Friday, August 27, 2010

Briefly: 1973 Chevy Nova – “Slow Go” or "The Stripper"

I once had a 1973 Chevrolet Nova sedan.

No, not that one. Replace the wheels with steelies, subtract the racing stripes and V8, add about 400,000 miles and lots of rust, and then you're starting to get the idea.

If you thought Rusty was Rusty...

The Nova was the epitome of basic transportation: 250 cid straight six, Powerglide two-speed autobox. No air, no panel vents, no FM, no power brakes or steering. A real stripper.

I think I acquired it for $150. As a rule of thumb, I hold that any car that costs less than the fuel you put in it over the course of six months is a good buy. (A friend once said that anything under $1,000 that runs is a good buy, but I think he was setting the bar too high.)

If the 250 sounded like it had been rescued from a grain truck, that's probably because the 250 did see duty in trucks. In a flight of what can only be described as insanity, I used a coffee can to install a glass pack on the exhaust, dreaming of some day running split manifolds and duals. In my defense, glass packs were cheaper than real mufflers.

There were problems with the brakes. I'm not sure what these problems were, but they necessitated planning stops by calendar. This was not a rhetorical concern, as the 250 running through two forward speeds could still achieve 80 mph. Downhill. With a tailwind.

I was attending Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, when I purchased the Slow Go, and transfered to the University of Iowa (and my parents' home and cooking) shortly thereafter. It was then time to make the 330 mile trek to my folk's home in Lone Tree, on the opposite side of the state.

By this time I had concluded that only the right-front brake was working at all, and only then in the best of conditions. The shocks were shot, so a stab on the pedal would send the front end into a dive and the whole works rotating around that right-front end. With bias ply rubbers in back and (iffy) radials on the front axle, you could induce nauseating effects with thoughtful use of the two pedals.

Eventually I took to using reverse to get slowed down, which created new issues. The Powerglide never complained much, but the engine was unhappy with the arrangement. Like driving an unsynchronized manual, I discovered something akin to double-clutching worked best: shift from Drive into Neutral, give a carefully calibrated amount of gas (hint: lots), and then drop into Reverse.

It was the only way the Slow-Go was doing any burnouts.

The frame was such a rotten mess I swear you could feel it bow when this was done at above 35 mph. The u-joints also registered a degree of distress.

In the hands of a novice driver the 250 likely had many more years left in it. But as an enthusiast driver, I began to exact my toll on the old mill. In the best style of racing, I installed a mechanical gage cluster on the cowl. If I allow myself a moment for the (oil smoke induced) haze to clear, I think I installed it on the outside because I didn't want to be bothered with routing wires and tubes through the firewall. And damnit, it looked sexy. Sexy as in the 24 Hours of LeMons sexy.

Somewhere I have photos of the setup, unless common sense and common decency kicked in and I burned them.

Due to technical concerns too mundane and difficult to diagnose, the Slow-Go also had a bit of an overheating issue. As a result, it smoked, and used oil about as quickly as it used petrol. (A remarkable feat!) One morning I pulled into the UI library parking lot and noticed with some interest that the temperature gage had circled to the point where the zero-needle was impeding its progress.

A check of the important fluids revealed nothing. ...As in no coolant and nothing on the dipstick. (Please hold any dipstick jokes.) Not being a fool, I knew better than to put cold water into a hot (and totally dry) coolant system, but I did add oil.

I was concerned after the fourth quart: did I have enough cash? Should I get the oil level to the point where it registered, or eat lunch? I knew then I should have saved money and bought by the 55 gallon drum.

Several hours later, after learning much about rhetoric, I began dumping water into the radiator. It made curious popping sounds and steamed a bit.

Iowa City and the UI campus is about 15 miles from my folks home. Two quarts of oil later, I was there, in time for a late lunch! After a few squares (thanks, Mom!) I scratched my forehead. Didn't I just put four gallons of water in here? Could I have spilled that much?

In the end, I'm unsure whether the Slow-Go was possessed of fantastic fortitude or if I was simply smart enough to know when to pull the trigger. A few days after the oil and water, I purchased a 1983 Caprice and a few weeks after that I traded the Nova's Powerglide to a demo driver for a 700R4 overdrive automatic for the Caprice.

The Caprice ended up wet, but that's a story for another day. The Slow-Go went to the great scrap heap in the sky. For what it's worth, it never let me down.

1 comment:

Blogger said...

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