The Chevy II was the beginning of an unstoppable era of small cars and Chevrolet's very first attempt at fighting emerging import brands of the day.
Throughout its 17-year production life, the Chevy II became known for its variety of power choices ranging from tame to torrid. That was definitely not in the cards back in 1959 when the car was just a sketch on a designer's easel.
At the time there was no such category as compact domestic cars. Fords, Chevys and Plymouths were off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all automobiles that could be gussied up with not much more than a V8 engine, automatic transmission, white-wall tires, fancy wheel covers and an AM radio.
But, fearful of the growing popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle as well as a slew of other less-popular imports, Detroit introduced radical countermeasures for the 1960 model year, consisting of the VW-ish Corvair, Ford Falcon and Plymouth Valiant.
The conservatively sculpted Falcon became the sales sensation among the Big Three compacts that year, but General Motors followed up with compact Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile offerings in 1961, followed by the Chevy II in '62. By then Ford had added the junior-sized Mercury Comet and Ford Fairlane to their respective lineups and Chrysler put out the Dodge Lancer, essentially a Valiant clone. Suddenly, domestic dealers, including compact specialists American Motors Corporation, were awash in small cars of every shape and description.
As with the Corvair, the rear-wheel-drive Chevy II came in a variety of models, including coupes, sedans, hardtops, convertibles and wagons, with the top dog in the fleet labeled the Nova. Only two powerplants were available: a 90-horsepower four-cylinder; or a slightly stronger 120-horse inline six, making it the only car of its size in GM's arsenal that lacked a V8 option.
That problem was solved with the inclusion of Chevrolet's popular 283-cubic-inch V8 on the option sheet in 1964, but the Chevy II was overwhelmed that year with the arrival of the larger Chevelle and, for a brief time, sales actually dropped off.
The V8, along with the Super Sport option (bucket seats, racy wheel covers and special trim) helped restore the Chevy II to more robust health and converted what had been a meek and mild econo-champ into a lively street fighter. This also made the Chevy II competitive with the similarly equipped Falcon Sprint and Valiant Signet.
At that point, all the so-called "family compacts" were eclipsed by the launch of the sporty Ford Mustang that, from Day One, began selling more than a half-million units a year. The Mustang's popularity, due in no small way to its emphasis on fun, style and performance, spread like wildfire throughout the industry. Compact-car marketing began focusing on each vehicle's ability to provide unlimited amounts of pure pleasure instead of emphasizing their original mainstream-transportation virtues.
The Chevy II was no exception and, with a sleeker mid-'60s styling update, came more available power for Novas with the Super Sport package in the form of a 350-horsepower 327-cubic-inch V8. That engine made little sense to middle-of-the-road buyers looking for a thrifty set of wheels. However, for die-hard racers, legal or otherwise, the idea of a small, light and inexpensive two-door with that much punch was too much to resist. The Chevy II name disappeared in favor of the Nova brand in 1968 as the redesigned car joined the muscle-car fraternity.
Those in the know could get even more juice for their newly rebadged Novas.
Specialty performance shops, usually Chevrolet dealers who dabbled in drag racing, would install 427-cubic-inch V8s into these cars with as much as 450 horsepower on tap. Only a very few conversions of this sort were undertaken and only for a select few hard-core enthusiasts with very deep pockets.
Once the insurance companies and government clean-air regulators curtailed the muscle-car craze, Novas throughout most of the 1970s made do with tamed and toned-down V8s in addition to a basic six-cylinder-equipped version.
With ongoing emissions-related power constraints, the Nova/Chevy II had, in effect, returned to its traditional economy-car roots. The platform, though, had become badly dated and the more efficient and higher-volume Chevrolet Vega, Monza and Chevette ultimately forced the old Nova into retirement.
By 1979, the once-popular Chevy II/Nova that had helped create such a huge demand for the Bowtie brand was silenced, but not before making its mark - in several ways - in the automobile history books.