Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Guest Post: The 1970 Red Chevy Nova

My friend Jason was riding with his family in their minivan and pulled up to a bad-ass muscle car at a stoplight. The rumble of the engine and the fumes of the burnt gas brought back a flood of memories from high school when he owned a 1970 Red Chevy Nova (right) that he bought for $600 and souped up himself. He was so inspired that he wrote the story down and sent it to me in an email. Below is Jason's story. Enjoy:


Today I saw a '70 Camaro, or a '69 --- I don't really know anymore but I used to --- and I calmly declared the model and what I thought was the year to my wife. She said "cool".

We were at a light and I crept up behind and to the right of this beautiful specimen of a beast. Not vintage, but rather a souped up monster rumbling quietly to itself at a standstill, its orange paint job and black racing stripes setting it apart for those observers unable to admire its shape or hear its uneven rumble. From the driver's side of my Honda Odyssey I pondered it while the light was red, my kids in their car seats watching Nemo quietly.

I vaguely remember driving my first car --- or jalopy, I should say --- and noticing glances from guys in minivans or station wagons admiring my ride. As a teenager, I thought they were all suckers for not having the cajones to go out and buy a muscle car at age 15 for 600 dollars and race it around like a real man should. It was a 1970 Chevy Nova we called "The Nova". Bright red and an absolute piece of shit. It was basically an engine with a paint job. And I loved her so.

In some ways it was perfect for a teen: temperamental, hotblooded, stupidly dangerous, all show and noise, worthless to own and expensive to feed. Worthless financially, anyway; the first time you see your house in the rear view mirror, driving away by yourself is something a teenager will never forget. But driving away from a broken home like mine with tires screeching, motor screaming louder than you can, the smoke of burning rubber stinging your eyes and the smell of unburnt fuel in your nose is something that can shape you. I learned a lot from that Nova, and not just about cars.

It was actually a beautiful car at night when the street lights were on it, but like I said, a piece of crap. It looked fast. Bright red and jacked up with a hole in the hood for the air intake. I walked away from that car more times than I care to remember not knowing how I was going to get her rolling again. Sometimes I would return to where I left her and she'd start right up; sometimes she would need a tow and a major organ transplant.

Her engine was simple and powerful. An aftermarket 350 cubic inch small block with an obscenely over-sized carburetor. I think I got about 8 mpg. There was so much fuel dripping out of this 750 CFM Holley double-pumper that it would swamp the engine and stall if it was cold. The car actually ran better after I downsized that.

I paid to have the catalytic converters welded on for inspection, then subsequently hacksawed the pipes going into them and installed cutouts. I could roll up to a light and rev the relatively quiet engine and the driver next to me may see the stock 250 cubic inch plate by the front quarter panel. Then when the light would turn I would pull these things that looked like hood releases under my seat and it turned into a roaring beast as the suddenly open headers bypassed the mufflers and cats.

If I didn't lose traction off the start, I would usually win. From 0-40 MPH it was extremely fast, but above that, I was praying for traffic or another light to stop the race. I managed to pin the speedo at 120 for about 3 or 4 minutes going south on Georgia Avenue racing a GTO. Every light was green. That was probably the stupidest thing I have done in that car. It honestly felt like it was floating and it weighed 2 pounds. The already loose steering was so light it was like I was piloting a large clumsy plane. There was probably so much air under the car the front tires were more like wind rudders. We blew through about 5 green lights and if they hadn't been green, I simply could not have stopped. The lights came and went so fast that I knew even if one turned yellow, I'd be under it by the time it turned red if I just stayed on the gas. I think back to that scene and actually get nervous for myself.

Sometimes when I got pulled over I tapped the huge speedometer and it would fall down into the dashboard, disappearing. The police would then give me an equipment repair order instead of a ticket since I told him I couldn't determine how fast I was going. I later would wedge it back into place from underneath with a piece wood --- a 2x2 that came with the car.

I pretty much learned everything the hard way. The mag wheels I got for Christmas on my 16th birthday were put on with the lug nuts backwards. It developed an awkward lurching crunching motion while in 40mph traffic one day which moments later became a more serious problem. I backed that car right out of the ditch with three wheels and found the missing tire about 50 feet into the woods on the opposite side of the road. That incident alone has provided me with one of the best stories to tell while drunk and usually trumps everybody else's stories, except for Chris D., who also had an old Nova which he painted with house paint.

The interior wasn't an "interior" at all. It was really the inside of the exterior. No headliner, panels missing from the door, areas of the metal floorboards exposed --- oh, and the heater only worked in the summer. The radio had no knobs and the speaker cones were all punctured. It was a bench seat that had to be pushed back to make room for the aftermarket racing shifter that some previous owner installed in the middle of the floor. You could see the empty spot on the steering column where the "three-on-the-tree" handle used to be. With the seat forced all the way back you were basically driving it with arms and legs outstretched. It was like a massive chopper with a roof and a door. This unfortunately translated to absolutely no room in the backseat, a grave hindrance at the time.

I worked on that car quite a bit as a teen so the smell of grease and fuel are nostalgic to me now. I changed the oil in my '02 Subaru a while ago just to know I can still play around with a ratchet under a car. It was sublime to lie on cool concrete with 1000 pounds of dirty metal inches above my nose, watching the slick curve of oil glide silently through the air into the pan. A time to relax from the twisted effort and non-ergonomic straining involved in working with oil filters and frozen oil pan nuts. Pure nostalgia. I closed my eyes and imagined what it was like to be young again and build up a car that was part of your identity, your image.

So at that light, watching the Camaro drive away, really took me back. The smell of his exhaust was the biggest thing. He was burning pretty rich and it smelled beautiful. I felt like that line in Apocalypse Now when Robert Duvall said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. Smells like . . . Victory." And the sound, too. The moment he touched the gas pedal there was a split second stall as the engine went from an uneven loping idle to a smoother accelerating rhythm. I don't know what was in that Camaro but it was pretty big, the rear tires were huge and I could feel the engine vibrating its surroundings from inside my car as loud as I could hear it. I silently prayed he would open her up but he didn't.

Watching his car move, smelling it, and hearing it was just too much. A hundred memories of the Nova flooded into my head and I suddenly wished I hadn't sold her for a year abroad in college. I wished I was gripping the wheel of my Nova after having just replaced some part I never had even heard of before, nervously wondering if it will work while I drove it. I wished I was on my way to a friend's house to show him what I did, to take him for a ride. I wished I had the ability to drop a huge blast of horsepower and noise on society at a moments notice. It was like walking around with a loaded shotgun. I wished I was sitting at a light and toying with the idea of mashing the pedal into the floorboard when it turned green and scaring the crap out of other motorists with unbridled rude adrenaline seething tire screaming engine roaring HORSEPOWER.

I am now one of those guys who stares longingly at powerful cars from the window of a minivan. The driver may think I'm a sucker. Maybe I am, maybe I'm not. Maybe I'll eventually get another one maybe I won't. I figure there is a time for people to pursue hobbies like that, and maybe I'll get back into it.

My wife, staring at the car, said something that probably was a little prophetic.

"It would be fun if you made that your hobby again." Sure would. Maybe I will, maybe I won't, but at least I know I had the cajones to go out and buy a muscle car at age 15 for 600 dollars and drive it like a bat out of hell.

At least I have that.

(Photo Credit)
Thanks for posting this and to your friend for writing it.

Its amazing how a series of events - mostly good - can lead you away from something that is in your blood like the auto hobby. I'm much like that guy - except my first car (that has memories like this one) was a 1970 Buick Skylark. I got it when I was 17 and drove it for a little over 4 years. Every day. Through the winter.

Now, 7 years later, I've sold that car, bought a much nicer (faster, better running) car, and sold that as well to help fund my wife's college education.

The good thing is, I'm still young and nieve enough to believe that it will happen again in the relatively near future. So I've got hope and haven't yet turned to the guy that stares at the old cars longingly. I'm just the guy that reads stories like this and can almost smell the hot rubber and engine so associated with cars of that generation.

So, thanks.
Great story Ace, lots there I didn't know about the legendary Nova.
Thank you for taking us all back again.
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