I am looking for an excellent condition four door ’73-’79 Chevrolet Nova or clone (Buick Apollo, Buick Skylark, Pontiac Ventura, Pontiac Phoenix, or Oldsmobile Omega). Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of one for sale.
These are the top mistakes I wish I hadn’t made while restoring and driving my Nova:
- Wasting gobs of money. A few years ago, I blew through cubic dollars trying to get rid of a drive train vibration. In the end I got a rebuilt transmission, new engine, different bottom pulley, new water pump, different distributor, different alternator, and a few other miscellaneous parts. All of those parts only lightened my wallet. It turns out it almost all the vibrations were coming from my tires, which leads me to:
- Crappy tires. My BF Goodrich Radial T/A tires were complete crap. I will never buy them again. They had poor wet weather traction, were noisy, and poorly balanced. The replacement Michelin Pilot XGT H4s made the car handle far better, like night and day.
- Mismatched idler arm/pitman arm. For years my left turns “felt” different than my right turns, and directional stability wasn’t what it should be. It turns out that my Pitman arm and idler arms were off by ½”, thanks to Performance Suspension Components (PSC) where I got all my suspension parts from.
- The cheap poly bushings in my rear leaf springs. My front poly bushings, from PSC, never squeaked much, but my rear leaf spring bushings made noise with every suspension travel. I got the black poly bushings from Espo Springs N Things with my springs, and I think they were not graphite impregnated.
- Lower assist on the power steering gear. When I had Lee Manufacturing rebuild my P/S gear, I had him lower the assist, thinking that it would give me a better road feel. All it did was make the steering wheel harder to turn while giving no more road feel. The stock P/S assist was higher than modern cars, but it still gave a good amount of road feel.
- Analysis without physical diagnosis. I often tried to analyze things without physically tearing stuff apart and looking at it. On occasion I made a correct guess, but too often I ended up wasting time or money.
- Not checking the easy stuff first. If I did the easy stuff first, I would have swapped out wheels with someone else in 1999 and cured my drivetrain vibrations a long time ago.
- HEI. I don’t regret electronic ignition, but I do regret the HEI. It doesn’t fit right in a ’74 Nova, and I had to bash in the firewall to get it in. Next time I will do a remote coil type unit that can still fit in the stock location.
- Only had rear speakers. I had a great radio and 2-way Pioneer 6×9 speakers in the rear package shelf. It was “OK,” but I had to crank up the volume too much to hear stuff in the front seat. I would have rather had a front speaker.
- The worst one: Not paying more attention to the brakes. I totaled my Nova because my brakes malfunctioned as I avoided a wandering SUV. I guess that my rear brakes locked up as I jumped on them. There’s no telling what caused this: sticky cylinders, too much line pressure, bad proportioning valve? Who knows? I should have paid better attention to this vital system.
Things I don’t regret:
- Running A/C. A/C makes the car tolerable all year round in Dallas .
- Keeping the 2.73 rear gears. Those 2.73s may hurt low end torque, but they make the car reasonable at highway speeds. If I had an overdrive transmission I wouldn’t mind doing 3.73s, but that’s the only way I would consider that.
- 4 core brass radiator. Much less expensive than aluminum, and it never overheated, even with a 330 HP 350.
- Exhaust Manifolds. OK, so they reduced high end horsepower, but they actually fit, they don’t block spark plugs, and they don’t overheat the engine compartment.
- Stock hood. Cowl hoods are rice, and I still have yet to see any evidence that they do anything for you besides cause additional aerodynamic drag.
- Stock wheels. Aftermarket wheels look weird.
- Front bench seat. It is more practical. The only problem is the driver’s side cushions sagged from overuse, so my back would get sore on long trips.
- Replacing vinyl matting with carpet. The carpeting made the inside much nicer, although if I do it again I will go with cut pile instead of loop carpeting.
- Cheap oil. I still have yet to see any quantitative data showing that expensive oils do anything for you. All fingers point to at least getting API certified oil (even Wal Mart brand oil is API certified) and changing the oil semi-regularly. I yanked the intake at least twice, and I never noticed any sludge or anything else supposedly attributable to cheap oil.
- Daily driving a Nova. Yup, I drove my Nova to and from work every day. It was literally my daily driver. I enjoyed keeping a piece of history alive, and I enjoyed not driving the kind of car everyone else has.
The communally reinforced mantra is that collision coverage pays little for old cars. My experience is contrary. I had generic collision and comprehensive coverage on my Nova. They were for “market value,” or what someone would pay for the car on the open market. Market value itself already factors age, so it is not like there are additional deductions because of age.
I got a check for about 5800% of what I paid for semiannual collision and comprehensive premiums. I only had to substantiate the car’s value with receipts and comparable sales ads. A 58:1 ratio is a good payout. (By the way, the insurer assessed my car at double the value of a 2001 appraisal; some appraisers are apparently idiots.)
With my experience, I have to question the value of “agreed value” insurance. Unless there is something extremely unusual about the car (e.g., it’s a Tucker or a real Yenko Nova with 5,000 miles), it is easy to determine actual market value for the vast majority of old cars.
Also: “stated value” insurance is just a crippled market-value policy. It only means that in the event of a total loss the insurer’s maximum payout is the stated value. It does not guarantee that you get the stated value. (See http://www.lelandwest.com/Stated_Amount_Explained.cfm.) If you have the choice, I think a plain vanilla collision policy is far better than a “stated value” policy.
If you have a street driven car, and your car’s actual cash value (minus deductible) is significantly higher than the premium (I would shoot for at least a 20:1 ratio), then I think vanilla collision and comprehensive coverage is smart.
My lovely wife poked a fatal hole in my depreciation argument.
It is true that a newer car for her would depreciate more quickly. But that doesn’t matter in our situation. We were planning on replacing Jennifer’s car in 2007 anyway. A newer car for her will depreciate regardless of whether we buy it now or in two years.
So the rule is either an inexpensive, non-project Nova for Aren or a newer car for Jennifer. That’s what’s best for the family.
Figuring out what to do for a replacement car is a mind-numbing.
Both Jennifer and I want for me to have another Nova. So I’ve established a critical criterion on a replacement Nova: it cannot be a project car. This means it has to be virtually rust-free, the exterior must be reasonably attractive, the interior has to be in good shape, and all major drive train components have to be recently replaced or rebuilt. I have time to maintain an old car and do some minor improvements, but I do not have time for a major restoration.
I got a fair valuation and settlement for my Nova from the insurance company. (Who says it doesn’t pay to have collision coverage on old cars?) I’ve been looking for replacement Novas for weeks, and I cannot find anything acceptable that doesn’t run around 150% to 200% of the settlement value.
This leads to conundrum two: if I am going to spend 150% to 200% of the settlement value, wouldn’t it make sense to replace Jennifer’s car? It is a 7 year old Chevrolet Monte Carlo with 122,000 miles. Who knows, it could give us another problem free 75,000 miles, but this is a Chevrolet after all!
So over the past few weeks we’ve been doing our Consumer Reports research and checking local classifieds. We’ve whittled down our choices to a Chevrolet Impala and a Honda Accord. With the Impala we think we can do the base 3.4L engine, but we prefer the LS trim line which comes with a 3.8L. On the Accord we only want the 3.0L 6 cylinder. We’ve been in a 2001 Accord with the 4 cylinder, and it was totally underwhelming.
Today we test drove a 2001 Chevrolet Impala LS (3.8L) at a Cadillac dealership in Plano. We were reasonably impressed with that car. Overall it was like a roomier and more spirited version of my wife’s Monte Carlo. But it just had the general GM cheap fit and finish feel. Plus it had a lot of doo-dads that we didn’t want like heated seats, sunroof, leather seats, and so on. These aren’t bad features, but we don’t want to pay extra for them. And gee whiz, what the hell is this Onstar crap? No, thanks. I’ll use my cell phone and AAA, and I’ll remember to not lock my keys in the car! Plus this is a domestic model; the fewer parts means the less stuff to break. The sales manager was begging us to buy it for 75% of asking price before we left. (We are not ready to make a purchase yet, so we politely declined.)
Then we went to a Richardson Honda dealership and tested out a 3.4L Impala. It was a base model, and it was totally underwhelming. Jennifer hated the column shift. (Poor baby! I liked the extra space on the front seat. :-P) The handling was far worse than the LS; the car almost seemed to wobble every time I made a correction. We heard a lot of clunking from the front end every time I steered, so I have to wonder if something wasn’t right? Still, the 3.4L engine seemed to strain too much. Plus the 3.4L engine has problems eating intake manifold gaskets. (Oh, the memories.)
So next we tried out a 2002 Honda Accord 3.0L. I was very disappointed that I liked that Honda a lot better than the Impala, even the Impala LS. Overall it felt superior in every respect. The only flaw, if it is a flaw, is that the cabin seemed narrower. The other flaw is that a comparable Accord is about 25% to 50% more expensive than an Impala. That’s not a trivial amount of money.
In retrospect, my impression of the Honda Accord could have been colored by the fact that we drove a horrible Impala right before testing it. I want to drive an Impala LS again just to make sure my judgment is accurate.
This is where we stand on the car purchase decision. I still would really like a Nova. I think that if I ran the numbers, a Nova that fits my criteria, even if it costs 50% to 100% more than the insurance settlement, would still be a good deal mainly because it would not depreciate much. Depreciation is a real expense that a lot of people foolishly ignore. A newer car, be it an Impala or an Accord, will depreciate to next to nothing by the time we are done with it. However, Jennifer’s car is getting “up there” in mileage. I am not sure how much life is left in it before we’re going to have to shell out for major expenses.
Fortunately, we’re in no rush. It hasn’t been much of a problem to live with one car, and we don’t see any immediate need for another car. We’re going to continue eyeing newer cars for Jennifer. But hopefully the right Nova will show up…
(Jennifer just now adeptly pointed out that either of the likely outcomes will be that she “wins” or I “win.” We still support each other, but it’s just weird. Argh.)