Never Stop Driving #35: Long Live the Chevy V-8

General Motors is spending almost a billion dollars to build a new V-8 engine. That’s a significant chunk of change—GM’s 2022 revenue is estimated to be $14 billion. While GM intends to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, the automaker’s announcement clarifies that the path to ZEVs in 2035 will still include many new pickup trucks that need a modern V-8.

I encourage you to read GM’s press release because it emphasizes not so much the engine itself and the strong-selling pickups it will (mostly) power but rather how the investment will create and maintain U.S. manufacturing jobs. Those jobs are great, but the way GM released this news made me think about the tricky position legacy car companies are in: On one hand, they need to hype the electric future largely because Tesla showed the way for that story to sway public opinion and juice the stock price. But on the other hand, pickups and V-8s bring home the pork and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

That reality is not necessarily welcomed by those who don’t run car companies.

The small-block Chevy V-8 is an incredible engine, the most prolific ever made, with roots that go back to 1955. Among GM V-8s, the small-block was simply physically smaller, which earned it the nickname. At least that’s the genesis I’ve heard. If you know better, please share in the comments.

The secret to the small-block is its simplicity and careful, detailed engineering. The motor is incredibly dense—the amount of power it produces for its physical size—and cheap. In 1997, the third-generation small-block debuted, heralding the “LS” era. LS motors, often nabbed from junkyards for under a grand, are such popular engine upgrades that there are festivals dedicated to LS swaps called “LS Fest.”

The small-block has graced our pages and videos for years. For the soup to nuts history, read this. If you want to see how a small-block goes together, join the 1.7 million who’ve watched our time-lapse rebuild. And, finally, we also explained the small-block’s sibling, which is, naturally, the big-block. Automotive engineers are nothing if not logical! If you really want to dive in, type “small-block” into the search field at to reveal volumes of material.

My personal small-block experience includes a 2002 Corvette that I impulsively won in an online auction for only 15 grand. That C5-generation Corvette took full advantage of its compact small-block V-8 and had a very low hood line, which provided a fantastic view out of the windshield. A previous owner had modified the engine and exhaust, so it was a loudly raucous thing that raised neighborhood hell. I loved it at first but grew tired of the attention and didn’t want to spend the money to change it, so I sold it for about 14K. Lost again, lol. The C5 Corvettes remain incredible values and we just included one on our Bull Market list. (You can also watch the Bull Market here)

Larry Webster

Yet another car I wish I had not sold, a 2002 Corvette, in Marietta, Ohio, one of my favorite driving destinations.

GM engineers define the small-block by the distance between the cylinders, which is why the new Corvette Z06 engine, which employs double-overhead cams rather than traditional pushrods, is considered a small-block. I wrote a deep dive on this motor and during the production of that piece, we had many internal debates about how far we need to go when we’re explaining technical topics. Can we assume the audience knows what horsepower is? Does the average reader recognize that an E30 BMW refers to the 3-series model that was built from 1982 to 1994?

Diving into every detail can bog down an article, or a video, in a hurry and make an audience feel like they are being talked down to. (Of course I know what horsepower is!) Conversely, too much jargon and assumed knowledge can turn away newcomers. We welcome the curious with outstretched arms but also want to communicate that we are in this deep and know our stuff. Like everything, there’s a balance. In that Z06 piece, I focused on the main engine technology and tried to simply explain its importance in a way that’s enlightening to the knowledgeable but also welcoming to those who don’t have a mechanical engineering degree. My dream would be for someone who has little to no gearhead knowledge to be curious enough to read and think, “Ahh, now I get it. That’s interesting.”

I’d love to hear what you think and your own small-block tales.

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    Like the “design terms” article that Sajeev started, Hagerty should have an in-house automotive term dictionary so the use of the terms is consistent across writers (and the examples point to Hagerty controlled examples). This is basically suggesting a Hagerty-curated Wikipedia-of-auto

    Then the key words (glossary words) could be hyperlinked in every text.

    Click the link and a little window pops up with your Hagerty definition of that term. Don’t want to read about the definition of torque or gps –don’t click the hotlink.

    But that would only work when reading the article online. For those of us who enjoy reading the hardcopy of the magazine it wouldn’t work.

    My first car was a 65 Malibu SS with a 283 sbc. Someone before me had put “power pack” heads on it. It was one sweet little motor and provided years of use and many great memories. It started a lifelong preference for small block Chevys. In my garage now is a 99 Camaro SS (LS1), and a 1957 265 (yes, 57 265s exist, I have one).
    And Larry Nutson is right about the street names. Great article, reminds me how fortunate I’ve been with my little Chevys.

    The small block Chevy is what brought me into the automotive industry. I worked a machine shop in high school in the late 90’s. Built a killer 383 I put in a 69 Chevy pickup. And I was hooked. Currently everything I have licensed and on the road has a 4.4” bore center. A couple Chevy trucks, a suburban, a 2006 SS Impala with a 5.3 and a 2001 Trans Am. Long live the small block! Life is better on a 4.4” center!

    I guess I should say the 327 in my dad’s 65 Impala and 350 in his 70 GMC 3/4 ton set me on the path to building that first 383

    Larry, you mention, “We had many internal debates about how far we need to go when we’re explaining technical topics.” regarding your deep dive article into the new Corvette Z06 engine. Personally, I liked the approach you took in that article. It never hurts to review some of the basics. Oftentimes, it enhances our understanding of them.

    Back in 1961 I bought my first Chevy, 1955 BelAir two door. I had a 265ci V8. Those first three years, the Tri- Fives just had V8s. In 1958 the W series, 348ci “big block” appeared. This was when the 265/283 started being I’d as “small block” in my recall. I did stuff one of the W series into the 55, had the factory three deuces with added mechanical linkage. The vacuum linkage from the factory was pretty scary, getting stuck wide open from time to time. In addition, the ’55 was pretty scary with the 348…

    Larry, rather than diving into my sbc story, I’ll answer your question. I was hooked at “love letter”. After reading it I immediately told my I usually do not read articles like this but this one due to my lack of comprehension. This article explained it in a way that both made it easy to comprehend and interesting to do so. So you achieved exactly what you intended before I knew you intentions. Hook, line and sinker. As car guys, we are expected to know the how’s and why’s of everything but so many of us do not nor will we admit that. Your article was the “now I get it” moment for me and probably many others on ICE. Thank you for that. I will look forward to many more of your articles from this point on.

    I don’t care how technical; an article is. If I don’t understand something I do some research and Voila! I just learned something new. Don’t dumb down articles for lazy people.

    In 1977 or 1978, I interviewed the president of General Motors of Canada for a feature for The Financial Post newspaper. The story was to be about the financial performance of the company but when I discovered Don McPherson was an engineer and had been on the team that developed the small block V-8, the interview took a big detour. We talked forever about the engine, its development and its future. I don’t recall all the details except that McPherson was as far more keen to talk about engines than either of us was to talk finance, which suited me fine. He was candid and detailed and fulsome. I learned a lot. Turns out, he also worked on the Vega engine and revealed it was designed to use O-rings to seal the head rather than the head gasket eventually used — a change instituted by the bean-counters of the day. I don’t think he ever forgave them.

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