The forest green 1969 Nova sat unwashed and unloved at the side of the modest house. I studied it from the side of the road with the eye of an experienced hunter and I recognized the signs. Shunted off to the side while two more modern cars sat in the driveway, it was obvious that the old Nova had already passed that threshold of usefulness and begun the descent into eventual abandonment. The grass beneath the car, just a cutting or two taller than the rest of the yard, told me how recently that had been – just a few weeks. There was a chance then, that the car had not sat long enough to totally degrade. Perhaps, I thought, there was still some value to be had.
It was a 2 door coupe, a style I liked, and my practiced eye identified optional wheel covers and matching trim pieces covering the rocker panels. The vinyl top and bright trim on the rain gutters told me this car had been fully loaded when it was new, but the absence of badges next to the front marker lights made it unlikely it was a performance model. Still it looked good sitting there and there might be a chance to have some fun and make a buck. I pulled into the driveway and headed for the door of the house.
The man who answered was friendly enough when I asked about the car and together we walked into the yard to take a closer look. Up close the Nova looked dirtier than it had from the street and I could see the paint just beginning to bubble in all the usual places. Still, overall, it looked good. The smell of “old Chevrolet” assailed my senses as I opened the door and I found myself looking at well-worn bench seat and a column shift automatic. The headliner was good and the back seat nice, but the floor behind the driver’s seat showed some signs of rust. Under the hood I found an oil stained 250 cubic-inch inline six cylinder that fired right up with minimal effort and idled noisily through an exhaust with a missing muffler.
My conversation with the owner was brief. He wanted the car gone but didn’t know how much to ask. I low balled him with an offer of $50 and he countered with “Any car that runs is worth $100.” In the end, we settled for what I had in my wallet, $85. That evening I came back with my best friend Rick and together we convoyed back to my house.
The next day I took good look at my purchase. Unlike my buddy Tim, I wasn’t in the parts business, which was good because from his perspective the old car would have been a losing proposition. The six cylinder engine ran OK and the transmission shifted fine, but these were parts no one would want. The body, already in the first stages of rust, would bring no real money either. Arguably the best bits, the high option trim pieces, would interest only a collector in the midst of a major restoration project and I knew of no such person so there was no money there either. My plan. however, was to have some fun and then eventually resell the car and for that purpose, the car was perfect.
My first step was a thorough cleaning of the interior, something that netted me about $7 in loose change. Next, I took a closer look at the floor behind the driver’s seat and found that the rust had fully penetrated the floor pan. The holes were not big and I, knowing nothing about rust and structural integrity, solved the problem by covering the area with a couple of rubber floor mats. Under the hood, I cleaned the oil stained engine with a liberal application of engine degreaser and water and, while I had the hose out, I washed the car. I followed it up with some wax and the result was good.
I next turned my attention to the exhaust system. With a hacksaw, I removed three or four inches of the damaged exhaust and clamped a purple, Thrush brand glass pack, complete with a cartoon woodpecker smoking a cigar painted on its side, onto the end of the pipe. I finished by hanging the entire contraption up with some plumber’s tape and called it good. The result was a monotonous, undignified, droning exhaust note, but I thought it looked awesome – never mind the fact that no one could see it.
My exhaust work made the car sound like a pickup truck from the 1950s and there were other things that reminded me just how old and out of date the little Nova really was, too. On the street its power steering gave zero feedback and the car’s worn suspension made it jangle over bumps and wallow in the curves. The six cylinder engine made modest power but, thanks to the automatic transmission, very little of what it produced actually reached the rear wheels. The car was painfully slow. Still, I was young and, even though I had a much nicer car at my disposal, I thought the car was great fun. I spent a happy summer cruising around the back roads with all the windows down and music blasting from the tinny AM radio.
Towards the end of summer, my best friend Rick approached me and asked if I wanted to sell the old car. His current ride, a 1969 Charger, was too fragile and expensive to be used as a daily driver and with Fall coming he needed something more mundane to carry him around. The Nova was dull and unremarkable but it made up for those faults by being as reliable as a stone axe. It was perfect for him and sold it to him $350, a bargain for him and a nice profit for myself as well.
Rick was rough on things and from the minute he got it, the old Nova was driven hard. The car’s accelerator was always mashed flat under his foot and the little engine struggled to keep up with the demands he placed upon it. At higher speeds, the car’s old suspension was prone to bottoming out on the hilly back roads and the muffler I had spent so many minutes installing soon broke off and flew into the woods after striking the ground one too many times. I imagine it still looks great there embedded in the earth or stuffed under a log.
Another time on a trip to the drive in, another of our buddies named Marvin, who had been consigned to the back seat, discovered the holes in the floor. In protest of being denied the coveted shotgun position up front, Marvin rolled up one of the rubber floor mats and shoved it through the hole where it dragged on the road until it caught fire. It was fully aflame when he pulled it back into the car and the black oily smoke-filled the cabin. In a panic, Marvin stuffed the burning mess back through the floor where it flew off behind us into the night.
Despite all the shenanigans, Rick wasn’t at fault when the accident happened. The car that ran the red light had almost cleared the intersection when Rick entered it. The resulting collision twisted the front of the Nova up at an odd angle and destroyed the driver’s side fender, hood and front bumper. The guy who caused the accident tried to claim that Rick had rabbit started, but when Rick told the police the old car only had a six cylinder, they had laughed at the notion and had written the other guy a ticket. For once, being slow paid off.
Rick had the old car towed home and hunkered like a wounded animal in his mother’s driveway for the better part of a week until the offending party came to make amends. Rather than make an expensive insurance claim, the man offered to buy the car outright. There wasn’t much haggling, Rick gave him the option of buying the wreck for $1500 or going to court. The payment was in cash and the car was taken away. We never saw it again.
Looking back now I realize it was an ignoble ending for the little car, but it was, perhaps, better than the fate that would have awaited it had I left it unwashed and unloved beside the house where I first found it. At the very least, it had one last summer in the sun and one final chance to finish its days in the fast lane. It remains there in my mind today, droning steadily along on some sunny afternoon, on its way to some new adventure.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.