Recently, Old Cars Weekly editor Angelo Van Bogart offered some reflections on 1970s Chevrolets.
It does seem those 1970s Caprices and Impalas disappeared in a manner that was disproportionate to their sales figures. Perhaps, like my parents’ 1973 green Impala sedan, the cars were simply traded in on newer models and were well used in their later years.
I’d moved away from home when they purchased their 1973 Impala. My memories of that era were focused on another Chevrolet product, the Nova, because I had one as my first car.
The Nova of the 1970s was born of the Chevy II of the 1960s.
By the 1970s, the Chevy II, introduced for the 1962 model year, had gone through the 1960s in various economical and muscular roles, but still was usually overshadowed by the full-size Chevrolets, the flashy Corvette, the popular Chevelle and the spirited Camaro.
Even with its official name changed to Nova for the 1969 model year — a name originally used for the top-model line of the Chevy II — the small Chevy played second fiddle to the Monte Carlo, Vega and then even the Chevette in Chevrolet advertising.
But the Chevy II and Nova had a loyal following, especially from the mid 1960s on, among those who realized that its light weight combined with Chevrolet’s assortment of engines meant a potent little screamer.
The early Chevy II and later Novas always retained a reputation for versatility. They could be plain and economical or quite powerful, and could be loaded with options. The 1968 re-design brought a stylish coupe body that aged well over five model years.
My neighbor, a Chevrolet-Olds dealer, knew that I was ready to buy my first car, a Placer Gold coupe. My first car looked just like the one featured on the 1972 Nova brochure, except it had full wheelcovers in place of the Rallye wheels.
My Nova came with the base 307-cid V-8, Powerglide automatic transmission, AM radio with a rear seat speaker, custom trim and tinted glass. I’ve heard about Novas with bigger engines and all but my car was pretty fast. I remember easily passing other traffic on the freeway. The light weight and V-8 meant plenty of pick up when it was needed.
The Nova took me to my first job, teaching in Green Bay, Wis., then on a honeymoon after marriage in 1973 and to graduate school at the University of Missouri in 1974. Kathy and I had our Nova until we purchased another car in 1978. Then my father-in-law used it for his short commute to work in Green Bay.
Novas filled many roles for others in the 1970s. When the muscle car craze was dampened by a combination of stiffer insurance costs, increased federal air pollution regulations and the oil crisis of 1973 and its consequent higher prices, the Nova once again proved to be an adaptable performer in the Chevrolet lineup that was easily re-positioned as an economical choice.
In 1973, the Hatchback version debuted, a clever design that simply married the long slanted rear window with the trunk lid. The result was ample space in back with the rear seats folded.
When the 1973 Chevrolets debuted, I recall checking out a Nova Hatchback at Broadway Chevrolet in Green Bay and admiring how much room was gained by the conversion and the ability to fold the rear seat. The Chevrolet ad writers positioned the reconfiguration as the “Nova Motel.”
And it wasn’t long before Chevrolet saw the potential of the opened hatch by offering a covering they called the Hatchback Hutch. It turned the Hatchback into a camper for two.
In 1975, RPO Z11 turned the Nova into the Nova LN, a version that offered a plush interior and different trim, including upscale wheelcovers. For the next few years, Chevrolet continued that tangent with the Concours. It was as if the Nova had a fashion makeover.
In 1976, Chevrolet introduced three special editions commemorating the American bicentennial. An Impala Sport Coupe and a Vega hatchback were offered, along with what was arguably the better-looking version of the three, the Nova Spirit of America. Each car was white with unique logos, red-and-blue trim and white seats with red-and-blue accents inside.
In 1975, Novas began emerging as valued police patrol vehicles, especially when results of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department testing were publicized. Traditional police cruisers had been larger Fords, Plymouths and Dodges in that era. The typical police versions were set up to be all-out pursuit vehicles.
But the L.A. County tests folded in elements of economy and overall reliability in their testing, in addition to the pursuit categories, and the newcomer Nova entry beat all the competition. Suddenly, police departments large and small saw the Nova in a new light, and Chevrolet was able to find one more role for their versatile cars.
Interestingly, the 1962 Chevy IIs had been offered with a rare police car option along with the Corvair. Both were available in six-cylinder varieties only. Wonder how many of either of those cars were purchased or survive today?
By the 1979 model year, new technology and increased fuel efficiency mandates meant all Chevrolets had been downsized or otherwise offered new designs. Chevrolet became a part of those trends and joined the General Motors push to introduce the X platform, their initial foray into versatile, economical front-wheel-drive cars.
Nova, Chevrolet’s answer to the economy car demands of the late 1950s and early 1960s, retired from the automotive stage officially after 1979, yet the car has never really gone away for those of us who owned a new version or who bought one to restore or customize.
Many 1970s Chevrolet memories are wrapped around the versatile Nova. They found a place in our driveways and were the stars—and often continue to play starring roles—in our garages, shops and car-oriented hearts.
Be sure to look for a new book from Krause Publications about the Chevy II and Nova by Doug Marion coming soon. Doug has owned and raced many Chevy IIs and also edited Super Chevy magazine.