Modern myths

Let’s Get One Thing Straight About the Chevrolet Nova

The name has never meant “no go.”

Nancy Friedman
4 min readOct 17, 2023

--

Print advertisement for the 1978 Chevy Nova. Source: Nova Research Project

It happened again yesterday: A person I follow on Bluesky — a smart writer whose comments I usually trust— marveled at the sheer boneheadness of General Motors to have sold an automobile called the Chevrolet Nova in Mexico and South America. Because, don’t you see, nova means “no go” in Spanish.

It was approximately the 739th time I’d seen that confident assertion. What did GM expect with a name like that? Of course the Chevy Nova was a dismal flop in Spanish-speaking markets!

So confident! And yet so wrong.

I’ve been patiently correcting the “Nova” myth for more than a decade now, and it seems my work is not yet finished. Indeed, it may never be finished, because this is one of the stubbornest of modern branding myths — a zombie story that, like other undead tales, must be killed over and over.

Which is why I an resurrecting a post I wrote in 2012 for the legal publication Duets Blog. I’ve edited it a bit here and there but left 99 percent of it unchanged. Read it and spread the word! Maybe someday we’ll finally put this story in its grave.

Sooner or later in almost any conversation about global brand names, someone will bring up the “well-known story” about the Chevrolet Nova, the compact car manufactured by General Motors between 1962 and 1979 and again from 1985 through 1988. The Nova “failed” in Latin America, the story has it, because its name means “no go” in Spanish.

That tale has been taught to generations of business students and recounted in hundreds of marketing seminars. It was repeated without challenge in 2011 in the New Yorker, when, in an article about name development, reporter John Colapinto told readers: “The industry abounds in tales of cross-linguistic gaffes, like … the Chevy Nova — in Spanish, the ‘no go’.”

On my own blog, one of my readers saw fit to remind me of this history lesson. In a comment, he wrote that the Nova “did better when it was renamed.”

There’s just one problem with the story: It’s untrue. Every single part of it.

--

--

Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.