Sleep·er
noun /ˈslēpər/
a car that looks completely stock but is really a kick ass hot rod

No doubt about it. John’s 1965 Nova is the very definition of a sleeper. It looks stock on the outside, but those looks hide a healthy small block Chevy, a 4-speed Muncie, and 12 second ETs.

I told John that I thought his Nova looked like someone set out to do a complete factory restoration of their grandmother’s grocery-getter. With the stock wheels and hubcaps and fairly standard sized tires, you could easily imagine it with a six cylinder engine and two-speed PowerGlide.

“It has that sleeper thing where it looks like a grandma car,” John said. “That was what I was going for.”

And guess what? It did have a six cylinder and PowerGlide originally. But with the small block and four-speed John has in it now, the Nova has run a 12.90 second, 108 mph quarter-mile pass. That’ll get you some groceries.

In a really cool version of the father-son hot rodding story, John and his dad got into hot rodding at the same time.

“My dad didn’t have a background in auto mechanics,” John told me, “but ever since he was a kid, he always wanted to build a hot rod. When I was about 8 years old, he dragged home a ’40 Chevy Coupe. As a kid I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.”

John helped his dad build the ‘40 Coupe. Then his dad sold it and got a ‘63 Impala and they worked on that together. When John was 14, the Impala was done and they decided to look for another father-son project car. That’s when they got this ‘65 Nova.

That was in the late 1980s. As John recalled, “Novas weren’t as popular as Chevelles and Camaros back then, so you could pick them up cheap.” This one cost just $400 to obtain, and John said “it was running and driving, but it was pretty rough.”

There was some rust on the body, and John had to replace one part of the floor pan due to a leaky rear quarter window. But otherwise the unibody car was solid underneath. The rest of the floor is all original and in good shape, probably due to the fact that it started its life down South.

The car was purchased in Georgia (at Bill Heard Chevrolet) but was licensed in Alabama for the first 16 years. The grandson* of the original owner came up to Pennsylvania for school, and ended up staying in the state. It changed hands a few times before John ended up with it.

* In a great example of hot rod karma, many years later – in a complete coincidence – John connected with the original owner’s grandson who had brought the car to Pennsylvania.

The Nova’s had a number of different drivetrains over the years. It had the 6 cylinder / Powerglide combination when John got it, but he swapped the six banger out for a 283, keeping the Powerglide. Next, John mated a 327 to the Powerglide, then he mated a 4-speed to the 327.

I was surprised when John told me the switch from the Powerglide to the Muncie did not require a change to the transmission crossmember. “In those years,” he said, “the GM automatics and 4-speeds were the exact same length.” He even used stock GM parts for the clutch linkage and bellhousing.

The current engine is a 350, bored .030 over, resulting in 355 cubic inches. Based on a 1969 block, it’s got a new crank and rods from SCAT, and Speed-Pro pistons. The heads are stock GM Vortec castings, but John has replaced the valve springs and completed some mild porting on the exhaust ports. The piston/head combination produces a 9.6:1 compression ratio

A Howard’s hydraulic roller camshaft works GM Performance roller rocker arms. The intake manifold is also a GM Performance unit, and has a junkyard Quadrajet that John rebuilt. A set of Doug’s Tri-Y headers feed the 2½” dual exhausts with an X pipe and AP Xlerator mufflers.

A Ram flywheel and Centerforce clutch connect the SBC to the Muncie M-20 4-speed John built with an Auto Gear Super Case and midplate. Naturally, he runs through the gears using a Hurst Competition Plus shifter.

John rebuilt the factory 10-bolt read with 3.36 Yukon gears, an Eaton posi unit, and Moser axles. The Muncie and 10-bolt are connected by a Denny’s driveshaft.

The front coil springs are the stock components from the Nova’s six-cylinder days. The rear springs are Global West 4 leaf units.

The Nova originally had 4 wheel drum brakes with no power assist. “It didn’t stop that well,” John said. To address that, he upgraded to GM disk brakes from a 69-72 Chevelle up front, and added the factory Nova power brake booster and a Corvette dual reservoir master cylinder. The Nova still has manual steering.

John’s tried a couple of different wheel combinations over the years, including GM Rally and chrome reverse wheels. But he likes his current set up, stock steel wheels off a full size GM car, with hubcaps from a ‘66 Chevelle. He’s got 15 x 5 wheels with 186/65 Cooper tires in front, and 15 x 6 in the rear with 225/60 Coopers. “I’m happy with what’s on there now,” he said. “I think they’re staying.”

John restored the body of the Nova, and he paid attention to the details while he did – making sure to complete it with the right trim pieces and badges. “Some of the body trim pieces were missing,” he said. “I had to hunt down a lot of them. Back then, it was a lot easier than it is now.” John and his dad applied the white enamel paint back in the 80s and it still looks great.

Like the drivetrain, the interior has been through a few revisions under John’s care. At one time during its Powerglide era, the Nova had bucket seats and a center console. But John’s gone back to the car’s original style.

He had to repaint the metal surfaces on the interior as they were showing some wear. The bench seat went back in with new seat covers. “I like that look of the bench seat and the 4-speed,” John said. “It’s kind of unusual.”

New carpeting was installed, along with reproduction door panels. The Nova has a factory SS gauge package, but John’s installed a Shiftworks tachometer where the clock usually goes.

Keeping with the car’s sleeper identity, the white paint and red interior are the original color combination for the Nova. As John said, “It looks very factory.”

John loves to drive the Nova and does so frequently. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s really reliable. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it anywhere.” The three hour trip to his hometown of Pittsburgh is no problem for the Chevy. The small block spins at about 3200 rpm at 70 mph and manages about 19 mpg at steady highway speeds.

So far, the Nova’s only been to the drag strip once, where it turned in that impressive 12 second run. It was wearing a set of M&H drag radials and was hooking really well, so John launched it fairly easy so as to not break anything. He’d like to get it back out there and see if he can improve his 60′ times.

John and his dad didn’t stop with the Coupe, the Impala, and the Nova. While the Nova was being built, the family acquired a stock 1969 Malibu for some economical transportation. John took his drivers license test in it, and his mom used it as her daily driver. But, as John said, “we couldn’t leave well enough alone,” and they turned it into a Chevelle SS tribute car. They’ve also built a stunningly beautiful 1970 Chevelle convertible.

The ‘65 may be John’s first Nova, but it was by no means his only.

“When I got the ‘65 done,” John told me, “I was like ‘I don’t want that to be a daily driver.’ so I picked up a 1970 Nova. I put a bunch of work into it and thought ‘I don’t know if I want to keep driving this every day.’ so I bought a 1976 Nova… and put a bunch of work into it.” John has certainly earned the “Nova John” part of his Instagram handle.

And all the work on all these cars – including body work and paint – was completed by John and his dad in their garage. Describing the work on the Chevelle convertible he said, “100% of the work was done at home in a single car garage on a tight budget. This car has never been in a shop for anything.” The same is true for all their hot rods.

The Nova is obviously more than just a car to John. “I’ve owned the car for just over 30 years,” he told me. “Hard to believe it’s been that long, as that is more than half of my life! I’ve got a lot of sentimental attachment to this car… it’s almost like a family member!”

You want to know what makes hot rodding meaningful to so many people? John’s father-son, home built, 12 second, classic Chevy Nova is a great example.

Photos courtesy of John
Follow him on Instagram via @novajohn65
Click here to see more photos of his Nova

2 Replies to “John’s ‘65 Nova”

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