The cars we loved.
When America was making it’s reluctant move to smaller cars in the 70’s , GM like Ford and Chrysler decided to meet them half way with new compacts and mid-sized intermediates. For GM, the most successful compact was Chevrolet’s Nova. Built on the X platform, the Nova shared its DNA with Oldsmobile, Buick and Pontiac. The sales brochure from 1977 summed up the Nova just right: “not too small, not too big, not too expensive.” Like other mid 70’s cars, the sportier versions of the fourth generation Nova straddle the space between faux muscle car and modern appliance. The third generation Nova helped start the compact car muscle era in the late 60’s. After a fuel crisis, emissions and safety regulations, the Nova had only a name to go on by 1975.
Why name a car after a cosmic explosion? Perhaps it was a strange code for all the names off the X platform: Nova, Omega, Ventura and Apollo (Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick). Code name or not, Chevy’s version outsold the nearest rival by far. With such high sales numbers, the Nova was tasked with being all things to all people, or at least trying to be. Many buyers associated the Nova with late era muscle cars. The Nova II with it’s clunky shape was a favorite when equipped with a V8 engine. When the redesign came along in 1975, the car retained the platforms 111 inch wheel base and retained many visual cues to the previous model in the front, as if a new design evolved around the familiar round headlights and simple grille design of the 71 to 74 model.
The Nova came in two door coupe and four door sedan. The coupe featured a clever fastback like hatch design that disguised the fact that the coupe was the most versatile model, especially if you had the optional fold down rear seats in upscale versions. In keeping with Chevrolet’s attempt to broadly market the Nova, it touted its new beautiful design (as to suggest the previous car was not) as a compelling reason to buy. With this new-found beauty an emphasis was being placed on luxury with a new model called the LN. The LN distinguished itself from run of the mill Nova by the inclusion of chrome, and plenty of it around window trim, door handles, fenders and grille. LN’s also had 14 inch chrome wheel covers, some with accent colors that were body colored. Inside the LN model featured column mounted three speed automatic shifter and seats that were compared to lounge chairs (according to brochures).
The LN had a full list of features and options that pushed its price to nearly $4,000, almost as much as a stripped Impala. As the Nova evolved, it began taking design cues from the larger Impala especially with the revised tail light design of 1976. Eventually Chevy began selling the top model under the Concourse name. It was the first time that a coupe had been sold with a folding center arm rest, a feature usually associated with larger luxury sedans. The inside was no different from most other mid-sized GM cars. Plenty of plastic, vinyl and cloth. Some models like the LN, Concourse and SS had full featured dash gauges. A cabriolet style vinyl top option similar to that seen on Monte Carlos was offered on coupes only.
For those not wanting luxury, there was the SS model with its styled steel wheels on raised lettered tires. Buick had the Apollo GSX and Pontiac the Ventura GTO for 1974 only, but none of their sporty versions made it to the new body style in 75’. For performance minded buyers in the market for a X body car, the Nova SS was the only game in town from 1975 on. The SS featured a honeycomb pattern blackout grille and blackout window frames. Improved road holding came from a front suspension similar to what was being used on the Camaro. The SS also had front disc brakes, a feature that would find its way on later Nova as time went on. Transmissions were either a floor mounted four speed manual or three speed automatic. The heart of the SS model was it’s V8 engine. Offering as much as 170 hp in 350 guise, it moved the rear wheel drive car with some authority, but was far from what we might consider a performance car by today’s standards. Four speed manual transmissions were only offered when paired with the larger 350 four barrel V8 from the SS. A three speed manual was standard with the 250 single barrel six on the base cars.
Other Nova made due with engines that ranged from inline sixes with just over 100 hp to a 305 V8 with 145 hp in LN and later Concours models. Chevrolet resisted the urge to use the four-cylinder Iron Duke engine as Pontiac had done during the 1977 model year as a response to the second fuel crisis of the 70’s. For anyone not willing or able to go all out with the SS, there was always the popular Rally option, basically a stripe and wheel package. The Rally had much of what made the SS sporty including blackout grille and styled steel wheels. It only came with the more modest 305 vs. the SS 350 engine.
Nova sales got a boost after the Los Angeles police department placed an order after evaluating the car for more than a year. The order was the largest ever placed by a police department for a mid-sized car up to that point. The Nova sold well against competition like the Ford Granada and Plymouth Valiant. Slowly but surely import completion began to heat up, as the Japanese began experimenting with mid-sized cars. By 1979 amidst dwindling but still decent sales numbers, the Nova line was simplified to base, Custom and Rally with squared off headlights and simplified trim options. For the 1980 model year, the Nova would be replaced by the Citation, a front wheel drive car aimed at competing with the emerging tide of mid-sized imports.