Rare Rides: The 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396

When considering the top, apex predator muscle cars from the Golden Era of the 1960s and ’70s, there is little disagreement that Chevy produced a good portion of the breed.

Under their SS or Super Sport banner, and packing high-performance lumps such as the 327, 396, 427, and 454 cubic-inch V8s, Chevy steadily raised the bar year after year in terms of performance, aesthetics, and features.

The 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

One need only to let their mind drift back to visions of fire-breathing Chevelle street monsters and drag-strip dominating Camaros crammed with big-block engines to recognize this.

But to a larger degree than competitors, Ford and Chrysler, Chevy was notable in that they were always game to create performance versions of even their most sedate or otherwise offbeat models. Does the 1970 El Camino SS 454 ring a bell?

One of the other unlikely models that Chevy decided to sprinkle their magic pixie dust on also happened to be amongst the rarest cars the company ever produced. What’s more, being the result of the legendary Central Office Production Order (COPO) program, it had an interesting genesis and history.

As such, you could say it is a perfect car to cover in the pages of Rare Rides. And so we will. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396.

Nova History

In December of 1959, Chevrolet executives decided that there was a gap in their lineup that needed to be filled between the compact Corvair and their full-sized models. As such, they green-lit the development of a no-frills, intermediate economy car to be powered by four- and six-cylinder engines. They hoped it would steal sales away from the successful Ford Falcon.

Denoted the H-35 project, designer Clare MacKichan was given little time to get the car, which would ultimately become the Chevy II, to market. In just eighteen months, he and a team of engineers and designers would do just that, representing one of the quickest vehicle developments in the company’s history.

The 1962 Chevy II in convertible form. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Riding on a 110-inch wheelbase, the 1962 Chevy II was available as a sedan, two-door hardtop, station wagon, and convertible. Three distinct trim lines were available, including the base 100 Series, the mid-range 300 Series, and the top-of-the-line Nova 400.

Handsome, but decidedly conservative styling with sharp lines and creases abounding gave the car a svelte, sporty look, especially in two-door and convertible forms.

The car’s drivetrain hardly supported that sporty image though. The entry-level motor consisted of a brand new 90 horsepower, 153 cubic-inch inline four. The optional engine (standard on Nova 400s) was a new 194 cubic-inch six, good for 140 ponies. While rather milquetoast, both engines did favor preferably over the Falcon’s powerplants. Transmission choices were a three-speed, column-shifted manual, with Chevy’s two-speed Powerglide automatic optional.

Sales of the Chevy II line were excellent, with 326,607 units sold, thus cementing the new car into Chevy’s lineup for the foreseeable future.

The 1963 Chevy II Nova SS. (Photo courtesy of the General Motors Heritage Center.)

1963 saw many upgrades to the Chevy II, but most notable was the release of the Chevy II Nova Super Sport model. Available as a package on Nova 400 coupes and convertibles, and following the pattern first established by the 1962 Impala SS, the Nova SS included a unique all-vinyl interior with front bucket seats, a floor shifter with console, expanded instrumentation, 14-inch SS wheel covers, bespoke exterior, interior trim, and SS badges galore.

In 1964, Chevy catered to public demand, and made a V8 available in the Chevy II/Nova for the first time, fitting the venerable 283 cubic-inch, 195 horsepower lump in the car. Accompanying it was an optional four-speed manual tranny and a Positraction diff. A 220-horsepower version of the 283 would be available mid-year.

Mildly refreshed looks and hot V8s turned the Nova into a true muscle car for the first time in 1965. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

1965 saw Chevy spruce up the looks of the Chevy II/Nova with taillight, trim, and grille updates. Additionally, the company catered to public demand for hotter versions of their beloved compact. V8 choices were expanded to include 250 and 300 horsepower versions of Chevy’s 327 cubic-inch V8, which virtually overnight transformed the Super Sport into a true muscle car, capable of taking on Olds 4-4-2s, GTOs, and Mustang 289s in a straight line.

Chevrolet released a redesigned, second-generation Chevy II in 1966. Still based on the 1962 platform and bodyshell, the car incorporated styling cues from the Super Nova concept car that debuted at the 1965 New York Auto Show. More sharply defined fenders and overall lines dominated the new design.

The refreshed 1966 Nova SS, this one equipped with the hot 350 horsepower 327ci V8 from the Corvette. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

The Nova Super Sport, in particular, incorporated elements of the bigger Impala and Malibu coupes and received an upgraded interior. Once again though, the biggest news for the SS was what was added under the hood.

In addition to the 195 and 220 horsepower 283s and a 275 horsepower 327ci was the new 350 horsepower, L-79 327ci V8 lifted directly from the Corvette Stingray. Mated with the M-21 four-speed manual, the Nova SS 327 instantly became the choice of weapon from Chevrolet’s stable owing to the car’s light weight. Roughly 2,200 such cars were produced, and it became a legend at drag strips around the country.

While die-hard Chevy II/Nova adherents consider the ’62-’67 cars the purest of the breed, 1968 represented the year that Chevrolet unleashed a totally redesigned car that most think of when the model is discussed.

The bold, new profile of the 1968 Chevy II/Nova. (Photo courtesy of Mecum Auctions.)

Built on the new, X-body unibody platform with a bolt-in subframe that incorporated the engine, front suspension, and transmission crossmember, the third-generation Chevy II/Nova had a longer 111-inch wheelbase.

Enter The X-Body

The car featured sporty, long hood/short deck proportions and a swoopy, semi-fastback shape that led one automotive writer to dub it a “Camaro sedan.” This was appropriate, since the wagon, convertible, and hardtop coupe were gone, leaving only two- and four-door sedan configurations to choose from.

A lightweight at 2,995 pounds, the car was purposely designed to be large enough up front to swallow any sized Chevy V8/transmission combo without fuss, something that led most enthusiasts to realize that Chevy was about to take the gloves off.

The 1968 Chevy II/Nova in SS trim. (Photo courtesy of Cars and Stripes.)

And indeed they did.

While lesser trims were offered with a slew of inline-four, inline-six, and V8 options, the Nova Super Sport, now a full-blown performance package instead of a trim option, brought the muscle.

Standard was a 295 horsepower four-barrel version of the 350ci V8. Buyers needing even more grunt had two big-block V8s to choose from: the 350 horsepower L34 396ci, or the fire-breathing, L78 396ci good for more than 375 ponies and a stump-pulling 415 lb-ft of twist.

The latter engine featured a cast-iron block and cylinder heads, an 11:1 compression ratio, a 780-cfm Holley 4150 four-barrel carb, an aluminum intake, a solid-lifter camshaft, 2.19/1.72 valves, cast-iron manifolds, and dual 2.25-inch exhausts.

The L78 396ci V8 was the top engine in the 1968 SS Chevy/Nova. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

396ci V8 buyers could choose from the Muncie M-13 three-speed manual transmission, or the M-20, M-21, or M-22 “Rock Crusher” four-speed manuals. L34 cars could also be ordered with an M40 Turbo-Hydramatic slushbox.

GM’s 8.875-inch, 12-bolt rear was standard on 396ci cars and could be fitted with 3.07, 3.31, 3.55, 3.73, 4.10, 4.56, or 4.88 gears. Positraction limited-slip was an option.

Standard F40 Heavy-Duty suspension on the big-block SS cars consisted of unequal-length upper and lower A-arms, coil springs, tubular shock absorbers, and an anti-roll bar up front, with parallel multi-leaf springs and tubular shocks out back. An enhanced F41 package was available as an option and included revised front and rear springs and shocks.

Steering was accomplished through a manual recirculating ball with a 24.1:1 ratio. Power steering was available for an upcharge.

For shedding speed, the Super Sports cars came with 9.5-inch finned brake drums with a dual-circuit master cylinder. 11.0-inch front discs, with or without power assist, were optionally available.

14×6-inch steelies wrapped in E70-14 red-stripe rubber were standard on SS cars. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Wheels consisted of 14×6-inch steelies with a variety of wheel covers available and were wrapped in E70-14 red-stripe rubber.

Exterior enhancements of SS cars over standard Chevy II/Novas were refreshingly minimal, and consisted of SS badging in the black-accented grille and blacked-out tail panel, and simulated air intakes on the hood. Only the engine call-outs in the form of front fender badges would tip off street and strip competitors of what they were up against.

’68 SS Chevy II/Novas were sleepers, with only grille and rear panel SS badges giving the game away. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

As on the outside, Super Sport models featured few upgrades over standard cars on the inside. SS badging on the deluxe steering wheel was the main indicator that this wasn’t your grandmother’s Chevy II/Nova.

Interior options were many, and included Interior Groups, radios, seat belt configurations, instrumentation, lighting, seats, tinted glass, and more. Air conditioning was not available on 396ci-equipped cars.

The deluxe steering wheel with SS badging was one of the only interior differences from standard cars. (Photo courtesy of Hemmings News.)

Performance from the lightweight/high-powered Super Sport Chevy II/Novas was, as one would expect, extraordinary. A road test of an L78 396ci/M-22/4.10 Positraction SS performed by a major automotive publication in August of 1968 yielded a 5.9-second zero-to-sixty burst and a 14.5-second quarter-mile at 101.1 mph. Serious numbers for 1968. But even that kind of performance wasn’t enough for some, including a particular Chevy dealer from Illinois.

In early 1968, Fred Gibb, owner of Fred Gibb Chevrolet in LaHarpe, and his business associate, Dick “Mr. Chevrolet” Harrell, a top Chevy championship drag racer and owner of a high-performance shop in Kansas City, Missouri got to talking.

They both agreed the SS Chevy II/Nova L78 396 would make for a perfect drag racer to compete and win in Stock and Super Stock Automatic Transmission classes. The only problem was that the car was solely available with the aforementioned manuals. Gibb thought a solution might actually exist by exploiting a little-known loophole in the Chevy factory order process.

1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396

Profile of a monster: The 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

COPO, short for Central Office Production Order, was a process that enabled custom vehicles to be special-ordered directly from the factory. Originally intended for the production of vehicles to supply the needs of taxi and fleet customers, it enabled unique liveries and heavy-duty components to be added to any vehicle in the Chevrolet roster.

Gibb contacted Vince Piggins, Chevrolet’s Product Promotion Manager, and pitched him the idea of using COPO to produce a ‘68 Chevy II/Nova SS with the L78 backed by an automatic transmission and further enhanced by weight-saving measures.

Piggins loved the idea, but getting such a car made would require at least 50 street-going versions be ordered by an authorized Chevrolet dealer. Gibb readily agreed to procure all 50, and thus the last hurdle was overcome. COPO Program 9738 was a-go.

Nothing here to let you know that this was something special aside from an SS badge. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

The car would consist of an option-free Nova SS with the L78 396, an experimental, CX-code, “Special Performance” version of the Turbo-Hydramatic 400 slushbox that had a modified torque converter stall speed and improved clutch packs, a 4.10 Positraction diff, power-assisted drum brakes, 14×6 steel wheels, a heavy-duty 2.70-inch-thick cross-flow radiator, dual exhausts, bucket seats, a floor shifter with center console, and a radio delete.

Five exterior colors were requested, but only four were made available. Twenty cars were painted in Fathom Blue, ten in Grecian Green, ten in Matador Red, and ten in Tripoli Turquoise. Beige was apparently the color that was never delivered. Inside, the choices were limited to black or blue vinyl.

Nope, no frills here. (Photo courtesy of Barrett-Jackson.)

According to Gibb Chevrolet records, the MSRP was $3,592.12, an exceedingly good deal, since big-block Chevy II/Nova SSs typically ran north of $4,000. The one concession to COPO performance though was a limited 90-day warranty in lieu of full-length GM coverage.

As soon as the COPO cars hit the track in late ’68, they began to demolish the opposition in their classes and set record after record. Owing to this success, the team of Gibb/Harrell/Piggins would strike again just a few months later, creating the legend that was the 1969 COPO Camaro ZL1.

Today, only twelve documented examples of the 1968 Chevrolet COPO Nova SS 396 are known to exist. They change hands very infrequently, but when they do, they fetch major dollars. In today’s market, they would likely sell for around a quarter-million dollars. Totally rational for such a historic car and a brute of a Rare Ride.

About the author

Rob Finkelman

Rob combined his two great passions of writing and cars; and began authoring columns for several Formula 1 racing websites and Street Muscle Magazine. He is an avid automotive enthusiast with a burgeoning collection of classic and muscle cars.
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