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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

August 22, 1997

Only its most diehard supporters will disagree with the statement that the Chevrolet Corvair was a financial and promotional disaster for Chevrolet. With an air-cooled engine in the rear and initially "tricky" handling, it was the wrong car at the wrong time to go up against Ford's very simple but wildly successful Falcon compact car. Both were first introduced as 1960 models, but the Falcon outsold the more technically advanced Corvair by almost two to one.

It therefore must have been a great relief to Chevrolet dealers when the factory announced its compact Chevy II late in 1961. The Chevy II was an unabashed "Falcon Fighter" that had been rushed into production in a concept-to-showroom time-span unheard of in those days.

Like the Falcon, the Chevy II shared very few body and running gear parts with its full-sized siblings, but it was unmistakably a Chevrolet and was marketed alongside and as competition to the Corvair. In that first year, it brought many errant Chevrolet buyers back into the fold and came close to matching the number of Falcons sold that year.

As an "inexpensive" compact, the Chevy II had several things going for it. Like the other cars in its market segment, it was a stand-alone design and didn't share a body design with any other vehicle in the General Motors lineup. There was no Buick, Oldsmobile or Pontiac version of the Chevy II. Unlike its larger stablemates, it was of "unibody" construction. The body was the chassis and the front suspension system was carried on a subframe that bolted to the front of the body. It was offered with a four cylinder, 90-horse engine, as well as a straight six that put out 120 horsepower. In typical General Motors fashion, they could be had as coupes, sedans and station wagons, as well as in three trim levels from the spartan 100 series to the gussied-up Nova 400. The following year, the Nova 400 was also offered in a Super Sports (SS) version that featured bucket seats, a floor-mounted automatic transmission shifter, 14-inch wheels and tires and fancy "spinner" hubcaps.

I found a perfect example of the '63 Chevy II Nova 400 SS at the latest Hot August Nights "gathering" in Reno. The five-day celebration attracts thousands of car buffs from around the country, all of them there to show off or to look at thousands of muscle cars and to "cruise" with impunity. Bob Rose lives in Santa Rosa in Northern California and with his brother had undertaken a complete restoration of their mother's Nova SS coupe several years ago. It had only recently been finished and the pair were proudly showing off "mama's pet" in Reno. Unlike most of the other cars on display, the Rose car was unmodified and perfectly original in every respect. Even the "spinner" hub caps were flawless and the engine room that contained the original-but-rebuilt 196 cubic-inch straight-six was as clean and sparkling as the exterior. The only non-original part I could find on the car was a "Moon-Eyes" tennis ball stuck on the antenna as a tribute to hot-rod icon Dean Moon, who was being honored at the event.

If "Mama Rose" had been so inclined in 1963, she could have bought the same car in convertible form which would have made the purchase all the more rare, since that was the only year a drop-top was offered in the Chevy II lineup.

By 1965, the Horsepower Wars were really starting to escalate in Detroit. And while the primary combatants were Muscle Cars like the Pontiac GTO, Hemi-powered MoPars and the Ford Galaxie 428, the craze spilled over into the compact field as well. That year the Nova SS was available with a high-performance RPO L26 version of the six-cylinder engine which had been bumped to 140 horses. And for a few dollars more, the same Nova SS could be had with any of three V8 engines: The old standby 283 cubic-inch, 220-horse L77; the 327 cubic-inch, 250-horse L30, or the screaming 327 cubic-inch L74 that put out 300 horsepower. All the V8s could be bought with a four-speed transmission, a limited- slip differential and a wide selection of axle ratios. The following year, the power of the L74 had been raised to 350 horsepower which was guaranteed to pull the little 2800-pound Chevy II "economy compact" along at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, the brakes and suspension were barely up to the job of controlling so much horsepower.

The year 1967 saw that last of the original Chevy IIs in any form. Chevrolet introduced its new "pony car," the Camaro, that year, and its chassis layout and running gear were used on a new and totally different Nova two-door a year later. By then, the Chevy II label was through.

Chevrolet corporate historians will record the fact that in 1961, the original Chevy II did its job as a Falcon Fighter, put Chevrolet back on top of that sales market and faded into corporate history six years later. But current owners like the Rose brothers will keep the memory alive and enjoy the sparkle and panache of the Chevy II for at least another 35 years.