Chevrolet Nova Essential History
Chevrolet introduced the Nova nameplate in 1962 as the top trim level for the new Chevy II compact. While Chevy’s first compact, the innovative (and ultimately doomed) Corvair, was aimed at the Volkswagen Beetle, the Chevy II was a counter to Ford’s wildly successful 1960 Falcon. The Chevy II was developed on the cheap and rushed to market, and unlike the rear-engine Corvair, the Chevy II was a fairly conventional car. Known internally as the X-body, it was also sold as the Acadian in Canada and Chile.
Officially called the Chevy II Nova 400, the high-end model was available as a two- or four-door sedan, four-door wagon, two-door convertible or two-door hardtop coupe (hardtops lacked a B-pillar), with the latter two body styles exclusive to the Nova line. While other Chevy IIs could be had with four-cylinder power, the Nova came with a 120-horsepower, 194-cubic-inch displacement (3.2-liter) straight six.
1963: Introduction of the Nova SS and V-8 power
Chevrolet introduced the SS package for 1963 Nova convertibles and Sport Coupe hardtops, though it was basically a sport appearance package, as the Chevy II was still not available with a V-8. The convertible was dropped for ’64, but Chevrolet introduced a V-8 option, a 283 cid (4.6L) engine that produced 195 horsepower and was later offered with 220 horsepower. Another new option was the 230 cid (3.8-liter) “Turbo-Thrift” six with 155 horsepower (and no, it wasn’t turbocharged). Despite all the new choices, sales took a dive, thanks largely to internal competition from the new mid-size Chevelle.
For 1965, Chevrolet expanded the V-8 lineup with 250- and 300-horsepower versions of the 327 cid (5.4-liter), but sales continued to drop. Again, the competition was internal—the Corvair received a dramatic re-do for 1965—but the Chevy II was also losing to Ford, which sold nearly twice as many Falcons.
Big changes to the Chevy II’s sheetmetal came in 1966, far beyond the year-to-year styling changes that were still standard operating procedure. Nova continued as the top trim level, and a 350-horsepower version of the 327 replaced the 300-horsepower engine. Sales picked up, but took a hit again when Chevrolet introduced the Camaro for 1967, with Chevrolet killing the 220- and 350-horsepower engines so as not to cut into Camaro sales.
1968: A slick new Chevrolet Nova
Chevrolet introduced an all-new compact in 1968, with contemporary semi-fastback styling similar to that of the also-all-new Chevelle. The 111-inch wheelbase was almost as long as the Chevelle’s, though overall length was a foot shorter. Only two- and four-door sedans were offered; the wagon, convertible and hardtop coupe were gone. Chevrolet was drifting away from the Chevy II name— officially the entire lineup was the Chevy II Nova, but the car was referred to as simply “Nova” in sales brochures.
Engine choices still included the 90-horsepower, 153 cid (2.5-liter) four and the 230 and 250 straight sixes. Two new V-8s, a 200-horsepower 307-cid (5.0-liter), and a 295-horsepower 350 cid (5.7-liter), bracketed the 275-horsepower 327. The 1968 Nova SS was now a proper muscle car, with the 295-horsepower 350 and a heavy-duty suspension as standard.
The Chevy II name was dropped in 1969, and the car was now known simply as the Chevrolet Nova. For the next few years, the changes would be primarily limited to engines. The end of the 327 and (brief) availability of the big-block 396 cid (6.5-liter) in 350- and 375-horsepower versions came in 1969. In 1970, Chevrolet added a 300-horsepower 350 for the Nova SS and a 255-horsepower version for lesser Novas. A few SS models were fitted with the new 402 cid (6.6-liter) V-8, though the cars still carried 396 badging and the same 350/375-horsepower ratings as the “real” 396. The 402 and the four-cylinder were gone for ’71, as was the smaller six, and the 350 V-8’s power output began to drop as new emissions regulations took hold.
The end of the muscle Nova
For 1973, Chevrolet introduced a hatchback version of the two-door Nova—a real surprise as the model was in its second-to-last year. The SS model was downgraded to a package that included appearance options and a heavy-duty suspension. It could be combined with any engine, the best of which was a 175-horsepower 350. For 1974, the last year for this body style, engine choices were slim, with only a 100-horsepower straight six and a 185-horsepower 350 V-8 to choose from.
GM’s individual divisions had traditionally engineered their own cars, but by the early 1970s the corporation was beginning to flirt with badge engineering by rebadging the Nova. The Nova’s carbon copies included the Pontiac Ventura (1971), Buick Apollo (1973), and Oldsmobile Omega (1973).
1975: The new-age Chevrolet Nova
In 1975, Chevrolet launched an all-new Nova. The Nova lost its ’60s-era curves, but retained the semi-fastback shape. For a car designed in the 1970s, it was rather attractive. Body styles included a four-door sedan and two-door coupe and hatchback models. While the first-generation Camaro’s front end was based on Nova hardware, the new Nova now used second-gen Camaro components in its front suspension, which improved handling. A new “LN” model (“Luxury Nova”) addressed growing demand among the “Me generation” for small, personal luxury cars. Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac got their own versions of the car; Buick transitioned to the Skylark name and the Pontiac Ventura became the Phoenix in 1977. The Nova’s X-body platform would also form the basis for the 1976 Cadillac Seville.
The engine lineup for ’75 included the stalwart 250-cid six, now with 105 horsepower; a 110-horsepwoer, 262 cid (4.3-liter) V-8, developed for the Vega-based Monza, which would only last a year in the Nova; and 145- and 155-horsepower versions of the 350. The SS option was killed in 1976, the same year that the 305 cid (5.0-liter) V-8 was introduced and the Nova LN became a stand-alone model called the Concours. There were few changes for ’77 and ’78, and 1979 was a short model year with production actually ending in December, 1978. GM was preparing a new front-wheel-drive X-body; happily for the reputation of the Nova, this disastrous new car would get a new name: Citation.
1985: The Nova returns—and turns Japanese
The Nova could be considered the quintessential American compact car, so the direction GM took with the Nova in 1985 was a curious one. In 1984, General Motors established a partnership with Toyota in a venture called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., giving Toyota a U.S. manufacturing base and GM a chance to see firsthand how the Japanese could produce such high-quality cars at competitive prices. Using a discarded GM plant in Fremont, California, NUMMI’s first product was the 1985 Chevrolet Nova.
The new Nova was based largely on the Toyota Corolla, and was available as a four-door front-wheel-drive sedan or hatchback powered by a 74-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Aside from the addition of a 110-horsepower “Twin Cam” version of the 1.6, changes were minimal through 1988.
The Corolla was redesigned for the 1989 model year, and GM moved its NUMMI-built version to the new Geo brand together with its Suzuki- and Isuzu-engineered captive imports (Metro, Spectrum, and Tracker). The new car was renamed Geo Prizm, and the Chevrolet Nova name was retired.
Chevrolet Nova Highlights
There is an urban legend that the Nova sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because “Nova” means “doesn’t go”. This isn’t true—”nova” in Spanish has the same celestial meaning that it does in English. While “no va” does mean “won’t go”, few Spanish speakers would interpret “Nova” as “no va”—as Snopes.com points out, the difference is a bit like saying “Notable” would be a poor name for a dinette set as it could be read as “no table”. In fact, the Nova sold well in several Latin American countries.
One bit of notable Nova technology was the lightweight single-leaf spring used for the rear suspension between 1962 and 1972. Multi-leaf springs were used in optional handling packages, and replaced the single-leaf entirely in 1973.
Chevrolet never built a V-8 powered convertible Nova at the factory. The convertible Chevy II Nova was discontinued after 1963, and a V-8 option was not introduced until 1964.
The 1985 NUMMI-built Nova was notable for its high quality, which was comparable to Japanese-built Corollas—all the more notable because the pre-NUMMI Fremont factory was known for poor quality, and 85% of the original workforce was hired back for NUMMI. Sales between the two versions were comparable, but the Toyota nameplate meant that the Corollas enjoyed higher resale values.
The NUMMI venture ended in 2010, and the Fremont plant is now owned by Tesla.
Chevrolet Nova Buying Tips
Novas from the 1960s and early 1970s have attracted the most collector interest, and some of the big-block cars are quite valuable. As with any car of this era, checking the ID numbers is important, particularly for cars claiming to be original V-8-powered SS models. Parts are easy to find and it doesn’t take much effort to build a basic six-cylinder Nova into a V-8-powered SS clone—but such clone cars are worth less money than genuine matching-numbers cars. If you are considering the purchase of a rare Nova, it’s best to have the car professionally authenticated.
Novas were popular as drag racers due to their light weight, so check carefully for signs of abuse, particularly twisting damage to the rear suspension or unibody.
Late-1970s Novas have attracted little collector interest and rarely come up for sale, but they are an interesting example of one of the better cars of the malaise era. Their prehistoric emissions systems can be finicky and difficult to keep in tune, however.
The 1985-88 Novas have attracted virtually zero interest from hobbyists—they just aren’t very interesting cars, even in twin-cam form. However, they are exceptionally well built, and if you find a survivor, it’ll probably be an easy old car to live with.
Chevrolet Nova Articles on Automobile
Chevrolet Nova Recent Auctions
Chevrolet Nova Quick Facts
- First year of production: 1961 (for the 1962 model year)
- Last year of production: 1988
- Primary competitors: Ford Falcon, Dodge Dart, Plymouth Valiant, AMC Rambler American
- Original price (base): $2,198 (1962 Chevy II Nova 400 2-door sedan)
- Smallest engine: 1.6-liter I-4, 74 hp
- Largest engine: 6.6-liter V-8, 375 hp
- Characteristic feature: The go-to domestic compact of the 1960s and 1970s
Chevrolet Nova FAQ
What is the best year Chevy Nova?
We think the best Novas are the two-doors made between 1968 and 1971. That generation of Nova was arguably the best-looking compact on the market, and the SS version offered big V-8 engines that had real bite. The 1975-1979 Novas are pretty cool as well—they were good cars in an era when good cars were few and far between.
What is the difference between a Chevy II and a Nova?
From 1962 through 1967, the car itself was called the Chevy II, and Nova was a trim level. The model lineup consisted of the Chevy II 100, Chevy II 300, and Chevy II Nova 400, with the latter shortened to Chevy II Nova in 1965. When the new Chevy II came out in 1968, Chevrolet began to back away from the Chevy II name. The car was officially called the Chevy II Nova, though marketing materials often referred to the car simply as Nova. For 1969, the Chevy II name was dropped and the car became known as the Chevrolet Nova.
Are Chevy Novas good cars?
Definitely—though they sold (relatively) poorly in some years, largely because Chevrolet introduced more models that ate into their market segment. The 1962-1979 Novas were simple, durable cars, and the V-8 versions were especially potent because of their small size and light weight. The 1985 Nova, based on the Toyota Corolla and built in a joint-venture plant using Japanese management systems, was one of the highest-quality cars produced by General Motors in that era.
Is a Chevrolet Nova a muscle car?
The Nova was actually designed as a compact economy car. However, certain models of the Nova are considered muscle cars, particularly SS models with the 327 cid (5.3-liter) V-8, 350 cid (5.7-liter) V-8 with four-barrel carburetor, or the big-block 396 cid (6.5-liter) and 402 cid (6.6-liter) engines. Horsepower began to drop after 1971, and by 1973 the SS was merely an appearance package. However, many Novas were modified with aftermarket parts, and qualify as muscle cars.