There was a time, from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, when the third-generation Chevrolet Nova was among the most plentiful Chevrolets found on North American roads. These cars were cheap, sturdy, and fuel efficient for their time, but discarded ones are so rare now that this is the first one I have seen in a self-service wrecking yard since this ’73 hatchback in 2011.
I see many Corolla-based, NUMMI-built Novas in my junkyard travels, but the earlier rear-wheel-drive X-body Nova has become a fairly rare sight in self-service wrecking yards during the last decade or so. Other than a handful of factory-performance versions, 1970s Novas were disposable, cheap transportation appliances, and so the ones that haven’t been crushed by now tend to be nicely restored and/or drag racers. Still, I find a few; we’ve seen this ’77 two-door, this rare ’73 hatchback, this ’79 Oldsmobile Omega (one of GM’s many adventures in X-body badge engineering), and this ’78 Cadillac Seville Elegante (one of GM’s many adventures in Cadillac brand dilution) so far, and now we’ve got this ’76 in California.
For reasons that trolly shouters on both extremes of the American politico-socio-automotive spectrum know to be the truth, the exact same workers at the Fremont Assembly plant who couldn’t hammer together a decent-quality Buick Regal or GMC C/K— no matter how many Mickey’s Big Mouths they guzzled in some South Hayward parking lot before their shifts— suddenly became capable of building rebadged Corollas that were every bit as good as the ones made by their Japanese counterparts, once the plant became NUMMI (nowadays they build Teslas there). Of course, each of you knows that this is due to (insert damning indictment of those dupes who believe Wrong Things here) with a touch of (insert bilious tirade that sounds the alarm about Some Evil Conspiracy here), and to provide ammunition for your arguments I present this 1988 Chevrolet-badged AE82 Toyota Sprinter aka Corolla.
The fourth-generation Chevrolet Nova sold in huge numbers, wasn’t a bad car by the standards of its time, and stayed on the street in significant quantities well into the 1990s. However, the Malaise Era Nova just never gathered much of an enthusiast following compared to its predecessors— if you want to restore a Nova these days, you’ll get a ’64 or ’70, not a ’78— so the few remaining survivors go right to the scrapper when they die. Here’s a very worn-out example that I saw in California last week.
As Aaron Severson explains in great detail in his excellent Ate Up With Motor piece, the 1976-1979 Cadillac Seville (which was essentially a Chevy Nova under the skin), accelerated the long decline of the Cadillac Division that continued with the Cavalier-based Cimarron and didn’t really turn around until Cadillac started building trucks for rappers and warlords in the 1990s. Having driven a $50 1976 Nova many thousands of miles, I can assume that ’78 Seville ownership was very similar, though with a plusher interior and (slightly) more engine power. Here’s a brown-on-gold-on-brown-on-yellow-on-ochre-on-umber-on-brown-on-beige-on-copper example that I spotted a few weeks ago in a San Francisco Bay Area wrecking yard.
According to the clock, it would still be more than an hour before the sun slipped over the Western horizon and sank into the Pacific, but from my place behind the wheel of my 74 Nova beneath the leaden November skies and running through the steady drizzle, the dark of night was already beginning to ooze its way up and out of the hidden spaces of the great forest that lined either side of the narrow roadway. Ahead, a single mailbox loomed up and out of the mist and I checked its number against the one I had written on a small scrap of paper some hours earlier. To my satisfaction they matched and I pulled off the pavement and onto a long gravel driveway, my headlights cutting a bright swath through the increasingly murky darkness as I worked my way back into the woods.
Way back in 1973, a relatively young and inexperienced director by the name of George Lucas made a movie that starred a whole bunch of nobodies. Called “American Graffiti,” it turned out to be the little movie that could. Co-Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz for just $775,000, it went on to become one of the most profitable films of all time, making an estimated $200 million dollars and, in the process, turned several of those “nobodies,” people like Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, Suzanne Summers, and Cindy Williams, into bankable stars. In 1995, the National Library of Congress declared it to be “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation by adding it to the National Film Registry.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the story by revealing any of the finer points of the plot. Generally speaking, it is the story of teenage angst and antics set amid classic cars and punctuated by great old-time rock and roll music and the action follows several teens on a hot August night in the far away year of 1962 as they cruise their cars around the California town of Modesto in search of action and adventure. The movie hit theaters just as the first wave of the baby boom generation, people born between 1946 and 64, began to close-in on the ripe old age of 30 and to see it now is to look back upon the days of their youth through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.
The forest green 1969 Nova sat unwashed and unloved at the side of the modest house. I studied it from the side of the road with the eye of an experienced hunter and I recognized the signs. Shunted off to the side while two more modern cars sat in the driveway, it was obvious that the old Nova had already passed that threshold of usefulness and begun the descent into eventual abandonment. The grass beneath the car, just a cutting or two taller than the rest of the yard, told me how recently that had been – just a few weeks. There was a chance then, that the car had not sat long enough to totally degrade. Perhaps, I thought, there was still some value to be had.
1969 Chevelle SS
A few weeks a go I had the opportunity to watch part of the Barrett Jackson auction. I found myself captivated by the colorful commentary that went along with each sale. Every car had a story and the commentators spent a great deal of time telling us about them. They also discussed the cars’ performance, available options and recited the original production numbers, contrasted by telling us exactly how many of those cars survive today. It turns out that many of the cars I regularly used to see back in the 1970s are extremely rare today. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, however, after all, I had a hand in making them go away.
The fifth-gen Chevy Nova was built at California’s NUMMI plant for the 1985 through 1988 model years, prior to becoming the Geo and then the Chevrolet Prizm. The Nova was really a rebadged AE82 Corolla, and so most of them managed to survive into the turn of the 21st century. By now, however, a NUMMI Nova is a rare sight; we saw a trustifarian ’87 hatchback in California last winter, and now this well-preserved sedan has appeared in a Denver self-service yard.
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.
Remember the early Nova hatchbacks? They didn’t sell very well, probably because the hatch cost $150 more ( $810 in 2011 dollars) than the Nova coupe with a traditional trunk. I can’t remember the last time I saw one, and I wouldn’t have noticed this one in my local self-service yard, had it not been for the sharp eyes of the Tetanus Neon LeMons team co-captains, visiting Denver from Houston and stopping at the junkyard on their way to the airport for some Neon throttle-body shopping.
[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.
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- Michael In your research you may have found that after 2024 this model will no longer be part of MINI lineup. I wish you would have driven JCW version. Over an additional 100hp. With launch control it will go 0 to 60 in about 4.6 seconds. Outstanding car.
- RHD A hybrid small pickup is a no-brainer. Let's go, already! Price it reasonably and every one will fly off of the lot.
- RHD This is a $3,500 car (assuming you can get a good junkyard transmission and install it yourself) that, once back in usable condition, will be worth about $1,000. Hopefully the guy that spray-painted the wheels black didn't attempt to rebuild the engine himself. That would make it a $5,500 car that's worth $1,000.
- CEastwood They should , but they won't being fearful of losing those sales of near 30 grand base Tacomas . People thought Hyundai could do this then they did it at laughably expensive prices . And try to get a base Maverick at advertised prices . Go ahead I dare you .
- Jpurcha Nice. I had bought one from my dad's friend for my first car. University/model airplane hauler.