Curbside Classic: 1976 Chevrolet Nova Coupe

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1976 chevrolet nova coupe

[Note: this car does not have the original rectangular taillights. Someone mounted some sixties round lights in an attempt to confuse our readers, at least some of them]

In our recent visit to 1976, we virtually pitted the Accord against the Malibu. One garnered the title of “The Most influential Modern Car in America”, the other was disgraced as a “GM Deadly Sin”. Lots of folks said the two would never have been cross-shopped; they’re probably right. By the time a buyer stepped into a Honda dealer, a Malibu had already fallen of the list. But what about the Nova? A hatchback Nova with the options to make it comparable to the Accord’s standard fare would put it right around the Accord’s price. Let’s pit America’s most popular compact against the upstart challenger from Japan for round two.

Given that the shameful Deadly Sin moniker is missing from the title, this is obviously not going to be as lopsided. I happen to have a minor soft spot for the ’75-’79 Nova, and we might as well get the goodness flowing first. The year I was a bus driver in Iowa City, the transit district acquired a couple of ’75 Nova sedans for ferrying drivers and such. As I new relief driver, I got some seat time, and was rather impressed; with its handling, that is.

That particular Nova came with a fleet heavy-duty package (they must have known I was coming), including the excellent suspension package and wider wheels and tires. It’s no secret that the Nova was essentially a longer wheelbase sedan version of the 1970 and up Camaro, a car we have duly lionized here for its handling prowess. The steering was quick, direct ,and had some genuine feeling; the brakes were mission-appropriate, and the handling was remarkable: it gobbled curves and corners, staying mostly composed and almost utterly devoid of the dreaded Detroit understeer. Having not had a turn in a Camaro at that point in my youthful life, this was clearly the best handling American car I had ever driven to date.

It certainly wasn’t the fastest though, as it came with the 250 (4.1 liter) six that packed all of 105 hp. In all fairness, the six had a decent surge of torque, was very smooth, and was reasonably adequate in the urban setting available for my gymkhanas. Now if only they had kept the Pontiac OHC version of this engine going, the Nova would have better lived up to its ambitions at being a Euro-car challenger at the time, especially mated to a four or five speed stick. No such luck.

In Brazil, the 250 six went on to be developed and used in a highly non-US fashion, with proper MPI fuel injection, as in this 1998 Chevrolet Omega, which marries the big Opel RWD sedan with the high output Chevy six. Our loss was their gain. It was cheaper for Chevy to just to throw V8’s in it, as there were plenty of them around. Of course the golden days of the prior generation Nova with its thundering big-blocks were a long-distant memory by then. Take your pick of a 305 with 140 hp or the 350 with 165. Plenty of torque to move the reasonably light 3200lb Nova briskly for the times, but nothing like the good old days.

But let’s not meander into the Nova’s inevitable appeal to hot rodding, given its cheapness and infinite availability of the parts to do so. Anyway, its ’68-’74 predecessor seems to have more appeal to that faction, despite its less capable suspension and steering. Let’s stick to the Nova as transportation, as an alternative to the Japanese competition.

Space utilization was at a low point in Detroit during the seventies, one of the worst aspects other than quality issues. The Nova was a bit better than the Malibu, but not by much. There was still a highly unfavorable relationship of real estate wasted to oversized front and rear ends, and not enough where it actually counted. At least the Nova came in a hatchback version, which made access to a long but shallow cargo area easy. But rear seat leg room was mediocre, and the non-opening rear side windows were a royal put-off.

Of course, these cars couldn’t approach the fuel economy of the Japanese competition. Getting much more than 20 mpg even with the six was an act of heroism. With the V8, forget it. And when it comes to build quality…let’s not go there. Actually, in relative terms, the Nova was probably one of the better GM products, thanks to its simplicity. I know folks who got some cheap long-term transportation out of old Nova sixes. But the words “jewel like” will never be uttered in their presence.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be with its Big Three competition, and there the Nova acquitted itself better. The queasy-handling and recall-prone Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare quickly destroyed Chrysler’s domination in the field, allowing the Nova to take the number one sales spot in the compact segment. Ford’s Maverick was long in tooth even when it arrived, but by 1976 it was in terminal decline. The Granada was more of a semi-midsized anyway, and with upscale ambitions pricing-wise.

Clearly, the Nova was at the head of the domestic class in 1976. But as a compact in the post energy crisis it was fundamentally all wrong, as the Accord and its ilk proved all too quickly. And by 1978, Chrysler’s Omni/Horizon twins had it all over the Nova in terms of space utilization and economy. The Nova soldiered on for those either in denial about the future of the small car or perhaps wanting a four-door Camaro. Now that was a small niche. And within a few years, that option would be gone too, as the Citation was lurking just around the corner.

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2 of 77 comments
  • MichaelJLouie MichaelJLouie on Mar 23, 2010

    This is a response to Paul, the author, indicating falsely that the Nova is a good driving car. I happened to know better as this was my first car behind the wheel. I first drove a 1977 Nova and later the newly downsized 1978 Malibu Classic in HS driver ed for a semester. I still remember the back and neckaches I got after driving the 1977 Nova with its harsh and bouncy ride, hard to turn steering and difficult braking. When the dealer took back the Nova and substituted the newly release 1978 Malibu Classic, it was simply day and night. (Back in those days before liability issues, the dealers would lend out cars to HS driver ed training as a way of advertising.) The new Malibu was simply better appointed, more quiet, easier to drive, and better built overall. It truly made the process of getting my driver license more fun and less of a chore. Yes, to me, driving that Nova was a chore. As for the first generation Accord, a typical Nova buyer would NOT be able to afford the Accord as it was at least a $1000 to $1500 higher or even appreciate the sophisication of this car. That Accord was marketed more as a little Mercedes with its better build quality and rounded corners and roof mouldings similar to the Mercedes coupes of the time. It is because of American compact cars like the Nova, Valiant, and Maverick with their harsh ride and crude features that people turned to foreign cars. Definitely, a Nova is not a car I lust after in that era like a 1976 Seville or 1976 Ford Granada Ghia.

  • Car truth Car truth on Nov 05, 2017

    I bought a new accord in 1976 for $3600. It got 32 and 42 mpg with good power range and cramped seating for four people while riding good enough. After three years and 89k miles of proper maintenance it burned oil, clutch was shot, paint was failing, was jumping out of gear, bad head gasket... The fit and finish was ok and the inside held up ok. The rest was cheap junk. That is why there are none left, ashes to ashes dust to dust. False economy pure and simple. I have owned cars from 1960 to 2010. Right now I like my 1976 New Yorker. Super stiff body, big smooth drive train, sofa front seat...

  • Golden2husky You'd be way better off in a base Vette for that money.
  • Gene Sedans and coupes don't sell in the quantity that they used to but they still make up a significant market. Why Ford abandoned this segment still baffles me. Again, just look at Toyota, Dodge, Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai, etc who have not abandoned this segment.
  • JMII Cracker Barrel - there is one off every major interstate interchange east of the Mississippi.I don't drink coffee - and based on the constant debate / worry of others just drinking water or tea has greatly simplified my life.Regardless of your choice in snacks and drinks I recommend the iExit app: it shows what hotels, restaurants and gas stations are coming up so you can decide if its worth pulling off.
  • Redapple2 My dad s buddy got a tire thru the windshield. DRT -dead right there.
  • Redapple2 Hope they fix the:1 ride. worse than a corvette2 seating position. ankles at the height of my butt is UNCOMFORTABLE .As is. Horrible truck