Story by: Michael Spinelli
Photography by: Luke Munnell
Years ago, Brian Scotto wouldn’t have considered a muscle-car project like the Napalm Nova. An Audi 80 rally car? Maybe. A Hayabusa-powered Smart ForTwo? Definitely. Rescuing an old, unsophisticated shambles from the crusher? Not bloody likely.
All the same, Scotto’s blacked-out 1972 Nova with the massive cowl hood has recently entered the pantheon of other famously sinister Novas — like the “Murder Nova” seen on the Discovery Channel’s Street Outlaws, and Stuntman Mike’s car from Quentin Tarantino’s half of the movie Death Proof. Obviously, something happened along the way to change Scotto’s point of view from favoring German and Japanese metal to “building a muscle car that wasn’t welcome inside the car show,” he said.
Rewinding. Ten years ago, Scotto founded a car magazine called 0-60
. It had a young audience and a zero-tolerance rule: No muscle cars.
“We were all into weird cars from the ’80s like the Mitsubishi Starion and the E30 M3,” Scotto says now. “I felt like the audience that was into muscle cars was so different than the audience we were trying to speak to,” he said. “Muscle cars were what our dads did.”
But the one guarantee in life is that attitudes can shift with a change in the scenery. Scotto, now chief brand officer of Hoonigan, a motorsport apparel company he and Gymkhana legend Ken Block founded in 2011, says he caught the Chevy Nova bug after moving from New York to Los Angeles. There, he says, the typical automotive prejudices don’t apply.
“You definitely get a different perspective of car culture [in L.A.]. I just kept seeing Novas over and over and over again, and in the course of about three or four weeks, I got it in my head that maybe I want to build one of those.”
The Nova has always been a strong platform for muscle-car projects. Small and light, cheap, adaptable to large powerplants and — well, they’re literally freaking everywhere. The Nova is the most plentiful of GM’s X-body cars, and the third generation, of which the Napalm Nova is a proud member, is the most attractive (to Scotto’s eyes) and the most popular of them all.
Between 1968 and 1974, Chevy sold 1.7 million Novas. The company offered 15 choices of powertrain, from a 2.5-liter four to the 6.6-liter 396 (402 ci) big-block V8. Most cars rolled off the lot with either a 250ci inline six or some variation of a small-block V8.
Chevrolet offered its most potent factory Nova during the 1969 and 1970 model years. It was the SS 396, an option level that combined the SS performance package with one of two versions of the mighty big-block V8, topping out at 375hp. The SS 396 burnished the Nova’s image as a stout performer. It was the most powerful small car Chevy offered, it could run low 13s from the showroom (very few remained factory-stock for long), and it was a relative bargain at $3,600.
But from 1971 on, the Nova — like all of Detroit’s muscle cars — was neutered by low-compression engines that met smog and new unleaded-fuel requirements. And by 1973, a slight face-lift in all the wrong places de-sinisterized the body styling. As such, Scotto crossed the ’73-’74 Nova right off his list.
“There’s just something tough about the [early third-gen] Nova. It’s a car that, when it’s sitting still, it just looks scary. When you see that car, you assume the owner is not someone to mess with — not saying that’s me, but that’s the attitude. Like he’s got a shank under his seat. Not even like a normal weapon; it’s like he’s got a mace, like a ball and chain with studs on it that he fashioned at the junkyard. It has a little bit of that Mad Max feel to it.”
And it was that primer-grey, antiheroic ethos that got his creative wheels spinning. When it came time to buy the car, he knew he wanted something with good bones, as Martha Stewart might say — something he could tear down and rebuild in the image he wanted. That is, a tough-looking bastard he could drive every day.
Finding the car was easy. “I knew that I didn’t want something pretty. I didn’t care what the paint looked like or what the chrome work looked like,” he said. He found what he wanted — a ’68-’72 car — on eBay and crossed the desert to pick it up in Arizona. It was a ’72, formerly canary yellow, now blue with flaking clear coat. As with so many Novas, a previous owner had tossed aside the six in favor of an eight.
In this case, the eight was a mildly worked 454. That engine, producing around 400hp, would remain in the car through the build, with the addition of an MSD Atomic EFI kit, a nod to drivability, and a Tremec T56 six-speed manual. “It does what I need it to do,” Scotto says. “It’s quick, it’s fun. Maybe we’ll put in something a little more fire breathing next year.”
The Nova stayed as is in Scotto’s charge for almost two years before he got serious about transforming it into the Napalm Nova. His self-direction was simple: He wanted to retain the car’s scary side, and he insisted on pegging its new look to the latter part of the decade in which it was built. That meant diverting from current trends.
“Pro touring had become kind of the new thing, and everyone in the muscle-car scene seemed to have moved over there, at least from a technology point of view,” he says. “One of the biggest pet peeves I had was big wheels on old cars. It just seemed wrong to see a set of 18s on an old car. When I set out to build the [Nova], I wanted something that looked like I could have built this in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I knew I wanted a 15-inch wheel [American Racing steelies], and that, oddly enough, made everything really difficult.”
Just as Scotto wanted a particularly throwback look, he wanted a much more modern suspension, one that struck a better balance between drivability and period correctness. “I called Craig Morrison [at Art Morrison Enterprises] and said I wanted to build a muscle car that could do all the things 1980s movies and TV shows said they could do: pull wheelies, jump shit, drift and other cool things. ‘It has to be really rugged and really take some abuse. You want to be part of the project?’ He just replied, ‘Hell yeah.’”
Morrison’s bolt-on subframe and suspension kit was the answer. Loosely based on the Corvette’s suspension, the kit would improve the Nova’s handling for day-to-day driving and also stand up to whatever stuntwork Scotto’s media-production mind could dream up (he’s also the creative director behind Block’s hugely popular “Gymkhana” videos), while some custom modifications, including a set of Wilwood Ultralite brakes, would let Scotto keep that small-wheel look and corresponding back-in-the-day appeal.
“They really tried to convince me to go with 17-inch wheels for better braking and performance numbers, but I was steadfast on keeping it a 15-inch format. All these other guys building pro-touring cars were drawing inspiration from other modern cars out there, but I was drawing inspiration from Trans Am racing and old circle-track stuff.”
Other compromises were made in the name of feel and style over performance, including a more classic-sounding H-pipe exhaust (Magnaflow) rather than a higher-performance X-pipe design.
Once all the custom-tweaked underpinnings were finalized, installing all that kit in the Nova was an uphill battle as well. “The Nova’s a unibody, and the front [Morrison subframe] was a pretty easy job,” Scotto says. “It just bolted on.” But for the rear, it needed some extreme futzing with.
To make matters worse, the build would coincide with Hot Rod
magazine’s 2015 Power Tour. That meant Scotto would have a few days north of two months to get the car from its relatively natural state to its finalized form.
Scotto and pickup crew of his girlfriend, Ashley Baker, and friends and helpers spent two months’ worth of late nights getting medieval with a cutting torch to make room for a new transmission and rear subframe. They did all that, plus installed a Ford 9-inch rear from Currie Enterprises, under an extremely tight deadline, and while holding down day jobs.
“The scary thing was that we only had 69 nights to get everything done before the Power Tour. It was like a bad reality TV show. We made stupid mistakes — at one point we lowered the car on the door — all because we were rushing.” But unlike some other show-car builds, where the car just has to look good enough to appease the shuffling crowds, the Napalm Nova had to go from the garage to a road trip, traveling hundreds of miles a day. No pressure there.
But despite the intense heat of a southern road trip in June, which spiked the heat in the cabin to over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the Napalm Nova held up well enough to make the trip, and even performed countless tire-shredding displays on demand.
And of course, as is Scotto’s modus operandi, now the Napalm Nova has to do all those things 1980s TV promised, likely with Hoonigan video cameras rolling.
“Maybe I’ll be jumping a closed bridge sometime in the future.”
[Shout-out to RxSpeed