In an automotive age defined by niche markets and increasing product specialization, it's easy to forget the central role once played by selfless generalists such as the Chevy Nova. From its genesis as a Falcon-fighting commuter jitney through its heady days as a Rat-motored strip hooligan, the Nova proved to be one of the General's most fungible vehicular commodities, effortlessly passing from one form to another as it chased the often mystifying caprices of the car-buying public. (Out of respect for the dead, we will elide discussion of the Toyota-built '84-88 models, whose rise to marketplace prominence coincided suspiciously with that of rock cocaine.) It is precisely this amenability to various modes of expression that makes the Nova such a popular foundation for customization projects. Do you covet a tricked-out show car? Few cars do it better. Itching to build your own 9-second bracket machine? The Nova can help with that, too. Whatever your bent, this selfless compact stands ready to abet the enterprise.
In the case of 16-year-old Michael Cooper, the Nova's duende took hold exceptionally early on. A veteran of the car-show circuit by age 12, young Michael limned the subject of our feature article with pen and paper before finally clapping eyes on a suitable '70 model a year later. But with so many competing design schools to consider, just getting started proved a challenge unto itself.
"The Pro-Touring craze had just hit, but I also longed for a Pro-Street Chevelle like my father's," he says. "So I figured, why not combine the two? No one had done it before."
Why not, indeed? After all, the Nova was a most willing accomplice. Drawing liberally from the Pro-Street playbook, Michael and his father began by widening the car's stock rear-wheel housings to free up room for a narrowed 9-inch Ford rear spinning 3.90 gears. McGuarty's Classic drop spindles provide a 2-inch reduction in ride height up front, while Air Ride Technologies springs and shocks at each corner allow Michael to dial in an almost unlimited combination of height settings.
Also key in the presentation are a set of 17-inch Torq Thrust II wheels--machine-finished rather than polished, in this case, to better match the Nova's clean, unadorned countenance--wrapped in BFG high-performance street rubber. Teamed with the crouched-linebacker stance of the suspension, they help infuse the car with the kinetic elegance of a 3,000-pound Rottweiler. Simply put, this is a vehicle that looks as if it might rather enjoy eating your neighbor.
For paint, the Coopers turned to family friend Roger Sheffer, who finished the car in an appropriately subtle--and historically apposite coat of Le Mans Blue. Although perhaps best known as one of the top color choices on First-Generation Camaros, this medium-metallic shade could also be had on certain Novas and Chevelles built during the same period.
In-car modifications cleave to the overall goal of functional improvement, and include vinyl-covered aftermarket seats, a smoothed-and-filled dashboard loaded with Auto Meter gauges, and a three-spoke steering wheel--all finished in carefully coordinated hues of blue and silver to match the car's exterior look.Those familiar with the infamous "does-not-go" chapter of Nova lore (in which an unfortunate linguistic contretemps was allegedly responsible for the car's limited sales success in Spanish-speaking Latin America) will be cheering to learn that Michael's car packs plenty of go-power to back up its extraterrestrial appellation.
Starting with the .060-over RHS 350 motor that came with the car, the Coopers reworked the ported-and-polished iron heads housing 2.02/1.60 Manley valves, a suitably obnoxious COMP Estreme Energy hydraulic cam (.507-/.510-inch lift, 240/246 degrees at .050-inch), and a Pete Jackson geardrive system. They also reused the forged TRW pistons, Eagle rods, and steel crankshaft. This formed an essentially bomb-proof foundation for the Weiand 177 supercharger, which exhales a bracing 15-psi bolus of boost down the engine's gullet via a 750-cfm Carter carburetor. A custom exhaust system comprising coated Hedman shorty-style headers, 2.5-inch pipes, and Magnaflow mufflers rounds out the package and infuses the Nova with a leonine snarl sufficient to ward off most would-be challengers on the streets around Michael's Olive Branch, Mississippi, home.
Spencer Lee transmission in nearby Southaven, assembled the car's Turbo 400 transmission, preserving the factory ratios but adding a TCI 2,200-rpm torque converter to help get the slightly nose-heavy Nova moving out of the blocks. Factor in the short rear gearing and the light-switch torque delivery of the roots blower, and you have a powertrain that is singularly well suited to the sort of tail-out tomfoolery that cars of this nature seem to encourage. And finally, because outsize power tends to result in outsize velocities, the Coopers treated the car to a four-wheel brake upgrade in the form of rotors and calipers liberated from an LT1 F-Body.
While the Nova's show-and-cruise schedule hasn't allowed time for dyno pulls or strip sorties, the accelerative potential conferred by the car's supercharged small-block engine is undeniable. Michael estimates the package's overall output to be "around 450 horsepower," which sounds about right. And as for the ZEX nitrous bottles shown in our photos? They are actually part of a clever ruse: they act as reservoirs for the Air Ride system.
As impressive as the Nova's dynamic and stylistic credentials are, it is the remarkable fiscal restraint shown during its build-up that elevates car and owner to the ranks of the truly noteworthy. Whereas many of the vehicles showcased in this journal represent the kind of monetary outlays typical of real-estate deals and light-aircraft purchases, Michael's Nova is a model of Calvinist parsimony, having consumed a mere $10,000 during its 1 1/2-year gestation (see "Built on a Budget" pg. 82). This was largely made possible by selling off the majority of the original powertrain in order to fund many of the subsequent upgrades. In these times of soaring budget deficits and unchecked personal profligacy, one can take solace in the knowledge that it is still possible (difficult, yes, but possible) to assemble a world-class show car for roughly the same cost as afflicting one's driveway with a new Chevy Aveo.
In addition to screwing together one of the most striking custom Novas in recent memory, Michael has found the time to launch the Blue Moon Speed Shop (www.bluemoonspeedshop.com), a retail performance outlet specializing in new, used, and vintage speed parts. Considering the keen financial sense already evinced by the shop's young proprietor, we'll put its chances for long-term success at well above average.
In the meantime, Michael plans to stay busy by entering the Nova in as many show and cruise events as possible, from marquee meets such as Super Chevy and the Goodguys soiree to various outings in the northern Mississippi/Memphis metro area. The planned culmination is a father-son drive from Olive Branch all the way to California and back, a trip that will push the car's high-speed-cruising skills to the limit, and possibly beyond. Still, Michael seems up for the challenge. "As nice as the car turned out, it was built to be driven, and I plan to do so." For an accomplished all-rounder like the Nova, it seems the role of long-haul specialist is but another entry in an ever-expanding resume.
As impressive as the Nova's...
As impressive as the Nova's dynamic and stylistic credentials are, it is the remarkable fiscal restraint shown during its build-up that elevates car and owner to the ranks of the truly noteworthy.