Remember the phrase, “There’s no replacement for displacement?” Chevy builders followed that for years. Norm Brown heeded that advice for a long time. “I had a ’73 Nova with a 400 small-block in it,” he said of his first X-body. His second one is seen here. “It was already painted, and it had a 396 in it,” he said of it. “We drove it for a couple years like that.”
But instead of a bigger big-block, Norm decided to swap an LS-series engine into his ’72.
Why? “I’m an older guy, and I’ve had several big-block cars,” he said. “I’ve always been running carburetors, and I said, ‘You know—I’ve got to take a shot at this new technology.’”
So Norm did his homework and looked for information about swapping LS engines into the rear-drive X-body platform. The retired mechanic and shop owner came across R.J. Salvage in North Tonawanda, New York, which specializes in LS-powered cars and trucks. R.J. had a crunched, low-mileage ’10 Camaro in stock. “It had just turned 6,000 miles, and somebody had already put the supercharger on it,” he said of the Camaro and its MagnaCharged LS3. “They met a telephone pole backward—he hadn’t gone to the driving school yet, I guess.”
That wrecked Camaro yielded more than just the supercharged LS3. “The only thing I didn’t get was the sheetmetal,” Norm said. “They gave me the computer, the harness, and the accessory drives.” He also got a six-speed manual transmission and a driveshaft. “I wanted to go back to an automatic, so I swapped the six-speed for a 6L80E transmission,” he added. “It was a really good deal.”
Fortunately for Norm, the work he did previously to install a Tremec five-speed in his Nova came in handy. “We’d already modified the tunnel,” he said. “That really saved us from cutting the car up, because I just squeezed that 6L80E in there with maybe an inch of clearance around it.”
Swapping in the LS3 was almost as easy. “We had the nose off the car, which really made it easy putting the engine in, instead of trying to fight to get it over the fenders,” he said. “We painted the subframe and put in the Detroit Speed tubular front control arms while we had it apart.”
With plenty of room to maneuver, in went the blown LS3, but not before Norm found the hardware needed to secure it to the stock front subframe. “I’d asked Mast Motorsports who they recommended for engine mounts, headers, oil pan, and pickup, and they told me to give M.R. Muscle Rods a call,” said Norm, who found out that shop used engine mounts and exhaust headers from Hedman—which he bought. “Those headers don’t hit the steering box, and those mounts bolt right up to the Nova subframe,” he added.
Speaking of hardware, Norm used all stock LS3 accessory drives, including water pump, power steering pump, alternator, and brackets, and he relocated the Samden A/C compressor using a Quick A/C bracket.
For the drivetrain downstream of the 6L80E, Norm says his research turned up Dynotech’s driveshaft that fit between that transmission and a 9-inch rear end, equipped with a slip joint where it joins with the transmission, and a plate that held the driveshaft on to the 6L80E’s rear flange. “I was paging through GM High Tech Performance, and I saw this advertisement from G-Force Motorsports,” he said of the advertiser who sold Dynotech shafts. “I called them up, and they said, ‘We have everything you need—we’ve got the plate and everything.’”
To keep the LS3 cool, Norm turned to radiator maker Ron Davis. “He asked me if I didn’t mind opening up my Nova’s radiator support member,” Norm said. “He said, ‘If you can open that up a couple inches on each side, I can give you a Generation II Camaro radiator that will give you about 4 or 5 inches more core space,’ which worked out beautifully.”
With those parts—plus a set of 2-inch-drop springs from Detroit Speed and a ’10 Camaro center console and shifter—Norm completed the swap, which he said didn’t take the long time that other engine swaps took. “This took just four months—by the time we took the car apart, fit everything, got the car painted, and put it back together.” Elite Motor Sports in Miami, Florida, did the paint, which Norm says came out great. “Ivan and his crew did a great job in getting the painting done while still staying on schedule.”
If you thought a 396/Tremec-equipped ’72 Nova was fun to drive, listen to what Norm said about his X-body now. “The car is a super driver,” he said. “It’s a stock LS3 engine with a supercharger that doesn’t know it’s got only 376 ci. It thinks it’s a big-block.”
Norm’s had his Nova on a chassis dyno in search of the 500-rear-wheel horsepower the LS3 is projected to deliver, with the MagnaCharger running just 7 pounds of boost. “We’re still playing around with that,” he said, noting a prior dyno session peaked at 458 rwhp at 6,100 rpm when the LS3 began needing more fuel than its fuel pump could deliver. “We just put a new fuel tank and pump in, and we’re going to make an appointment to go back to him,” he said.
Does an LS-into-your-vintage Chevy sound like a good idea? Norm said to do your homework before you start spinning wrenches on it. “I did a lot of reading, of all the articles I could find on it, on the Internet and in magazines, for six months before I attacked it,” he said. “I asked a lot of questions, and I went to Georgia to an LSX event and talked to vendors there.”
Armed with that information, Norm swapped in that LS3 and found that modern engine tech can beat displacement, if done right! The only problem now is cruising range. Norm and his wife, Susan, like taking long trips in the Nova (we caught up with them at the Super Chevy Show in Palm Beach). Unlike when it had a big-block, the LS3 can cruise for four hours on a single tank of fuel—Susan has to practically beg him to stop to stretch her legs. Not a bad problem to have!