Al Gray’s 1976 Chevrolet Nova SS is quite the eye-catching classic car, with a bright orange paint job that can be spotted a mile away.
In fact, the 73-year-old Brandon resident told the Sun on Tuesday that this quality is what originally caught his attention when he rescued the vehicle from a field on the outskirts of Basswood in 2007.
"I was just driving around looking for old cars in the bush," he said. "Basically I spotted this orange glint, this orange car parked with a bunch of other abandoned cars."
At the time, Gray was on the lookout for an automotive project to keep himself busy, having just retired from a multi-decade career at Manitoba Public Insurance.
"I’ve always been interested in cars all my life," he said. "I played with them in one way or another, and this seemed like a good one to take on."
After convincing the Nova’s owner to hand over the keys, Gray hauled the vehicle back to his workshop and began systematically tearing it apart and putting it back together over the next two years, with a little help from some fellow Westman gear heads.
"Newhouse Engine Works rebuilt the engine for me and I did the body work myself," he said. "And then I had a body shop paint it for me and the interior … I took it to an upholstery shop and had them redo the seats."
Even after getting the Nova registered in 2009, Gray didn’t stop there, and has been gradually tweaking the car ever since, replacing its suspension, transmission and tires throughout the last decade.
"Last year, I did the brakes. The year before, I put all new bushings in the suspension, new ball joints and an all-new steering gear," he said. "So every year you just pick something to make it a little better."
While this is the biggest automotive project he has ever undertaken, Gray said it isn’t the first time he has gone under the hood.
Outside of taking part in stock car racing in the 1960s, Gray also worked for a GM dealership in Portage la Prairie around that time, which gave him a solid foundational understanding of how different vehicles operate.
Unfortunately, no amount of mechanical know-how will be able to help Gray complete his latest project, which involves changing the gearing in the Nova’s rear end differential.
"I have the gears, but I’m not 100 per cent sure they’ll fit," he said. "So I wanted to take it to Winnipeg to a shop that does differential overhauls. But I don’t really want to go to Winnipeg because of this COVID stuff."
On a positive note, Gray revealed that anyone looking to kick-start their own Chevy Nova rebuild right now will have a much easier time than he did, since after-market parts are way more plentiful in 2020.
"GM is really good with interchanging parts as well," he said. "A lot of Camaro parts will fit on this car. A lot of full-size Chevy parts will fit, too. So GM’s been pretty good when it comes to mixing and matching stuff."
Even though the ongoing pandemic is making the purchasing of certain items way more complicated than usual, Gray thinks that this kind of rebuild is still a worthy endeavour, especially when you get to take the finished product out on the road.
"It’ll bury the needle altogether," he said of the 1976 Nova.
"It’ll travel fast enough on the highway to get you some really good tickets."
The Nova’s manufacturing history can be broken up into two distinct eras, with Chevrolet developing a compact model from 1962 to 1979 and a subcompact version from 1985 to 1988.
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson