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Original 1969 Chevrolet SS396 Nova is a Super Sleeper

Stephen Kim Mar 17, 2015
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Hardy har har. As any Nova owner will attest, before you’ve even stepped out of your car on cruise night, some wise guy’s already informing you that “no va” means “it doesn’t run” in Spanish. Like, thanks for the unsolicited educational quip, genius. In the case of Mac Bernd’s 1969 Nova, our misguided assumption that it doesn’t actually run had nothing to do with that miserably hackneyed piece of automotive folklore. Standing before an original SS396 four-speed car, restored to concours-caliber standards, complete with simulated factory chalk marks on the 12-bolt rearend, it’s easy to conclude that it spends more time rolling in and out of an enclosed trailer than rolling down the street. After watching Mac lay patch in Second gear and experiencing the wallop of 425 rwhp firsthand from the passenger seat, it’s obvious that this pristine Nova has survived time, and survives chronic WOT.

Although you’ll most certainly figure out that something’s fishy once the Nova starts moving, it’s hard to pick up on it while the Nova is parked. That’s because it has all the earmarks of your typical car show poser—the kind that makes traditionalists obsessed with period-correctness eject feces of jubilation. The engine block, cylinder heads, and Muncie four-speed are original, and have the factory stamp marks to match. Stock exhaust manifolds still hang off the heads and the engine bay looks stock right down to the paper air filter. The mint interior is all intact, with neither flashy aftermarket gauges nor an aftermarket shifter anywhere in sight. Peek underneath the car, and you’ll find simulated paint runs and overspray, just like the big-time show car guys do it. Even the bellhousing, block, oil pan, and cylinder heads are all painted in the correct shade of orange.

 1969 Chevy Nova Ss Headlight 2/18
1969 Chevy Nova Ss Wheel 3/18

Spend a few more minutes looking at the underbelly, however, and some subtle clues give away the Nova’s true intentions. There’s a Gear Vendors overdrive unit bolted behind the Muncie and a beautifully crafted, custom 2.5-inch stainless steel X-pipe feeding twin MagnaFlow mufflers. Anchoring the front wheels are a set of Detroit Speed Inc. control arms and springs and Koni shocks. While there is no fancy braided steel, the polished fuel lines do look a bit too shiny. DSE leafs and Koni shocks suspend the back end. The trickery continues under the hood, the biggest clue being a massive Be Cool radiator and electric fan assembly. Furthermore, popping off the air cleaner reveals a Quick Fuel Technology 750-cfm carb in place of the stock Quadrajet and an aluminum single-plane aftermarket intake manifold. It all amounts to a 425-rwhp beast with a fully modernized suspension, steering, and overdrive wrapped in a stock SS396 wrapper with just 63,000 original miles on the ticker.

After finally putting together all the clues, you realize that this may be the ultimate sleeper. It’s not that this Nova’s a fast car that looks rather ordinary. It’s a fast car that looks like a 99-percent, period-correct poser of a show car. It’s a style of building that deviates from all known hot rodding trends, and we love it. That said, why go through such painstaking efforts to keep the car looking all original? “Since the Nova was such a nice survivor car, I brought it home thinking that I’d keep it original, but that was a ridiculous plan that didn’t last very long. The car still had the original 350hp 396, but the prior owner put a bigger cam in it that ended up breaking a rocker arm,” Mac recalls. “I decided that if I was going to fix it, I might as well hop up the entire motor, but at the same time, I didn’t want to ruin the car, either. You see so many Novas that are chopped up, tubbed, or have holes in their hoods, but to me that’s not consistent with what the car really is. My goal was to emulate the kind of Nova someone would have built in the late-’60s and early-’70s without ruining the essence of the car. That’s a very different approach than completely dismembering a car.”

1969 Chevy Nova Ss Big Block 1 4/18

Not much was needed in terms of bodywork so Mac had the Nova sprayed in fresh coat of its original Cortez Silver paint and called it a day. When it came time to upgrade the engine, Mac considered going the crate route and storing the 396 away, but it made him feel like he was taking the easy way out. Instead, he decided to tweak the factory big-block. After the rocker broke, Mac wanted to take it apart to make sure everything else was OK, but understandably, messing with the original block made him a little antsy. “The original stamping numbers are on the passenger side of the block, but they usually go away when you deck them. As it turned out, only the driver side of the block needed to be decked, so the stamping number is still there,” he recollects. Mac kept the rebuild simple by boring the block 0.030-over to 402 ci, dropping in some fresh 9.5:1 forged pistons, and retaining the factory rods and steel crank. The factory iron heads have been ported and fitted with stainless steel valves, and a COMP 215/215-at-0.050 hydraulic roller cam actuates the valvetrain. In order to improve breathing without sacrificing hood clearance, a low-profile Edelbrock Torker intake manifold was bolted between the heads. The combo is simple and effective, but in keeping with the Nova’s sleeper disposition, there’s more going on than meets the eye. “I ground the Edelbrock logo off of the intake to make it look more like a stock piece. I think I’d pick up a solid 30-40 hp over the ported stock exhaust manifolds with the addition of some long-tube headers, but I love the way they look.”

1969 Chevy Nova Ss Interior 5/18
1969 Chevy Nova Ss Gauges 6/18

The bag of tricks has gotten pretty full so far, but the Nova packs even more secrets. What looks like a factory Delco battery is actually a modern unit with a vintage-looking cover. Inside the cabin, the MSD ignition box is completely hidden beneath the front passenger seat. Furthermore, the slick chrome shifter, etched with a Muncie logo, is actually a Hurst unit. To activate the Gear Vendors overdrive, Mac machined a groove into the handle, ran a wire through it, then mounted an integrated button into the shift knob.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Mac gets a kick out of concealing the Nova’s goodies and throwing people off. “If I put the stock 14-inch wheels back on it, most people wouldn’t know what the devil it is. That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish,” he retorts. Contrary to popular automotive folklore, this is one Nova that really runs, even if it tries its best to look the part of a “no va.”

1969 Chevy Nova Ss Taillights 7/18
1969 Chevy Nova Ss Rear Side View 8/18

Tech Check
Owner: Mac and Shelley Bernd, Arlington, Texas
Vehicle: 1969 Chevrolet Nova SS
Engine
Type: Big-block
Displacement: 402 ci
Compression Ratio: 9.5:1
Bore: 4.125 Inches
Stroke: 3.760 Inches
Cylinder Heads: Ported factory iron castings with Manley 2.25/1.88-inch valves
Rotating Assembly: Factory steel crank, Scat H-beam rods, Speed-Pro forged pistons
Valvetrain: COMP Cams lifters, valvesprings, timing set, roller rockers arms
Camshaft: COMP Cams 215/215-at-0.050 hydraulic roller; 0.566/0.566-inch lift; 110-degree LSA
Intake: Edelbrock Torker single-plane manifold, Quick Fuel Technology 750-cfm carburetor
Ignitiobn: PerTronix distributor and coil; MSD 6AL box, Taylor plug wires
Exhaust: Ported and coated stock exhaust manifolds, custom stainless steel X-pipe, dual
MagnaFlow: 2.5-inch mufflers
Fuel System: Edelbrock mechanical pump
Output: 425 hp and 450 lb-ft at rear wheels
Drivetrain
Transmission: Stock Muncie M-21 four-speed, Zoom clutch, Gear Vendors overdrive
Rear Axle: Factory GM 12-bolt rearend with 4.11:1 gears
Chassis
Steering: Detroit Speed and Engineering 600 box
Front Suspension: DSE tubular control arms and springs, Koni shocks
Rear Suspension: DSE springs, Koni shocks
Brakes: Stock front disc and rear drums
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: Intro Aurora 17x7, front; 17x8, rear
Tires: Riken 205/50, front; 275/45, rear
Interior
Seats: Stock
Carpet: GM black
Shifter: Hurst
Exterior
Paint: GM Cortez Silver
Hood: Stock

1969 Chevy Nova Ss Muncie Shifter 18/18

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