It has long been my personal observation that American drivers tend to fondly remember their first car. I have also observed that there seems to be a long-standing tradition of one’s first car being an old clunker. So this week, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about my first car. During my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, it became clear that I needed a car for my personal transportation. Like many of my fellow students at Pitt, all I could afford was a clunker, but that did not dampen my excitement over the prospect of having my own vehicle. In the spring of 1991, I proudly joined the ranks of car owners when I purchased my first car: a 1976 Chevrolet Nova.
My car was specifically a 1976 Chevrolet Nova 2-Door Coupe, which was a very popular American compact car at the time it was built. I bought it for from its original owner, the next-door neighbor of a family friend. At the time I acquired it, it had 125,000 miles on it. The car had its original power train, which consisted of a 305 cubic-inch Chevrolet Small Block V-8 engine and General Motors’ Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission. Outwardly, the car was painted metallic light-blue and sported a dark-blue vinyl top, both of which showed obvious signs of wear. In terms of interior appointments, my car was decidedly basic, featuring bench seats covered with blue vinyl upholstery, which was also well-worn.
Although my Nova was a clunker, it did have some redeeming qualities. The car’s old V-8 engine exhibited surprising power for its age and gave it acceptable performance in expressway traffic. I also found the car to be very durable and it experienced remarkably few mechanical problems. Most of the mechanical issues that did pop up were of a minor nature. The old Nova proved itself dependable for local use. For the most part, it ran when I needed it to run and it got me to where I needed to go.
On the down side, my 1976 Nova had its share of issues common to older cars. It was a rough starter in cold weather and once it did turn over, I usually had to let it warm up for up to 15 minutes before it would run comfortably. This led me to characterize the car (sometimes fondly, sometimes not) as having the personality of a grumpy old man. My car also had an oil leak, which required me to periodically top off the engine oil. The engine had a tendency to knock when run on low-octane fuel, which I remedied by using more expensive high-octane gasoline. Last of all, it did not get good gas mileage, mainly because it was heavy and powered by a thirsty V-8. The mileage issue was further compounded by my using it strictly for local transportation.
I drove my 1976 Chevrolet Nova for 18 months, before selling it for $375. I have no idea what happened to the car after that. In spite of its being an old clunker that had its share of annoying issues, it holds the special distinction of being my very first car. For that reason, I remember it very fondly to this day.
1976 Concours & Nova, Chevrolet: Chevrolet: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Chevrolet Range, 1976-1978, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.
Flammang, James M. and Ron Kowalke, 3rd Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1976-1999, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1999, p. 201-206.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.