Small front drive hatchbacks regularly top the sales charts in the UK, but this was not always so. When the Vauxhall Nova (known as the Opel Corsa outside of the UK) arrived on the scene in 1983, most of its competitors – other than the Fiesta – were either rear-wheel drive or based on older technology.
Initially launched in poverty spec carburettor 1.0 and 1.2-litre versions, the range was continually expanded until there were turbo diesels, fuel injected 1.6 hot hatches as well as various body types to choose from. Post production, the hardy little Nova found favour with the modding community, and some outlandish creations started to prowl the streets at night thanks to the explosion of the Max Power scene. Many met an untimely demise at the hands of overly enthusiastic teenage owners, meaning that they’re relatively scarce today, but the Novas that remain can be a perfect classic runabout for those on a tight budget.
Which Vauxhall Nova to buy?
A two and four-door saloon, as well as three and five-door hatchback was offered with the three-door hatch proving to be the most popular derivative by far. There were engine sizes spanning from a 45bhp 1.0-litre, to the 101bhp 1.6. Fuel injection was standardised on all models bar the base 1.0 by the late ‘80s. An efficient if rattly diesel was offered from 1987-on and received a turbocharger the following year – gaining a reputation as one of the quickest diesels produced at the time.
Thanks to their very low kerb weight and short gearing, most are well-suited to city driving, keeping up with modern day traffic with ease.
Unsurprisingly, the performance orientated GTE is the one most people want. with its 101bhp SOHC fuel-injected 1.6-litre motor, it was more than a match for the hot Fiestas of the time. Rebadged the GSI after the 1990 facelift, it remained popular right up until the last year of production. The far rarer 1.3SR introduced in 1985 to qualify for the BRC homologation requirements was a stripped out little 93bhp rocket, getting to 60mph in under 9 seconds. 500 were built in total and these are the most collectible of all.
The mid-1990s saw a resurgence in the Nova’s popularity, thanks to their low insurance bracket and good reliability. Many teenagers chose the Nova as a first car, which is also the reason that a lot were used as a basis for a highly modded ride, with 18-inch rims and huge body kits. Despite the negative press that these cars received by more traditional enthusiasts, it does mean that there was (and still is) a huge array of parts available for those looking to upgrade their cars. Engine swaps from larger Vauxhalls, turbos and massive brakes were all popular options for the intrepid Nova owner.
Although a large number of cars were built (almost half a million by the end of 1993) few have survived unscathed, and while the sporty GTE/GSI models are always the most sought after finding an unmodified one could pose a few problems. As a general guide, face lifted cars are best but don’t dismiss the less desirable models as choices are limited and even the smaller engine derivatives can prove to be great little runabouts.
Performance and specs
Vauxhall Nova 1.6 GTE
Engine 1598cc, 8 valve SOHC I4
Power 101bhp @ 5600rpm
Torque 99lb ft @ 3400rpm
Top speed 117mph
Fuel consumption 40mpg
Gearbox Five-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• Rust can be a real issue and badly corroded cars should be avoided. Repairing a sad Nova is almost always more costly than getting a good one in the first place. Rear arches, front suspension turrets and foot wells are common problem areas.
• Light weight meant nippy performance and good fuel economy, it also meant low passenger protection in the event of a collision and as quite a few were crashed take a good look at the fit and finish of the panels.
• Engines are tough but frequent oil servicing is a must and camshaft wear was common so listen out for noisy idling and check for excessive oil seepage around the head gasket. Blue exhaust smoke can indicate valve stem wear. Cambelts should be done every 40,000miles.
• Petrol gauges are unreliable on early cars and repairs can be expensive so be careful of running out of fuel as this can damage carbs and fuel lines.
• Interior quality was iffy, marginally improving on face lifted models but expect some wear and make sure the dashboard is securely attached to bulkhead. Yes really.
• Many cars have been modified; the GTE/GSI models tend to have led hard lives so check for signs of abuse.
1983: Vauxhall Nova released in 1.0, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4 engine sizes. Initially three-door hatchback and two-door saloon body styles were offered
1984: Four and five door variants become available
1985: Stripped out 1.3L sport model introduced- 500 built
1987: 1.5-litre diesel introduced along with 101bhp 1.6l fuel-injected GTE model
1988: Turbo diesel engine launched raising power to 67bhp
1990: Face lift carried out across the range including redesigned bumpers and front end. GTE rebadged as GSI following face-lift
1993: Vauxhall Nova production ends with almost 500,000 units built
Owners clubs and websites
• www.pngclub.com – Forum for Vauxhall enthusiasts
• www.vodc.co.uk - Vauxhall Drivers Club
• www.allcorsa.co.uk – Vauxhall Nova/Corsa owners site
Summary and prices
The current market for the Nova is a strange one, previously unloved base models tend to command unusually high prices, with mint 1.2-litre 1983 hatchbacks valued at up to £8000. Overlooked by the modders more of these have survived and their originality is highly valued. There are of course a few well used examples with prices as low as £500 but look at £2000 for a decent car. A 1.3 SR in good condition can be up to £10,000.
The Nova’s attrition rate in general has been extremely high, most having succumbed to rust, scrappage schemes, overly enthusiastic modifications and teenage mating ritual demonstrations gone wrong. Unsurprisingly finding one of the faster variants like the GTE or GSI requires a lot of patience and plenty of luck, but if you persevere you will be rewarded with an excellent little supermini that combines practicality with that all important grin factor.
Words: John Tallodi