Everyone builds or buys their cars for a different purpose. Cruise night crowds like to sit in lawn chairs. Car show people like to wipe stuff. Stance kids hard park (whatever that is). Drifters rip their bumpers off. Drag racers obsess over milliseconds. Bass competition people like to piss off their neighbors. Lowriders like to make their cars do things that cars shouldn’t be able to do. Exotic owners like to show us how big their… wallets are… Me? I just want to smile.
My 1974 Nova is an example of what you get when you don’t really have a plan at all. It’s way too slow to be a race car. It’s far too rough and unpolished to be an award winner. You can’t drive it every day because it’s lack of a heater or air conditioning makes it unbearable in the bipolar climate of Kansas City. It squeaks and rattles. Something is always broken. The incredibly stiff suspension is brutal on KCs rough surface streets. The ultra-quick steering is great for fast direction changes, but it sacrificed lock angle so much that now it turns like a battleship in a parking lot. It’s inefficient, obnoxious, and completely pointless… but by God it’s fun.
A bit about my background for reference. My dad is more of an automotive historian, and he taught me how to build a car. His style was to do factory restorations of 1st gen Camaros. I grew to respect and appreciate that art, but for my personal project,
I wanted something I wasn’t going to be afraid to chop to pieces. I didn’t want the shame of hacking, beating, and possibly crashing something that the world would actually find valuable. So, when I started looking for a muscle car from the 60s, 70s, and 80s to be my “forever project” I started by looking in the backlog of cast off, less desirable models. I was looking at cars outside of the mid 60’s to early 70’s golden age of muscle cars. I eventually came to notice that the farther I strayed outside of the mainstream, the harder it was going to be to find parts. And we all know that the harder it is to find parts, the more expensive they become. I’m a fireman, so expensive was not in my realm of possibility. So eventually I circled back to the GM X-body. It’s light, simple, and parts are everywhere. I decided finally to look for a 73-74 Nova because nobody would care if I crashed it.
I first acquired this 74 Nova in November of 2008 for $500. Originally equipment was a 250ci straight 6 with a THM250 automatic, and it was maroon with a brown bench seat. About as “oil crisis” as it comes. It was parked on the side of US 71 Highway in the middle of southern Missouri. Someone decided to farm style hot-rod the car at one point, so it had some awful 80’s yellow paint job that covered up more rust and bondo than steel. Under the hood was a gutless oil soaked 350/th350 combo that didn’t run. It sat in my parent’s basement garage for a couple of years while I was serving in the military. It sat while I went to Basic, AIT, attended Paramedic School, and pulled a 16-month stint in Afghanistan. Eventually, I was able to collect enough parts and had enough spare time to finally start to put it together. As stated – I didn’t really have a plan. I just knew that I wanted it to be fun, and have some character. It’s a street car, but I wanted to be able to take it drag racing, around an autocross, and I wanted to be able to take it on long drives. As a result. t’s not very good at anything, but it’s fun at just about everything.
For the engine, I wanted to stay traditional. I wanted torque. I wanted something that would run on pure testosterone and chest hair if it were possible. So naturally, I chose big block. I know what it’s going to say in the comments, “If you wanted cheap reliable power, you should have gone with an LS!” I know. I get it. And you’re right… but you’re oh so wrong at the same time. I didn’t know it when I installed it, but when the true nature of this car began to show itself, the big block came to be the middle finger that punctuated the character of the entire project.
It’s a 4-bolt main BBC who’s casting number suggests it started out as a 454 inside of a truck in the mid 70’s. Over time the engine was bored out .050, and LS6 style pistons were installed. With warmed up 781 open chamber oval port 113cc heads, the final compression ratio became a pump gas friendly 10.5:1. It’s had several cams in it over the years, but right now it’s an off the shelf COMP Magnum hydraulic flat tappet with 236° Intake / 236° Exhaust duration at .050, and a lift of .556” Intake / .556” Exhaust with 1.7 ratio roller tip rockers. The intake is a dual plane Weiand Action Plus intake manifold fed by the trustworthy all mechanical 850 Holley Competition Double Pumper. The exhaust starts with a set of unknown brand swap-meet headers that run true dual through a set of Flowmaster 40 series mufflers. In the loud mode, you can remove a set of cut-out plates that dump the unmuffled exhaust directly behind the headers. The whole set up is a tried and true combination that has existed in hot rodding for almost 50 years. By today’s standards, this engine is weaksauce. But screw today’s standards, I just want to make tires boil. And this engine does just that. It makes enough power to be tons of fun, and I don’t have to rebuild it after every winter
For the rest of the drivetrain, I followed the same “just want to have fun” recipe. To me, there isn’t much more fun than bashing gears, so I picked up an M-22 wide ratio Muncie from a storage lot auction and to control it I scored a sweet vintage Hurst Indy shifter (which they never should have discontinued if you ask me.) The wide ratio lets me run a 3.08 highway gear in the 8.5” 10-bolt and still have enough grunt in 1st and 2nd to lay rubber for as far as I want. An Eaton Posi makes sure that both tires are going the whole way too. I know a 3.73 or a 4.10 would make it several 1/10ths faster in the quarter, but I also want to keep my fillings after driving for several hours on the highway during my many trips on the Hot Rod Power Tour. With the 3.08, I can cruise on the highway at 65 at only 2700 RPM and it will still freight train its way up to much higher speeds like a NASCAR if I want it to. But let’s face it, in a 45-year-old car that’s probably not a good thing to do.
Most of the car is assembled from second-hand speed parts and spares from a junkyard, but in a couple of areas I decided was worth it to buy retail. Suspension and brakes. I wanted this old pig to handle as well as it possibly could. And since the 68-74 X-body shares, almost all of its components with 1st generation Camaro the aftermarket was ripe with options. For the front, I selected Ride-tech upper and lower control arms with QA-1 600 lb/in adjustable coil overs and a Hotchkis sway bar. The rear is a set of Hotchkis 2” drop leaf springs and old school Lakewood traction bars for that vintage street freak appeal. The chassis is reinforced with a welded set of subframe connectors, a 6-point roll cage, and a full set of Energy urethane bushings. The old drum brakes were replaced with a 4-wheel disk conversion from Right-Stuff Performance. I mini-tubbed the rear and relocated the shocks inboard to clear a 315 tire in the future, but for right now it’s got a pair of 245/60/15 BF Goodrich Radial TA’s out back or some 275/60/15 Mickey Thompson ET Streets if I decide to take it out with its dancing shoes on.
The interior is fairly basic. The original wiring harness was a rat’s nest of wire nuts and electrical tape splices, so rather than risk a fire and days spend diagnosing and repairing it, I upgraded with a full Painless universal muscle car wiring harness, and it was worth every penny. A set 5-point RaceQuip harnesses keep you tied to the PMD seats that were pulled out of a Formula Firebird. It’s got a stereo but you can’t really hear it. The Grant steering wheel is connected to a quick ratio steering box lifted from an ‘88 IROC Camaro I found in a junkyard. Everything combined makes for a stiff but tolerable driving experience.
As for the exterior, I don’t really know what to say. I’m not sure when it got out of hand, but over the years its snowballed to the point of no return. At first, I just patched all of the rust in the quarters and rockers, and that led to a coat of primer. I was still in the Army at the time, and I was venting to a friend of mine about my irritation for being “that guy” who exists at every drag strip with the slow primered Nova. He also happened to be a battalion supply Sargent. He joked, “Well, how do you feel about Green? We’re painting everything in the motor pool Desert Sand, so now I’ve got shelves full of OD that I’ll never use.” I don’t think he expected me to take his joke seriously. Who can say no to free paint? After you paint a muscle car OD Green it’s also written in some sort of code that you have to put some type of WW2 livery on top, so that came next. The Camaro front clip conversion was the result of me trying to fix an air flow/overheating issue, and trying to figure out how to use a new MIG welder. Now I can’t take the car anywhere without it being compared to the F-Bomb, Napalm Nova, the Murder Nova, or Deathproof. I take that as a compliment because all of those cars are leaps and bounds beyond what my little junker is capable of. I have no idea what’s going to come next for this pile. It’s taken me 10 years to get to this point. Nothing was ever planned, but now it is what it is. Over the years it’s been distilled into pure dirt nasty American beef. It’s never the fastest or the nicest, but it always gets attention. It’s a strange thing to park next to a $200,000 spaceship of a supercar, and everyone walks straight past it to look at this little Nova. Love it or hate it, I’m still smiling.
So, stop making excuses. Build a car. If I can do it, you can too. It didn’t take a lot of money, just patience. And if you see the car up close you can tell that I don’t really know what I’m doing either. Don’t worry about impressing anyone else, just have fun.