By on November 10, 2013
Photo courtesy of curbsideclassic.com

Photo courtesy of curbsideclassic.com

My 1974 Nova was as utilitarian as they come. It was a low optioned base model with a 250 CID inline six mounting a one barrel carb and backed by a three speed manual with a column mounted shift lever. It had so few options that on the inside it had a rubber floors, vinyl seats and a pegboard for a headliner. Outside there was no decoration, nary a pinstripe nor so much as a strip of trim to protect the car’s flanks from door dings. It was a plain, gutless, spiritless little car that inspired no passion or love from anyone other than the 17 year old boy who owned it. To me it was, and still is, one of the greatest cars ever built.

We see them everywhere, plain, utilitarian tools that carry people to and fro without a bit of drama. Although our eyes register them we seldom pay them any real attention, but if we took the time to really look we would be shocked at just how many there are. They are all around us, owned by respectable people who need a good, solid car and nothing more. If other, better, cars are like fine food and drink for the connoisseur, these are the cars that fill the bellies of the masses. They are the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes of the road.

Image courtesy of zazzle.com

Image courtesy of zazzle.com

Looking over the list of cars that I have owned over the years, it turns out that most of them fall into the meat and potatoes category. Oh sure, sometimes I added some ketchup or steak sauce to the meal– the turbo on my otherwise proletarian Dodge Shadow, for example – but for the most part I have always stayed true to my working class roots. I have never owned a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Jaguar or an Audi, nothing exotic at all, really. I did for a time own a JDM Twin Turbo Supra, but, truth be told, it was old and thanks to the odd way the Japanese used car market works, I only paid around $600 for it. No, most of the time I have owned fairly pedestrian, middle of the road, mass market cars. That’s a sad thing for an auto enthusiast who writes for a car blog to admit right? Bullshit, I’ve had a good time and I’ve owned some great cars.

A car that hits all the right spots is a glorious thing. It doesn’t matter if it is old, out of style, under-optioned or unpopular, if it gets the job done and makes you smile it is something to be enthusiastic about. I remember getting up the day after we brought that Nova home and looking out the window to make sure that I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. I’ve done the same thing almost a dozen times since and, no matter what was in the driveway, each time I’ve thrown open the curtain it has been like Christmas morning.

See anything interesting in this photo? Image courtesy of fineartamerica.com

See anything interesting in this photo?
Image courtesy of fineartamerica.com

Novas like mine once graced driveways and garages all across middle America. When their original owners moved on, they were passed to kids like me. Some were hot rodded, some were crashed and some were simply used until they could no longer be used. Over time their numbers dwindled. Most of those that have survived into the present day have been performance variants, and plain Jane, straight-six three-on-the-tree cars like mine are a rare breed. It’s sad, but oddly appropriate too. Like the people they served, us average work-a-day Americans who struggled through life, who have had our ups and downs, raised our families as best we could and worked to be, above all else, dependable good citizens, they made the world work. Like the greatest generation, they are remembered as a group for all they have done and those remaining individuals are now respected senior citizens who garner praise and admiration wherever they go.

Today I will fire up my little Pontiac Torrent and go somewhere. I don’t know where yet, but when I do I’ll do it atop scratchy cloth seats and surrounded by hard plastic. It won’t be a remarkable experience, but my trip will be completed in economy, warmth and relative comfort. I’ll do the same thing tomorrow and the day after and for years to come until the Pontiac becomes so worn and unreliable that I am forced to move on to something newer. Perhaps then I will pass it on to my son or one of my daughters. If we do our jobs right, it might even live to see the day when just seeing it makes people smile and remember that better, simpler time in their lives when their government really listened to them, politicians were honest and children were respectful. Until that time comes, I’ll be sure to give it a little pat on the hood once in a while to let it know I appreciate it in the here and now. We are, after all, the same.

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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.

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99 Comments on “A Special Sort Of Mediocrity...”


  • avatar
    Demon_Something

    All of this is definitely true. I lucked out last year with my first, a 1998 automatic Integra for half of Blue Book value. Even with the paint damage, it is a noble steed mixed with the starship Enterprise to me.

  • avatar
    Panther Platform

    I’ve had gutless meat and potatoes cars for the greater portion of my life and love them too. The law of diminishing returns is especially true with commuting – when I am stuck in traffic coming home from work how much better would a Porsche or a Shelby really be than my modest Ford Focus? There’s something kind of fun about driving an underpowered mediocre car – what’s that old saying about it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast…

  • avatar
    sirwired

    I think this article helps to remind us that for most people, a car is a Transportation Appliance. Buying this car vs. that car might be “making a statement” of some sort, but once that rubber is sitting in the driveway, it’s a way to get from point A to point B.

    It explains why so many mediocre cars ever notch a single non-fleet sale. Maybe somebody needed a new car, saw a catchy ad about the latest JunkCar LMS-R (with optional GeeWhizLink handsfree integration and butt massager!) They took a test drive, it seemed nice enough, and they brought it home. The fact that there are better cars out there is irrelevant; even the worst car on the road cranks every morning with a consistency that would have amazed somebody 30 years ago, and gets you from point A to point B with similarly amazing efficiency and safety. And even a fleet-special has features that would have been “luxury” not that long ago.

    While there are still real differences between cars, simply everything is, at this point “good enough”, and it’s hard to make a car-buying decision that’s actually bad.

    • 0 avatar
      993cc

      “And even a fleet-special has features that would have been “luxury” not that long ago.”

      This is the difference between today’s basic transportation and the three on the tree Novas of 1974. When a car gets old and cantankerous, I miss the simplicity of manual transmission, manual steering, manual windows, no a/c, no push-botton start, etc., even if these features are more reliable now than they were 40 years ago.

      What would be the equivalent of that Nova today?

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      After the 80s beaters that I learned to drive on in the 1990s, I try to remember to be happy every time I turn the key and the engine starts.

      I still drive 10 year old cars, but a car from MY2004 is reliable, safe, efficient, and fast – especially by the standards of the 1980s (when my expectations were set as a kid.

      I test drive new cars pretty regularly (especially ones with new technology under the hood), and the night-and-day difference between the 1980s and 2004 is gone. Modern cars are very nice, but my drama-free 2004 cars are still competitive. I’ll buy electric and diesel cars at some point, but the Prius and Sienna are holding up well enough that those purchases will be a matter of choice, rather than necessity.

  • avatar
    Monty

    Thanks for a great post. Once again you hit a nerve, although more likely with readers of a certain vintage or more. These were the cars of our mothers, with exceptions. Growing up during the 50′s and 60′s, in my neighbourhoods the family chariot would be a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Dodge or Mercury 4 door or wagon, and for the households that had second cars, it was usually a Comet or Valiant or Nova with few to no options, other than automatics. A neighbour of ours bought his wife a sporty convertible every other year or so, and another neighbour’s wife, his second, younger version, drove an E-Type (she was beyond exotic to our fevered mid-west minds). My own mother favoured small cars of foreign origin with standard transmissions, more fun, I suppose, but still fairly basic stuff.

    Maybe because of my childhood I tend to remember my more utilitarian rides of my youth with similar fondness. Even now, I prefer the basic version. I presently own a fleet version Ranger, with A/C as the only option added, and although I enjoy driving my wife’s Bimmer, I get far more enjoyment out of my little truck. To use your words, it hits all the right spots for me.

    • 0 avatar
      nrd515

      The street I grew up on had a really odd mix. Young couples with babies, old couples in their 60′s and up, 30-40 year olds like my parents, always with two kids, always, and one house full of like 7 kids. The cars were all over the place. Our super cheap neighbors drove a Falcon(him) and a Fairlane (her), both were really stripped. They continued the stripped cars until he died in the early 2000′s, with one exception, a ’81 Cutlass that was seriouly loaded. Her first car bought on her own was a loaded to the max Sable, and she kept it until about ’08, when she bought a Focus, her last car. She told my mom she really hated it. One neighbor’s wife had a Mercedes, he drove a Vette. Another old neighbor and his wife drive matching Cadillacs, and then there was the drunk whose wife drove an endless string of tiny little, totally unreliable cars. The biggest one was a Triumph TR4A, the smallest one was some tiny little thing that looked like a toy, red and white, don’t remember what it was anymore. She got stranded due to these pieces of crap over and over again, and finally her husband awoke from his booze induced stupor and told her no more of these weird cars and bought her a Nova, a ’68, I think it was. She had it a long long time, partly due to the fact she loved it, and partially due to her hubby’s drinking finally killing his business. She went into real estate sales, and as his career went South, her’s went the other direction. By the time she died a couple of years ago, she had a BMW 7 series as her daily driver, and a new Escalade, for “trips with the grandkids”. She did have a lot of grandkids.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    I’ve always adored the ’66-’79 Novas as the handsomest, best proportioned American economy sedan to ever have a lengthy production run.

    The fact that they were produced by a company that could on a whim throw standard parts from larger siblings at them and produce Instant Badass catapults them into legendary status.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      “…’66-’79 Novas as the handsomest, best proportioned American economy sedan…”

      I’ve always thought they were good looking cars- and what made them look that way to me were their unassuming plainness. I always liked the simple lines of the Fairmont/Zephyr for the same reason.

      Beauty is subjective, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would say I’m crazy to like the looks of such “boring” cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Kenmore

        Ditto. I cycle photos of such cars as my wallpaper at work. Right now it’s a ’64 LeMans. People wander by, look and say “Oh… uh, that’s pretty cool…”.

        They can faint-praise my fantasy tastes all they like. Simple and well proportioned, that’s what I like. And boxy, boxy, boxy for the real world.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      Looking at Novas through the years I have to agree that they looked pretty good, even after a few face-lifts they still looked fine (unlike Camaros and other hot offerings), heck even the Pontiac variant was a fine looking car.

      And this is the same company that gave us the awkward, angular Cruze?

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      My grandpap gave me driving lessons in his pristine, 1972, 2-door Nova. Blue metallic, 250 six, Powerglide. I took my driver’s test in that car. I owe that man more than I know.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Hey! A 300M Special is no ordinary prole car. They’re for school principals and office managers. It even has “special” in it’s name.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    “If we do our jobs right, it might even live to see the day when just seeing it makes people smile and remember that better, simpler time in their lives when their government really listened to them, politicians were honest and children were respectful.”

    You had me until the politicians. The king of politicians at that time was called Tricky Dicky for many good reasons.

    The funny thing is a lot of these utilitarian vehicles hit their peak around the late-90′s and early 00′s. A time when stick shifts were still commonly available in non-sport sedans. Small wagons and sedans could still be had with manual windows, and coupes could still be sold as stripper models just like the Nova.

    Although virtually all of them came with power steering and A/C, this was a good thing by this point in time. I still fondly remember GM selling new Saturns for $9995 and Elantra wagons with a 5-speed that could be bought for $12,000 out the door. A lot of these vehicles will end up becoming the new enduring beaters of the 2010′s and, who knows? Maybe a few of them will reach the legal drinking age and beyond.

    • 0 avatar

      My meaning is that time makes everything rosier. None of those things was true then and none of it is true now. Except the listening part…

      I’m glad to see you reading my stuff Steve. If you get 1/10th of the enjoyment from me that I get out of reading your articles, I’ll figure I am scoring pretty highly. I’m so happy you’re back.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Mine was a 68, 230 CID with three on the tree. Always liked the 66 and 67 better than the 68 on. That’s for looks only. They were pretty much the same mechanically IIRC. Before long they had 396 and 427 engines available. It has a special place as dependable transportation for a young and single sailor. It covered a lot of ground and gave way to my first truck.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Father Thom,

    Thanks for taking high mass today so I can get to Lambeau.

    Monsignor Mediocre

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I drove my dad’s 62 Chevy II 300 sedan in high school and first couple of years in college with a Power Glide and AM radio. The first car I bought for my self was a used 73 Chevelle Deluxe with a 350 V8, auto, air, and AM radio. The Chevelle had been a company car which I bought before graduating from college for $1,400. That Chevelle was one of the best running cars I have ever owned and it was extremely quick. Today my 99 S-10 extended cab with a 2.2 4 cylinder and 5 speed manual is one of the best vehicles I have owned, almost 15 years of reliable service. Thanks for the great story Thomas. I have owned some very nice well equipped cars but the ones that are more plain are the ones that have been among the best that I have ever owned.

  • avatar
    Joss

    I was wowed by the mystique of the 75 Nova creme puff called Seville. All those extra spot welds! Wired wheels with non-barge proportioned body. Twilight sentinel & trumpet horns less a blue rinse forgets or need let traffic know a horse shoe was coming. I didn’t care much for the early production silver more the metallic blue on blue or green on green.

    Nova was too Methodist for me.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      Hard for me to tell whether you are voting for or against the Seville, but mark my ballot in favor. If I were to start an auto collection, a Seville from 1975-77 would be part of it.

      I had limited experience with a Nova. In 1973, I was enrolled in a university public relations course, and one of our weekly assignments was to put together a press kit, photos and copy, to introduce new product models. My classmate and roommate and I chose to make one for inexpensive sporty cars from Chevrolet. We asked a local dealer to loan us three new cars to write about and shoot for the kit, consisting of a new Vega GT, Camaro LT, and a dealer rental ’73 Nova 350 automatic with dog dish hub caps. The surprise of the weekend was the Nova. It took a lot of creative writing to convey a positive impression for the Vega, but the Nova text almost wrote itself. What a sleeper. If I remember correctly, it had dual exhaust, just loud enough to tell bystanders it was not a six cylinder, but quiet enough not to overrule the radio. It handled close to that of the Camaro, and both of us were surprised by how nice a ride it was. If I had to write down a list of 1970′s cars from this malaise era that stood out, that Nova would make the list, as well as the Seville.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Like you, I also owned a work-a-day Nova. Two months after I left the USAF in August, 1973, I found a beautiful 1972 Nova – 250, 3-on-the-tree, vinyl bench seats, rubber flooring, AM radio, PS, PB and nothing else. Mine did have side molding and baby moon Chevy hubcaps. The car was metallic brown – a beautiful color with an off-white interior.

    That car is the only other car I wish I had back after my 1964 Chevy I owned while in the air force.

    Many cars fill in for the Nova nowadays. Most enthusiasts never get the car of their dreams, and that doesn’t necessarily mean a high-powered road rocket, but a car one aspires to own for any reason.

    The Nova I owned just happened to be almost EXACTLY how I almost ordered one in early 1972, right down to the colors and drivetrain! The only other option would have been the F41 suspension package.

    During our early family years, we managed to own cars we actually wanted to drive, even though they were anything but high performance machines.

    One can be very enthusiastic about owning and driving an “everyday” car. Hey! I drive a 2012 Impala, so I know of what I speak! Millions of other Impala owners can’t be wrong, for they had choices. Same goes for Camry, Accord, Civic, Corolla and Cruze owners as well.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    I feel much the same way about the various 740 and 940 Volvos I have owned. While plush compared to a stripper Nova, the are about as anvil simple as cars get in modern times. Slow (non-turbos anyway) but entirely adequate, and they handle well enough to entertain.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      I think the Volvo example you want there is the one I call Volvo Feo, the 240. Those are the ones I still see around, along 850/S60/V70.

      Actually in the street I live there’s a (faded) dishwasher white 244GL.

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        I dunno, 700′s900′s are basically slightly more modern and less buggy examples. The 240 probably had a Nova as a benchmark when it was originally conceived in the early 70′s!

    • 0 avatar

      My Dad’s last car was a ’95 940 wagon he and my mother bought on her impulse in ’99. They were both gone by Fall of 2002, but my nephew still has the ’940 in LA, coming up on 200k. To my eye that car was the cleanest of the Bricks, and I would have taken it had it had a clutch. Even with the slushbox, and not a hell of a lot of pep, I enjoyed driving it. (On the plus side, the engine never complained when you pushed the RPMs up.

      I have an ’08 Civic with a clutch which I like a lot. Although not as much as my old ’99 Accord (clutch). That car was well proportioned–a very good looking sedan–in a way that the Civic is not, although the Civic is more responsive generally.

      Ihad a ’93 Saturn (clutch), the only car I’ve ever bought new, which was a lot of fun to drive, but the engine complained when you revved it, and it was not very reliable.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    Thomas, my compliments. This is nothing less than a love letter from all of us car nuts to the cars we’ve owned along the way.

    It struck a chord with me. So much so, I rhapsodized at annoying length about one of my first old beaters, only to have the comment swallowed whole when I hit Return and got “you must be logged in to post a comment.” Oops. Just as well. Each of you can fill in your own memories every bit as ably.

    I’ve had objectively far better cars since then. But none I loved more at the time.

    I think it was Baruth who wrote that it’s never really about the cars, it’s about the people. This is a classic example. Thank you.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Mr. Kreutzer, you said it perfectly.

    My “Nova” was a plain-jane ’66 Dodge Dart. Slant six. Automatic transmission and a radio were the only extras. Purchased new after a disastrous experience with a well-used Jag sedan. The Dart was simple, durable, reliable, economical and attractive in a clean and minimalist design. Just right for me at the time.

  • avatar
    jz78817

    yep, reminds me of my first car. 1987 Plymouth Duster (the Turismo with a decal package.) Dark gray metallic with a light gray interior, like most of them. Carbureted 2.2 which wasn’t all that cantankerous. It was slow, generic, sparsely equipped, and leaked oil like crazy until I put it on a lift and re-did every seal and gasket on that motor. actually, in most cases it was me putting actual gaskets on surfaces since that was right in the middle of Chrysler’s love affair with RTV.

    But goddamnit, it was *my car.*

    and on some days, I kind of wish I still had it.

  • avatar
    sco

    Well done Mr Kreutzer, well done! I read parts of this to my wife to help her understand the connection between men and cars. So much of this article rang true, esp the part about patting your car on the hood- I do the same thing. Also very timely as I head out with daughter to help her (maybe) buy her first car.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    1992 Saturn SL. Man. Steering, Hand Crank Windows, 85 HP TBI SOHC 4 cylinder, and an AM FM Rado (no tape player). At the dealer I purchased Floor Mats, the Passenger side external mirror, and an armrest and had no issues with it for the next 250k miles.

    Had some bonding with my Frontier this weekend taking the family camping. It is a similar breed with roll up windows and acres of plastic that cleans up well though it does have the auto this time. and even as a barebones model is loaded compared to my old 88 Ranger XLT.

  • avatar
    AMC_CJ

    I love my current 78′ Chevy Malibu. 4-door sedan, 3-spd auto, 3.3L 95hp V6.

    I was driving it daily for the past three years up until my wife got a company vehicle, so I’ve been using her old Jetta to save on gas. But that old Chevy is a nice drive. Decent radio in it, power windows, around 20mpg. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments, surprisingly enough, and from other young people.

    I have a 79 Malibu, coupe, all hopped up in the garage. Mundane everyday drivers are great, but I still need a toy or two to get out once in awhile.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Thanks for confirming that an auto enthusiast comes in many flavors. I am so tired of hearing the Camry – appliance comparison.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    The neat thing about these simple non-assuming Chevys is that they could be anything that you wanted them to be, from simple transportation to a muscle car with the right engine and accessories all the way up to the height of luxury in it’s highest form as a Cadillac Seville. I’d say that’s a pretty versatile car

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      And since they could be made to look un-assuming, you could cram a big motor into a granny-grade four door Nova and have a ton of fun.

      But unfortunately there really is no such thing as a sleeper any more. All cars are super flashy and the performance versions often even more so. And you can’t special order a dull-looking car with a hot engine any more.

      • 0 avatar
        Lie2me

        That was probably one of the best things about muscle cars, you couldn’t always tell they were muscle until the light turned green. Now, they’re are so few engine choices that you pretty much know what’s going on just by the make and model

        • 0 avatar
          NoGoYo

          It’s not as obvious as the old “TURBO on everything” days of the 80s, but anyone with half a brain surely knows that the EcoBoost emblem on a Ford means turbo.

          Now, the T-GDI emblem on Kias will probably fool people…

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            The whole badge thing came about when the power went away. Prior badging was more subtle, usually nothing more the a “442″ or a “GTO” or an “SS” You know how it goes, those with the least to brag about shout the loudest

        • 0 avatar
          Athos Nobile

          Dr Calvin is essentially right, everyone announces its engine or power level in some way nowadays.

          However… up to not so long ago, a Commodore Executive could be had with a V8 and a manual. Now that’s a sleeper. The only way to tell it is the V8 badge in the fender and the exhaust tip.

          Debadged BMWs can get tricky.

          On a 3 series I know dual exhaust means 335i. I don’t mess with those. Single exhaust, watch the number of tips, the soot in it and the sound. Then you start looking at the rear facias…

          I usually don’t mess with the diesels or turbo 4s. And unless you have a V8, there’s no business in poking a 335i.

          With Saabs, I know the AERO badge in the boot means “quick”.

      • 0 avatar
        993cc

        How about a 10 year old Jetta Tdi sedan with mods and about 300 torques? (not mine, but they exist.)

      • 0 avatar
        Ryoku75

        You’re right on the sleeper comment, a few weeks ago I was trying to build a Fiat 500 Turbo but without the sporty trim bits or wheels, just plain steelies with trim from the stripper model with the most basic of options, nope, gotta have that bodykit and fancy rimz.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    @Lie2me: Oh yeah, I’ve seen the later 442s with enormous 442 block numbers to go with a smog-strangled 350. I guess TURBO-mania in the 80s was just a sequel to that.

    Speaking of TURBO-mania, I saw a car that’s immensely rare in PA yesterday: a Mitsubishi Starion. Mk II Supras pop up occasionally, but that’s literally the first Starion I’ve ever seen.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    “When their original owners moved on, they were passed to kids like me. Some were hot rodded, some were crashed and some were simply used until they could no longer be used.”

    Newly married in 1980, my wife needed a car to get to her college classes. I found a ’69 Nova 4-door automatic at a used car lot for the acceptable price of $600, impressed her (and myself, actually) by rebuilding the carb to make it run smoothly. She drove it for close to 2 years before we got her a new car to go with her new job, passing the Nova on to her sister who drove it for another couple of years. Her sister only got rid of it when her daughter proclaimed “Mommy, I can see the road going under the car!”, the floorboard having surrendered to the tin worm. I’m pretty sure that someone bought it for the engine, keeping its heart going even longer. Movies only have a couple of stars, most of the parts are played by journeymen actors that you barely notice. The stars get the attention but the show couldn’t go on with out the supporting cast.

  • avatar

    Hear hear ! Back in the day, I needed a cheap (emphasis on cheap) college car. Mom went to our local trusted mechanic who located a 72 Nova, straight 6, as the article. Vinyl never looked so good.

    With a zero budget college car, it went back and forth to boston, DC, ski trips, etc. My one mod was to get an FM converter for the AM radio, a real stereo at the time way out of budget.

    To this day, I remain convinced that the I6 is the best designed engine ever if you can’t have a V8.

    I think it was the last gasp of old school metal at GM, and it was a very good car, even it if was “boring”. Think of it as the $5000 Accord ideal today…..

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Yeah, your comment brought a smile of recognition to my face and has me waxing nostalgic.

      When I joined the AF in 1965 and came home after Basic, my dad sent me off to my first Base in his old 1960 Mercury Montclair with the 430 brute engine, automatic transmission, manual windows and NO air conditioning, complete with Fingerhut puff-plastic covering on the seats.

      That was MY Nova when I was 18.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Ahhh nostalgia! It’s the only vehicles that I’ve ever driven. Generally the “uncompromised” cars are way too expensive to be in the budget. Even the plain jane cars optioned up into desirable status were/are too pricey. I’m just amazed that more cars aren’t available as strippers to get that pricepoint down. Instead it’s longer and longer terms to get the payment down.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I had a 1960 Falcon with the 144 six and a stick. I purchased it in San Diego and didn’t realize until I drove back to Kansas one January that heaters were optional in this model.

    Truly a gutless wonder. VW Microbuses were passing my on the hills going in to Flagstaff. On the plus side it couldn’t be killed. Rubber floor, vinyl bench seat, I think it had a cardboard headliner and no radio. As basic as one could possibly get.

    A number of years later I got the bright idea to put a Chevy 427 in it. Welded up all the mounts, installed the engine with a 4 speed, fired it up and pulled it out of the garage with some Mickey Thompson drag slicks. Never heard about subframe connectors, bracing or any of that. Revved it up, dumped the clutch, windshield broke, driver’s door popped open and the rear glass fell out. That was the end of the Falcon.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Novas, Valiants, Falcons, and all of their brothersister variants are the cars that I’d shoot to buy cheap and restore while driving around, preferably with 4-doors, you just don’t get modest but practical and simple cars anymore.

    Eventually I saddled with a Volvo 240 which above all else is simple good transportation, but a regular motorist would be turned off by the styling, lack of touchscreenkeyless entry and the other gizmos we’ve been spoiled with, but they’d be glad to make it to their destination on time.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Kids and tin worm got me out of bugs and into a once pristine ’66 Valiant 200. 225 Slant 6 3spd automatic. A great little car. I say little because Valiants were compacts in the day. The Valiant and a decrepit Dart gave way to 15 yrs of Jeep Wagoneers. Now I’m back to a modest 4 door sedan with a slant six automatic. The BMW 528e is the ultimate commuter car. I put 200K miles on my first one. I maintained it in my driveway. In 12 yrs, it never broke down badly enough to require help getting home. Even with the little engine and automatic, it was a fun car. More fun than a wrong wheel drive side wise engine appliance. I’ve had as many as 3 528e s at once. They are way easier to keep running than the Jeeps or the bugs.

  • avatar
    CelticPete

    With no ABS, ESC, manual transmission and RWD – its probably more entertaining to drive then a Camry. Who really needs options anyway? Even the best stereo in a car sucks because of the noise floor from the road noise.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I get what you’re saying but I’m not sure you’ve heard the best car stereo, or anything close to it. Most car stereos do suck, but I loved the one I had in my ’87 Grand Am. The interior had soft plastics and carpeting on most surfaces and the panels used a fiber board product for rigidity rather than plastic, so it was a decent acoustic environment. The minimal road noise could not compete with my Alpine drivers; no excessive volume needed. I got many compliments and haven’t heard anything nearly as good since, including Audi’s expensive B&O option. It’s not even close. I had a full Paradigm Monitor home system at the time so it’s not like I didn’t know good sound at that point in my life.

  • avatar
    Sals

    Bought a ’76 Nova 2-door new. Pretty basic, but had rally wheels with the chrome caps, 305 / auto. Early in its life–but after the warranty expired–one of the camshaft lobes mysteriously wore down to nothing. I replaced the cam and sold the car. Anyone else experience the mysterious melting camshaft in a Chevy 305?

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Thomas – Great article! I too lament the Camry = boring crowd; I am fascinated with any car I can get my hands on….driving = freedom and exploring for me, and I can’t seem to discover enough with the limited time I have.

    I started low on the totem pole…(’66 Belvidere I, telco white 2 door sedan, no options, $15!) and have made incremental steps each time. The ’81 Toyota had a 5-speed and buckets; the ’88 Nissan truck had ac and power windows; the ’01 Trooper had an auto trans and heated seats.

    The only thing I’ve ever insisted on is a sunroof – either as original equipment or aftermarket sawzall….

    I only blew it big time this summer when instead of my incremental goals (AWD, CVT) I fell in love with a special model and ended up with leather and nav as well. This will probably be my last new car though…I hope to retire in 3-4 years and keep my cars 200k+ miles.

    My goal is to retire to the country (Texas/Arkansas?), snag 15-20 acres and buy a well-used pickup truck to tool around in.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Great piece, Thomas and yes these Novas were better than the Ford and Chrysler competition. Easy to work on, to modify, to turn into a speed demon and then they replace it with the X-car Citation, YUK talk about GM taking the biggest automotive dump in history!!

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a Nova guy, but even so it would be hard to say that in their base model form any of those cars were truly bad. The slant six Dart is a legend in its own right and while I am not a Ford guy the six cylinder Falcons and Comets were pretty stone Axe reliable too.

      This article is about all of the really, and about the people who relied upon them. I really started thinking about it when I saw a 90s Buick for sale in someone’s yard on the way home from work Friday and wondered who exactly would want it. Then I realized that a lot of people had them and that they probably really loved them. It got me thinking about cars as tools and I realized that most people really wouldn’t want many of the cars I have cherished over the years – at least they wouldn’t until they looked around one day and found they were all gone.

      • 0 avatar
        Volt 230

        regretfully those days are now over, cars have become so complicated that even techs who do not keep up with new technology will find themselves working on 10+ yr old cars only.

  • avatar
    seth1065

    i had a 71 Nova cousin Pontiac version I traded it for a neon beer light, and the car was basic but it ran pretty well, had the smallest engine you could have in hit, man there was a lot of room in the engine bay, my girlfriend used it for a time, my sister used it for a time, my sister in law used it for a time, and finally my brother in law killed it. It was the need a car ,here take this one , it was the extra car in my house as a teenager. When it finally died I took the owners guide and pried off the ventura 2 off the side and gave it as a wedding present to my cousin who traded it to me. My wife and I still talk about that car today.

  • avatar
    amca

    The best Nova I ever saw: a ’73 or ’74 at a car show in Oregon in the mid-’90s. Some good ol’ farm boy had a completely stock looking Nova coupe. Hub caps, not wheel covers, though they looked a little bigger and wider than usual. But at that was it. Otherwise: simple vinylbench seat. Painted that cool-blue metallic that was popular at the time. No stripes or other adornments. Librarian coulda driven it for decades.

    All looked normal, except a 500ph big block V8 sat under the hood, installation engineered by the good ol’ boy owner. And the paint and chrome had been redone to a very high standard, far better than factory.

    Absolutely stunning car.

  • avatar
    Maymar

    I’m a little too young to be able to buy Novas and their ilk as cheap transportation (although I’ve got a friend who has a mid-70′s coupe with a 350 as a toy). That said, I’ve had a handful of cars I’m glad I’ve owned despite being rather plain.

    The first one was a ’91 Escort. 88hp and an automatic hardly set the world on fire, but it was light enough to whip around nicely (thanks, Mazda!), and taught me about oversteer if I leapt off the throttle. It was more rust than car, and as a plain powder blue sedan (with matching interior), it looked like it belonged to someone’s great aunt. But it had motorized seatbelts (an entertaining novelty), it nearly passed emissions even though a previous owner hacked out the catalytic converter, and frankly, it cost $100 and could do no wrong.

    That got replaced with a ’90 F150. So basic it only had AM radio (I believe the only options it had were the 5.0L V8/automatic and the 8ft box). But that didn’t matter, it was big and lazy and torquey and completely unpretentious.

    After a couple years with no car, a looming transit strike had me looking for a car again, and both the desire to properly learn stick and trolling the trade-in line of the dealer I worked for got me into a ’97 Cavalier. For being a J-Body with all the cheap plastic and indifferent design that entailed, being a 5-speed coupe with a sunroof made it a sort of nice place to be. It was also good for 35mpg fairly easily, and went past 250k kms without complaint until it was replaced with something newer and free-er.

    The most recent one was a ’10 Civic. Amazing shifter, good reflexes, it just did everything I needed a commuter car to do. It wasn’t thrilling, but it was satisfying (something that connected all four of these cars).

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I have had a few plain cars. They were nice and I loved most of them. But now I have a nice car and I love it. It is more than I need and requires little to no modding to be enjoyable. I love it. Point being, I can’t go back now.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I was thinking the same thing. I’ve had a few utilitarian cars, and there is one in my driveway today (01 Elantra).

      But cars like these made me want something better, and I don’t miss the days of having to fix them all the time. This is why my father never went to car cruises – all he could see was the unreliable heaps he struggled to keep going for years.

      However, I love nostalgia and the way Tom writes about it here – great story.

  • avatar

    Very well done piece, sir and a great tribute to the millions of cars that get the job done every day. As I’ve only been driving for about eleven years, I can’t claim the classics that many on here have the honor of doing but I can relate. None of my cars have been anything more than an appliance in any way but they have all (except for one lemon) left a fleet of endearing memories etched into my brain.

    The first was a 1993 Toyota Previa LE All-Trac bought new by my parents when I was a kid. Upon my receiving it, the odometer showed 155,000 miles or so and my mom had taken meticulous care of the car, or at least the best one can do with two kids. I kept the thing spotless inside and out because if I was going to drive a pearl white egg, the damn thing was at least going to be clean. Now that’s not to say a sixteen year old won’t beat the ever living daylights out of his first car and though I kept it looking respectable and changed the oil on time, I did some pretty cruel things to that car over the year or so that I drove it. One such evening included taking it out with my friends to an empty parking lot that had settled weird and seeing who could get it to jump the farthest. I’m amazed we didn’t tweak the frame and/or set off the airbag but again, that’s something with which few teenagers are concerned. There’s a minivan to get airborne here…come on!

    The second was a gift from my parents in the form of a 2004 Hyundai Santa Fe GLS V6 4WD in silver metallic. No ABS (learned that the hard way) but it taught me a LOT about cars just through being easy to take apart and put back together. It was purchased new with 26 miles on the odometer and sold six years later with 146,000 miles but it was so clean it looked like it had less than 30,000. This was the car that took me on my first (and to date, only) cross-country road trip and showed me so much that I would have never otherwise seen. I now sorely regret selling it and every time I see a first-gen Santa Fe on the road, I can’t help but get a bit wistful.

    The third was my first new car, another Santa Fe. This was a 2010 Limited V6 in Harbor Gray, a beautiful color and only done for 2010 so it was/still is VERY rare on the SF. In fact I’ve only ever seen three others in that color but right from the get go it showed me what kind of an animal it really was. Only two days after bringing it home, there was a godawful grinding noise from the right front rotor and though the sound never recurred, a myriad of problems surfaced during my 15 month relationship with it. Some of these issues included a random stalling without warning, A/C that would cut out in heavy rain, render the defroster useless and cause the inside to fog up like a Finlandia sauna, paint that cracked and flaked off, water in the taillights, a leaking radiator, and many many more. After 24,000 miles, I’d had it with the lemon and traded it in for yet another Hyundai. I was willing to give them another chance because the first SF had been such a dynamo and the little 2012 Elantra that is still my daily driver has so far delivered beautifully over 35,300 miles.

    I’m in the process of starting up my own company and like your Torrent, would love to own the car for as long as I can. Perhaps someday, when almost all the others have been crashed, worn out or rusted into junkyards and scrap heaps, someone will see it on a sunny afternoon and they’ll smile and wonder when they last saw an Elantra of that generation on the road. Maybe they’ll be reminded of their first girlfriend, a first date or maybe it’ll remind a grown man of when he was a child, riding in the back seat of dad’s Elantra. If my car can live beyond being an everyday transportation appliance to inspire nostalgia, I’ll be very happy indeed.

  • avatar
    Scribe39

    Great story line as usual, Thomas. So much standard equipment now was not heard of when I got my driver’s license (1955). My first new car was a 1962 Plymouth, base line with a 318 V8 and three-speed, with little else. Total cost? $2,510. Oh, among the few options — a cigar lighter and a heater. (I wanted a horn ring, so ordered the deluxe wheel. It turned out the deluxe wheel was a Sport Fury wheel — in my little blue base car!)

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    My personal Nova experiences were a college roommate’s new 1974 Nova hatchback , with the 350 , automatic and the houndstooth upholstery, and this being Texas . A.C. Main memory is of me sleeping in the back with the backseat folded down , quite comfortable but I am a 5’5″ little guy. Another buddy had a ’72 Nova coupe , much more basic with the rubber floormats and the 250 six but with auto and air . IIRC , his bought new originally had powerglide but after it went out under warranty replaced by GM with turbohydramatic . I drove this extensively as he left it with me after he graduated , got a job and went to live on an out -of-town assignment for a month . Not a bad car , really . Kind of miss the three-on-the -tree transmissions of days gone by . Personally had a Falcon wagon so equipped , with a six- cylinder and no options . A bit of a junker but fun to drive until it caught fire and burned up on the brand new Mopac freeway in Austin . Also had a 1965 Malibu with the 283 V-8 and a three speed manual . Always found a column shift entertaining , for some reason .Miss the days of the basic car . Living in Texas I really need A.C. but in the younger days often did without and while in college in Austin often lived in cheapskate rental housing that also had no air conditioning . Wish it was still possible to get a cheap basic car without all the power windows and all that but it’s a different world now , not necessarily changed for the better .

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    Nice article, Tom.

    The only real-life data point I had with that series Nova was an orange ’74 rental with black and white houndstooth interior that we used while on a business trip. All of us who drove it really couldn’t stand it because by then the 350 V8 had been so badly strangled with smog gear that it couldn’t get out of its own way, and in Los Angeles traffic that was a severe liability.

    Handling was–mediocre, and all of us who drove it that weekend swore the brake pedal pushed back on you when you tried to stop.

    You must have gotten a better-built example.

    What we did have in our circle of friends and family were the Darts and Valiants with the slant 6. All 3 of them hit the 200,000 mile mark and were paragons of dependability, if not necessarily the most exciting thing to drive.

    But then I may have been prejudiced, through those years I had an assortment of ’65 Corvair Monzas, a coupe, convertible and 4-door hardtop. Yes, they leaked and I pushed them hard, sometimes they broke, but if nothing else they were a ton of fun to drive, had great driving dynamics (once I got radial tires installed and maintained that all-important 10PSI pressure differential from front to back) and delivered the same or better fuel economy than any Nova of that era.

    Given the choice, I’d pony up for another Monza in a heartbeat if my circumstances allowed it.

  • avatar
    CobraJet

    Reminds me of my first car. It was a 66 Mercury Comet 4dr base model with about 40,000 miles on it. The only options were the 289 V8, AM radio and full wheel covers. It had the most basic cloth bench seats, 3 spd column shift, and rubbler floor covering. I drove it in my last year of high school, through college and to my first job. It had the good looking paint color called emberglo. I kept it polished and shiny, probably more than any car I have owned since. My dad paid $900 for it. I had to put new tires on it soon after I got it to replace the recaps that were on it. Anybody remember recaps?

  • avatar
    EspritdeFacelVega

    As a kid I thought the Nova pretty much the most boring car on the road, partly as they and their ilk were so common. The thing in SoCal in the early 70s was either a big Detroit wagon for Mom and something sporty for Dad OR a big Detroit car for Dad (LTD or Caprice, often as coupes) and a smaller wagon (Malibus, Satellites etc, but also Datsun 510, Corona/Mark II/Crown or Squareback) or a VW Microbus (lots of these) for Mom to schlep the kids around.

    If I think of our street in Santa Barbara circa 1972, about 1/3 of the cars on the street were imports. The young couple next door had 2 VWs, a Superbeetle and a Squareback. On our other side was a family with a big ol’ 65 Country Squire and a boxy 70 Corona. Across the street, my buddy’s family had a giant 1970 Electra Wagon – and his Dad’s 240Z. My best friend’s folks had a plain-Jane 69 Impala and a VW 411 Wagon.

    I think the “compacts” (Nova/Valiant/Maverick) appealed at the time as small (sic) commuting cars (a friend of my Dad bought his wife a new Firebird Esprit around this time because it was “nice and little”), and then increasingly as family cars as the OPEC crisis hit and the economy weakened. But a lot of my Dad’s colleagues (and my Dad with his VWs and Fiats) so liked their “foreign” cars that they skipped the Nova stage. I recall when a young guy who worked for my Dad bought a new 1973 BMW 2002. My Dad was shocked at the price…until he drove the car.

    But I know this wasn’t typical of North America at the time. Even my Dad’s mechanic at the local Standard station was an English gent who collected Borgwards…

  • avatar
    rpn453

    You certainly don’t need anything more than a practical vehicle when your life is full of other things. Anything that reliably allows you to do the things you want is more than adequate. That Nova would actually be a lot more fun for a kid in some environments than most modern cars. Far more enjoyable for winter play than anything with FWD or active electronic nannies.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      When your life is full of other things, except for money, the used base cars are what you can afford. So many options of yesteryear are now standard and/or mandated that there may not be a comparison to the ’74 Nova, or ’60s Darts/Valiants/ChevyII/Tempest/F85… My sister learned to drive a stick on a ’49 chevy that didn’t even have the optional turn signal “lamps”!

  • avatar
    rokop

    I had a Jeep Patriot, 2wd, manual tranny, no power windows or locks, old man beige color…..just about at basic and utilitarian as it gets. I still miss it.

  • avatar
    TybeeJim

    Not enough time to read all the comments, but it tells me that there a lot of old folks reading this. I see comments that these cars were smog challenged, poor handlers, etc. Well, I contend that it’s relative to ones experience if they really ever owned or drove one of these cars when new. In ’73, I was charged by my City Manager to research and buy new police cars for our little CT town. He knew I was a car buff, so I got the job. I relied on the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. since they were testing police cars then (can’t recall if Michigan was back then). Anyway, the top rated car for ’74 was a Volvo 264 that was a special-build police package. At that time, as it pretty much is today, foreign cars were verboten in the police community. The 2nd car in testing was the ’74 Chevy Nova with the 350 V8. We bought 4 of them and they were great for the day. They absolutely blew the doors off the State’s Ford Interceptors (we patrolled a 10 mile stretch of I-91). I got bucket seats, a new first for a police as far as anyone knew and the cops loved these cars. And those that weren’t as fortunate were envious of the Novas. So, there’s my 2¢ on the subject!

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thanx Thomas ;

    I too have always loved the basic cars , especially anything with an InLine 6 Banger .

    I’ve loved and owned several Novas , all I6′s .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Dave W

    Drivers ed 1976, Malibu’s, Impalas, Vegas, and Novas are the cars in class. Much as I wanted to like the Vega, in the end the Nova was the only one that was even remotely fun to drive. The Impalas and ‘bu’s had too many disconnects between the driver and the road. the Vega couldn’t get out of its own way, particularly as it sounded like it was leaving a trail of parts to lighten its load every time you hit the gas. The Nova had slightly better acceleration and was almost as well behaved on the dry as the SAAB 96 I was driving. I don’t know how well it handled winter driving but for all the people I knew ice racing SAABS I never saw a Nova (or any GM that was competitive) on the ice.

  • avatar
    CAMeyer

    I have mixed feelings about Novas. On one hand, these were, generally speaking, sensibly designed and engineered cars that served their owners well. The ’68 through mid-seventies models, with their clean lines and relatively restrained ornamentation, remain pretty attractive cars. These were ubiquitous in my hometown, and as I remember they were a lot more pleasant than the appliance-like Darts and Valiants or the-big-brother-of-the-Pinto Maverick.

    On the other hand, there was my Dad’s Nova. When I was a kid, my Dad always bought used cars, usually from someone he knew in town. When his excellent 1954 Chevy Two-Ten (I thought the model name was Powerglide, as that was the logo on the trunk) was finally on the way out, he bought a ’66 Nova 4-door wagon from my uncle. My uncle was a no-nonsense guy who didn’t go for frills, and the car was a stripper except for power steering and AT (presumably Powerglide!). The steering wheel and most of the interior were freezing-in-the-winter-and-scorching-in-the-summer bare metal–ugly green bare metal–and the seats were of the stickiest vinyl the labs of GM could develop. There were no buttons to lock the doors on the inside; you were supposed to push down on the inside door handles or something. It had an aftermarket Sears radio with no buttons and 95% total harmonic distortion (the ’54 had a nice-sounding tube radio). However, it did offer as standard equipment aggravation, and lots of it. If it wasn’t the radiator blowing a hole on the way to the Jersey shore, it was the muffler and tailpipe falling off and shooting sparks, or the back springs collapsing and rendering the vehicle a semi-low rider. In its favor, at least it didn’t have terminal rust like my Dad’s Fords–the Country Squire with the Flintstone-style floor, or the Torino with a hole big enough to access the contents of the trunk without having to open the trunk lid.
    Thank God my Dad is now in peace: He drives a Camry.


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