During 1965-66, drag racing evolved from a sport for steel-bodied super stockers into a playground for professional fiberglass Funny Cars. It was a David versus Goliath scenario, with the “little guy” independent racers struggling to keep up with backed-by-big-bucks factory teams that used hired-gun drivers to win.
The “Davids” driving real Detroit iron were crowd pleasers, since the guys and gals in the grandstands could identify with their bargain basement steel-bodied bombs. Their rides had doors and drivers on the left (instead of in the middle). Popular cars included the “Flying Dutchman” Dart, “Yankee Peddler” Barracuda and Dick Harrell’s 427 Chevy II built by Bill Thomas Race Cars.
Petersen’s History of Drag Racing described such cars as “Home-built combinations of steel bodies, blowers, injectors, nitromethane, hydrazine on occasion, hatchet bodywork and amateur wheelbase alterations (that) produced plenty of unscheduled excitement in the middle Sixties as illustrated by the wheels-up antics of the ‘run-what-you-brung’ contingent.” Spectators loved them.
John Tinberg, an Illinois soldier in a foxhole in the central highlands of Vietnam, was watching from afar. Tinberg had a Nickey Chevrolet parts catalog from the Chicago-based high-performance dealer. Nickey teamed with Bill Thomas, an Anaheim, CA dealer, to sponsor Dick Harrell and his big-block ’65 Novas.
Tinberg had raced a 409 Chevy Impala at U.S. 30 Dragstrip in Indiana. He once saw Harrell rip up the pavement there with his Chevy II funny car. When the GI scored a copy of Hot Rod’s March 1966 issue, he read an article entitled “A Novel Nova.” It introduced the Bill Thomas “Instant Funny Car” kit with a lightweight fiberglass nose for $295 and a bolt-on straight axle setup for $395.
After the war, Tinberg returned home, but his Novel Nova dream was shelved for 30 years. Then, in 2000, he read another Hot Rod article featuring an altered-wheelbase ’63 Nova called “The Wilshire Shaker.” By that time, Tinberg had a successful concrete business and could afford to build his Novel Nova. He found a ’63 Nova body and dug out his Nickey catalog and 1966 car magazine. The Instant Funny Car kit was no longer available, so John fabricated the parts. He built a car that came within a quarter-inch of the exact specifications.
The front suspension was moved three inches forward, and the rear axle was mounted eight inches ahead of its stock position. John made Thunderbolt lift bars and wheelie bars. He obtained bucket seats from a worn-out forklift. Rubberized industrial matting duplicated the floor mats. Tinberg added an eight-point roll cage covered with foam, held on with electrical tape. He mounted a period-correct, but non-functional, Sun tach on the dash. The engine bay was old-school, with hidden updates. He routed the fat tube headers through 3-inch diameter exhaust pipes to a pair of Flowmaster dual-chamber mufflers, and hid the power brake booster inside a black Craftsman toolbox behind the driver’s seat.
At the front, 4.5x15 tires were mounted on five-spoke wheels, and 8.5x15 “pie-crust” racing slicks were put on the rear. Silver blue paint, Nickey door graphics, and period 396 engine call-outs were added. Then, Tinberg rumbled over to U.S. 41 dragstrip to give the Nova a couple of test runs. It turned 10.99 at 123 mph.
Once he became a collector, Tinberg couldn’t stop. In the fall of 2009, he bought the real “Novel Nova” – the first altered-wheelbase car Bill Thomas built. In talking to Thomas’ family, Tinberg found that GM backed Thomas to promote its new 396-cid engine. “This car meant a lot to me and now I own it,” Tinberg said.
The Novel Nova was introduced at a party at John’s home – a former Dodge dealership with a car elevator used to lift it to the second floor and display it. Bill Thomas, Jr. came from California to be there. A month later, the Novel Nova took its public bow at the Nickey Musclecar & Corvette Nationals.
Dave and Pat Henry
Dave Henry of Huntington Beach, CA and his wife Pat are also steel Nova funny car fans. Their “Storm Warning” ’63 Nova evolved from a long fascination with drag racing.
Dave turned 16 in the tumultuous year 1963, and got his license in July. His gas-station-owning uncle was the family “car guy,” and he was assigned to help him pick his first car. Unc nixed a K-code Fairlane, but okayed a ’58 Bel Air sedan with a 283 small-block and a $400 price. Through hanging out at Unc’s Gulf station, Dave learned about cars and drag racing. He traveled to Southeastern PA and NJ strips like Maple Grove, Cecil County, York US 30, Atco, Vargo, and Vineland, where he enjoyed “Super Stock Showdowns” and “Match Bash” races!
Dave secretly began racing the Bel Air a year later. He became a temporary crew member on Dick Welch’s ’64 Fairlane K-code D/S car that was built by Jenkin’s Competition. In 1965, the crew members decided to name their cars. A Philly singing group called the Volcanos had a song called “Storm Warning,” and Dave decided that was the perfect name for his Chevy. Dave’s Storm Warning Nova is a tribute to the memory of his 17-second Bel Air, and to the pioneering days of funny car racing that he experienced as a teenager.
In 2001 Dave needed a car to replace Pat’s worn ’89 Ranger, and she wanted a ’65 Nova. They found one at the Pomona Swap Meet the next January. In February, Dave was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. MRIs showed the cancer was low grade and growing slowly. It had been in Dave’s body for years. His oncologist said that polishing the Nova created a pumping leg movement that revealed the problem. Otherwise, it may have festered until it was too late! The Nova had saved his life! After six cycles of chemo, 23 radiation treatments and 15 immunotherapy infusions, the cancer went into remission.
While in treatment, Dave read a magazine article about John Tinberg. He began thinking about building a straight-axle Nova. In September 2007, he started searching for an Instant Funny Car kit. In November 2007, he saw an ad for a subframe kit being manufactured by Nickey Chicago (www.nickeychicago.net), Stefano Bimbi’s brand revival company in St. Charles, IL.
It wasn’t until April 2008 that Bimbi told Dave that Nickey Chicago was finally up and running, and could supply the subframe. By this time, Tinberg was working with Nickey fabbing up copies of the Bill Thomas Instant Funny Car kit, complete with disc brakes, a Vega steering box, leaf springs and a straight axle. Dave ordered one and received the ready-to-bolt-on front end in June 2008. It took until 2010 to get “Storm Warning” built as a street-legal, straight-axle Nova.
“I bought it because I love straight-axle cars,” says Dan Reimer about his 1963 Psycho II Chevy racing car. “They were well before my time period of my life, but I always wanted one. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I got my license, they were kind of out of style and nobody really had an interest in them. Then, over the past few years, more and more of them have been popping up.”
Psycho II was sold as a brand new car at Nickey Chevrolet. Shortly afterwards, it was modified into a racing car and then it traded hands a couple of times. In the mid-’60s, it was transformed into a straight-axle car. At that time, it was owned by Joe Szabo and Ralph Richter, who raced it a bit. In the late 1960s, it went to Little John Butera, who re-did the chassis to its current configuration.
The car wound up at Nickey Chicago, and Reimer picked it up in early 2010. He considered it a piece of history that he just didn’t want to see fall apart. He knew some collectors would just pull out the racing motor for its value, then scrap the body. This would have made it a part of history that just went away.
Muscle Car Design in Minooka, IL did a complete restoration on the car. They took off every piece and went through every nook and cranny. The original seat frames were re-welded and re-covered. The original carpets were taken out, and exact copies were made. They tried to just clean every original part the best they could, including the shock absorbers and suspension, and re-use them to keep the car as all-original as possible.
Reimer – who has other stock muscle cars – feels that Psycho II is going to be one of those rare pieces of history as racecar collecting comes around. He predicts it will never have the collectability or value of a Ferrari, but he’s been impressed by the response it gets at shows. “I own muscle cars that might be more valuable. But they have never gotten the reactions from the public that this car does,” he says. “This is probably my top-notch car right now – and my favorite.”
The Cole Family
Bob Cole, son David, and daughter Courtney have a show sign that says “Insanity Runs in the Family,” but they and their friend Mark Pappas are really just crazy about their orange ’65 Nova big-block steel funny car “Pure Insanity.” Bob and David drive this car, and Courtney pilots an altered gasser dubbed “Pure Insanity II.” Both are sponsored by Bob’s North Shore Towing.
The Nova is an original US 30 dragstrip competitor that was white back in the day and ran as “Night Life” with small-block Chevy power. John Beyer built the car and did a lot of the updates on it for Bob Cole. It now has a 509-cube engine, a DRC Turbo 400 transmission, and a Strange-Ford 9-inch rear axle. The straight-axle Nova has run a 9.27 quarter mile at 142 mph.
Bob says he got into straight axles because he loved the nostalgic look of the car. “We race with guys who are trying to keep the gasser thing going, and we were looking for an interesting race car,” he explained. “The car was pretty together when we got it, but we took ideas from here and there and changed quite a few things. It had a 12-bolt axle; we put in the 9-inch and we put a different straight axle and springs in front. We also put disc brakes in the back.”
Bob hates to admit that he street raced with a ’66 Vette that he bought when he was 17 and still owns. Now he belongs to the Midwest Gassers (www.midwestgassers.com) and races at strips like Union Grove, Muncie, Highway 41 and Cordova in nostalgia drags and nostalgia pro-stock events. Bob says, “I think the whole nostalgia thing is coming back. The gassers and the whole front-engine dragster thing. We went to a Goodguys event and the front-engine nitro dragster is the rage. Garlits was there and they had a Cacklefest with the old cars racing modern ones that are up to NHRA specs.”
Bob says he’s going to keep his “Pure Insanity” Nova forever because he and his family are really happy with it and the crowds love the car. For him, nostalgia drag racing is definitely a family affair. He said the whole family goes out to a dragstrip almost every weekend. “We have a lot of fun with the car.”
Dave Glass is the owner of D&M Corvette Specialists (www.dmcorvette.com) in Downers Grove, IL, and he has fallen in love with straight-axle cars. His collection includes a candy-striped ’65 Plymouth Belvedere coupe that he built as a “Match Race Stocker,” a ’55 Chevy, a wild-looking midyear Vette, a Chevy-powered Willys coupe and a red, white and blue Nova.
Dave is an avid enthusiast who fixes and sells all types of cars and hot rods. Along the road to success as a Corvette specialist, he has also become a specialist in the recreation of “straight-axle” racing machines with beam-type front axle setups. He handles the fabrication of these cars right at D&M Corvette.
Dave’s block-long complex in Downers Grove includes a fully equipped restoration shop, a body shop and a service building.
Body shop owner Dan Crampton doesn’t mess around when it comes to collecting muscle car stuff. With a serious addiction to magazine ads and eBay auctions, he realized he was going to need more room as he purchased more goodies. When he had the opportunity, he obtained a multi-story building in the downtown section of his Central Illinois city where he could store his muscle cars, toys and models, collectibles, spare muscle car hardware and a pile of parts.
Dan is one of those guys who never throws anything away. Also, he never does things halfway, whether it’s restoring a famous muscle machine or collecting 40-year-old toy versions of such vehicles. As you might imagine, it didn’t take long before his building was stuffed with Chevys and Mopars, Mickey Thompson valve covers and Ansen floor shifters, AMT and Monogram models, Sting Ray bicycles, hot rod club jackets and some weird things like department store mannequins, slot-car tracks and slingshot dragsters. And Novas.
Dan collected original press kits from Nickey Chevrolet and Bill Thomas Race Cars, so it was quite natural for him to move into collecting Novas to build into straight-axle cars. He now owns an assortment of Nova project cars, including a dragging wagon that was well-known on the East Coast. He just recently purchased this car from a seller in Maryland.
In September 2009, Dan had a chance to show off his straight-axle Nova wagon and other Chevy II projects to a group of visitors that included John Tinberg, Stefano Bimbi and Bill Thomas, Jr. These are folks who live, eat and breathe muscle cars on a daily basis and don’t impress very easily. However, Dan’s collection had them ooohhing and aaahhing the loudest of all.
After this car appeared in magazines and books, Tinberg became the guru.
The engine is a 502-cid 600-hp crate despite “396” body decals.
Tinberg’s real “Novel Nova” was publicly unveiled at the ’09 Nickey Nats. The two-tone paint is how the car was actually built and raced in the day, and the car’s big-block V-8 carries the famous Bill Thomas Race Cars decal.
“Novel Nova” received a very detailed restoration to its clean original look.
Dan Reimer’s freshly-restored Psycho II gets a big reaction at shows.
The slogan for Dave Cole’s orange Nova is “Insanity Runs in the Family.”
Dave Glass painted his altered-wheelbase ’62 Nova in a patriotic way.
A photo of Dick Harrell’s Bill Thomas Nova was in an old Nickey brochure.
Players in Nova land include (l. to r.) Bimbi, Tinberg and Bill Thomas, Jr.