By on February 22, 2012

When the GM Fremont Assembly plant took on Toyota managers and became NUMMI in 1984, the same supposedly inept lineworkers who hammered together sub-par Buick Apollos suddenly started building Corollas that were at least as well-made as the ones made by their Japanese counterparts (you are free to draw your own conclusions about GM management in the 1980s). The initial round of GM-badged Corollas were given the Chevrolet Nova name, prior to becoming the Geo Prizm; you still see Prizms around, but the 80s Nova has become a rare sight on the streets and in the junkyards. Here’s a Nova I spotted in an Oakland, California, self-serve yard earlier in the month.

I had a summer job in a warehouse specializing in pumps and filters in 1989, and one of my duties was a weekly run to deliver boxes of paint filters to NUMMI. The place just smelled efficient, nothing like the horror stories I’d heard about Camaro abuse at GM’s Van Nuys Assembly plant, and I was impressed by the orderly ranks of new Corolla FX16s and Prizms. Every time I see a NUMMI-built car (which is frequently, given that I look under a lot of Toyota hoods during 24 Hours of LeMons inspections), I am reminded of my visits to the plant.
This Nova’s final owner was, apparently, a student at Mills College, an extremely expensive private university for women, located on the edge of a hardcore donks-and-drive-by-shootings neighborhood of East Oakland. I lived in this neighborhood during the height of the early-90s crack wars, and it was disconcerting to have this beautifully landscaped college campus, with its famous Julia Morgan architecture, side-by-side with homies getting cold blasted over disputed prime cavvy-dealing turf.
This car’s owner, who was either a slumming trustifarian gaining hipness points through use of a last-legs cheapo car or an honest-to-god broke student racking up vast amounts of student-loan debt, clearly moved in the same social circles as the owner of the East Bay Gig-Rig Ranchero we saw a few months back.
Then, one sad day, the reliable old Nova (which I’m guessing had an affectionate nickname, as such cars do) broke down and wasn’t worth fixing. Or perhaps it racked up $10,000 in parking fines from the Suede Denim Secret Police who run parking enforcement in San Francisco and Berkeley and wasn’t worth rescuing from the impound yard after getting towed.
Either way, this Corolla-by-another-name ended up in The Crusher’s waiting room. Perhaps GM will revive the Nova name once again, but for now this is the final one.

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46 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1987 Chevrolet Nova...”


  • avatar
    dolorean

    “The initial round of GM-badged Corollas were given the Chevrolet Nova name, prior to becoming the Geo Prizm” – Seem to remember the Chevy Spectrum, aka Toyota Tercel, coming out before the Nova. This was also the same year the Opel Cadet became bastardized as the Pontiac LeMans, another famed GM nameplate taken right to the crapper.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    “the same supposedly inept lineworkers who hammered together sub-par Buick Apollos suddenly started building Corollas that were at least as well-made as the ones made by their Japanese counterparts (you are free to draw your own conclusions about GM management in the 1980s).”

    At least as well-made as the ones from Japan? Based on what? There were years when the Novas, Prizms, and Vibes weren’t even as good as the Toyotas made on the same line, let alone the ones made in Japan.

    • 0 avatar
      Crabspirits

      As the former owner of a 250,000+mile Prizm that was routinely abused to the fullest extent, I can tell you the only thing that broke on that car was door handles in -15* cold. It probably went over 300k for the next owner before it was junked for it’s rust issues.

      Maybe the Vibe is a different story, and being more recent, gives a bigger impression.

    • 0 avatar
      aristurtle

      Really? Vibes done on the same line as Matrices, put together by the same workers, weren’t as well-built? Did the UAW workers see the Pontiac grille and deliberately sabotage the cars as part of their anti-GM, anti-American conspiracy? Or maybe the Toyota badge on the car imparted magical Quality Power to the rest of the vehicle that the Pontiac arrowhead was incapable of bestowing? They’re the same car!

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        Some (many?) Matrixes were made at Cambridge, rather than NUMMI, which only made the Vibe.

        That said, the difference in customer satisfaction was not huge, and it could have been accounted for by GM’s piss-poor warranty and service support.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        All you need to know about the UAW and NUMMI from a friendly left wing source: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/403/nummi

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        While I usually don’t see eye to eye with CJinSD, he has some facts on his side. No, not the accusation that US built Toyotas were more poorly assembled than Japan built Toyotas, but Novas and Corollas were not exactly identical in terms of part sourcing. Often with US built imports, there were either domestically produced parts, or imported (but non-Japan) parts that were not always equal to the genuine Toyota parts. Typically a company like Toyota would buy tires, brake rotors, bumper covers, sheet steel, etc. from local suppliers but usually used Japanese sourced engines, electronics, etc. An exception to this was the Delco alternator. Delco sourced these from Mexico (IIRC) and they were used on Corollas and Novas. However, the failure rate exceeded what Toyota considered acceptable and made a change to Nippondenso units. Corollas that had alternator failures had the wiring harness connector modified to accept the connector pattern on the ND alternators. Telling that the General didn’t consider the failure rate too excessive. There were other components that suffered the same fate as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Volt 230

      In the case of Prizm/Corolla, the latter had better interior quality till 1997 and then starting in 98, they used the same crappy materials. I know cause I’ve owned 3 of them.

    • 0 avatar
      fozone

      I owned a 1991 Prizm, it went for 250k miles before I sold it, I would not be surprised if it was still running (florida car, no tinworm.)

      It remains the most reliable, abusable car i’ve ever owned. I sort of miss it.

      • 0 avatar
        joeaverage

        My sister-in-law had one and it too went forever. It finally broke at 250K miles and could be repaired at a reasonable cost but she got rid of it I think b/c she was tired of it. It fit her needs perfectly at the time.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    Judging by the thick layer of weathered mid-90′s skateboarding stickers and the new-ish Mills sticker, this was probably a hand-me-down. A possible embarrassment for it’s final owner, it’s nickname was probably “Stinky Sock”. Perhaps the radio stopped working and she junked it.

    If said female actually did put those stickers on, you can probably find her working at a Zumiez somewhere near Oakland. Look for the purple hair.

    • 0 avatar
      VanillaDude

      When my German friends came over to the States, they bought bicycles from a couple of garage sales, bragged about how little they paid and told me there was no way they would need a car.

      They discovered that any attempt to buy groceries and needed household items in the States meant having a bicycle basket the size of, well, the damn bicycle, and it also meant riding along suburban roads filled with drivers shocked to find a grocery carrying German riding a damn bike on the street!

      The following week, they bought one of these on the cheap and chucked the bikes. Within a few short months, these Germans assimilated into American life just as our German ancestors did a century ago. But they never did catch on with the daily tooth brushings and showers – but that’s another really stinky story.

      So, anyway they end up with a silver gray version of this vehicle. I think they paid about $3000 for it, and it was a very good car. While they did not take it out of Chicagoland because they were worried about any problems in the wilds of Illinois, they were able to enjoy the car during their 16 month stay in the States.

      They sold it for $3000 when they left to one of our friends who drove it for another five years.

      It was a smart design. It was a very utilitarian design. You could actually sit in the rear seat with another adult. You could actually see out of it when you drove.

      It was slow, but so then, were my German friends. We hear about the Autobahn all the time, but these folks always stuck to the speed limits posted around Chicago. This meant that they were often rear ended and heard remarkable new English curse words and saw interesting new hand gestures.

      This meant I demanded to drive the Nova when we had to get somewhere. It was a perfectly fine little machine.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        Germans in Germany drive EXACTLY the speed limit when there is one.

        It is amazing to experience – traffic is running along at exactly the speed limit on the highway then as each car gets to the exact line formed by the “derestricted” lollipop signs on each side of the road they take off like the Millenium Falcon going into hyperspace.

        These were really pretty decent cars, other than they rusted badly, like most Japanese cars of the day. I got to drive one that a cousin had when I first had my license. Makes you wonder why Chevy didn’t name the Cruze the Nova. Nova, Malibu, Impala, just like the good old days.

  • avatar
    obbop

    Across time and space saw a multitude of these Chevy Novas.

    Popular with the populace.

    Sold a multitude of parts off of and for these vehicles and its brethren whose many parts they interchanged with.

    Some trim parts were Nova only.

    All hail the mighty Nova.

    Never did see one with a small block Chevy within.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Such a desrving fate for this piece of garbage. Nova? No!

    • 0 avatar
      Roberto Esponja

      Actually Zackman, this was a really great car, albeit wrongly named. I rented one back when they were new, and was surprised and delighted at how excellent it was. Solidly built, economical, fun to drive. Too bad that this example apparently ended up in the hands of a doofus in its final years…

      • 0 avatar
        Kevin Kluttz

        Most good cars do end up in the hands of a goofus.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        I checked these out when new and came up with the conclusion above. In retrospect, they weren’t any worse than other cars and in some cases, better, but they had all the feel of a tin can to me, but that was common of all small cars like this back then.

        Sorry, but I don’t worship at the Toyota altar, no matter how “good” they’re supposed to be. Watch, I’ll eat those words when I buy a Prius and the B&B will have a field day!

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      Is it absolutely necessary for you to dismiss every Japanese junkyard find as garbage? I’ve spent plenty of time in old Colts, Sentras and NUMMI cars and also your cherished K-cars. They were all tin cans.

      If you want to only buy cars based on decades-old perceptions and nameplates with sentimental value, be my guest. But, please, tone down the “Japanese Junk” rhetoric. You’re better than that; you yourself have admitted its nonsense.

      You live 25 miles away from me. Given the number Honda and Toyota employ nearby in Marysville and Anna, OH and in Georgetown, KY respectively, I think you can cut them a break.

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    My 1/2 ton was made in Fremont before it was NUMMI

  • avatar

    My mom had an ’87 Nova. It was the notchback version in white over an actually pretty nice blue tweed interior. It was well put together, slow, economical, slow, fairly tough and slow. Did I mention it was slow?

    Ironically, after wrecking the Nova in a bit of high school idiocy (suprisingly didn’t total it – fairly tough), I ended up a few months later the proud owner of a Prizm hatchback (seen in my avatar picture). The addition of fuel injection to what was pretty much the same engine was a revelation. The Prizm actually had some pep – while maintaining very similar mpg numbers. The hatchback body style also made it far more useful. I racked up about 170000 miles on the Prizm before the clutch finally gave up and ended up donating it to a local charity. I’m guessing it’s still on the road somewhere.

    • 0 avatar
      gottacook

      We happily owned a new 1999 Prizm 5-speed for 11 years, then sold it to a friend (a long-ago owner of a ’90 Prizm sedan). I wish we’d had the option to buy the hatch, which the last two generations didn’t offer – although our sedan’s 12-cubic-foot trunk was deceptively well-shaped and useful.

      I did have to replace an interior driver’s door handle that ought to have been metal, but otherwise I have no complaints – it seems that newer ones like ours were much less prone to rust, and I think they’ll be around longer than the ones built 20 years ago.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      I know all about the 1987 Nova with the 4A-C being slow. That was my first car.

      Trying to climb a hill with 5 adults in the car was a scary experience. The 160,000 mile well depreciated carbie 4 was probably putting out 70 horsepower tops. It was also absolutely terrifying to try and drive at 65 mph on a highway, but I managed to do it.

      But just over a year after I got the car, the transmission went.

  • avatar
    PintoFan

    My great-grandmother had one of these, a silver sedan with no options. She bought it new in ’86 and drove it until she had to give up driving in the early 2000′s. It was supposed to come down to me, but she wound up giving it to my uncle instead because she thought it wasn’t safe enough. It was a pretty solid car overall but the rust was really getting to it by the time my uncle got rid of it.

  • avatar
    PlentyofCars

    Same basic car as Corolla and assembly line, but lots of GM AC/Delco parts (and cheaper plastic) where they could use them. Probably had to keep the union parts suppliers happy.

    I know. We owned both at the same time. But all in all the Nova/Prism would last about as long if you took care of it.

    Actually, many of the AC/Delco parts were a little cheaper than the genuine Toyota parts. So some repairs were a little less costly for the GM version.

    When Toyota went to a 4 Speed auto transmission in the Corolla, the old 3 Speed tranny remained in the GM version for many many years, unless you paid up for the very top of the line fully loaded model.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      The only GM part I ever saw was the Harrison radiator, and it was made in-house. I looked for GM parts specifically, and that’s all I saw. The cars were way too dependable to hav GM parts anywhere important, like the Aisin-Warner transmission. And the brakes were all Toyota.

      • 0 avatar
        PlentyofCars

        Most of the parts differences are out of site all over the car.

        The other ones most noticeable in the engine bay were the alternator and battery. I remember a GM stereo as well.

        It was the Toyota transmission. They just kept the 3 Speed long after the Corolla was 4 speed, to keep the cost of the GM version down.

        The 4 Speed auto was not offered at all in the GM car until 1998. The base model auto was still 3 speed even then.

        The 4 Speed auto appeared in all Corolla’s in 1993.

        Our Chevy was automatic. Our Corolla was manual.

        • 0 avatar
          NoGoYo

          Yeah, the Nova has the same Delco radio GM put into EVERYTHING for years.

          The Celebrity had it, my ’87 Nova had it, and my ’95 Skylark STILL has it. Though the Nova’s was the AM/FM with no tape deck while the Skylark’s has the tape deck.

  • avatar
    jfranci3

    I had an 1987 Nova in college. Around 2000 at 300k miles, it was at the end of its life. I was driving from Bloomington, IL to West Lafayette, IN on 2 lane country roads back to college. The headliner was failing and a series of staples couldn’t prevent the failure. I kept a pair of scissors handy to trim the excess.
    With all four windows down, I was cruising on a beautiful summer day at the car maximum velocity of 85-ish mph, which I don’t believe because the car was handily out powered by full laden semis. Suddenly the ceiling suffered spontaneous ceiling failure filling the interior with an orange snowstorm of insulation material. For several terrifying seconds, I battled the tornado of hardened insulation material swirling around the interior and the taters of remaining fabric draped over my face, blocking all outward visibility. With my scissors I cut the fabric and then with my arms I swatted at the insulation.
    Fortunately, the vehicle was of such low performance, leaning to extremes with the slightest directional change, and the roads of Illinois so straight that I was able to successfully navigate the car through this harrowing period. Any mistake, would of course, resulted in absolutely no consequence as I would have merely drove into a corn field and the corn stalks would have slowed down me down faster and safer than the ever could have.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      If you would ride with windows up, the headliner wouldn’t disintegrate. Of course, this requires the use of an air conditioner, so I guess no one ever has that repaired when it goes bad. I won’t do without it, so I never have the headliner problem.

      • 0 avatar
        jfranci3

        The A/C was ‘working’, the problem was that it sucked a useful amount of power from the engine.

        As it was, all applications of throttle were foot to the floor applications. It didn’t matter where/when, full throttle. Even at low speeds, it required a lot of planning and ham-fisted driving, which was a lot of fun. I rent cars weekly for work, and I still love driving the the Aveos and Yaris as they approach this “quality”.

        I sold the car when I thought it was on its VERY last leg. I was convinced it wouldn’t ever start again as I pulled into the Ford dealership to pickup my new Mustang GT I had ordered. I really didn’t want to buy a new car so soon, but the Nova was on its last legs. I was so convinced, that I accepted a $4/mo finance ‘adjustment’ the dealership tacked on to my payment so I could leave before they tried to start it.
        18 months later, I was informed by the Marion (Indianapolis) County Sheriff that ‘my’ car had been found abandoned along side the highway. 18months! Bummer.

    • 0 avatar
      Firestorm 500

      They wouldn’t have found you till harvest time.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Why has GM taken SO long to fix the headliner problem??? That problem has been a problem going back to the early 80s at least. That should embarrass them to no end but it doesn’t?

  • avatar
    Lokki

    I was actually in the market for a new car in 1986 and tried like the devil to buy one of these. I figured that since Toyota’s name was gold in those days while Chevy’s was uh, mud, that I would be able to get a better price on what was, after all, a Toyota slumming as a domestic. I figured that most people didn’t know about NUMMI and therefore the Chevy lots would be full of these waiting to be dumped.

    Well, the lots were full of them but the first place I went the slaes guy walked me away from the Nova and over to a(Celebrity?). I just walked on. When the same thing happened at a second dealership, I called the salesman out on it. “I came in asking for a Nova, and you won’t even show me one: why?”He looked down and shrugged his whoulders and said, ” Son, I just ain’t got no room to move on the price on those Nova’s.” I got the message and eventually bought an Integra. Interestingly enough Honda hadn’t started any advertising for the Acura yet and the dealer was struggling. I got a great deal – sold the car 2 years later for what I’d paid.

    But, back to the Nova. I saw the whole thing as a lesson on how hard it is to change the direction of a big company. The whole chain from top to bottom had a long established system of how things are done. They really couldn’t change. This is why I worry that too much of the old management may have survived the bankruptcy at GM. I wonder if Ford managed to shake the tree hard enough when they brought in outside management. Chrysler on the other hand, boiled down to the bone several times, may be best prepared to face the future.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I had one, briefly. I bought it from a neighbor for $500, drove it for 6 months, and sold it for $500. It was a perfectly appliance-like car, but succumbed to the Michigan tinworm just like every other Japanese car of the 80′s.

  • avatar

    Both this and the El Camino have Oakland Pinball Mafia stickers. They’re everywhere!

    While at UCSD in the early 2000s, our local cryptomafia was the Dynes posse:
    http://obeygiant.com/bootlegs/chancellor-dynes-has-a-posse

    I drive right by NUMMI every day on the way to work. The place has the look and feel of an almost abandoned military base.

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    People like to slag american made cars now, but it certainly wasn’t always the case. Lots of good GM cars and trucks were built in that Fremont plant and the previous Oakland plant over the years. A good number of Fords, including Mustangs, were built in the Milpitas auto plant (now Great Mall).

  • avatar
    Porsche986

    HAHA, I love these cars! I only drove one for a short period… a 1986 model was used in my driver’s ed course!

  • avatar
    rudiger

    The NUMMI Nova was the eighties’ equivalent of the sixties’ Valiant. They were so anvil-reliable (yet still dirt cheap) that I’m always curious as to what malady eventually resigns them to the auto graveyard. Undoubtedly, it’s only after several hundred thousand miles have passed (this has to be one of the first cars that could regularly attain those kinds of miles) that they finally die.

  • avatar
    plee

    Bought a used 93 Prizm 5 speed for my daughter while she was in college back in 1999-2000. It was one of the worst cars I have ever owned. The interior trim pieces kept falling off, transmission linkage was very sloppy, car had no cornering capability as it used to really lean over in turns. When you turned on the AC it felt like half the power was gone. That was the last time I used Consumer Reports when deciding on a car to buy, they thought it was wonderful because of its Toyota roots.

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    I destroyed one of these in a ‘rally’ at my buddy’s farm house/land back in 2003. That happened to be a Silver ’86.

    Got it for $75, ran and drove. Bad thing was, it didn’t have a title, so couldn’t drive it on-road (otherwise, I wouldn’t have wrecked it).

    I painted big #3′s on the front doors (it was, after all only two years after St. Earnhardt had passed) and proceeded to drive it until it blew up. Except it didn’t. I had to stop every so often to spray the radiator with cool hose water to prevent overheating as the fins were gone when I got the car. Despite the beating and over-revving for several hours, it kept on tickin’.

    I left the car there where my buddy decided a few months later to have a ‘brick party’ (for those who are not enlightened, a ‘brick party’ entails draining the oil from an engine, starting it afterwards and placing a brick on the gas pedal until the engine explodes).

    It took 45 minutes to blow the engine. The Nova/Corolla was then hauled away for scrap.

    P.S. Murilee, are you me 20 years from now who made up a pseudonym and traveled back in time? Just wondering…lol


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