Junkyard Find: 1987 Chevrolet Nova

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
junkyard find 1987 chevrolet nova

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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3 of 46 comments
  • Plee Plee on Feb 22, 2012

    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.

    • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Feb 28, 2012

      Couldn't be the previous owner used it up and sold it to you? Can't imagine why your experience would be so different than that of other folks here.

  • Acuraandy Acuraandy on Feb 23, 2012

    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

  • ChristianWimmer I don’t want this autonomous driving garbage technology in any car.My main fear is this. Once this technology is perfected, freedom-hating eco hysterical governments (crap hole Germany, UK and the European Union in general) will attempt to ban private car ownership because “you don’t need to own a car anymore since the car can come to you, drop you off and then proceed to service the next customer”... no thanks. Having your own car is FREEDOM.Go away, autonomous driving. I also enjoy the act of driving a car. I want to drive, not be driven.
  • Mike-NB2 The solution is obvious here. Everyone should be raised in an Irish Catholic family and then all it takes is a sideways glance from mom and you're atoning for that sin for the rest of your life. My mother has been dead for decades and I still want to apologize to her. Catholic guilt is a real thing. 😁
  • Wjtinfwb A good car. I don't find Accord's as appealing as they were a decade or two ago, not that they've gotten worse, but the competition has gotten better. It would be my choice if I had to pay for it myself and maintain it for 10 years and 150k miles. They'd be very reliable and no doubt inexpensive miles, but probably a pretty boring 10 years.
  • Lou_BC "augmented reality" Isn't that a mamoplasty?
  • Lou_BC Nice to see car companies still building cars. If I ever desired a new car, a Camry and Accord would be on the list if not the only 2 cars on the list. Who else makes a decent 4 door sedan?