In the bevy of special editions, packages, and trim levels that rolled off assembly lines in the glory days of muscle, it’s easy for one of these unique automobiles to slip quietly under the radar.
The upside of this is the allure of owning something unique without breaking the bank. With this in mind, David Whitmer, who was not content to restore something “ordinary,” spent several months searching for just such a car. What he found was a 1972 Nova equipped with the Sky Roof option. And, after a little smooth-talking he trailered the car home for the paltry sum of $650.
“Nova” and “rare” are two words that generally don’t sync for most hot rodders. How can a car be rare when Chevrolet cranked them out like clockwork for 20 years; actually, longer if you count the front-wheel-drive models — we don’t. Sure, a Sky Roof Nova still sports a tried-and-true small-block V-8 and wears standard, Chevy-issue sheetmetal, but it is the 40x40-inch hole in the roof that makes it special. No, David didn’t put it there. Chevy did.
It was in 1972 that Chevrolet first began offering the Sky Roof option for Novas — basically a ragtop sunroof — as a more affordable alternative to producing a convertible model, which was never offered on the second-generation Nova. That year, 6,822 customers decided to go topless — so to speak. In 1973, that sales number decreased to 3,259 vehicles, meaning just over 10,000 of these cars were ever produced. Doesn’t that qualify as rare? We think so.
While the Sky Roof option is great for cruising, especially around David’s native sunny-Southern-California home, it’s even better at letting in rust-creating moisture. Over the life of the car the canvas top did a fantastically terrible job of keeping water and steel from becoming overly intimate. The sheetmetal that had to be replaced was extensive to say the least — both inside and outside the car. Both door bottoms, both rear fenders, the driver and passenger floors, the dashboard, an A-pillar, and the material surrounding the sky roof all had to go.
With the amount of rot that occurred on this California car, the Sky Roof population in the wetter, colder states can’t exactly be thriving; making this Nova one of few, becoming fewer.
Whitmer took on the project knowing full well what it would take to get the car back on the road and completed to his high standards. It’s hard not to admire the level of perseverance and commitment it took to tackle a car most would have reserved for scrap or, best-case, a shell fit for cannibalization. But, David saw something in his rusty Nova that others didn’t.
“I must have spent near a $1,000 on primer cans, constantly switching between grey and black to find all of the high spots,” said Whitmer. “Man, it took forever to get it ready for paint.” During the time he was whittling away at the rust and other copious body imperfections, he was still driving the car to and from work. At the time, it was his only means of transportation. “I’d drive the car to work during the week and sand it and weld on it on the weekends,” said Whitmer.
Finally, once the exhaustive bodywork was finished, David and his dad sprayed the car in their garage in Magnetic Gray metalflake paint.
“There was a huge learning curve painting,” said David, who had never painted a car before the Nova. “I ran out of paint halfway through spraying the car, and by the time I was able to get another gallon mixed up, the flash time had passed. I had to re-scuff the whole car and start over.”
After the paint dried and cured, another large block of time was spent lovingly cutting and polishing up the fresh paint. The resulting fit and finish is unfitting of a first-time spray job. The panels are glass-smooth; undoubtedly a result of Whitmer’s meticulous attention to detail and the aforementioned estimate of $1,000 in black and grey primer cans.
With the paintwork finished, it was time to take care of the smoky, oil-thirsty time bomb of a small-block that was still David’s only means of conveyance. A quick rebuild kit, complete with 10:1-compression, 0.040-over pistons from Summit Racing and a bore and hone job from Brothers Machine Shop in Ontario, California, helped David get the car back on the road as quick as possible — like, less-than-one-week quick.
“I called on every friend with an outstanding IOU for rides to work that week,” said Whitmer. “If my parts hadn’t gotten here on time, or there was trouble at the machine shop, I don’t know what I would have done.”
The 355ci small-block Chevy is topped by a pair of old-school camel-hump heads with 2.02/1.60 valves and breathes through a swap-meet-scored Edelbrock intake. A split-pattern, flat-tappet camshaft from the local speed shop works the factory pushrods and stamped-steel rockers. An Edelbrock carburetor and mechanical pump handle fuel delivery, while spent fumes are expelled through a set of Hedman headers and are hushed by a Craigslist-sourced Flowmaster system. While the engine was apart, Whitmer sent the TH350 transmission out for a quick rebuild that included a shift kit.
In the mad rush to reassemble the engine in time for work, the need for reliable transportation overshadowed the desire for obscene horsepower and speed parts were kept to a budget-friendly minimum. However, a Silverado pickup has since entered into Whitmer’s life and, with the extra set of wheels, plans for a more aggressive engine are likely to follow suit.
Under the car reside stock rear suspension components, which have been cleaned, painted, and fitted with new bushings as needed. The Nova has drum brakes at all four corners, which have been rebuilt and converted to power assist. Filling the fenders are a set of polished aluminum, 17-inch, Showwheels Streeter wheels.
In our automotive world of over-the-top builds and spaceship grade horsepower numbers, it is refreshing to see a car built out of real passion, a desire to learn, and on a truly affordable budget. This ’72 Sky Roof may not have an LS packing 1,000 ponies under-hood or expensive Pro Touring wheels and suspension, but it has heart and a pretty neat option to set it apart from the herd.
“I have less than $5,000 in the car, and the coolest part of the experience has been spending time with my dad and working in the garage together,” said Whitmer. “Everything I know, I learned from him, and the best part is people still don’t believe we painted it ourselves! I really couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out.”
And why shouldn’t he be happy? The car sounds great, looks even better, and the rubber plastered on the fenders indicates Whitmer’s humble 350 is doing the job just fine.