Rarer than our other sizzling superminis, this homologation special might not have the numbers, but on a clear B-road, it might drive a wedge between them. Words Will Beaumont. Photography. Jonathan Fleetwood.
The little Nova that could: the rally-bred Sport
ENDANGERED SPECIES nearly gone not forgotten
…TREE’S A CROWD
style=”simple” size=”6″]A limited-edition 1980s rally special complete with box arches and the greatest decals ever applied to a car. That last statement is a certifiable fact so don’t even think about writing in to tell me otherwise. I could easily be referring to a wild Group B gravel monster, but I am talking about the much more humble Vauxhall Nova Sport, as if the pictures hadn’t already given it away Okay, so it might not be the flame-spitting turbocharged car you think of when ’80s homologation specials are mentioned, but this Nova has the proper credentials. It was designed for life on snow and mud and was only built in limited numbers. The regulations required Vauxhall to create just 500 Sports to make it eligible for competition, but now only 30 to 40 are believed to still be in existence. That might make it one of the rarest Novas out there, but it’s not like the little Vauxhall is a common sight any more. You don’t even see the cooking versions on the road.
Most cars reach the end of their lives because they become unpopular, rust away or are so cheap they are no longer economical to repair. But in the Vauxhall Nova’s case, you’ve surely got to add fire to that list. If the state of tiny country lanes in the mid-2000s was anything to go by, most Novas ended up as a pile of ash in a field entrance somewhere.
‘THE NOVA’S SWELLING BOX ARCHES WERE OFTEN SPARED THE INDIGNITY OF MAX POWER ENHANCEMENTS’
Of course, the reason they had been abandoned and barbecued was that they’d probably been nicked. In 2003 the Nova was in the top three cars most likely to be stolen and it was notoriously easy to hot-wire. Actually, the phrase ’hot wire’ seems far too elaborate for an action that, without going into too much detail, is similar to switching to side two of your Bangles cassette. Apparently, that is, because I haven’t tried to steal a Nova myself. I have, however, done a fair bit of research on how to nick one and now, based on my search history, I am likely to be on some sort of register and advised not to go within a certain distance of said Vauxhall.
Chris Perkins clearly isn’t aware of my recent internet search history and is perfectly happy to let me nose around his Nova Sport. It looks old. Not worn and distressed – far from it, this example is immaculate – but the Nova seems like a much older car than I remember. I think because they were everywhere in the ’90s, my memory has tricked me into thinking it was a car from that decade. Standing in front of this boxy car, with its thin pillars, brown check interior and, of course, those box arches, it couldn’t be anything but an ’80s machine. All it needs is the word ‘Turbo’ emblazoned down the side and a matching compressor under the bonnet for the full 1980s package.
There will, undoubtedly, be a Nova that has been given such treatment somewhere, because it seems very few of these little Vauxhalls avoided some sort of modification. The Nova was synonymous with the Max Power tuning and cultural phenomenon. But when the allure of glassfibre bumpers, filler-smoothed tailgates, single wiper conversions and chromed Lexus-style lights started to fade, and Max Power’s sales declined (before eventually closing in 2011), the poor old Nova was left with few fans and a rather dubious reputation.
One aspect that was often spared the indignity of any glassfibre enhancements was the Nova’s swelling box arches, which were standard on all the three-door cars, even the base models and not just the preserve of the sporty versions. But they do look especially good on this, the Nova Sport, because of the Greatest Ever Stickers that cover both sides. They fade from a grey to white, top to bottom with slashes that expose the white tops of the box arches.
‘IN SUCH A NARROW CAR, YOU USE ALL THE ROAD TO OPEN CORNERS OUT’
These cuts accentuate the depth of the arches, making them look more bulbous and aggressive.
It isn’t just a set of stickers that make the Sport interesting, and as great as they are, they were not necessary to homologate the car for Group A rallying. Before the Sport, the Nova SR was Vauxhall’s up-to-1300cc rally car of choice, but it was struggling to compete against rivals from Talbot and Skoda. A plan was devised by Vauxhall and GM Dealer Sport to create a hotter version of the 1.3 Nova and homologate a new-model for the category. Just like the Group B rally monsters of the time, at least 500 cars needed to be built, but creating the Sport wasn’t quite as thorough a job as the one Peugeot did on the 205 to make the T16. Instead, renowned Vauxhall tuner Irmscher and its UK dealer Steve Thompson Cars put together a pack that would be fitted at dealers to create the Sport.
All Nova Sports started life in Spain as basic white cars with no sunroof, radio, passenger-side mirror or even rear seatbelts. However they did have the 1.3-litre engine, five-speed gearbox, firmer suspension, 13 x 5-inch wheels, dials and checked interior from the SR. Then, at the dealers where the cars met the Sport Pack, the original carb and inlet manifold was ditched for an Irmscher manifold and a pair of twin 40 side-draught Webers. A new set of brackets was used to drop the alternator out of the way of the new carbs, too. Out back, the standard muffler was swapped with an Ashley silencer with a 2-inch tailpipe. And, as if it’s size didn’t make the exhaust conspicuous enough, it was painted red, too. The Sport pack took the 1.3 SR engine from 70bhp and 74lb-ft of torque to 87bhp and 75lb-ft. The extra performance meant the Sport could dash from 0 to 60mph in 8.9 sec, shaving 1.5sec of the regular SR’s time. For those more serious about using their Sport in competition, there was a more aggressive cam available for £210.97 that pushed max power up to 93bhp at 6200rpm, 400rpmlater in the rev range, torque to 84lb-ft and the 0-60mph time down to 8.5sec. That made the Sport with the spicy cam a whole second faster to 60mph than the later Nova GTE with its 1.6-litre fuel-injected 99bhp engine.
‘ONCE THE ENGINE HAS STARTED THE NOVA SPORT GETS A LOT MORE SERIOUS’
Hot hatches have moved on a lot since the Nova Sport was conceived. Brown is no longer the sporty colour it once was, while seats are significantly more supportive and steering-wheels aren’t so delicate. Ergonomics have made a leap forward, too. There’s a welcome amount of room around me in the Nova, but there’s not enough movement from the seat to get both the pedals and the steering-wheel aligned in a comfortable position. Then, when I go to check if it’s in gear, I have to lean forward and down to reach the spindly lever.
Once the engine has started the Sport gets a lot more serious, a lot more like the hot hatch you might expect. The noises aren’t dramatic, but the faint glugging from the carbs under the bonnet and the deeper burble from the backbox ratchet up the anticipation in a way the brown simply doesn’t.
The carbs dominate the interior when you’re on the move, the throttle increasing the wuffling induction noise with every further press of the pedal. I adore the sound of a four-cylinder sucking through individual choke carbs or throttle bodies, so it takes a while for the novelty of the noise to wear off and I actually start thinking about the rest of the car.
Now, the Sport isn’t an urgent car. It doesn’t fizz with the intensity or alertness that both its homologation special and ’80s hot hatch title might suggest. The steering is relaxed, the suspension supple with significant travel and the gearing seems long. Despite its extra breathing capacity from the carbs, the engine doesn’t exactly want to tear through the revs. It takes some time for the needle on the rev counter to worry the 6500 red line. No real hardship because it’s making all those lovely Weber noises as it’s doing so. Without any immediacy from its chassis, engine and controls, the Sport’s performance feels rather muted and the whole car seems heavier than its quoted 740kg.
You can overcome the Novas initial reluctance to buzz down a road, however. Keep your foot on the throttle, get the engine singing away over 5000rpm, and it starts to develop a decent pace. Along with the Sport’s small dimensions and leggy suspension travel you begin to see what this car was designed to do. It skips along the road’s surface cleanly, with no call to slow down for obstacles, ruts, bumps and, unless they’re particularly sharp, not even corners. You just use all the road to open them out, and in such a narrow car, that’s easy to do. Choose the widest line possible and fly between the verge and white line, you’re right foot not wavering from the throttle. All while the outside springs seem to barely compress, the benefits of its low weight finally reveal themselves. You can really imagine maintaining a consistently high average speed over long distances, perfect for rallying.
1.3 Sport is faster than the 1.6 fuel-injected GTE. Blanking platesbetray humble entry level basis. Wait – an ’80s decal that isn’t ‘TURBO’? Would a dealer even know how to today? Two inches of girth was a lot back in the ’80s. Aerodynamic wheel trims conceal 5×13″ steelies. The break in the decals accentuates the arches. ‘Daytona’ seats were another SR inheritance. A pair of Weber carbs were drafted in. Clocks were pinched from a Nova SR. Sport packs were fitted on arrival at the dealer.
The Modern Classics view
The Nova Sport isn’t revered as a driver’s car like many of its ’80s hot hatch contemporaries, including the two you’ve just read about, but its rarity and homologation title has pushed prices higher than almost any ’80s pocket rocket. You can’t discount (even if you might want to) that The Nova is a car that helped define the cultural movement that mags like Max Power documented and nourished; the modded car scene was to the ’90s was what punk was to the ’70s.
But as a road car, it doesn’t possess the feisty, edgy nature that’s apparent in Fords, Pugs and Renaults from that time. Its character is less frivolous and doesn’t flirt with terror. Instead, it dispatches roads with an efficiency that would be useful during competition. It certainly earns your respect.
Thanks to novasport register.com for the help.
I BOUGHT ONE CHRIS PERKINS
‘I bought a Sport in 1989 and later sold it; I subsequently owned every sporty Nova. But I had a special affection for my Sport and I knew I had to try and pick up another. In 2014 I heard about one in a barn in Kent, and after years of kicking myself for selling my first, I was fortunate enough to buy my second. Since owning this example, I’ve sourced many parts to restore it back to original.
‘The support from fellow owners and members of the Nova Sport Register has been invaluable. It was a delight to be a part of the 30th Anniversary Celebrations back in 2015 at the Vauxhall VBOA show. I found both my first Sport and my father’s old company Sport there. Being able to see and sit in them was a real pleasure for both me and my father, especially after so many years.
‘It’s a special little car. I love the way it looks, it’s an awesome drive and is so significant in Vauxhall’s heritage.’
1985 Vauxhall Nova Sport 1.3
Engine 1297cc, 4-cyl, SOHC
Transmission FWD, 4-speed manual
Max Power 87bhp @ 5800rpm
Max Torque 75lb-ft @ 4200rpm
0-60mph 8.9sec (8.5sec with cam)
Top speed 112mph
ONLY 40 LEFT
WHAT TO PAY