1969 Chevy Nova – Sleeping Sniper

By: Jeff Smith
Photography by: Jeff Smith
Reprint from – From the August, 2009 issue of Car Craft

Some wise man once said the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Doug Eisberg’s case, it couldn’t be more true. Way back in the Mar. ’84 issue of Car Craft, we did a story called “Basically Bad” about Doug’s low-budget, big-block ’69 Nova. His previous ride had been a ’69 396-powered Chevelle that failed a tree versus Chevelle contest. Doug bought the Chevelle back from the insurance company and went looking for a ’69 Nova. He found the perfect guise in the form of an avocado-green X-body waiting in the drive-through lane at the local Jack in the Box. After an exchange of $900, the six-cylinder cruiser began its metal-morphosis.
The Chevelle’s 11:1-compression 402 slipped easily into the engine compartment along with a Turbo 400, while out back the wheezy 10-bolt gave way to a ’68 Camaro 12-bolt equipped with 3.55 gears. Our story detailed how the car was intended as a sleeper with all external appearances aimed at maintaining its pedestrian guise. The only giveaway was the Rat motor’s inescapable audible signature and its oversized rear tires. Once the combination was squared away, Doug took it to old Carlsbad Raceway where the Nova ran a 12.93/111.04-mph pass that indicated the Nova had the potential to run mid-12s with a little traction tuning.

Over the years and the transformation from black-and-white film to digital color, we’ve kept up with Doug and his Escondido, California, friends. Like barn finds that are a mirror of the past, the Nova has changed very little. The most substantial upgrade came when Doug bolted up a complete Gear Vendors overdrive to the Turbo 400 that only took a little mild sheetmetal persuading to fit under the Nova’s stock floorpan. The rest has remained, including the $60 swap meet torque converter. But Doug knew the original 402 was more than a little tired and he was ready for more power. The plan took a serious turn when the native jungle drums turned up a steal-of-a-deal 454 boat motor. Doug sold off the original rotating assembly and the heads, which produced enough extra cash to build a more muscular 496. Using CC’s oval-port comparison (“Big-Block Cylinder Head Test” Mar. ’08) as his guide, Doug elected to go with a set of Dart 275cc oval-port heads, since he was looking for torque rather than all-out horsepower. Originally, Doug’s Rat had sported a rather rare Edelbrock Dominator C400 oval-port, dual-plane intake manifold and a 1,050-cfm Holley Domi-nator carburetor, but that eventually gave way to a more conservative Edelbrock Performer RPM intake and an 830- cfm mechanical-secondary Holley. For a cam, Doug went with a Schneider custom solid roller that is capable of more than 0.600-inch lift to help move more air in and out of the cylinders. Doug’s cam is a little bigger than the cam we used in the oval-port head test, which probably pushes his 496 a little higher up in the rpm curve and easily adds another 10 or 20 hp.

Not that Doug’s 496 achievement didn’t come without a little grief. When we commented that the 2-inch Hooker headers looked tight, Doug answered, “It took more than two weekends of work and a lot of clearancing to make them fit.” This was through no fault of the headers. The Dart heads raise the exhaust ports 0.300 inch, and this caused the headers to crash into almost everything-including the block. In retrospect, Doug says the installation would have been far less abusive on the headers and his patience with either the Brodix or the Edelbrock heads because of their stock exhaust port locations.

Despite all these engine changes, the current Nova’s engine compartment is uncannily similar to our photos of the Nova from 1984. This is where Doug really enjoys the art of subterfuge. He has gone out of his way to make the engine compartment look like a factory-stock 396. Note that those Dart heads are now painted orange to disguise their alloy origins. Few heads beyond stock OE castings use those four additional Rat motor intake manifold bolts along the top of the intake pattern. Dart heads don’t. Yet the Performer RPM manifold retains this bolthole, so Doug cut down a standard 3/8-inch bolt and glued it in place to complete the illusion. A standard 750 Holley now takes the place of the 830-cfm carb in the photos. To complete the ruse, the stock distributor’s PerTronix electronic ignition conversion looks OE, as does the black-painted MSD Blaster coil and Taylor wires.

In keeping with the Nova’s sniper qualities, looking inside the interior will reveal what appears to be a stone-stock cockpit with a stock column shifter. But hiding in plain sight in the dash is a simple tach conversion not far from the overdrive button and indicator light that Doug has hidden in the ashtray. You can also find at least one obvious performance clue underneath the car. Yes, some may spot the subframe connectors, but only the most dedicated suspension artist will notice the additional main leaf spring used in lieu of traction bars.

While the lame green color worked in the early days, Doug did relent and eventually lay down a generic refrigerator white. Rally wheels and more substantial rubber is used for most travel days, but for our photos, Doug opted for his geriatric whitewall, skinny-rubber package that top off the grandpa image. As yet, he’s not been back to the track to document the e.t. improvement, and we can surmise that traction will be a seriously limiting factor. Doug also quickly discovered that the original ’80s swap meet converter is now out of its league, which led to the recent installation of a California Performance Transmissions 10-inch, 2,800-stall converter. The final modifications have been to add a Proform main body to the 750 carburetor. In keeping with tradition, none of these changes can be easily discerned from a casual glance.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing much has changed in this Nova other than a bigger engine and an overdrive. While a couple of decades have managed to sneak by, the car and its owner have fared well in the battle to make the clock move more slowly in more ways than one.

Tech Notes

Who: Doug Eisberg What: ’69 Chevrolet Nova Where: Escondido, California, which now sports a fun nitro cacklefest on the same streets where city fathers used to discourage cruisers

Engine: Doug started with a cast-off 454 four-bolt main block fully machined by Total Performance in Santee, California, to which he added a 4.25-inch stroke Scat crank, 4340 steel 6.385-inch I-beam rods, and SRP 10.2:1 forged pistons fitted with Total Seal rings and Clevite bearings. The Schnei-der mechanical roller cam specs out at 235/240 degrees of duration at 0.050 inch, Crower roller tappet lifters with 0.607/0.612-inch specs using Harland Sharp 1.7:1 roller rockers. The heads are a pair of Dart 275cc oval-port aluminum heads with 2.250/1.88-inch valves, 119cc chambers, and 0.300-inch raised exhaust ports.

Induction: The Edelbrock Performer RPM manifold has been carefully massaged to make it look like a factory casting and includes a fake upper attachment bolt just to secure the illusion, along with the chrome air cleaner and resto 396 decal. Since the photo was taken, Doug has replaced the 830-cfm Holley with a 0-4779-6 750 mechanical-secondary Holley with a Proform main body.

Exhaust: After much bashing of tubes and test-fitting, the Hooker 2.00-inch primary headers now fit the raised exhaust port heads. Doug also extended the 3.50-inch collectors with 3.00-inch pipes back to the Flow-master Delta-Flow 50 mufflers and added a fabricated cross-pipe. The 21/2-inch tailpipes are also flanged for easy removal.

Transmission: This is the same Darrell Young-modified Turbo 400 that has always been in the car but now is sporting the addition of a Gear Vendors overdrive. The latest revision is a California Performance Transmission 9.5-inch,2,800-rpm converter.

Rearend: A ’68 Camaro long ago donated its 12-bolt along with a set of 3.55:1 gears and a limited slip.

Suspension/Brakes: Up front is a set of KYB shocks damping a set of stock big-block springs to keep the Rat off the bumpstops. Moroso makes the subframe connectors, but what’s even sneakier is the extra leaf spring that keeps the suspension away from wheelhop. The front discs are from a ’71 Pontiac, while rear drums are all that are necessary to maintain the illusion.

Wheels /Tires: Those grandpa wheels are 14-inchers that just scream Geritol and yet still clear the disc brakes. The tires are 215/75R14 whitewalls on all four corners. For a more aggressive stance, Doug can swap over to a set of 15 x 7-inch Rallys on all four corners with 245/60R15 tires. With either package, Doug says, “I can even rotate my tires.”

Crew: The help list includes probably most of Doug’s friends from over the years, including Eric Rosendahl and especially Eric Schmiege, who has wrenched on this car for 25 years.

How to Play the Sniper Game

“Once I spot the car, I typically drive up to them in my best posture with hands at 10 and 2, because that visual image of the resto-geek sucks them in every time. Most of these folks have already seen the car earlier in the evening at the cruise, so they already think they have me beat. Once they give me a quick throttle rev, I know they are game. As soon as the moment is right and we take off, I then shift the car with the Gear Vendors unit as a six-speed to keep it in the optimum powerband. If I hit First gear (high) to the Second gear (low) correctly, that’s usually all it takes. The car gets rubber in the first four gears with little trouble. A stoplight or two later, I always get the same question, ‘What’s in that thing?’ I always say, ‘It’s just a stock Nova.’