When Horsepower Ruled, This L78-Equipped ’69 Nova Was King

Memories. When we’re talking memories about cars, they’re what give many car guys a make or model-preference when deciding what classic(s) will be parked in their garage. Whether that memory is of a first car, a fear-inducing first ride in Grandpa’s car, or just seeing a particular model blasting down the road or track, that memory is a powerful motivator.

Garry Thomson of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada has a particular memory that revolves around a car that used to terrorize the brand-x guys at the outside-of-town, unsanctioned drag strip. “When I was growing up, I watched a brown, 396-powered Nova street racer a couple of times. Ever since then, I really wanted to have one,” remembers Garry.

'69 Nova

Here’s the ad Garry found that started his journey with the Nova.

Being able to relive those memories, requires the application of appropriate timing. Many times, life dictates that you pass up certain opportunities, and other times, the timing is just right. “In December of 1978, I was in an autobody apprenticeship program, and I found this car in a local classified ad. It was in my then-hometown of Tottenham, Ontario, Canada,” Garry stated. “After making a deal with the owner and buying the car, I used it as my daily driver for a couple of years. That is, until I finally decided it was time to disassemble the car and fix it up.”

After making a deal with the owner and buying the car, I used it as my daily driver for a couple of years. – Garry Thomson

However, when it came time to actually start the rebuild, timing again played a crucial role. Unfortunately, this time, it was not working in Garry’s favor. “Early on, while I was making a living in the autobody industry and building cars for other people, my Nova – and the parts and pieces I had gathered for the restoration – just sat in several locations,” he affirmed. Finally, in 2005, the timing was amenable, and he was able to begin a full rotisserie-based restoration. Once underway, it took him a total of 10 years to complete the rebuild.

Spending all of its life in the Great White North – and being a daily driver – it’s easy to understand why some metal replacement was necessary on the body. “I had to replace the floors and some of the trunk area. The quarter-panels are original, but needed some patch work,” Garry detailed. Once the bodywork was better than the factory ever imagined, the metal was covered with a basecoat of Dover White, and then given several coats of clearcoat to protect it.

,69 Nova

Looks unassuming, doesn’t it. Many unsuspecting street racers thought the same thing back in the ’70s. That was their downfall. Garry did tell us his car originally had a black vinyl top.

This is a restoration, not a restomod, and even though the vintage Sun tach and T-handle shift knob is not factory, the rest of the interior is just as GM delivered it to Belmont Chevrolet in Toronto. The black vinyl seat skins and other parts were sourced from Classic Industries.

Underneath the near-perfect body, you’ll find a rebuilt F-41-option performance suspension, with disc brakes on the front and drums on the rear. The rear multi-leaf springs support the option-specified 12-bolt rearend that now houses a set of 4.10 gears. Garry told us that a set of 4.56 gears spent time in the rearend while it was his daily driver. That’s dedication! Nowadays, depending on his mood, Garry has the option of running the steelies or Cragar wheels on all four corners, or he can mix them up like he did while at the Chevrolet Nationals where we saw and photographed the car.

In the late-1960s, a car with 396 badges didn't specify which 396 engine was lurking under the hood. Garry's is the biggest of them all.

Under the hood is pure 1969 horsepower, in the form of a 396ci big block. But, in the late-1960s and early ’70s, if a car with 396 badges pulled next to you at a stop light, knowing what 396 engine was lurking under the hood required guesswork and speculation – unless you had a keen sense of hearing. Just because the fender emblems clearly state 396, that Turbo-Jet-named monster under the hood could have been one of three versions of the famed motivator, with anywhere between 325 and 375 “rated” horsepower. However, if you heard the familiar “tick” of solid lifters, you knew it was the mother of all big blocks ready to give your ride a beat-down.

What sets Garry’s hot rod apart from many other big-block-equipped hot rods is that it is quickly propelled by the high-horsepower L78 version. This means it’s belching out 375 “advertised” horsepower. We all know how accurate those advertised ratings actually were. In fact, it’s a well-known fact that the advertised number was quite an understatement, as numbers closer to 450 horsepower were generally delivered. Every one of Chevrolet’s hottest 396ci engines came with a solid-lifter camshaft, 11.5:1 compression ratio, square-port heads with upsized 2.19-inch intake valves, and a cast aluminum high-rise intake manifold with a 4150-series Holley carburetor delivering 780 cfm of power-making air and fuel.

During the restoration, Garry bored the cylinders .030-inch oversized, and added Speed Pro pistons to the stock crankshaft and connecting rods. A COMP Cams bumpy stick displaces .570/.570-inch lift and 236/236 degrees of duration at .050-inch lift. There are roller-tip rocker arms under the chrome valve covers, and the factory aluminum intake and Holley carburetor finish this potent engine combination. Under the distributor cap is a Pertronix Ignitor ignition, and the ceramic-coated headers are the only items that deviate from stock appearing.

When the L78 engine option was specified, buyers got a choice of the Turbo 400 automatic transmission or the famed Rock Crusher four speed. The Muncie M22 transmission is known for its straight-cut gears and a higher nickel-content than other four-speeds.

Non-car guys might consider the noisy operation of the gears a detracting feature of the car. Personally, we think the rattling at low RPM and the gear whine at higher engine revs adds to the coolness of any car. To real car guys, it’s music to the ears. Rowing through the gears of a Rock Crusher brings with it no small amount of bragging rights, back in the day and still today. Garry happily rows his own gears.

'69 Nova

“I debuted the Nova at the 2016 Motorama show in Toronto, Canada,” Garry indicated. “While I was at that show, I actually met the salesman who originally sold my car new from Belmont Chevrolet. He put me in touch with Lance Hill, a legendary Canadian drag racer who was also a business partner at Belmont Chevrolet. Mr. Hill was the purchasing agent for all the performance cars and parts that ended up at Belmont. After he did some checking, he informed me that my Nova was ordered as a match to Grumpy’s Toy V 1968 Nova.”

Photo gallery

VIEW FULL GALLERY >

Perfect timing plays a vital role in almost everything that occurs to us, and it was what allowed Garry to realize a childhood dream. Now that he has captured that memory, he has nothing but time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

About the author

Randy Bolig

Randy Bolig has been working on cars and has been involved in the hobby ever since he bought his first car when he was only 14 years old. His passion for performance got him noticed by many locals, and he began helping them modify their vehicles.
Read My Articles

Hardcore Chevys in your Inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Chevy Hardcore, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Chevy Hardcore NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

We'll send you the most interesting Chevy Hardcore articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Chevy Hardcore NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Hot Rods & Muscle Cars

Corvette Enthusiasts

Street Rods

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Hot Rods & Muscle Cars
  • Corvette Enthusiasts
  • Street Rods

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading