Here's How Fast The 1969 Chevrolet Nova SS Really Is

If you've ever taken a marketing class, then you might have heard about how Chevrolet had difficulty selling its Nova automobile in Spanish-speaking countries because Nova translates to "doesn't go" in Spanish. That story, while entertaining, is an urban legend because the Nova did sell well worldwide and it certainly could go, particularly the Super Sport versions (abbreviated "SS").

Originally, the Nova was a trim level for the Chevy II compact car, but in 1969, Chevrolet dropped the Chevy II badging and the Nova became its own distinct model. More importantly, the late '60s heralded the availability of a 396-cubic-inch big block V8 in the Nova SS. Although even bigger big block motors like the 454-cubic-inch displacement V8 would be available in other cars like the Chevelle SS and Corvette, the 396 provided plenty of motivation in the Nova, which was considered a fairly small car at the time.

Without question, the fastest Nova in 1969 would be a Super Sport equipped with the optional L78 396-cubic-inch motor that produced 375 horsepower, backed by a 4-speed manual transmission. Opting to shift your own gears was key for serious drag racers because 50-plus years ago, automatic transmissions were not as sophisticated as they are today. They were limited to three speeds at best and had bulky, fluid-filled torque converters that created parasitic drag. 

Fast, but with potential for even more

How fast was the 1969 Nova SS? According to Automobile Catalog, the compact coupe could scoot from zero to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds and run down a quarter-mile drag strip in 14 seconds flat. A big challenge for muscle cars of the period — the Nova included — were factory bias-ply tires, which easily broke traction under hard acceleration. With some stickier aftermarket rear tires and perhaps freer-flowing tubular exhaust manifolds, hot rodders could easily shave one full second or more off their quarter-mile times.

Automobile Catalog goes on to calculate a top speed of 127 mph for the L78-equipped Nova. Like most vehicles at the time, the Nova's transmission lacked an overdrive gear, so its top speed would be limited by running out of RPM, not a lack of power. Besides a more aggressive choice of powerplants, Novas with the SS option package also came with power front disc brakes, heavy-duty suspension, and 14" x 7" wheels. Appearance upgrades for the SS included simulated air-intakes on the hood, a black grille and rear trim panel with "SS" emblems added, and a special black steering wheel with an "SS" emblem.

By 1971, Chevrolet was no longer offering a big block motor in the Nova. The rising costs of fuel and insurance were taking their toll on muscle cars in general, not to mention the Clean Air Act that eliminated leaded gasoline and forced lower compression ratios in engines. But if you were one of the lucky 5,262 folks that bought a Nova SS with the L78 motor in 1969, you had one of the fastest rides around.