Engine swaps are part and parcel of the car crafting world-they have been since the earliest efforts. Some engine/chassis mergers are so common that all you have to do is buy the swap kit and start wrenching, but what if the particular combination you've conjured in your mind has never been attempted? That's what Doug Nichols faced when he decided to equip his '67 Chevy II project with LS1 power. This was back in 1999, when the LS1 was still a relatively new addition even to showroom floors, much less a 30-year-old chassis. Doug wasn't intimidated by the task-forging ahead with never before-attempted swaps was a sort of a tradition in the Nichols' garage, beginning back in 1965 when Doug's dad Carl (or "Punch" as he's known to his friends) got his hands on a nearly new 396 from a wrecked '65 Impala. Nichols the senior had gone to the boneyard in search of a small-block for his '40 Ford, but the deal on the Mark IV was too good to pass up. He made it work before anyone he knew had even changed spark plugs in a Rat motor, and that engine still resides between the fenders of the '40 today.
The Nova was actually slated for a 400 small-block and a Richmond Gear five-speed, but when a salvage dealer showed the Nichols a '99 Trans Am engine and six-speed trans from a wreck, they were quickly enticed to alter the plan. The entire build took place in Carl's garage, a process that extended well beyond the drivetrain swap itself. Extensive fabrication was required to mount the LS1 in the Chevy II without cutting the original sheetmetal subframe, which Doug wanted to avoid. Since the late-model F-body oil pan's sump wouldn't clear the Nova's steering linkage, the front suspension was converted to front-steer using a power rack-and-pinion unit. Doug fabricated a crossmember to mount the rack, and then mounted '70 Chevelle spindles (using Global West ball-joint adapters) to the stock Nova lower control arms, which were also boxed and fitted with spherical bearings to replace the stock rubber bushings.
Fitting the six-speed trans presented additional challenges. The trans tunnel was too small, so rather than beating it into submission, Doug sliced it open lengthwise and added 2 inches to the center. The stock Nova trans crossmember was modified to mount the longer gearbox, plus the additional engine setback built in to Doug's fabricated engine mounts. The power goes through a Ford 9-inch axle hung with Global West four-leaf springs and Del-A-Lum bushings.
It would be easy to overlook all the trick work that went into this Nova's underpinnings, since the gorgeous ebony paint over the flawless body tends to mesmerize observers. Doug and his dad get the credit for that aspect of the car as well, and they claim all it took was hours and hours of block-sanding.
So will it be sealed in a glass case for preservation? No way-the Nichols family built it to drive, and drive it they shall.
Car Craft Q&A
Car Craft: Doug, after reading the information you sent us, it sounds like you and your father built the Nova almost completely in his garage. How did you manage that?
Doug Nichols: I grew up with this stuff since my dad was always working on his own hot rods. He worked in a body shop as one of his first jobs and continued painting cars on the side for years after. He's very particular and doesn't like to rely on other people to complete his projects, so he's learned to do it all himself, and I've followed the same path.
CC: Have you built other cars for yourself?
DN: I bought a '35 Ford coupe before I could drive, and my dad and I built it using a small-block Chevy and a 9-inch Ford rear. I took my driver's test in that car and still have it.