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Chevrolet’s 1969 L78 Nova: Ultimate Street Sleeper

Jim Youngs Jul 4, 2017
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Native Coloradan Tim Kae refers to his pristine 1969 Nova SS as his 11-second grocery getter, though we doubt very seriously it ever spends time in a King Soopers parking lot. Tim is the third owner of this numbers-matching, well-documented 396ci beast. He purchased it from the previous owner, who lived in South Dakota and had it for more than 32 years and completed a body-off restoration on it in 2012. Tim has owned the Nova for five years and has amassed numerous Best Of and First Place trophies at Super Chevy Shows and other muscle car gatherings.

001 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Front Three Quarter Alt 1 2/31

This Nova is not the beginning of Tim's muscle car history, either. Even before he could legally drive, at 14 1/2 he had saved enough money from his Rocky Mountain News paper route to buy a new 1981 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am (and paid full sticker price in cash!), complete with screaming chicken graphics on the hood la the 1977 Smokey and the Bandit movie star. Then he had to wait more than a year before he could drive it. From that point on he became a die-hard car guy. Tim has owned more than 30 muscle cars to date, each time moving up to ever badder rides, from Camaros and Chevelles to the one you see here, the baddest of 'em all.

Originally sold by dealer Kidder-Knoepfler of Sioux City, Iowa, this two-door sedan was one of only 5,262 L78 Novas produced and one of only 682 that came with an M22 HD Rock Crusher tranny (listed as "Special 4-Speed Transmission" for $311.55), a bench seat, an integral tach ("Special Instrumentation" for $94.80), a 12-bolt posi rear with 3.55 gears ($42.15), power steering ($89.55), Nova SS Equipment ($280.20), and Exterior Decor Package ($52.70).

From 1966 through 1969, the L78, 396ci big-block engine was the highest-horsepower mill available in Chevy's intermediate line through the so-called Regular Production Option (RPO). The block actually began production in mid-1965 as a Mark IV 396ci Turbo-Jet, designated the L78 option in the Corvette and fullsize Chevy cars. Tim's 375hp big-block is all stock, just the way it arrived in the Nova in 1969. The four-bolt mill even wears its original Holley 4150 four-barrel carb, intake manifold, exhaust manifolds, water pump, alternator, starter, distributor, heads, and such.

012 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Power Brake 3/31

Aside from the fairly rare 396 engine, the Muncie M22 Rock Crusher four-speed trans provides a bit of muscle car provenance, nostalgia, and some rarity of its own. The legendary M22 has straight-cut gears and a higher-nickel content than other Muncie four-speeds, so the transmission could handle more abuse. The downside of this construction, and from whence it derived its nickname (thanks to the straight-cut gears), is that it tends to be noisy, rattling at low rpm and whining at higher revs. Regardless, stirring a Rock Crusher brings with it no small amount of bragging rights, back in the day and even today.

The rest of the drivetrain is equally original. Stock brakes provide the whoa, and original 14x7 steel wheels are wrapped with repop Goodyear Polyglas F70-14 rubber for a period-correct appearance.

001 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Front Three Quarter Alt 3 4/31

Even the underside of the car didn't escape attention during the restoration. It is as clean and tidy as when it came from the factory.

The Nova's interior is all original as well, with black vinyl upholstery, the optional instrument panel that features a small tach to the right of the speedo, a Muncie floor shifter, and the original AM/FM pushbutton radio and speakers that Tim says "work great." Wrapped around the driver-side sun visor is a vintage starting procedures tag highlighting the "New Lock System" built into the ignition switch to "decrease the theft hazard of your new car."

This Cortez Silver, 70,000-original-mile Nova is about as clean and flawless as a muscle car can get inside and out. Tim also takes a great deal of pride in the fact that all the numbers match (verified by NCRS documentation) and that it wears all the right number plates, badging, and trim. He lists among the car's treasured extras the original Protect-O-Plate, original window sticker, original build sheet, original catalogs complete with selling dealer's imprint, and original custom features catalog.

014 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Front Grille 5/31

It doesn't take much time spent with Tim to realize that his Nova is doubtless the pinnacle of his muscle car history, except perhaps for that first car that got him hooked back when he was too young to drive.
He is rightfully proud of the Nova, too, as it garners plenty of deserved admiration and awards wherever he takes it. Just keep in mind that if you ask him to stop by the grocery to pick up a gallon of milk and some eggs, they are likely to be well scrambled by the time he gets back.

At a Glance

1969 Nova SS
Owned by: Tim Kae
Restored by: Previous owner
Engine: 396ci/375hp L78 V-8
Transmission: Muncie M22 Rock Crusher HD 4-speed manual
Rearend: 12-bolt with 3.55 gears and Positraction
Interior: Black vinyl bench seat
Wheels: 14x7 SS steel
Tires: F70-14 Goodyear Polyglas reproduction

002 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Rear Three Quarter 6/31

"Keep the rear bumper shiny; it's liable to be seen by a lot of unsuccessful competitors." That was the advice Hot Rod offered to potential buyers of Chevrolet's potent big-block Nova in a July 1969 road test, "13-Second Grocery Getter." Devoid of any loud graphics or other tipoffs to what was underhood, the L78 Nova was the ultimate street sleeper.

003 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Engine Overall 7/31

The 396-inch, 375-horse Turbo Jet was born in this Nova when it was built in the third week of July 1969. It still has the original carburetor, intake and exhaust manifolds, heads, and accessories. So even though the car was built to race, it most likely never did, or did so very gingerly.

004 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Interior Overall 8/31

Though the car was treated to a full restoration in 2012, the interior remains original—and mint!

005 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Visor Tag 9/31

Tim Kae shows his Nova with many of the dealer accessories still intact, including this visor tag explaining the theft-interlock system built into the ignition switch.

006 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss M22 Shifter 10/31

Hot Rod's Steve Kelly got his test Nova to a best of 13.87 at 105 mph. Tim could probably do better thanks to the Rock Crusher four-speed under the floor—Kelly's car had a TH400 automatic—but we are not sure the M22 is worth two full seconds.

007 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Wheel Tire 11/31

Tim shod his Nova with reproduction Goodyear bias-plies around the original 14x7 SS wheels.

008 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Window Sticker 12/31
009 Kae 1969 Chevrolet Nova Ss Protectoplate 13/31

Much of the Nova's original paperwork has traveled with it, including the window sticker, Protect-O-Plate, owner's manual, and dealer brochures.

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