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"Die Cast X", October 1, 2012

Sleeper Time

AUTO WORLD 1966 CHEVY II NOVA

BY BILL BENNETT

Auto World’s remake of Ertl’s 1966 L79 Nova SS shows the car at its best, with rich metallic red paint, Super Sport trim with a black vinyl interior, bucket seats, and a wicked little L79 mouse motor grinding through a Muncie “rock crusher” 4-speed.

1:18 | $80

Though the popular wisdom of the time held that Hemi drivers faced competition only from other Hemi drivers, many a street Hemi owner got his butt handed to him not by another, more powerful car, but rather by elephant hunters who whistled past in a boxy, low-profile sleeper called the Chevy II Nova. Chevy was almost as surprised by the Nova’s street stones as those thunderstruck Hemi pilots; first introduced in 1961 as a 1962-year offering, the car had been intended as a meek, reliable, downsized grocery-getter: functional, economical, and a little bit boring.But what street racers (and, ultimately, Chevrolet themselves) soon realized was that this little box could be made to go very, very fast.

LOOKING THE PART

Though its prowess against larger foes was hard to ignore, the Chevy II was initially targeted directly at another, far humbler car: the Ford Falcon. Chevrolet wanted to have a player in the compact market, and the innovative, quirky, and ultimately embattled Corvair had proven weak against the Falcon’s sales success. So, Chevrolet regrouped, and introduced a more conventional front-engined, rear-wheel-drive vehicle to compete with the entry-level Ford and its upscale Mercury Comet cousin. Project approval to product introduction took a short 18 months, and the cute, but uninspiring, Chevy II debuted with four and six cylinder engine options, offering competitive fuel economy with a modicum of crisp styling and a reasonable price. In ‘63, souped-up “SS” Novas looked the part, and offered enhanced amenities, but only offered six-cylinder power in top trim. 

THE MEANEST MOUSE

A 195-horse 283 V8 option appeared for ‘64 and ‘65, and a 300-horse 327 could be had in the latter year, too. But for the 1966 model year, things got decidedly better. Chevy gave the Chevy II a new design, and offered an even plusher Nova Super Sport Coupe as the top trim option, with bucket seats, a center console, SS hub caps, a floor-mounted shifter, and SS badging. But this car had something the others didn’t: a chance to check off RPO L79 in the options box. For $198, that pen stroke on the order form got the buyer Chevy’s meanest mouse: a 350-horse 327 V8. With its four-inch bore, 3.25-inch stroke, and its high-performance hydraulic cam, the L79 was reliable, powerful, and could rev to a 5,800rpm redline. In concert with the Chevy II’s small size and light weight, it pushed the little grocery-getter’s performance well into the muscle car range, surprising disbelievers with a power-to-weight ratio equal to some of the most feared big-block stockers being manufactured at the time.

HOLDING ITS OWN

That reputation for tough running and swift speed made the L79 Chevy II a legend, and attracted more than a few professional drag racers into the Nova club. Auto World’s Aztec Bronze (deep metallic red) Nova SS captures the look and feel of the showroom-stock version beautifully. The model shows the car in top-option trim, with big SS wheel covers and red-line tires, a black vinyl interior with folding bucket seats, carpeting, and a chromed console sporting a Muncie 4-speed shifter. The metallic paint is nicely done and comes alive under direct light; exterior chrome is a mix and match of painted and plated parts, and is further accented by tamped-on badging. The ride height is right on, and the shut lines, on dogleg hinges, are reasonably tight — especially considering the 12-year-old Ertl mold’s age. That vintage really shows in the trunk and the engine compartment; though nicely cast and painted, the engine has chrome valve covers and an un-stickered chromed air cleaner, and there are no ignition wires — even though the distributor looks like it was tooled to include them. The raw plastic trunk features a hubcapped spare.

Deal breaker? Nope. The car Auto World has chosen to replicate, the top-end Nova SS, is the best looking ’66 Chevy II Nova SS made in diecast, and this piece will see only 402 produced. If you’re a fan of the early generations of the Chevy II, this is a car to have; for the price, this model holds its own nicely, and displays with the best of other models from this era and manufacturer. Like the real Nova, it’s understated — but pays off when in an enthusiast’s hand, as one of the sweetest sleepers ever made. Unless, of course, you’re a Mopar fan.

SOURCES

Auto World autoworld.com

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