It seemed like just yesterday that we introduced our ’68 Chevy Nova to the world. The intent was to build an all-around street/strip/track car that could do double-duty as daily transportation if needed. To this point, Project Nova has spanned four years and 26 stories, not including numerous updates, blogs, Facebook posts, tweets, and YouTube videos. Choosing a Nova was a good news/bad news deal; being a second-gen X-body, it shared many mechanical details with other GMs, including Camaros, Firebirds, Venturas, Apollos, Omegas, and even Cadillacs. Nevertheless, its ubiquitous nature had some readers crying “sellout!” because we hadn’t chosen something more offbeat. (Those folks will undoubtedly be happy with our next foray, a ’68 Plymouth Valiant.)
This month, we’d like to recount the high points of our Nova buildup since its inception, and talk about some of the stuff we’ve done recently to ready it for the street. And while we’re cautious about saying the car is truly “done,” we can finally say there are no obstacles that would keep us from hitting the highway and living the hot rodding life. It was only last month that this author’s editorial admonished those who are all talk and no game, and now we’re about to put our money where our mouth is and make a five-day 800-mile road trip to Phoenix where we’re meeting some PHR readers to shoot their cars.
When we spotted our Nova on Craigslist in October of 2009, it looked cherry—at least on th
Of note is the fact that Outlaw Motorsports in Riverside, California, has helped us finish up many last-minute details, like installing the remaining interior pieces provided by Classic Industries, and swapping out our Turbo 400 for a PerformaBuilt 700-R4 overdrive (one of the tips from this month’s “The 11 Best Mods For Any Car.” See p. 42.) We also did some tweaking to the carb, swapping out our largish Holley 850 Street HP for one of Holley’s sexy new 750-cfm Ultra Double Pumpers in Hard Core Gray (PN 0-76750HB). The 850 made great power, but was a tad balky on the street at low rpm, so in went the smaller 750, which produces more vacuum signal for better driving, but at a slight loss of top end power. A good trade we think.
Beyond that, Outlaw chased down some embarrassing leaks we developed, and replaced an oil pan gasket, valve cover gaskets, rear main seal, trans cooler, and trans dipstick tube. Our driving routine gradually increased, leading up to a week’s worth of daily commuting (that’s 120 miles and 3.5 hours per day here in L.A.) with no subsequent problems found. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, we experienced no overheating (the radiator was the only thing we didn’t replace on the car), and even in rush hour we got around 12.5 mpg. Not terrible for a 523hp 400ci small-block. We fully expect our Phoenix road trip to hit 14 mpg if we can nurse it through the desert with no issues.
Moving forward, we want to hit some autocross events (Del Mar Goodguys looks good for this), and the dragstrip—when and if one reopens in Southern California. Las Vegas, however, is looking better for a drag outing. (We’ll wait a moment while you digest the idea that it’s our job to spend the boss’s money to drive to Las Vegas and go drag racing.)
Don’t look for Project Nova to completely disappear now that it’s finished. (Is any project really finished?) Down the road, we’ll be using the Nova to experiment with more speed goodies. Right now we’re looking at dyno testing a water/meth injection kit from Snow, and some kind of self-learning EFI. Even further down, we may swap out some suspension stuff. What do you guys think we should do with the Nova next? Drop us a note at email@example.com with the subject line “Project Nova”!
The intent was to build an all-around street/strip/track car that could do double-duty as daily transportation if needed.
With a cracked block, the 350 in the Nova turned out to be crap, but we already had built one of Dart’s SHP 400 small-block crate motors, so it got the nod to go in. As our starting point, we had upgraded to the forged crank and forged Mahle pistons, which would give it a 10.66:1 compression ratio.
The Dart SHP 400 short-block was finished out with Dart Pro-1 200cc alloy heads with 64cc combustion chambers, a Dart dual-plane intake, COMP #930 valvesprings, COMP Ultra Gold 1.5 rockers, a COMP Big Mutha Thumpr hydraulic roller cam (243/257 degrees at .050, .533/.519-inch lift, 107-degree LSA), Moroso ignition, and a Holley Ultra 850 HP. With 1 3/4-inch dyno headers and an electric water pump, the Dart SHP 400 produced 523 hp at 6,200 rpm and 523 lb-ft at 4,400 rpm.
Our June ’10 issue gave readers their first close look at the ’68 Nova as we tried to transplant the Dart SHP 400. After pulling the old junk motor and spray bombing the engine compartment, we tried to drop the Dart in, only to find that the original crossmember was for an inline-six. The story ended up being a “how-to” on fabbing a six-pot crossmember to fit a V-8 with a decent oil pan.
The stock 8.2-inch 10-bolt open rearend wasn’t going to cut it, so we ordered a 12-bolt from Moser and had them build it with a bombproof Wavetrac diff, 3.08 highway gears, Torino axlehousing ends, 35-spline axles, and a Moser gear cover (Dec. ’10). It was probably overkill, but the Nova will never need another rearend ever.
By the Jan. ’11 issue, we finally had Project Nova looking “Facebook pretty,” thanks to new rolling stock from Nitto (NT01 235/40R17, front; 255/40R17, rear) and Vintage Wheel Works (V40 front 17x7s with a 4⅞-inch backspace, rear 17x9s with a 5 3/4-inch backspace). We started our suspension mods too with CPP front control arms, CPP front coil springs, CPP front sway bar, and KYB shocks.
The snaggle-toothed Nova needed remedial cosmetic help in our July ’10 issue, so we burned up the Classic Industries order line for a 2-inch steel cowl hood, new grille, headlight bezels, bumpers, “SS” steering wheel, dashpad, and some emblems. The coolest part of the story: a trick, stock-looking, in-dash tach conversion from Shiftworks.
We followed up the CPP front suspension with CPP multileaf rear springs with a 1.5-inch drop and some new KYB shocks supplied by CPP (Apr. ’11). Here we’re mating it up to the new Moser 12-bolt rear, which we ordered with Nova leaf-spring perches.
We replaced the sloppy slow-ratio steering box with CPP’s 14:1 Series 500 box for Novas. We also replaced all our tie-rod ends, steering linkage, hoses, and idler arm. This simple group of mods did an incredible job tightening up the steering feel of the Nova.
By our July ’11 installment, we were ready to tackle the front and rear brakes. Once again, we turned to CPP, as their PBR-caliper–based offerings are some of the best deals out there. The dual-piston 13-inch front kit (with beefy 52mm pistons!) ran just $999, and the rear 12-inch kit was $699. We rounded out the install with new CPP stainless brake lines and a power brake booster master cylinder assembly.
Next, we moved the Nova to the digs of Automotive Excellence in Huntington Beach, California, to tackle our exhaust needs. There was nothing wrong with the Flowmaster system that came with the Nova, other than it was way too small. We loved the sound it made, so we reproduced it in a 3-inch diameter with a Flowmaster U-Fit kit and 3-inch Super 40 mufflers with turndowns. The big chore, however, was getting our new Hooker 1⅞-inch long-tube headers to clear the steering box. For that Automotive Excellence used Hooker’s alignment weld sleeves and some creative fab chops!
Up until now, our ’68 Nova was largely a piece of junk hosed down with nice parts. It was time to take care of the “piece of junk” part now. For that, we took the Nova to Outlaw Motorsports in Riverside, California. Starting with the Jan. ’12 issue, Outlaw helped us with a series of pieces on restoring the Nova, including door panel replacement, patch panel fabrication, quarter-panel replacement, metalworking, floorpan replacement, and culminating with a complete body and paint restoration.
Our May ’12 issue featured the Nova getting a complete restoration at Outlaw Motorsports using Eastwood supplies, including their water-based, California-legal, Malibu Sunset Metallic Orange paint. No more sloppy jalopy!
Once we got it back on the road, we discovered this little Chevy was pretty darned fast. Should they open a quarter-mile here in SoCal, we’d need a rollbar to run legal. We ordered an Art Morrison Enterprises eight-point kit with a swing-out bar, some Corbeau Sport seats, Corbeau harnesses, and then got everything installed with the help of a Millermatic 211 welder. (Sept. ’12)
Right about the time we were putting together our Nov. ’12 issue, we found that Auto Meter was making some cool new Elite Gauges with programmable high and low warning lights. We mounted a water temp, oil pressure, and voltage combo in a Dodge Challenger pod, attached it to a Dodge Neon center console, and slid everything between two super comfortable and supportive (and affordable!) Corbeau Sport seats.
Our Nova has many of the moves from our “11 Best Mods For Any Car” found in this issue, including a pair of weld-in subframe connectors from Detroit Speed & Engineering. The complete how-to ran in our June ’12 issue. No unibody car is complete without this mod.
Wiring is the last frontier in homegrown projects for a reason: Nobody wants to do it because it’s frickin’ hard! We usually avoid rewiring a car at all costs, but our Nova’s was really shot, and Outlaw’s Ron Aschtgen is an old pro at it, so he tackled a Painless Performance universal kit install in our Aug. ’12 issue. At this point, our Nova was for all intents and purposes a new car.
By now, most of the punch list for the Nova was done, and we were curious exactly how much it was putting down to the wheels through our power-hungry Turbo 400. On Westech’s engine dyno, it made 523 hp at 6,200 rpm, but when installed in the Nova and running all the accessories including a flex fan, alternator, and water pump, the Dart SHP 400 managed a healthy 385 hp at 5,700 rpm.
Since our last installment, Outlaw Motorsports swapped out our three-speed Turbo 400 for a four-speed automatic overdrive 700-R4 from PerformaBuilt. (See Bulletproof Overdrive,” Dec. ’12.) Called the “Invincible” by PerformaBuilt, this Level 3 trans and converter is capable of handling up to 800 hp. Even better, with overdrive, the Nova now purrs along at 70 mph at just 1,900 rpm.
Our last move was to swap the big Holley Ultra 850 HP for a more conservative 750 Double-Pumper in Hard Core Gray. After some quick tuning, this carb gave us improved vacuum signal for better throttle response. We’ll be testing that out and checking our gas mileage soon when we take the Nova on an 800-mile road trip through the desert to Phoenix.
One of the final jobs Outlaw helped us with was the fabrication of a rear seat package tray using some nifty sheetmetal working tools from Eastwood (Jan. ’13). This Eastwood bead roller made short work of really intricate panels.
These two interior photos from the Nova show how far the interior has come in almost four years. When we got the Nova, there were literally no soft parts in the interior save the upholstered bench seats. I called it the “cheese grater” in my Mar. ’10 editorial (where the first photo appeared). Now it’s as comfortable as a new car, thanks to many new bits from Classic Industries.
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Want to know how Project Nova fared on its maiden voyage road trip to Phoenix? Head over to our YouTube page (www.YouTube.com/PopularHotRodding.com) and look for "Project Nova: The L.A. To Phoenix Road Trip!"
Project Nova Recommended Reading
Note: Any of the stories listed above can be found on PopularHotRodding.com by simply typing in the story name in the search box. Descriptions ending in “Video” have corresponding videos on the YouTube/PopularHotRodding video channel.
|“Power In A Package”
||Dart SHP 400 buildup and dyno test
|“Introducing Project Nova”
||Installing Dart 400 SHP into ’68 Nova
||Trim, hood, bumpers, grille, tach update
|“12 Bolts To Glory”
||Moser 12-bolt buildup with Wavetrac diff
||CPP front suspension and wheel/tire upgrade
|“Turning Over A New Leaf”
||CPP rear leaf suspension upgrades
||CPP Series 500 14:1 ratio steering box
||CPP brake tech; 13- and 12-inch front and rear kits
|“Boost Of Another Sort”
||CPP vacuum boost pump for vacuum brakes
||Phoenix Performance Switch-Pitch Turbo 400 trans tech
||Flowmaster and Hooker exhaust tech
||Header modification for steering box clearance
|“Life’s A Blast”
||Eastwood dual media blaster, paint removal tech—Video
||Door reskin how-to; Outlaw Motorsports
|“Cutting Out The Cancer!”
||Patch panel repair how-to; Outlaw Motorsports
|“Confined To Quarters”
||YearOne quarter-panel replacement how-to; Outlaw
||Body panel rehab techniques; Outlaw Motorsports—Video
|“Paint It Yourself!”
||Body and paint restoration techniques; Outlaw Motorsports—Video
|“Twist And Shout!”
||Installing DSE subframe connectors & solid bushings
|“Getting Wired Up!”
||Replacing wiring with Painless Performance universal kit—Video
|“Hoop It Up”
||Installing an 8-point AME rollbar; Outlaw Motorsports—Video
|“Making It Pan Out”
||Driver-side floor panel replacement how-to; Outlaw Motorsports—Video
|“Gauges In Stages”
||Installing Auto Meter Elite Gauges in pod on Neon console—Video
|“Dyno Tuning For Power”
||Chassis dyno tuning at Westech Performance—Video
||PerformaBuilt shows how they fortify their 700-R4 for 800 hp
||Custom fab package tray panels; Outlaw Motorsports—Video