There’s nothing like some good ol’ trash talk to kick your morning off right. After pointing his lens at what appeared to be a road race fuel cell, photog Robert McGaffin couldn’t contain himself. “He crawled under my car, looked at the gas tank, and said, ‘Oh man, it’s fake.’ I told him to bring his Cutlass down to the Goodguys autocross in Columbus so I could smoke his ass with my Nova and its fake gas tank,” car owner Mike Cosculluela quips. Obviously, any car that runs has to have a real fuel receptacle—and indeed the Nova does—but Mike has perfected the art of embellishing ordinary hardware into more sophisticated forms. Slipping a red cover over the stock gas tank is just one example. By skillfully and creatively incorporating this visual trickery throughout every inch of the car, he’s built a budget Nova done up vintage Trans-Am style for a paltry $20,000. So forget what you’ve been told about needing big stacks of money to have some fun. When the subject at hand is Mike’s Nova, it turns out that you don’t have to pay to play.

This road race–inspired machine marks the fourth X-body Mike has owned, and ever since 1975 he’s never seen an early third-gen Nova that he didn’t like. “As I was delivering newspapers on my bike when I was 11 years old, a black Nova came screaming around the corner. The car was jacked up on Cragars and it scared the crap out of me, but I had never seen anything cooler in my life,” he recalls. That image has been burned into Mike’s memory for decades, and he’s never been able to shake his Nova fix. “My high school was right across the street from a used car lot, and I walked past a ’70 Nova every day my junior year. I sat on the right side of the bus after school just so I could see it out the window. I had my eye on the car for weeks, and told my dad about it. He ended up buying the car for my mom, who didn’t like it because it was too fast, so she gave it to me.”

After inheriting his dream car, Mike sought to emulate the Nova he encountered during his days as a paperboy. “I bought some Cragars that didn’t fit, so I did what everyone did by jacking the back of the car up. After dropping a new motor in it, I painted the car in my garage and drove it all throughout high school,” he says. To this day, Mike still owns his first car and has diversified his portfolio over the years by adding ’69 and ’71 Novas to his collection. Although he was content with the cars in his stable, that suddenly changed after reading a story in PHR that captivated his imagination. “I saw a rendering that Chris Gray did for a Trans-Am–style Nova in the magazine, and I had to build it. Having been a Nova nut for so many years, I knew exactly where to look for a project car. I found a rust-free ’72 Nova as a rolling chassis on the West Coast for $1,500. It was so clean that I almost felt bad about cutting it up, but it had to be done.”

With yet another Nova in his garage, Mike headed over to his bodyman at Custom Gallery to discuss his ambitious plan. “The thing that stood out the most about the rendering was the fender flares, and I knew they would make or break the car. I showed the rendering to my body guy, Darrel Uzzel, and said let’s build it,” he recalls. “Darrel informed me that it’s not that easy to turn a two-dimensional rendering into three-dimensional sheetmetal while still retaining the correct proportions. I said I don’t care what you have to do as long as the car looks like it does in the rendering. The hard part was getting the outline of the flares right, because the wheel opening follows the radius of the tire in the rendering, but the arch is different in a stock Nova. After many hours of hard work, Darrel got it perfect.”

Since the wheel offset and body rake served as important visual elements in pulling off the Trans-Am vibe, Mike perfected the Nova’s wheel and tire package and stance before sending it out for the custom flares. That meant the rolling stock fit perfectly into the custom body panels as soon as the Nova returned to Mike’s garage. “I dropped down the back of the car with lowering blocks, and installed a RideTech air suspension up front. After setting the rake of the car, the fender flares were built around the wheels and tires,” Mike explains. With a fresh coat of just-dried flat black paint, and a set of 15-inch circle track wheels wrapped in fat Hoosiers just barely contained beneath the sheetmetal, the Nova was already looking pretty hot. Nevertheless, making it look the part of a vintage road racer on a tight budget required some creative solutions. “I got the chin spoiler off of a second-gen Camaro, pop-riveted it in place, and then attached it to the bumper with support bracing to complete the look. The rear spoiler is a first-gen Camaro piece that I flipped upside down for more angle, then modified to fit the Nova trunk lid. I then riveted two pieces of billet aluminum on top, and attached them together with a piano hinge to make it look like the pitch is adjustable.”