By on April 22, 2021

Today’s Rare Ride was the final iteration of the Chevrolet Nova nameplate in North America. An economy car that largely vanished from roads long ago, today’s hatchback example is very clean and very NUMMI.

The Nova nameplate had a long history at Chevrolet and was attached to the brand’s compact offering for the 1962 model year. GM sought a competitor for the successful Ford Falcon introduced in ’59 and needed it fast. Originally the model was called Chevy II, as GM management declined the suggested Nova name because it didn’t start with a letter C. Nova became the top trim of the Chevy II initially and remained a trim until 1969 when it took over as model designation. Nova was in its third generation by 1968 and remained on the X-body platform through its fourth and fifth generations, which carried the model through 1979. At that point, the name took a break until its triumphant return in 1985.

The new ’85 Nova was a joint venture / rebadging between GM and Toyota, which resulted in Corolla-based cars sold under GM brands. Initially, the resulting cars were Chevrolets, then Geos, and finally Chevrolets again. The Nova resided on the AE82 Corolla platform, which GM called S for its purposes. Corollas and Novas were built together in Fremont, California at the NUMMI plant which now loosely assembles Tesla vehicles.

Initially, the only body style available was an upright four-door sedan, sold only in the Midwest region. Shortly thereafter, a five-door hatch was added and sales expanded across North America. The Nova joined other Japanese rebranding exercises like the Chevy Sprint and Spectrum, both of which were launched in their own regions before going nationwide. Sprint was assigned to the west coast, and Spectrum to the east.

All examples of Nova had a 1.6-liter engine, which was offered in two different versions depending upon the model year. The initial 1.6 SOHC had a carburetor and produced 74 horsepower. Transmissions at the time were a three-speed auto or five-speed manual. For 1988 the sportier fuel-injected Twin-Cam used a DOHC version of the 1.6-liter engine shared with the Corolla FX16, good for a more impressive 110 horses. Twin-Cam versions used a four-speed auto instead of the three. However, the Twin-Cam was of limited appeal given its price hike ($11,395) over the standard Nova’s ask of $8,800, and just 3,300 were produced.

1988 was the end of the line for Nova anyway, as GM conducted a shift in strategy. The E90 Corolla platform was ready and thus was its rebadge as the Geo Prizm. Starting in 1989, GM separated out its Japanese rebadges into their own brand at Geo. Nova vanished from view as the Prizm was introduced early in 1989 for the 1990 model year, and GM started selling lots of Geos.

Today’s incredibly preserved Nova hatchback is the sort of super basic economy car no longer offered in this market. Manual windows, manual locks, and little steel wheels. The only options are the three-speed and air conditioning, which you’ll need with all that greenhouse. The seller has ideas on what you could use the Nova for, which is always a good sign. Yours at $5,850.

[Images: GM]

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31 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1987 Chevrolet Nova Hatchback, the All-American Corolla...”


  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    “Corollas and Novas were built together in Fremont, California at the NUMMI plant which now loosely assembles Tesla vehicles.”

    I’m dyin’ here this is so funny.

  • avatar
    ajla

    All-Chevy B/D/B of Nova twincam vs Cavalier Z24 hatch vs Beretta GTU?

  • avatar
    toronado

    I think its funny GM went to the trouble to use that Delco radio, about the only difference I see with the Toyota. Looks out of place to me but GM cared little for congruity.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    I love how the seller goes so far as to detail how soft the rubber trim is. One of my buddies in HS had this car in HB form as above, except in maroon. His was a manual 5spd. It was actually slower than my 80 Accord 5spd.At least it was nearly new so it smelled better. Until his A/c went out in 1990.

  • avatar
    Syke

    For those too young to remember, these cars with the most obvious proof of how GM had blown it completely with foreign (especially Japanese) car buyers.

    Back in the day, if you wanted a Toyota Corolla, you paid an automatic additional dealer margin ranging from $400.00 (Johnstown, PA) to $1200.00 (Washington, DC area), and the western PA Toyota dealers were having DC area buyers come out to save on the ADM. Meanwhile, Chevrolet dealers were putting cash on the hood to move Novas.

    It got so bad that periodically Consumers Reports was putting a mention in their magazine that the Nova was essentially the same car as a Corolla, and for the readership to stop avoiding Chevrolet dealerships and buy the cars there.

    Of course, the problem was that the Chevy salesman would immediately try to switch you into a Lumina or some other POS unless you really got hard assed and virtually beat them over the head with the reality that the Nova was the only car on the lot you were willing to look at.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    The hatchback design (both Toyota and Chevy versions) always looked totally incongruous to me, with its bulbous round shapes stuck on an otherwise angular ’80s silhouette.

    I’d think if you wanted to preserve a car so meticulously you wouldn’t choose the cheapskate version.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Fun facts:

    1987 Nova MSRP (base) = $8258 (inflation adjusted = $19670)

    2021 Tesla Model 3 (base) = $38490

    Gee, wouldn’t it be nice to go back to building crappy econoboxes? As soon as GM left NUMMI, Toyota split only months later.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      Probably nothing wrong with the plant except that UAW workforce. Toyota couldn’t run fast enough.

      • 0 avatar
        eng_alvarado90

        Not really. NUMMI had an output rate of over 500K vehicles per year and Toyota was actually building two of their best sellers there: Corolla and Tacoma.

        Toyota just didn’t want to pay the whole upkeep of the factory and taxes on one of the most expensive states to operate once GM was gone. As easy as that

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    A car that runs and passes inspection is worth $2000. This car is worth just a little bit more because it’s nice. But it’s nobodies collectors item and the a/c and the automatic transmission are going to have age related problems if you actually decide to drive it. And it’s rotting in places you can’t see.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      “Age related problems … rotting in places you can’t see.”

      This describes most internet commenters just as well, but we may still have quite a few fun years left in us. This is a car we can relate to.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I had a stickshift sedan for a hot minute. Bought it for $500, drove it for 6 months, sold it for $500. An incredibly *adequate* car.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Rear license plate location is Very Wrong.

  • avatar
    jmo

    What always struck me about these is that despite being manufactured on the same line out of the same parts by the same people – buyers rated the Corolla as being much more reliable. It has always made me doubt consumer ratings. Like if someone buys a Honda and it has a problem they dismiss it as a fluke and recall that they’ve never had a problem. Someone buys a Range Rover and it has a problem and they say, “See, just what everyone says.” And it sticks in there mind.

    It doesn’t explain everything of course. But it does explain some of it.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yup consumer perception does matter.

      Speaking of Hondas I’ve got a friend who has owned a number of them. When he purchased a newer Accord a few years ago I asked if he checked out other vehicles. He said no, the Accord is the best car I’ve owned so I just got another. He didn’t trade in the old one since his son was about to turn 16 so it was going to go to him. A couple of months later I got a call from him saying that he went out to start it and it wouldn’t start, just crank. I told him I’d come over and take a look. Once we got talking he admitted the 3 previous times the car failed to start and had to be towed. All very well known failure points on that era Honda. Pushing him for details I determined the igniter failed, the distributor imploded and the main relay had failed. All well known pattern failures that anyone with experience repairing Hondas from the era knows are the first places to check for a car that got towed in. That time it was again the main relay that had failed. For some reason he decided that he needed to use a genuine Honda relay even when I pointed out that it was the second one of those that had failed.

      But in his mind the car never let him down and was trouble free.

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        Sometimes though, it was not just perception. An example with this car: Toyota originally used Delco alternators in the NUMMI Corollas but switched to a Denso unit because the failure rate was too high for Toyota’s expected reliability. So, that change was put into place, with a minor change in the wiring harness to accept the different alternator. That’s one that I do know of; perhaps there are more.

        My father’s company bought one of these for an employee to use. The car had 140K on it when it blew it’s head gasket. The guy who used it complained about the temp gauge malfunctioning so the wrench disconnected it. So when the temp sensor for the electric cooling fans failed, the car overheated and the guy never knew until it was too late. Not a bad car for what it was though.

        • 0 avatar
          jmo

          Are you saying they had two shelves of alternators and when a Corolla came down the line they used one and when a Nova came down the they used another?

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            Basically, yes. I don’t know how they implemented it but Toyotas were switched to Denso alternators as a running production change. I used to have a subscription to Motor Age (a trade service publication) and they had a story on the switch. They showed the different alternator connectors, the service pigtail – Toyota cars that had a Delco fail would get the Denso unit as a replacement and that required the pigtail since the plug was different.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            Many vehicles have been built where there is more than one alternator used. Back in the day cars with A/C, power seats/window/locks or a heated rear or front window got an alternator with a different output. Now it is mostly relegated to trucks as most cars now have those things that used to be options. So now it is a different alternator for the snow plow, towing or camper packages and maybe even a difference between a base and midrange model. Yes those options are often from the same mfg, but not always.

            Of course the alternator gets put on the engine before it is installed in the car so the people dressing the engine would need to know which car it is destined for.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    No Pontiac Vibe/Toyota Matrix comments/comparisons?

    Just like the Vibe this generation Nova was a ‘good deal’. A Toyota without the premium.

    Had a friend/neighbour on a tight budget who bought one of these new. For the price and time it was as mentioned by another poster a perfectly ‘adequate’ vehicle, at a below market price point.

  • avatar
    bobmaxed

    Married the love of my life in 86 (no not a car), I liked Toyotas but never wanted to pay the extra money. My 86 Hatchback with the 5 speed was the first of 4 cars from NUMMI. 86 Nova, 89 Prizm base model with 5 speed, a 2004 and a 2008 Vibe. Loved them all. The 86 Hatchback was the last car I owned without a stainless steel exhaust. Seemed like every 6 months I was bolting on a new muffler. Luckily there was a flange right at the muffler. Never had to go near a Midas. May have been my last car with a carburetor. Slow! I could barely keep up with a Subaru Justy in the hills of West Virginia.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I had a friend who had a 1988 red Nova sedan with a 5 speed manual. Very reliable.

  • avatar
    JEFFSHADOW

    In 1987 a cashier at my Ralphs supermarket in Buena Park, California had just bought one of these Novas. She really thought it was a Chevrolet and had no knowledge of the shared production platform. That was fine with me as no information offered would matter to her. She absolutely loved that car.
    In later years author Harlan Ellison became the spokesperson for the Geo brand; his presence was announced as “Noted Futurist”. He did drive Geos for awhile and then went to the Honda Civic with his “HE” California license plate.
    Harlan passed away on June 28, 2018. The old Honda was still in his driveway when I stopped by on June 25 after the Highway Earth car show in Beverly Hills. We drove our 2002 Oldsmobile Intrigue GLS that time. His 1947 Packard was still parked at the right side open garage.

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