Junkyard Gem: 1979 Chevrolet Nova Coupe

From the 1962 through 1979 model years, Chevrolet sold millions of rear-wheel-drive small cars known as the Chevy II and/or Nova. These cars were everywhere on North (and South) American roads for decades, and Pars Khodro in Iran built Novas all the way through 1981. Since we don’t consider the Corolla-twin mid-1980s cars to be true Novas, the very last year you could buy a new Nova in the United States was 1979. Here is such a car, once resplendent in its custom racing stripes but now battered and faded in a Denver-area boneyard.

The Nova name started out as the top trim level on the Chevy II, then shoved the Chevy II name aside for the 1968 model year; a similar process happened when the Malibu trim level engulfed and digested its erstwhile Chevelle host. A persistent myth alleges that car buyers in Spanish-speaking regions refused to buy the Nova because no va means “it doesn’t go,” but Novas actually sold very well in Mexico and Argentina.

The 1979 Nova got a one-year-only snout, with square headlights and a unique grille. Perhaps this was intended to get people ready for the similar-looking front of the Nova’s replacement: the 1980 Citation.

1979 Nova buyers could choose one of three engines: the base 250-cubic-inch straight-six (115 hp), a 305-cubic-inch V8 (130 hp), or a 350-cubic-inch V8 (165 hp). This car has the six.

Believe it or not, the three-on-the-tree column-shift manual was the base transmission setup in the 1979 six-cylinder Nova (the very last year for a new three-on-the-tree car in the United States, though trucks so equipped could be bought through 1987), but hardly any car buyers — even penny-pinching Nova shoppers — proved willing to drive with a gearshift that had its heyday during the 1940s. This car has the optional three-speed automatic, which cost a whopping $335 (about $1,275 in 2020 dollars). Note the 80 mph speedometer, which maxed out at 5 mph below the legal speedo-display limit mandated by the federal government from 1979 through 1981.

This car probably was capable of exceeding 80 mph on flat terrain, but not by much. Even so, someone painted it with these speedy-looking stripes at some point in the early part of its career on the road.

The cloth bucket seats suggest that this car might be a Nova Custom, the higher of the two trim levels available in 1979. I’ve daily-driven a six-cylinder/automatic Nova coupe of this generation, and the driving experience was reasonably pleasant considering the lack of engine power.

The 1967-1981 Camaro/Firebird lived on a not-very-modified version of the Nova chassis, as did the original rear-wheel-drive Cadillac Seville. Starting in 1971, GM began selling a Pontiac-ized Nova (the Ventura), followed by the Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Apollo in 1973. The General certainly got his money’s worth out of this design!

Room for six, provided you had the front bench seat and all six people really liked each other. The Citation had a smaller footprint than the Nova, but lots more interior space. The Nova’s simplicity made it sturdier, however.

The 1985-1988 NUMMI-built Chevy Nova (which became the Geo and then Chevy Prizm) was an AE82 Toyota Corolla (the version sold in Japan as the Sprinter). A fine car, the NUMMI Nova, very well-built and reliable (as long as you lived where rust wasn’t a problem), but using the Nova name on it seemed as blasphemous as applying the storied LeMans name on Daewoo-built Pontiacs. Here’s a TV commercial for the NUMMI Nova, explaining the reason for using the name of a thoroughly disowned car.

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