My First Car – 1976 Chevrolet Nova

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.

Example of a 1976 Chevrolet Nova with a vinyl roof. Aside from its different color and better physical condition, this car is an accurate representation of what my own Nova looked like.

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.

Sources

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.

The Fabulous Hudson Hornet

Trade catalog for the 1951 Hudson Hornet.

During the early 1950s, Hudson Motor Car Company was finding it increasingly difficult to compete as independent automaker against the American Big Three (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler). In an effort to boost sales and maintain its independence, the Detroit, Michigan-based company set about developing a high-performance car that it hoped would capture the imagination of the motoring public. Although the end result was not enough to save the company, Hudson did succeed in creating the hottest American car of the early 1950s and an automotive legend in the process: the 1951-1954 Hudson Hornet.

Positioned at the high end of Hudson’s model range and initially selling in the $2500-$3100 price range, the Hornet was essentially a modified version of the Hudson Commodore. It was built on the Commodore’s chassis and rode on a 123-inch wheelbase. The Hornet was also one of the first American cars to feature unit body construction. It was clothed with the Commodore’s sleek “Step Down” body, so named for its recessed floorboard, which gave the Hornet a lower ground clearance and a lower center of gravity than other American cars of the time. Outwardly, the Hornet was distinguishable from the Commodore by its gold and chrome plated “Skyliner Styling” head ornament and “Hornet H” badges on the front fenders. The car was also given a luxurious interior, which included striped upholstery and a chrome-appointed dashboard.

Trade catalog image of the 1952 Hudson Hornet and its standard H-145 engine.

But it was the Hornet’s high-performance capabilities that set it apart from other American cars of its day. Its low ground clearance and low center of gravity gave it outstanding road handling abilities. A range of 3 powerful 308 cubic-inch inline-6 engines became available over the course of the Hornet’s production life. Initially, the Hornet was powered by Hudson’s H-145 engine, which produced a then-impressive 145 horsepower and gave it a top speed approaching 100 miles per hour. As if this was not enough, starting in the 1952 model year, Hudson offered the famous engine option for the Hornet: the “Twin H-Power” engine. Equipped with 2 interconnected manifolds and twin dual-throat carburetors, the Twin H-Power engine produced an even more startling 170 horsepower. When fitted with this engine option, the Hornet had a top speed of around 107 miles per hour. In the 1953 model year, Hudson offered the Hornet’s rarest and most powerful engine option: the 7-X engine. Intended for competition use, it produced a then-staggering 210 horsepower.

Trade catalog image of the 1953 Hudson Hornet.

The Hornet’s reputation was further solidified by its dominating performance on the race track. Between 1951 and 1954, factory-backed teams of Hudson Hornets dominated both the NASCAR and AAA stock car racing circuits. Driven by top drivers that included Marshall Teague, Herb Thomas, and Tim Flock, the Hornets won most of the races they entered. Between the three of them, Teague, Thomas, and Flock won a combined total of 5 NASCAR and AAA driver championships.

Although the Hornet was an outstanding car, it was not enough to save Hudson. One reason for this was its styling, which was already outdated at the time of its introduction. The Hornet’s unit body construction made it too expensive for the financially-strapped company to restyle the body on a regular basis. The classic Hornet’s fate was sealed in 1954 when Hudson, irreparably damaged financially by the failure of the Hudson Jet compact car, merged with Nash-Kelvinator Corporation to form American Motors Corporation. The original Hudson Hornet was superseded by a Nash-based replacement for the 1955 model year.

Around 131,000 1951-1954 Hudson Hornets were built. Surviving examples are prized collectibles today.

Sources

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 729-730.

Hudson Car Club

Hudson for ’51 in 4 Matchless Series, Hudson: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Hudson Range, 1951-1957, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Hudson for ’52, Hudson: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Hudson Range, 1951-1957, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Hudson for ’53, Hudson: Trade Catalogs: Various Models: Hudson Range, 1951-1957, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kowalke, Ron, ed., 4th Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1946-1975, Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1997, p. 465-466, 472-478.

Legends of NASCAR

McCourt, Mark J., “Hudson Hornet, 1951-1954,” Hemmings Motor News, June 2004

Performance Unlimited!, New Hudson Hornet, Hudson: Trade Catalogs: Specific Models: Hornet, Jet, Metropolitan, and Pacemaker, 1949-1954, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Vespa 400 – A Microcar Built by a Motor Scooter Company

French trade catalog the 1958 Vespa 400.

Vespa is best known for building two-wheeled vehicles. This Italian company has long been renowned for building stylish and economical motor scooters, which have achieved iconic status in Europe. However it is not so well known that Vespa briefly built vehicles of the four-wheeled variety. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it marketed a microcar that went down as an intriguing footnote in the annals of automotive history: the 1958-1961 Vespa 400.

Introduced in 1957, manufactured in France by A.C.M.E. (Ateliers de Constructions de Motos et Accessoires), and sold at a low sticker price of $1080, the Vespa 400 was the brainchild of Enrico Piaggio. Reportedly developed over a period of six years, it was an attempt by Vespa to broaden its product line by offering a small economy car at an affordable price. The 400 arrived at a particularly opportune time. When first introduced, Europe had just experienced a fuel shortage brought on by the closure of the Suez Canal. This event caused a market shift in Europe towards small cars, which increased the level of interest in microcars.

American trade catalog for the 1960 Vespa 400.

In terms of size, the Vespa 400 was a truly a microcar, measuring a mere 112 inches long, 49 inches high, and 50 inches wide. Inside, it was able to seat two adults in the front seats and either a small amount of luggage or perhaps two small children in the rear seat. But in terms of design, the 400 was a surprisingly sophisticated machine. The car was powered by a rear-mounted 2-stroke inline-2 engine, which displaced 393 cubic centimeters and was good for 20 horsepower. A particularly novel feature of the engine was its semi-automatic oil/fuel metering system, which maintained the correct mixture of 2-cycle oil and gasoline (2% oil and 98% gasoline). The 400 was equipped with 4-wheel independent suspension, which consisted of 4 hydraulic shock absorbers with coil springs. Outwardly, the 400 was clothed with a bulbous steel body shell that featured unitary construction. The body was fitted with rear-hinged “suicide” doors and a plastic roll-down sunroof.

Cutaway view of the Vespa 400, ca. 1958-1960.

The Vespa 400 was capable of a level of performance considered acceptable for a car of its type. Vespa claimed it capable of a top speed of around 60 miles per hour and fuel mileage of 60 miles per gallon. The car was highly maneuverable and could be parked in very small parking spaces, which made it ideal for use in crowded European cities. Its four-wheel independent suspension gave it excellent road-holding abilities. The 400 received a significant amount of praise from automotive critics of the time, who described it as well-engineered, economical, and fun to drive.

Although the 400 was reasonably well-received by the European motor public, it did not sell as well as Vespa would have liked. One reason for this was Europe’s quick recovery from the Suez oil shortage, which shrank the market for microcars. The 400 also had the misfortune of competing against somewhat larger and more practical economy cars, such as the Fiat 500 and Citroën 2CV, which were available for a little more money. Faced with such realities, Vespa decided to concentrate on building its famous motor scooters and pulled the plug on the 400 in 1961. Around 30,000 Vespa 400s were built.

Sources

Covello, Mike, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars, 1946-2002; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 2002, p.810.

Franzel, Erwin, “Readers Drive ‘Em,” Small Car Parade, March 1960.

McCahill, Tom, “The Vespa 400,” Mechanix Illustrated, October 1959.

Vespa 400, Vespa: Serial and Trade Catalogs: Specific Model, 1959-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Vespa 400, Perfect in Town, Brilliant on the Road, Fascinating Everywhere, Vespa: Serial and Trade Catalogs: Specific Model, 1959-1961, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Vespa Website

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

The Cord 810 – Innovation and Beauty

American trade catalog for the Cord 810, 1936.

The Great Depression had a devastating effect on the American automobile industry, drastically shrinking the market for new cars. Small manufacturers of upscale luxury cars found themselves particularly hard put to survive difficult economic climate of the time. One small company that saw the demand for its products dry up was Auburn Automobile Company, which was the manufacturer of three luxury marques: Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg. In a last-ditch effort to survive the depression, Auburn Automobile Company’s president E.L. Cord ordered the development of an upscale luxury car that he hoped would sell in the midst of the depression. The end result did not save the company, but did go down in history as one of the most innovative and recognizable cars ever built: the Cord 810.

The brainchild of famed automobile designer Gordon Buehrig, the Cord 810 was a technological marvel for its time. It employed a longitudinal front-wheel drive layout, which was a setup Auburn Automobile Company had previously pioneered on the 1929-1931 Cord L-29. The 810 was the first American car equipped with independent front suspension. Power was provided by a Lycoming V-8 engine, which had a displacement of 289 cubic inches (4.7 litres) and produced a then-impressive 125 horsepower. The engine was mated to an innovative 4-speed semi-automatic transmission, with which the driver changed gears by flipping a lever, then pressing the clutch.

Dutch trade catalog for the Cord 810, 1936. Note the car’s hidden headlamps.

The Cord 810’s was equally renowned for its avant-garde looks that set it apart from all other cars on the road. It was fitted with a sleek streamlined Art-Deco style body shell which had a number of distinctive visual cues, including a “coffin” nose, a wrap-around louvered grille, and pontoon fenders. In addition to being futuristic looking, the car’s body featured a number of innovations. The 810 was the very first car equipped with hidden headlamps, which were mounted in the car’s front fenders. It was also one of the first cars to be equipped with a rear hinged hood and hidden door hinges, both of which later became common design features throughout the automobile industry.

The Cord 810 made its debut at the New York Auto Show in November 1935, where it caused a public sensation. But in terms of sales, the 810 proved to be a disappointment, which was attributable to a number of factors. Delays in bringing the 810 into production, something Auburn Automobile Company was not able to accomplish until February 1936, prompted a number of customers to cancel their orders. Because it was rushed into production, the 810 experienced a number of serious teething troubles, most notably problems with its transmission, which turned even more potential customers away. Last of all, the 810 was expensive, selling in the $1900-$2200 range. During the Great Depression, few people could afford to buy a car at that price and most of those who could were not willing to pay that kind money for an unconventional car known to have serious bugs.

For the 1937 model year, the Cord 810 was replaced by the Cord 812, an improved version of the 810 which was available with a supercharged engine. But neither the 810 nor the 812 was enough to save Auburn Automobile Company, which ceased all automobile production in August 1937. A total of 1,764 Cord 810s were built. Surviving examples are highly prized collectibles today.

Sources

Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 335-337.

Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 377-379.

The New Cord (Dutch), Cord: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model and Various Models, 1931-1978, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

The New Cord (English), Cord: Trade Catalogs: Specific Model and Various Models, 1931-1978, n.d., Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library.

Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.