While on the outside Tobie Johnson's '66 Nova might just look like a simple stocker with some wheels bolted on, if you looked inside this fabulous Deuce, you'd find the heart of a thoroughbred. D&Z Customs owner Randy Johnson found this Aztec Bronze Chevy II for his wife as an early birthday present. After only a few drives on the stock suspension, Tobie knew changes needed to be made if the Nova was going to live up to her expectations.
Leaving the body unmolested, the first area receiving attention was the front suspension. The '62-'67 Novas are notorious for their lackluster front underpinnings, which is why the aftermarket has released all sorts of bolt-on parts to remedy that problem. Since D&Z had helped Heidts out with the development of its independent rear suspension for second-gen Camaros, Randy decided to stick with Heidts for everything needed in getting the '66 feeling good on the road. Heidts R&D guru Vaughn West got involved shortly after, and the Nova ended up serving as the mule to develop the Pro-G suspension kit for '62-'67 Novas.
The Heidts Pro-G front subframe is loaded with rack-and-pinion steering, optimized geometry short/long control arms, Wilwood six-piston calipers with asymmetrical slotted rotors, and adjustable QA1 coilover shocks. The real beauty is the whole package (once assembled off the car) can be bolted right up in place of the factory suspension. And by eliminating the rear steer layout, installing any engine combo becomes a breeze.
Building on the success and design of the Heidts second-gen Camaro IRS, Heidts used Tobie's shoebox Nova to develop a new IRS kit for '62-'67 Novas. It's based around a 9-inch housing with 3.50 gears and Tru-Trac limited slip, machined steel halfshafts, tubular control arms, and cushioned with QA1 adjustable coilovers.
(For the full, in-depth story on this car, see the November 2012 issue of Super Chevy where it was featured on the cover)
On the Autocross
This quiet, unassuming '66 Nova had me as soon as I touched the door handle. I gotta admit that of all the cars tested that day, this was one of the nicest and most mannerly. Heidts got on people's radar by designing and fabricating some really cool stuff for Pro Touring builds, stuff like independent rear suspensions and cool upgraded front pieces. I've driven a second-gen Camaro with their IRS and loved it. For this year's testing, this Nova sported its version of this same suspension, and I was eagerly anticipating my five trips through the cones.
This Nova wasn't lacking any power either, as it sported a peppy LS1 under the hood. Backed by a beefed up Bowler 700-R4 and most excellent Wilwood stoppers, this car presented itself as a complete package. The more I looked, the more I realized that this wasn't just a car with parts thrown its way, but one where a lot of thought went into the design and execution of its creation.
My unassuming ride came alive rather quickly during the launch off the line and it only got better from there. I found the Nova very easy to position and placement on corner-entry was perfect as I could drive it or slide it; the car didn't care. Apexes flew by and what impressed me most was how confirmed the car was no matter how aggressive I pushed it. This car loved wider, more bending lines, as it allowed the engine to stay in the powerband and I drove it more like a "momentum" car rather than a "point and shoot" one. Under power, the Nova slid around and into the entrance to the slalom and through this five-cone element, it was absolutely perfect.
At the end turnaround, the Wilwood brakes quickly slowed me to entry speed around the short chute and into "The Box" where my 90-degree right was spot on. Continuing to impress, I found the higher-speed sweepers to peg my grin-meter as the IRS let me "steer the rear" with light touches of counter-steer to correct my light throttle imperfections. Flying across the track entering the walloms gave the true test of rotation and predictability, the Nova passed with honors. After my runs, I found out the main ingredient to the excellent balance this car showed … the size of the tires as all four Nitto NT05's were 275/35ZR18's. Those that think bigger is better (especially on the rear), it's not always the case and this suspension proves it. Even with decent ponies and torque, the IRS allowed every bit of power to reach the ground and it accomplished this without our customary 335 steamrollers out back.
I spoke with the Nova's owner and he told me that keeping the car "old school" was always in the forefront behind the build. I loved this car, but one thing I'd change had nothing to do with suspension. The intake had dual throttle bodies and slowing down the opening response would have been preferable to the "on-off" switch felt by my right foot. With the ability to modulate power and tip-in response, I'm positive even better autocross times could be had! A solid thumbs-up for Heidts from me.
On the Street
The ride of this Nova was smooth and comfortable, a marked improvement over stock. A properly designed independent rear suspension supplies the dual benefits of improved ride and cornering prowess and the Heidts IRS in this X-body exhibited both. Neither bumps nor rough railroad crossings nor potholes could upset the little Chevy II. Cornering was tight, smooth, and made me want to push the Nova as hard as I could on the street without getting arrested.
The front suspension was equally as enjoyable, with the perfect feel in the steering system almost to the point the steering wheel felt like a natural extension of my arms. The manual Wilwood brakes performed their usual flawless job (seems like I was writing that about most of our challenge cars!) as I worked my way through traffic and stoplights.
Overall this was a fantastic car to drive, and the thought of cruising something like this on the long haul run of Power Tour or similar cross country excursion really got the blood pumping with excitement. Even more fun would be to take this Nova over to Europe and show them we know how to build IRS-equipped hot rods too. —Patrick Hill