By Stuart Grant

Nomad: A member of a people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home. A person who does not stay long in the same place. A wanderer. Or a South African-developed go-anywhere vehicle by General Motors.

When it comes to local specials General Motors South Africa can lay claim to a decent number. Think of the Chevy SS derived from the Australian Holden Monaro or the homologation special Chevrolet CanAm, which, based on a Firenza sporting a Camaro V8 engine, meant that GM could stick it to Ford on the race tracks. And of course there was the Ranger SS, supposedly South Africa’s own car but in reality just a Vauxhall from the UK with a bit of badging and special treatment.


All awesome in their own way and very South African indeed but if you want the ultimate South African offering from GM then the Nomad is the way forward – even if it does look like a shoe box on wheels and was fittingly codenamed ‘Pug’ before production started.

Why a Nomad, you ask?

The answer is simple. It was dreamt up, designed and developed by GMSA at its Port Elizabeth Technical Centre and at the time held the highest local content by mass at 88%. That means a miniscule 12% of the Nomad came from outside the borders – stuff like the Opel German-supplied gauges and gearbox, the Rochester Monojet carburettor from GM across the Pond and a Holden Australia rear axle (although this was manufactured locally by Borg-Warner). Of course the 2.5-litre 4-cylinder engine was also found in Chevrolet saloons of the period but somewhat de-tuned with a focus on torque.

The idea for the Nomad was born from the General Motors BTV (Basic Transport Vehicle) of 1972, which was aimed at developing markets as an easy to produce and maintain utility vehicle. The BTV was a small slab side and fronted truck that sat on a rudimentary chassis and used Bedford HA running gear. Manufacture and use over the years took place in Malaysia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, the Philippines and Portugal. A great idea on paper, but South African conditions meant the vehicle needed a bit more to be successful. With months of research and design under the belt our Nomad ended up being significantly more than just a utility vehicle and General Motors went so far as to say it invented a new class of vehicle when they referred to it as a multi-purpose vehicle – a term recently reintroduced and shortened to MPV by manufacturers when referring to people-carrying vans like the Toyota Verso, Opel Zafira and Chrysler Voyager. 


Although vastly different from the modern MPV the Nomad was definitely multi-faceted, able to act as a farm bakkie, a game viewer, pulling the boat or caravan, off-roading or even hitting the open road with a top speed of around 130km/h. Yes, that is correct.  Despite looking like a hulking great block of granite the performance was not half bad. This owed to tipping the scales at a reasonably light 1 020kg and having 65kW at 4600rpm and 193Nm of torque at 2400rpm on tap. With only the rear wheels being driven, there isn’t the case of power being sapped to drive all corners, and the Nomad makes it to 100km/h in around 17 seconds, which was not far off some saloons of the time.

Ardent 4×4 enthusiasts might hesitate at the idea of a 2-wheel off-roader but the 4:1 ratio and limited-slip differential combined with a stilted ride height and brilliant approach/departure angles (made possible by almost zero body overhang) to make the Chevy a competent bundu-basher. And this ability was a clearly a key feature in the design brief with the ladder chassis sitting 265mm above ground for good clearance, a standard sump guard being fitted, and a heavy steel box-section grille protect the radiator and headlamps against rogue trees and rocks. Suspension at the front was of an independent wishbone and coil spring setup while the rear featured 3-blade leaf springs and some hefty shock absorbers.  Early units suffered front suspension breakage, with the result that GM redesigned and beefed it up somewhat. A widely spaced set of gear ratios also help in the versatility department with the short first suited for trundling up the steep inclines and a long fourth good for the open road speed and average fuel consumption in the car-like region of 12 litres per 100km.

Although extremely basic in the cabin department the steering, gear and pedal controls too proved car-like and not heavy or cumbersome as the Nomad appearance might have had your brain thinking. Road tests claimed the rack-and-pinion steering to be light, accurate and stable at speed, as well as praising the 8.5 metre turning circle when it came to manoeuvring in tight confines. Discs at the front and drums at the rear did the stopping admirably but without a load (it could handle a 500kg weight) the backend had a tendency to lock up momentarily.


Where the Nomad fell down was in the acoustic department with criticism thrown at it for loud mechanicals and wind noise – especially from the canvas roof. Testers were also not happy with the lack of heater and windscreen washer or the fact that the wipers didn’t self-park. We say drop the folding front windscreen and pack away the canvas roof and all these niggles won’t even be a factor. But having said that, the optional fibreglass hardtop did wonders for the look and weather-proofing so we’d maybe stick to that format as our choice of classic MPV format.

Between 1976 and ’81 the Chevrolet Nomads hit the roads, tracks, farms and leisure spots around South Africa earning cult status from the outset. Sales were initially good but slowed with numerous front suspension failures. By the time Chevrolet responded with a new beefed-up design it was too late to save the Nomad reputation and buyers looked elsewhere (like the Toyota Stout and Hilux, complete with heater) for a multi-purpose bit of kit.

As a testament to its ruggedness, finding a Nomad today is a possibility, with a number cropping up in the various classified publications. Their ability in the rough stuff has by nature meant that the majority have lived a somewhat heavy life, with some even sporting more powerful engine swaps, so choose your local cult classic wisely. Original is the key. Find one like this, then kick back, give a Nomad a home and explore every aspect of our land with the original, born in the RSA, MPV.


Chevrolet Nomad                                                      
Capacity: 2507cc    
Fuel: Petrol 
Power: 65kW@4600rpm 
Torque: 193Nm@2400rpm   
0 – 100km/h: 17.2 seconds      
Max speed: 129.1km/h       
Price: R2 950 (Excl. R140 canvas roof) 

Toyota Stout
Capacity: 1994cc
Engine: 4-Cylinder
Fuel: Petrol     
Power: 79kW@5400rpm
Torque: 170Nm@3000rpm
0 – 100km/h: 23.8 seconds
Max speed: 127.4km/h
Price: R3 855

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