that the Chevy II became a true muscle car.
1966 Chevy IIs introduced an extensive sharp-edged restyle based in part on the Super Nova concept car. Proportions were a bit more squared up without changing the dimensions. Features were essentially the same as the ’65. Highlights included a bold grille and semi-fastback roofline. “Humped” fenders in an angular rear end were reminiscent of larger 1966 Chevrolets, though the 1966 Chevy II and Nova had vertical taillights and single headlights. Two models were offered: Chevy II 100 and Chevy II Nova 400 models. Trim and chrome were very limited on the base 100 model. Government mandates required an energy-absorbing steering column and safety steering wheel, soft interior parts such as armrests and sun visors, recessed instrument panel knobs and front seat belt anchors for 1967. Dual brake master cylinders were also new for 1967.
The top-of-the-line Nova Super Sport was again available only in a Sport Coupe. The 194 cu in inline six-cylinder was standard on the Super Sport, but any Chevy II (excluding four-cylinder) engine could be coupled with the SS. The Nova SS was visually distinguished by wide rocker panels and a bright aluminum deck lid cove. It had bright SS emblems on the grille and in the ribbed rear panel, and Super Sport script on the quarter panels. Wheel covers for the ’66 came from the 1965 Malibu SS; the ’67 models got Impala SS wheel covers. Bucket front seats were included, but a tachometer cost extra. The ’66 Chevy II sales brochure clearly promoted the Super Sport as the “Chevrolet Chevy II Nova Super Sport,” but the name “Nova” was not used anywhere on the body. Front and rear emblems displayed “Chevy II SS.” In 1967, Chevy II was still the name of the vehicle, but the Nova SS option package replaced all Chevy II badging with Nova SS badging.
The 90 hp 153 cu in inline-four engine was only offered in the base Chevy II 100 series models, standard for the SS was the 194 cu in inline six-cylinder. A 230 cu in six was also available. V-8 offerings included a 195 HP or 220 hp 283 cu. in, a 275 HP 327 cubic inch and the top engine, a new Turbo-Fire 327 cu. in. producing 350 HP, first seen in the Chevelle. This engine with the close-ratio four-speed manual transmission turned the normally mild Nova into a true muscle car, but the 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission was not available as it could not handle 350 HP or the 360 ft. lbs. of torque. The fresh, sporty design of the new 1967 Camaro hurt the rather boxy 5-year-old Nova sales quite a bit.
The Chevy II received a complete re-design for 1968. A longer 111-inch wheelbase gave it a chassis that was just one inch shorter than that of the midsize Chevelle. The station wagon and hardtop sport coupe were discontinued. A separate front subframe assembly now housed the engine and front suspension, following the trend established by the Camaro a year earlier. Power brakes and steering were now options, as well as factory air conditioning, rear shoulder belts, and head restraints. The sales brochure claimed 15 powertrain choices for coupes and a dozen for sedans. V-8 offerings included a new 200 HP 307, replacing the 283, the 275 HP 327, a new 350 cu.in engine producing 295 HP, standard in the SS and two new big-block 396s for the SS rated at 325 HP and 375 HP. There were few Novas built with the 194 cubic inch six, the same motor that had been used in the previous generations of the Chevy II. Despite the fresh look and new options, sales of the 1968 fell by half. The SS option was now a performance package with the high-performance big-blocks as options as well as front disc brakes and either a close-ratio four-speed manual, the “rock crusher” four-speed manual or the new three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic automatic that could finally handle the power and torque of the larger engines.
In 1969 Chevrolet dropped the Chevy II portion of its compact car’s name; it was now known simply as the Chevrolet Chevy Nova. The 153 cu. in. four-cylinder was offered between 1968 and 1970, then dropped due to lack of interest and to clear the field for the new sub-compact Vega. The 250 cu in six-cylinder and the base 307 V-8 were more popular. Several units were produced with the 327 cu in, 275 hp engine, four-barrel quadrajet carb and four-speed Saginaw transmission with a heavy-duty 12-bolt positraction rear as a “towing option” package. The 350 cu. in. four-barrel carb base SS engine got a 5 HP bump to 300, a new two-barrel version rated at 255 HP was available in the non-SS models. The three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic transmission was available for non-SS engines for the first time, the 2-speed Powerglide was still the standard automatic transmission for those. At mid-year, a semi-automatic transmission based on the Powerglide called the Torque-Drive was introduced as a low-cost option and allowed clutchless shifts. The Torque-Drive transmission was only offered with the four and six-cylinder engines as it definitely could not handle the power and torque of the V-8s. The two-speed Powerglide was still available with most engines except the high-performance 350 and 396 models. Front disc brakes were now standard on the SS. Locking steering columns, another government mandate, were also added this year.
The 1970 Nova was a carry-over from the ’69 with not a lot of new features aside from larger taillight and side marker lenses. This was the final year of the SS 396, which had actually become a 402 cu. in. engine but kept the “396” moniker. The “Chevy” portion of the name was dropped, it was now known as the Chevrolet Nova. Approximately 177 Central Office Production Order (COPO) 1969 and 1970 SS 396 models were ordered, 175 of which were modified by famed Pennsylvania Chevrolet dealer Yenko Chevrolet, the other two were sold in Canada. Most of these models had the Corvette‘s 360 HP LT-1 350 installed by Yenko to produce the Yenko Deuce, but 28 of them had a stronger body frame and front suspension to accommodate the 425 HP, 427 cubic inch monster that powered the Yenko Super Nova. Eight were stock SS 396 models. 1970 was also the first year that the Nova was used in Trans-Am racing.
1971 Novas were also similar to the previous year, the exception being that the SS 396 was gone, replaced by a 270 HP 350 in the SS. The Rally Nova was introduced, an appearance package that featured two black or white racing stripes that ran down the middle of the car and around the back. A “Rally Nova” sticker on the driver’s side of the hood, six-slot Rally wheels, multi-leaf rear suspension and “sport” body-colored outside mirrors that could be adjusted from the inside completed the package. The 153 and 230 cubic inch six-cylinder engines were dropped, leaving the 250 cu. in six as the standard engine. The 307 and 2-barrel carb 350 were carried over from 1970, with lower compression ratios to meet the new unleaded gasoline standard.
The 1972 model differed only in minor trim changes. The Rally package returned and was a popular choice. Most options remained the same, including the SS. Nova production moved to Norwood, Ohio where it would be produced alongside the Camaro. A new sunroof option called Sky Roof was rolled out mid-year, and the low-back Strato bucket seats were replaced with high-back units with built-in headrests, introduced on the 1971 Camaros and Vegas. Despite the lack of changes, Nova had its best sales in years with nearly 350,000 units going out the door. After 1971 the Nova was beginning to be badge-engineered to other GM divisions. There was little difference besides front and rear facelifts between the Nova and the Pontiac Ventura, Oldsmobile Omega and the Buick Apollo.
The 1973 model year introduced a hatchback body style based on the 2-door coupe. The government mandated 5 MPH bumpers that year, resulting in a re-styled front and rear end. A new grill was introduced with a loose crosshatch pattern and parking lights inboard of the headlights. There was an SS option that remained available, but it was merely a dress-up package that included a blackout grill and Rally wheels. Engine offerings included an inline six-cylinder left over from the previous generation and Chevrolet‘s 307 and 350 V-8s.
For 1974, the Nova got larger parking lights and new bow-tie grille emblems. The Powerglide automatic transmission was replaced by a lightweight version of the three-speed Turbo-Hydramatic 350 already offered with the 350 cu. in. V8. This was the only V8 that could be had in 1974. These were the years of the first energy crisis as Middle Eastern countries cut back on oil exports, as a result six-cylinders outsold V-8 equipped models. The ‘Spirit of America’ Nova was introduced in 1974. In anticipation of the US Bicentennial in 1976, the limited edition Nova Coupes were painted white and featured blue and red accent stripes as well as red and blue interior carpets and fabrics. Novas and all 1974 cars were fitted with a government-mandated weight-sensitive relay within the front seat that prevented the vehicle from being started until the driver’s seatbelt had been fastened. Later, a law passed by Congress repealed the mandate requiring this type of device, declaring that it infringed on a driver’s freedom of choice, and allowed owners of 1974-model cars to have the seat belt interlock bypassed.
The 1975 Nova was the most-changed Chevrolet car for that model year. The car had all-new sheet metal, but wisely maintained a visual kinship with the 1968–1974 design. Front disc brakes and steel-belted radial tires were now standard. All Novas now had cut-pile carpeting, formerly installed only in the Custom series. Speedometers had larger, easier-to-read graphics, the windshield was larger, and front-door armrests were redesigned with integral pull bars. The base model housed the 250 cubic inch, 105 hp inline six-cylinder under the hood, while three V8 engines, a 262 cubic inch 1975-only option, a 305 cu. in. and a 350 cubic inch 1976 only option were offered. The top LN (Luxury Nova) luxury trim placed Nova into the luxury portion of the compact market. For 1976 the Nova LN was rebranded Concours to rival the Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch. These came in three body styles like regular versions of the 1976 Nova: coupe, hatchback coupe, and four-door sedan. Rosewood vinyl decorated the upper door panels, instrument panel, and steering wheel. Concours models had an upright hood ornament, bumper guards, bright trim moldings, black bumper impact strips, and full wheel covers; more-basic Novas came with hubcaps. Engines for 1976 were the same 105 HP inline-six, a 165 HP 350 V-8, or a 140 horse 305 V-8. The SS appearance package made a return with no higher-HP engine to go with it as in the Nova‘s glory days.
1977 Novas gained a more modern round gauge cluster to replace the long sweeping speedometer, and a revised dash panel. The Nova SS was discontinued. Three engines and four transmissions were available, a 110-horsepower version of the 250 cubic inch inline six, a 145 HP 305 two-barrel V-8, or a 170 HP 350 four-barrel V-8. Options for 1978 remained the same.
The 1979 model year marked the end of the line for the rear-wheel-drive Nova. The front end was revised with square headlights and a new grille for the short run; a modified horizontal-bar grille contained vertical parking lights. Options remained much the same. Chevrolet‘s compact models were headed into the front-wheel-drive age and for 1980, Nova‘s place in the lineup would be taken over by the new and very different Chevrolet Citation.
The Chevrolet Nova nameplate returned in spring 1984 as a front-wheel drive subcompact vehicle for the 1985 to 1988 model years. It was assembled in Fremont, CA by NUMMI, a joint venture between GM and Toyota, resulting in various Corolla-based cars sold under GM brands. The new Nova was a rebadged and mildly restyled Japanese market Toyota Sprinter, a model sold in Japan as a badge-engineered version of the Toyota Corolla. Nova shared the Corolla‘s 74 HP 1.6 L 4-cylinder engine and was available with a 5-speed manual or a 3-speed or 4-speed automatic transmission. It was designed for manufacturability and reached an unusually high level of quality and production speed at NUMMI, compared to other US factories.
The 1985 Chevrolet Nova was initially offered only in a four-door notchback sedan. A five-door hatchback was added shortly after its introduction, and the line was distributed throughout the US and Canada.
1987 saw only minor changes. Though Corollas were priced slightly below competing Novas, Chevrolet‘s version of the car could often be bought for less because slow sales encouraged dealers to discount prices. “Slow sales,” however, meant slow by Chevy standards, for the Nova sold about as well as the Corolla, and buyers would find that their discounted Nova in turn had a lower resale value than the equivalent Toyota, a pattern that would persist for GM branded NUMMI cars. Aside from some minor interior and exterior trim differences, the cars were much the same, though Novas had a slightly softer suspension that favored ride over handling. 1988 added a sporty model to its lineup, the Nova Twin-Cam got its name from a double-overhead-cam version of the Toyota-built 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Novas continued to share their basic design with the Corolla, and this engine had previously been used in the Toyota FX-16, a performance version of the Corolla. The twin-cam produced 110 hp, 36 more than its single-cam sibling. A five-speed manual transmission was standard, as in the regular Novas, but the Twin-Cam offered a four-speed automatic as an option versus the three-speed offered on other models. The more potent engine elevated the 1988 Chevrolet Nova Twin-Cam into junior sport-sedan territory, but the advancement didn’t come cheaply. The base Nova listed at about $8,800, the Twin-Cam went for $11,395. That price included fuel injection, sport suspension, power steering, leather-covered steering wheel, tachometer, four-wheel disc brakes, and wider tires on aluminum wheels, but it was a stiff tariff, and few were ordered (approximately 3,300 Twin-Cam models were built). There were no color choices; all 1988 Chevrolet Nova Twin-Cams wore black metallic paint with a grey interior; and there was no hatchback version offered. Every 1988 Chevrolet Nova got rear shoulder belts, rear window defogger, and AM/FM stereo radio as standard equipment. This was the last model year for the Nova name at Chevrolet. Starting with 1989, Chevrolet pushed this car into its new Geo division and renamed it the Prizm. Geo was Chevrolet‘s effort to come up with an import-sounding label to attract buyers who were not inclined to buy American brands. The final Nova rolled off the assembly line on August 18, 1988.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I spent my last two years of high school hanging out with two types of people: car guys and musicians. Some were both, like my best friend…also named Jeff. Some were just car guys, like my friend Dave with the ’69 Nova SS. I liked his so much that I almost bought a ’71 Nova (not SS), but I was more enamored with Mopars at the time and bought the ’72 Plymouth Duster 340 instead. It served me well for a few years, but I eventually got tired of the Mopar quirks and bought a ’68 Chevelle a year or so into my Navy stint. ✪