Market Spotlight

'68-'74 Nova: an enthusiast's blank canvas

by Cameron Neveu
11 November 2022 4 min read
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Photo by Cameron Neveu

Every generation of enthusiasts has a car that lends itself to customization. Whether it’s mechanical simplicity, such as was the case with the Model A, beauty and power—think the small-block-equipped 1957 Chevy—or sheer quantity and dependability, such as the 1990s Honda Civic hatchback, some cars become rolling canvases, practically begging for modification. Each automotive tribe seems to have its own roster. For Bow-Tie-loving speed freaks, there are few better blank-slate cars than the Chevrolet Nova.

GM debuted the car in 1962 as the Chevrolet II. Available in multiple body styles, from a two-door coupe to a four-door wagon, this stubby, basic people mover shuffled down suburban streets with a tiny-for-1960s-America 153-cubic inch four cylinder or a 120-horsepower, 194-cubic-inch straight six. As with most cars during the era, mission creep between the front fenders increased the available engine options to a 327-cubic-inch small block V-8 in less than three years.

In 1968, a new-generation Chevy II rolled onto showroom floors. With a longer wheelbase and coke-bottle styling, the novel Chevy read as a 7/8th-scale Chevelle. And the Nova name, initially the top trim level, now featured more prominently across all trims (the Chevy II moniker was completely abandoned in 1969).

The styling and shape remained largely unchanged until 1975, save for the addition of the bulky five-mile-per-hour bumper in 1973. The boxier ’75 Nova was the beginning of the end, and just three years later production ended to make way for the Citation. By that point, several million of these cheap little cars had been produced. They would, for decades after, be among the easiest, cheapest ways for kids to get into cars.

Monk Tate of Ruffin, NC, at speed in the Thomas Brothers Country Ham Chevrolet Nova during a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Division race. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Kids like me. I fell in love with the 1968–1974 era Novas in large part because my father raced a ’71 in the Street Stock class in his first go on the circle track scene. Novas were seemingly everywhere as I grew up trackside at dragstrips and ovals. With a short wheelbase, relatively light curb weight, and ample room between the rails for a V-8, the Nova was a perfect starting point for a would-be racer. I marveled at the shoehorned big blocks and home-fabricated tubbed rear ends housing massive drag tires, and the extensive prep for circle track racing that strengthened my dad’s Nova for battle.

I always aspired to own one, but by the time I had the disposable income to do so, my shot at a ’68 or ’69—or at least one that didn’t resemble Swiss cheese—was gone. Still, I remained encouraged by the ’73 and ’74 models that remained attainable. “Those years are interesting given that underneath it’s mostly the same as the 1968-72 pre-facelift cars,” says Price Guide Editor Greg Ingold, “but the big bumpers definitely help with affordability.”

Cameron Neveu

As luck would have it, a silver 1974 Nova popped up in Dundee, Michigan, about an hour south of our editorial office in Ann Arbor. After revisiting the Craigslist ad several times to gawk at the car, I decided to call the owner and check it out.

In less than two hours’ time, I was sitting shotgun in the coupe as the seller rowed through the four-speed between two aftermarket bucket seats. The 350-cubic inch small block roared through the Flowmaster dual exhausts. Sold.

With dents on the roof and rockers, it wasn’t perfect, nor was it stock. The front suspension utilized aftermarket A-arms and the rear-end came loaded with 4.11:1 gears. The owner explained that he bought the car from someone in California who raced the car. See what I mean about blank canvas? Even Novas roaming the streets are unlikely to have been left untouched.

Following my girlfriend home along I-75, I came to understand why four-speed road-goers aren’t typically armed with such an extreme gear ratio. At 65 miles-per-hour, I sounded like Earnhardt on a flyer. Revs for days. 

Cameron Neveu

After a brief stint in Ann Arbor, I road-tripped north to my dad’s shop. Over 250 miles of highways and back roads teased out the muscle car’s shortcomings. The shift linkage jammed on occasion, and the seats were mounted too high, making your 5’11” author feel like Shaquille O’Neal in a clown car. All the better—projects for the winter.

We took the car to the drive-in movie theater (those oversized malaise-era bumpers make for great footrests) and cruised around for a couple evenings. Now, it sits, awaiting suspension mods to improve the ride and, if I can swing it, a transmission swap.

While it sits, values are on the rise. “I have noticed that domestic mid-70s cars are starting to increase in value and desirability,” said Ingold. “A lot of cars in that category which used to be dirt cheap are actually commanding decent money for really good examples.”  

Excellent condition (#2) Novas and even drivers (#3) are steadily ticking up, although it's still easy to find a decent example for under $10,000. Of course, expect to pay more if someone's once blank canvas has been painted with a built 502 cubic-inch V-8 with all the supporting improvements.

Data from the insurance side of Hagerty also suggest that Novas command a fairly broad array of interest. The folks who grew up with them naturally take the lead—37 percent of folks calling us for insurance on one of these cars are Gen–Xers. Yet Millennials also seem to get it, accounting for more than aa quarter of quotes. It looks like the Nova will continue to serve as a blank canvas for years to come.

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Comments

  • Charlie Moore says:

    My parents in 1970 were going to buy a car for my mother. I talked them into the ’70 Nova SS w 4 speed tranny, and posi. Never donned on me to order something other than the stock 3.31 rear ratio. That car ended up being my high school car, and I’m 100% sure my mother never drove it. Loved that car. wish i still had it. We used to race down on Front Street in Philly every Friday and Saturday night. Only got beat twice, once to a 327 Vette w/ 4.10’s and a 302 Maverick w/ similar gears. When we brought the car home from the dealer, i switched the 350 badges on the fenders to 307. To this day, i still run into friends from back then, that comment “boy that was a mean 307”. I guess they never knew an SS wouldn’t come equipped w/ a 307. Still makes me laugh.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    Nova’s are interesting but I have never really been in love with them.

  • Pete says:

    Had a ‘70 with 307 and TH350, and a ‘72 SS with 350 and 4-speed. The first one was bulletproof; went 200K+ with regular maintenance. The SS was more fun, for sure.

    You’re going to be crunched for headroom. I had the factory highback buckets in the ‘72, and figured that the issue. Wrong. The floorpan is significantly highet than a 1st-gen Camaro, with which these Novas share bones.

  • Craig Heron says:

    I never got all that excited about a car called the ‘doesn’t go ‘.

  • 2DoorsOnly says:

    Ahh, my first car was a 69 Nova, 230 six cyl., with “3 on the tree”. The car was only 6 years old when I got it for college and already had peeling silver paint, a hole developing in the driver’s side floorboard, and the left side of the bench seat was worn through from the left leg clutching. Being a poor student, I put a seat cover on, and sanded and painted the car – a panel at a time with black enamel – with a brush! I used to get some comments like: “did you paint that with a brush”. It actually didn’t look too bad from a distance and held up really well until it got hit hard in the back by a commercial truck. So not having anything else to drive, I hooked a chain in the hole where the rear side marker light had been, put the other end of the chain in a driveway crack and tried jerking out the rear quarter, but it wouldn’t budge. I drove that car still for some years afterward with a trailer light mounted to the rear bumper posing as the brake light, and hood pins holding the crumpled hood down (I was pushed into the car in front of me too). I recall fighting ice that would get built up under my feet from the hole in the floor as I drove along a snow covered eight mile to school! I still have a metal tool box that has a dent in it that survived being in the trunk during the accident. At about the same time, my mom bought a 74 Nova brand new (230 six, auto.), which ended up being a daily driver for us kids too. When it was still fairly new I found my youngest sister (about 8 or 9) out in front washing the car with cleanser! It put some nice scratches all over, but it endured even more troubles as my other sisters proceeded to get it hit in almost every available panel. I didn’t get into any accidents with it myself, but unfortunately watched from a phone booth as a lady backed into it – and then tried to take off – I caught her! The good old Nova ended up in the collision shop very often until it got sold. My 69 came into and out of service for winter use as my “replacement” 70 VW Beetle didn’t have usable heat (rusted heat exchangers). When the 69 was not in use, it was used by our dog to sit up on to see over the fence, and then eventually parted out before being towed to the yard.

  • asphaltgambler says:

    I remember going with my much older brother to look at getting a decent daily driver at a Chevrolet dealer in the next town. This would’ve been in @1971 or so. As we pull up, on the used lot on the front row a ’69 – ’70 SS Nova with a 396/375 & 4-speed! Of course we go for a test drive – it was crazy fast! But it was not to be, he already had a hot-rod and needed something dependable.

  • Bradley Clarke says:

    When they changed the rear quarter windows in ‘73, they lost a lot of their sporty good looks. Prices reflect this today.

  • alison says:

    Had a ’73 Hatchback (first year for it), 350, turbo 350trans. blue with bucket seats. Loved that car, would have it today if it didn’t get rear ended.

  • Johnny D says:

    After we got married and had our first child, we decided to buy our first new car. We sold our 63 Impala SS 4-speed and got a 74 Nova hatchback. The backseat folded down, so it was like a wagon, but didn’t look like one. Great car, had it for 10 years, never had a problem with it.

  • Robert D. says:

    Luv my Nova’s. I have a 73 Nova SS , 4-spd. an bucket seats. I’ve replaced an rebuilt the 350 eng , tranny an suspension myself up to race specs. Now its a street \strip kruzer. My daughter sed i can nvr sell it bcus I bought her home from the hospital in it.thats cool at least it’ll remind in the family after im gone.🙂

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