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cruise nationals

When Martin Mollot slides on to the bench seat of his Daytona-yellow 1969 Chevy Nova SS and twists the ignition key, sparks zap the mixture in the sewer pipe cylinders of the 396-cubic-inch, "big-block" under the hood that makes an official 375 hp - but more likely 400-plus - and a significant amount of V-8 volume.

A firm push on the shift lever would then click the close ratio "rock crusher" four-speed into first gear. If human nature were than to take its predictable course, the loud pedal would be planted, the clutch sidestepped and one of the era's smallest and most potent muscle-cars would be launched. Some 425 lb-ft of torque would then twist through the compact-class Nova's monocoque structure - possibly popping out its rear window, certainly lighting up the rear tires - and send it on a 13-second blast through the quarter mile.

Of course, Mollot would never think of doing anything like that on his way to the cruise events the car has been a regular at for the decade he's owned it.

It was at one of last summer's cruises the Nova SS was chosen to take part in the Canadian International Auto Show's Cruise Nationals competition. It was then selected as one of the 10 finalists and last week named Gold Medal winner during a special ceremony at the show.

The Nova SS, the Silver Medal-winning Oshawa-built, 1931 Cadillac Roadster owned by Albert Webster of Gormley and the Bronze Medal winner, a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T owned by Gary Nolan of Aurora, along with the seven other finalists are on display at the auto show until this Sunday at 6 p.m.

The Nova name appeared in 1962, designating the top model of the new Chevy II compact hurried into production in answer to Ford's Falcon, which was kicking the rear-engined butt of Chevrolet's more sophisticated Corvair.

Like the Falcon, it was a simple design, originally available only with a 155-cubic-inch (2.5-litre) four or 193-cubic-inch (3.8-litre) six, but V-8s soon followed. The first Chevy II Nova Super Sport was introduced for 1963, but it was merely a dress-up package - wheel covers, bucket seats, a floor shifter and some trim.

The Chevy II, and with it Nova SS versions, got more serious in 1965 with the availability of up to 300-hp, 327-cubic-inch (5.4-litre) V-8s, that made them into fully paid-up members of the muscle car club - basic models boasting big engines making big horsepower.

The Chevy II went through a major redesign for 1966, acquiring clean angular lines and again for 1968, this time with its sheet metal bent into more rounded and curvaceous form over a stretched platform. It was also in 1968 that the SS package became more than just a dress-up kit. The car was now available with a choice of three big V-8s motors plus heavy-duty suspensions, better brakes, wheels and tires.

All of this carried over to 1969 - the year Mollot's Nova SS was built in GM's Willow Run plant. This was also the year Chevy II was dropped and replaced by the Nova name, which lasted in rear-drive form until 1979 and as a front-driver until 1988.

Mollot's Nova SS is actually his third. The first, a six-cylinder 1962 Chevy II Nova convertible was acquired following his high school years in Manitoba (during which he drove a '56 Ford) and the second, a 1964 four-cylinder, four-door sedan was purchased a few years later as a family second car.

READ MORE: Click here for full coverage of the Canadian International Auto Show

Mollot, now 64, says his father owned a service station and he developed an interest in cars early in life. "Long and cold Manitoba winters gave car guys plenty of time to work on their projects and the summers were short and hot, so we took our cars out on the street and had fun with them."

A '67 Mustang he drag raced a bit while engaged was followed by a long list of family vehicles and a move to the Toronto area where he co-owned a document imaging business before moving to Inglewood in the Caledon Hills.

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Mollot spotted the Nova SS on eBay in 2000 and a trip to a storage locker in Des Moines, Iowa, unearthed a car that "looked really miserable" dirty inside and out. But closer inspection revealed a sound, highly original (it had been painted at some point), numbers-matching machine that had been driven only 52,500 miles in 41 years by four owners - and a rare one. Chevy built 269,413 Novas in 1969, but only 5,262 SS were fitted with the 375-hp, L78 engine and only 682 of these with the M22 rock crusher gearbox - so called because it's tough and whines in first and second gear.

A base 1969 Nova would have sold for $2,405 (U.S.) but this one went for $4,235.85 after 21 options were added: ranging from $316 for the engine and $311 for the transmission to $3.20 for a vanity mirror.

Mollot soon had the car back in show condition and has been cruising in it ever since, winning some prizes - but never one this big - along the way, although he says these are incidental.

"Basically I just like going out with my buddies. Enjoying the company of fellow cruisers."