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“When I was growing up my uncle Pete had this ’68 Camaro,” explains Ken Johnson of San Diego, California. “It was Pro Street-style big block car that was built for drag racing – it was just super awesome. It had a big impact on me as a kid, and getting a classic muscle car my own was always one of the goals.”
Johnson focused his go-fast efforts on motocross competition during his teenager years, so while a lot of his buddies were rolling around in hopped-up Detroit iron, his limited budget meant that he had to settle on an old school Volkswagen Bug. As time went on his four-wheeled interests gravitated toward diesel trucks, but the need for a muscle car of his own remained a constant throughout the years. “And I finally got one in 2015,” he recalls. “It was a ‘71 Chevelle. It was a driver when I bought it – nothing crazy, just kind of a pro touring-style cruiser with a 350 in it.” But while he’d managed to put a muscle car in his garage, Johnson was still on the hunt for another project that he could turn into something a bit more extreme.
“My wife’s first car was a ’72 Nova, and so we really wanted to do some kind of third gen Nova build,” he says. “Back in the day the Nova was kind of the ‘everyman’s car’ – it was sort of the Honda Civic of its time. It didn’t have the same kind of status that the Camaros and Chevelles did, and I wanted to do a pro touring build that was a little bit different. You don’t really see third gen Novas with 345s out back.”
While he was working at Lucas Oil, Johnson spotted a sharp looking ’71 Nova parked in the company’s warehouse. Built for the SEMA show by a group of high school students, the car belonged to the son of the vice president of the company, and he soon noted that the car wasn’t doing much aside from collecting dust.
He wanted to make an offer on the car, but since he’d just picked up the Chevelle, the timing wasn’t exactly ideal. The car stayed parked there for about a year until one of Johnson’s friends ended up bringing it home. “He quickly sold it on to another friend of mine who ended up putting a cage in it and doing a few other things,” he says. “A year later that friend came to me and said, ‘Hey Ken – I’m thinking about selling the Nova.’”
After getting the OK from his better half, Johnson bought the car. He says that the Nova was in respectable shape at that point and he drove it around as it was for a time, but eventually he decided that the car could use a little more attention. “That’s when I brought it to Rob Lindsay at RJ Fabrication,” he says. “I asked him to check a couple of things and just kind of give the car a once-over, and you know what that leads to.”
Johnson had originally planned to install some Detroit Speed suspension hardware in the Chevelle, but after he sold that car, he decided to bring that idea over to the Nova. “And it was one of those ‘one thing led to another’ situations,” he tells us. “And once we really started digging into it, I decided I wanted to take it to SEMA. I wanted to go big with it. Modifying cars is almost like an addiction – once the bug gets you, it’s very difficult to stop.”
He says that the goal was to build a Nova that could take on just about anything – be it a rip down the drag strip, a blast around the autocross course, or simply a long highway cruise. “The DSE Speed Kits definitely helped us achieve that.”
Along with the new Detroit Speed hardware, the team also stroked the LS3 to bump its displacement up to 418 cubes and beefed up the internals with a forged Callies crankshaft and rods as well as forged pistons. Outfitted with a custom camshaft from Moruzzi Race Motors as well as ported LS3 heads, a Magnuson TVS2300 blower, and a Holley Dominator EFI system, the combination puts about 750 horsepower and 630 pound-feet of torque to the pavement.
Gear changes are handled by a GM 4L80E automatic transmission with a Lokar shifter, and the grunt is sent to rear wheels by way of a narrowed Currie Turn 9 rear end. “The car had mini tubs in it when I bought, but we had to cut those out and fully tub the car to make the 345mm-wide tires fit,” Johnson says. The car now rolls around on Budnik Vapor wheels that measure 18x10 inches up front and 19x12 rear. Competition-spec Toyo R888 rubber makes sure that the torque gets put to good use, and stopping power is provided by Baer six-piston calipers that clamp down on 14-inch discs at all four corners.
RJ Fabrication also sorted out the Nova’s bodywork before Customs by Lopez applied the BASF Anthracite Metallic paint and black accents that give the Chevy its sinister look. To bring the interior up to snuff the team also equipped the Nova with TMI Chicane sport seats and Sparco five-point racing harnesses as well as new TMI upholstery, a 12.3-inch Holley Pro Dash, and HVAC from Vintage Air, along with an array of other custom touches.
“The DeBerti hoon handle is definitely one of the highlights,” says Johnson. “I’m half Japanese, so the katana sword was a fun way to bring a little bit of my heritage into this American muscle car. One of the things I love about building cars is that it’s a blank canvas. You can build exactly what you have pictured in your head.”
While Johnson is quick to point out that builds like these are never truly “finished,” the Nova’s latest transformation was completed in the fall of last year – just in time for the 2021 SEMA show, where it was on display at the Boxo USA booth. “Since then I’ve just been driving it around and enjoying it. We brought it to LS Fest West, took it to the Quarantine Cruise, and we’ve been to bunch of local Cars and Coffee meets with it.”
Although the car is pretty dialed in now, Johnson has his eye on the next batch of upgrades. “There’s some aero pieces I want to do, and I’ve been considering putting an audio system in it,” he says. ”So there’s some ideas on the table, but really it’s exactly where I want it to be right now. At this point I almost feel like this car is more than I deserve.”