Rare Rides: The 1987 Chevrolet Nova Hatchback, the All-American Corolla

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
rare rides the 1987 chevrolet nova hatchback the all american corolla

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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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Apr 24, 2021

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


    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.

  • Arthur Dailey Love the Abe Rothstein tribute suits. Too bad about the car. Seems to have been well loved for most of its life.
  • K. R. Worth noting that the climate control is shared with (donated to) the Audi 5000 of the mid-late 1980s.
  • Sloomis Looks like 108,000 miles to me, not 80,000. Not much better though...
  • Johnds If I’m not mistaken, the odo appears to say 8016, not 80016.
  • Motorqjoe Had a Volt as company car ~2012. What stunted the experience for me was a lack of reliable charging. The 42 miles of all battery range was excellent, but the experience when the gen-set had to kick in was lackluster. I don't think it was a lack of brand awareness.