Brian Scotto's 555 Cubic Inch Big Block Powered Chevy Nova

Author: Bradley Iger | Photographer: Larry Chen | 09/01/2020 < Back to Motor Life Home

“This is the one that made me fall in love with American cars,” says Brian Scotto. “The sound, the big sheet metal – there’s just something special about cruising around in these things. I own a lot of cars at this point, but I don’t see myself ever selling the Nova.”

Scotto isn’t your typical LA car collector, though. His garage is a menagerie of esoteric high performance – a big block muscle car over here, a widebody 911 and a high riding Land Rover over there. But he’s quick to note that his tastes weren’t always so eclectic.

“I started working on cars back in New York, when I was about 17,” he recalls. “I had a Volkswagen Golf that I’d done a VR6 swap on, and I was really into the European stuff. I was not the kid who was into ’69 Camaros and cars like that. It was Porsches, Lamborghinis – that’s what I wanted. But moving to California kind of changed things. It’s hard not to notice all the cool old cars out on the road – the weather out here kind of allows for that – and was what really got me wanting an American car. And that was about a year or so after we started Hoonigan.”

The "Napalm Nova" was never intended as a pro-touring car and Scotto stuck with the flat-black paint and 15" wheels to curb the trend of low-profile tires and large diameter wheels.

As one of the co-founders of the company behind Ken Block’s famed Gymkhana video series, Scotto says the main idea behind Hoonigan was to connect the disparate factions of auto enthusiasts behind a common cause: celebrating the inherent radness of cars.

“I think one of the big things for me at the time was that I noticed how split up all the different automotive scenes were,” he says. “The VW crowd could care less about the Honda crowd, and neither cared about the BMW crowd. People just weren’t into anything that didn’t fit into their own scene, and it seemed like there wasn’t any kind of unifier in the space. If you were into drifting you were in a small circle, if you were into off-road racing, you lived in that circle. We wanted to bridge that gap. And what Ken and I really saw with the early Gymkhana videos was that you didn’t have to like Subarus in order to like those films. It was more about the attitude and the approach.”

They also identified some common ground. “We all enjoy beating on cars and seeing them get driven hard,” he points out. “And we saw that every group had an element of that. Everybody loves a burnout. If you’re not smiling while someone’s doing a burnout, you’ve got problems.”

With that in mind, he wanted to take on a project that was outside of his comfort zone. “I saw a trailer for this indie movie called Bellflower,” Scotto says. “And there was this badass Buick Skylark in it. There was something really visceral about it – it was the first time I’d seen a muscle car used in the way that we filmed the Gymkhana stuff. Up until that point, most of the muscle cars I’d seen were more like, perfect paint, matching numbers, rolling over the block at Barrett Jackson, and that just didn’t interest me. But this car was just… raw. After that, I was walking down Venice Beach and a saw a Nova with no hood and a 6-71 blower on it. I loved that angry look and the Mad Max vibe.”

That led him on a search for a build candidate of his own. “I was looking at a lot of different muscle cars, but the Nova just kept coming back to me,” he says. “I liked that it was smaller than a Chevelle, and I feel like the Novas were a little more under the radar back in 2011 than they are now. Then, as I started researching it, I discovered that it’s basically a Camaro underneath, so I knew there was going to be a ton of parts out there for it.”

After some hunting online, he found a ’72 on eBay in Arizona and drove out there with a buddy to buy it, ostensibly sight-unseen. “I drove it home from Arizona, and it was my first time really driving an old car,” he notes. “The steering was wobbly, we had to adjust the carb as the elevation changed because the car started running like crap, and the brakes were horrible. So for the first hour of the drive home, I was actually kind of terrified by it.”

Under the hood was a 454 big-block out of a pickup mated to a Tremec T5. While it wasn’t most potent combination out there, it still had enough character and grunt to keep things interesting. “I pretty much drove it as was for about two years, then I started putting together a plan for it,” he says. “I definitely wanted to keep it a big block – I loved how it sounded, and it just looks right in the engine bay. But I also started to realize that I wanted a car that could brake well and handle better – something that would drive a bit more like my Euro cars. And that’s when I met up with Craig Morrison from Art Morrison Enterprises, who had already helped out with Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s RTR build. They told me they could make the car do 1G on the skid pad, and I was stunned. I was like, alright, let’s get after this.” But while he knew that putting a modern chassis under the Nova would transform its capability, he faced a big challenge early on with the build.

“So we put an MSD Atomic EFI system on it, it was like night and day for me versus having it carb’d previously, and it definitely woke the 454 up a bit.” - Brian Scotto.

 “I didn’t want the car to have a pro touring look to it,” he tells us. “For me, part of what makes a muscle car a muscle car is the small wheel, big, meaty tire aesthetic. So I didn’t want to run an 18 or 19-inch wheel with rubber band tires – it just wasn’t what I was going for. But Morrison had been building pro touring frames, so they actually had to redesign their frame to run a smaller brake that would fit behind 15-inch wheels. They had been pushing for me to run bigger wheels, but I really wanted people to look at this car and not realize what was underneath it.”

The first iteration of the Napalm Nova was built under a tight schedule so Scotto could run the Hot Rod Power Tour with it. “That was kind of the carrot on the stick to get me to finish it,” he says. We put it together from a bare shell in 65 days. Every night after work my buddy Colin Wolf, who is a great welder and fabricator, would meet me at Hoonigan and we would work on the car from 9 o’clock at night until 2:30 in the morning. And we did that for 65 days straight.”

He decided to put the 454 back in, albeit with a bit of modernization to ensure it could keep up with the rest of the car. “So we put an MSD Atomic EFI system on it,” he says. “It was like night and day for me versus having it carb’d previously, and it definitely woke the 454 up a bit.”

Still, it was long before he was ready to put something a bit more potent under the hood. “At the end of the day, it was still a truck motor – it didn’t really rev, and eventually it just started to get pretty tired. That’s when we decided to go with the Edelbrock 555 crate motor. The thing’s just a beast now.”

The 650hp Pat Musi big-block is mated to a Magnum T-56 six-speed gearbox with a Quick Time bellhousing, which sends the power to the rear wheels through a Currie 9-inch. “It’s just a monster through first and second gear, and then it just tears on the highway up through fifth,” he says. “But then in sixth gear I can still cruise.”

Art Morrison also custom designed a quick-change rear end for the Nova as well – a three link with a Watts link and coilover setup for the road course, and a four-link for the drag strip. Strange suspension components are equipped at all four corners and Wilwood brakes provide the necessary stopping power, while American Racing wheels wrapped in Hankook tires keep the Nova looking murderous and period-correct.

Though he admits that the Napalm Nova has been on the backburner recently, the craziness of 2020 has provided Scotto the opportunity to give the car a bit more attention these days. “It was running a little warm and that was annoying me, so I took it apart. And you know how that works,” he explains. “But I knew that the cooling system was trash – I mean I was still using the original radiator that I bought the car with. So I’m actually in the process of bringing it back to my house, because I never get to it when I’m at Hoonigan, and it’s all just small stuff.”

And in classic Hoonigan tradition, he figures he should probably add a few more ponies while he’s at it. “I don’t personally think the car really needs more power, but… I feel like the car needs more power,” he says with a laugh. “And what I mean is that I don’t mind the power it has right now – when I built that car, 650hp was a pretty impressive number. Now, I think a thousand is kind of where the car needs to be at.”

What form that additional horsepower will take remains up in the air, however. “I’m not sure I want to lose the naturally aspirated vibe, so I might just do a big nitrous double kit, or something like that,” he adds. “With modern tuning, there’s just so much stuff you can do with it. Or, the original thought was always to throw a big Weiand 6-71 blower on top.”

He pauses for a second to contemplate this. “Or maybe we should just do both!”

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