16 March 2015

60 Years of Great American Performance: GM Celebrates the small-block’s anniversary

It’s an engine that has touched so many lives that, no matter where your car brand loyalty lies, chances are good that you’ve got a personal story about one. It has powered tens of millions of passenger cars, trucks, race machines and boats. Calling it an American icon would not be an overstatement or hype.

“It” is the Chevy small-block V-8, and General Motors is celebrating this influential engine’s 60th anniversary.

Introduced as a durable yet inexpensive-to-build upgrade engine in the 1955 Chevrolet line, the second V-8 in the brand’s history (the first was in 1917) was as warmly embraced by average car buyers as by hotrodders. The engine, which Chevy called the Turbo Fire, wasn’t nicknamed the “small-block” until the Mk. IV “big-block” arrived in 1965.

While GM’s Gen IV and Gen V V-8s power new Corvettes, Camaros, pickups and SUVs, the original small-block continues in production for marine use and as a series of crate engines for hotrodders, racers and builders.

Looking back six decades, the circumstances that made the small-block a legend can seem almost coincidental. Chevy was already developing a small-displacement V-8 when Ed Cole, who’d headed development of the Cadillac V-8, was put in charge of Chevy engineering in 1952. He immediately scrapped the V-8 project to develop something truly innovative and in tune with Chevy’s character.

In New York, meanwhile, seeing the Motorama Corvette show car inspired the Belgian-born Russian engineer Zora-Arkus Duntov to seek employment with Chevrolet. Duntov had developed an overhead-valve conversion for the Ford flathead and had driven a Cadillac-powered Allard at Le Mans, so he knew a thing or two about American V-8s. At Chevrolet, he saw in the new V-8 great potential to attract the youth market.

Taking a bold step, Duntov sent his boss, Maurice Olley, a memo he titled, "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet.” Duntov made the case for offering a line of factory performance parts for the Chevy V-8 as a way to attract a new generation of customers to the brand. One passage from the memo, in particular, captured Duntov’s intuition for engineering and marketing:

Zora Arkus Duntov letter

“The association of Chevrolet with hot rods, speeds and such is probably inadmissible, but possibly the existence of the Corvette provides the loop hole. If the special parts are carried as RPO [regular production option] items for the Corvette, they undoubtedly will be recognized by the hot rodders as the very parts they were looking for to hop up the Chevy.”

Cole eventually got on board, and Duntov would go on to lead Corvette engineering. His ideas for the small-block would upend American performance and hotrodding. With the small-block, Duntov saved the floundering Corvette from an early demise, and the Corvette program in turn helped ensure continual performance development for the small-block.

The features that made the new Chevy engine lighter and less costly to build versus other V-8s also endowed it with good breathing, reliability and durability. Its thin-wall block casting ended at the crankshaft centerline, unlike the deep-skirted blocks used on other V-8s. Mounting stamped-steel rockers to ball studs rather than using a traditional rocker shaft arrangement saved cost and lightened the valve train considerably, giving the small-block high-rev potential.

The 265 cu. in. Chevy V-8 debuted with 162 hp using a 2-barrel carburetor and 180 hp with an optional Power Pack – a 4-barrel carb and dual exhausts. The 1955 Corvette got its own version with a “Duntov cam” for 195 hp.

Displacement grew to 283 cubes in 1957, when mechanical fuel injection was offered for both the Corvette and regular Chevys. Ads touted America’s first engine with one horsepower per cubic inch. In addition to Chevy’s own performance parts, the aftermarket exploded with choices for hotrodders. A bigger bore and longer stroke yielded 327 cubic inches in 1962, and interchangeability within the small-block family bolstered performance potential.

A string of legendary small-blocks originated with the Corvette and later, the Camaro, a tradition that continues to this day. Among the 1960s Corvette gems were the 375-hp L-84 fuel-injected 327 and its hydraulic-cam, 4-barrel carb sibling, the L-79. This 350-horse version was also available in the Chevelle, and for 1966 the option turned the Chevy II Nova into a budget muscle car.

When Chevy fielded the Camaro Z/28 to compete in the Trans-Am racing series, it borrowed a trick from oval-track racers who’d been putting a 283 crankshaft in a 327 block to get a high-revving 302. Chevy stuffed the production version with its best high-performance parts.

The 350 cu.-in. small-block debuted in the 1967 Camaro and then proliferated throughout the Chevy line. At the dawn of the low-compression, low-emissions era, Chevy kept performance alive with the 250-hp (net) L-82 in the Corvette and Z/28.

You didn't need one of the high-performance versions to have fun, though. Almost any small-block had some hop-up potential. And, performance wasn’t the engine’s only calling card. Millions of drivers enjoyed its reliability and durability in everyday cars and trucks. The small-block eventually became GM’s mainstay V-8, powering vehicles from all of the corporation’s brands, except Saturn.

In the mid-1980s, electronically controlled Tuned Port Injection brought performance back to the Corvette and Camaro. And in 1990, the Corvette ZR1 introduced a radical DOHC aluminum small-block, engineered with help from Lotus in England.

The Gen II brought another big performance jump for 1993, thanks to such improvements as reverse cooling, which allowed higher compression ratios. With up to 330 net hp in the 1996 Corvette, the Gen II was more powerful than most of its Gen I ancestors.

In 1997, the truly new Gen III small-block debuted as the aluminum LS1 in the ’Vette, and then in the Camaro Z28 and Pontiac Firebird models the following year. This modern engine kept key elements of the original, including 4.4-inch bore centers (the center-to-center distance between cylinders) and two valves per cylinder actuated by pushrods operated by a single camshaft.

Indeed, the newest Gen V engine in the Corvette Stingray still shares those attributes. Features like variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation have helped the modern small-blocks deliver higher fuel economy.

GM doesn't label its sole family of gasoline V-8s “Chevy” these days, and the continuity from the original small-block is more of a marketing strategy than an engineering reality. But that’s also true of other engines that are intrinsically linked with their brand’s heritage, including the Chrysler HEMI, Ferrari V-12 and Porsche flat-six.

After 60 years, that’s mighty good company to be in.

32 Reader Comments

  • 1
    carl Eastern PA March 18, 2015 at 16:55
    Anyone could build any engine with altered video. This isn't worth the 4 min to watch.
  • 2
    Bob Crow Port St. Lucie, FL March 18, 2015 at 17:02
    I wish that Smokey Yunick's contributions to development of the racing small block Chevy would be made as prominent as Duntov. After all Smokey Yunick wrote the book "Power Secrets" - the ABCs of building a high performance small block Chevy that has benefited lots of street and strip racers. Exactly what did Duntov write that is directly useful and applicable for high performance enthusiasts?
  • 3
    TerryV Sacramento March 18, 2015 at 17:50
    Great writing. And enlightening to learn how Ruskies and Brits impacted such a great American brand.
  • 4
    Robert DiStefano Abingdon Md. March 18, 2015 at 19:00
    There are three sounds to me that are totally unique, and therefore instantly recognizable, they are: 1. The undeniable rumble of a big Harley Davidson, 2. The one-of-a-kind sound of an AK 47 being fired (I am a retired Police Officer) , and 3. The sweet sound of those first and second generation Chevy small blocks winding out through the gears! I currently have a 64 Chevelle Malibu with a Weingartner 383 "Stroker", and a Tremec 5 speed, and it is a sweet ride! I've had a number of Chevies including a 427/425 HP 66 Corvette Roadster, a stock 65 Impala SS with the 283, and a rad 55 Chev Businessman's Coupe with a 365 HP Fuel Injected 327!
  • 5
    Steve Barusso Gloucester Mass. March 18, 2015 at 19:10
    Great article for a great engine. I am a corvette owner with the 350 that is running fine since 1980.
  • 6
    Willie Mooneyham United States March 18, 2015 at 19:49
    What about the 400 small block ?
  • 7
    Fred Fischer Macedonia, Ohio March 18, 2015 at 21:05
    Nice video, makes me want to get my hands dirty. Anybody know who the video music is done by? Kinda cool.
  • 8
    Dantheman New Haven, CT March 18, 2015 at 21:20
    It would be interesting to know the age and mileage of the vehicle that the engine came from. also as-found and as-left specs. of the build.
  • 9
    Curtis Desaulos Houston, Tx March 18, 2015 at 22:43
    Why no torque plate during the cylinder honing process? I wouldn't want that done to my motor. Should always use a torque plate to ensure cylinders stay round and get bored or honed evenly.
  • 10
    Thomas Novellino Maine March 18, 2015 at 23:22
    Excellent articles, very interesting, some of the history I was not aware of. Thank You for this site, this information is always beneifical, to any car collector.
  • 11
    Richard Smith Nevada March 18, 2015 at 23:28
    All that work and you use steel freeze plugs?
  • 12
    Richard Scribner california March 19, 2015 at 13:17
    Is there a phot of the 1'ST V8 next I worked at the parts Div in Van Nuys CA while there back in the day I had the pop to see the DULE OVER HEAD Cam motor but to this day have never seen it run any place my self still have the 56 Chevy was turned into a race car in the late 60 raced it and to this day that car was never beat in a race ever even on the streets and it ran ever race track in Ca as well as Bee line in AZ It has been 100% redone to the glory days had it at the Winters on display for the last 2 years good to see someone wright about what I ran from a 277,to a 339 inch motor I as well have them ready to race again thanks for the memoirs. Richard
  • 13
    Ron Los Angeles, Calif March 19, 2015 at 13:36
    Thanks for the video. Now I know what was just done to my 1972 Chevelle SS 350HP engine. The engine runs like a charm. Far better then when I purchased the car in 1972. Horseower is increased a little with the engine rebuild and the color of the engine comes close to matching the featured engine. Keep it up
  • 14
    Dave Florida March 19, 2015 at 03:57
    Had a Chevelle (1969) SS 396 [2 carburators on tunnel ram, roller rocker cam, 13.5 Pistons horsepower 575. Speed:126.2 in a 1/4 mile
  • 15
    capt Norm Rochester NH March 19, 2015 at 07:05
    I will never forget when my GM stock went to ZERO Thanks GM
  • 16
    Philip Texas March 19, 2015 at 07:38
    The LS1 debuted in the new 5th gen Corvette in 1997. It was added to the F body line in 1998.
  • 17
    Rich ny March 19, 2015 at 21:58
    I'm a Mopar guy but the small block is definitely the king of street rod motors.
  • 18
    detroitdatsun Birmingham, MI March 19, 2015 at 10:00
    Thanks Hagerty, This video was special for me as it was the first motor I ever built. Age 16, in the hallway of my parents apartment in Queens. Watching the video made me feel like it was just yesterday as the familiar shapes and parts of the SB Chevy were seared into my young uncluttered memory cells.
  • 19
    Tony Arizona March 19, 2015 at 10:07
    brings back memories of the rebuild I did on the '64 hi-po Corvettte engine I put in my flat-bottom ski boat in 1972. Great engine, reliable and actually economical as far as ski boats go. Only problem I had was when I came out of the water and over-revved the engine and bent a pushrod. Easy fix tho. Loved that engine and boat.
  • 20
    Bruce Napa, Ca. March 19, 2015 at 00:12
    Good reading. I've been a Hot Rodder for 57 years, starting with a '31 A Red hot Ford Coupe, powered by a '48 Merc. flat head. I'm now redoing a '28 Ford roadster with a Chev. 350. Ain't we got fun.
  • 21
    Robert Prescott,AZ. March 20, 2015 at 13:24
    Thank you, that was great! My eyes were glued to the video all the way through. I wish I worked in a shop that does this, I just retired, and I really need something to do and that would be interesting and fun. I am checking with our Junior College and see if they offer classes in automotive rebuilding. Thanks again, the video was excellent.
  • 22
    MYTFAST Maryland March 20, 2015 at 10:02
    Hey, I watched the Chevy small block dis-assembly video & no where did I see them actually ream the top of the cylinder wall & remove the pistons.
  • 23
    Dan Louisiana March 21, 2015 at 07:58
    OK, so the video was fun, kinda cool actually but I would like to see it slowed down to real time and narration by the builders. I pretty much understand what they were doing but this really could be educational, not just entertainment.
  • 24
    Tom Minnesota March 25, 2015 at 13:14
    Awesome Video. I used to help my dad and my grandpa rebuild engines, even tractor engines. So many memories! And dad retired in the late 70's. Back when we did a lot more manual work. Got lots of tools handed down to me. But, I still do my own repairs! Can a person get the full pictures or video? And how much are the pictures/video? Engines back then were easier to work on. Excellent work!
  • 25
    Terry G. Brown Napa, Ca. 94559 March 26, 2015 at 14:51
    #23 Comment from Dan , March 21, 2015. I concur! Can we have a real time dialog of the rebuild? Thanks
  • 26
    Lon Newport beach,ca April 2, 2015 at 21:58
    Great video ! I can remember getting hooked at age 4 when my Uncle took me out in his 63 stingray a couple of times. Finally found a 65 fuelie that shook my apartment when i fired her up. miss that vette..
  • 27
    Jeff Lansman Branson, MO April 16, 2015 at 12:00
    #23 Comment from Dan , March 21, 2015. I concur! Can we have a real time dialog of the rebuild? Thanks
  • 28
    Tom Minnesota May 14, 2015 at 16:32
    Awesome video! I watch the video, at lease once a day on here and on You Tube..... Wish there was a longer version...... Super job of the repair and the video!
  • 29
    Tom Minnesota June 10, 2015 at 01:52
    Any idea when the rebuit motor will be installed in the car that it came from?
  • 30
    Tom Minnesota July 14, 2015 at 00:57
    As of 11:55pm on Monday, July 13, 2015, you had 1,800,017 people that had watched your video on youtube. AWESOME
  • 31
    Kevin Idaho October 13, 2015 at 23:15
    I've built many small blocks but I've never seen it done that fast before. They were really flying. Must be non-union. Are they available for hire?
  • 32
    18436572 NJ September 26, 2016 at 08:07
    Brings back many fond memories.

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