‘Chevy Small Block’ is one of the coolest and most memorable phrases in the world of cars. Later in the year they will be celebrating production of the 100 millionth unit.
So, Chevy Small Block V8s have never been the best sort you could get, not in terms of power nor efficiency. But back in 1955 when they were introduced, they opened a new chapter in the history of American cars with the amazing performance they delivered.
These engines gave their cars a defining character, and that’s the coolest thing a car can have: character.
“The introduction of the Small Block changed everything,” said Jim Campbell, vice president, GM Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “The Small Block was an instant success because it offered customers high performance and an affordable price, in a compact design that was very easy to modify. The Small Block also started a wave of innovation – and escalating performance – that transformed the cars Americans drove on the street and the track.”
And now some history lesson on Chevy Small Block, for those of you who like to talk about it down at the pub:
The Small Block Redefines Chevy Performance
From 1929 and 1955, Chevrolet only offered six-cylinder engines. To address the burgeoning performance market, chief engineer Ed Cole set out to design a Chevrolet V-8 that was powerful, lightweight and affordable.
His solution was elegantly simple: a compact, efficient 90-degree V-8 engine, featuring overhead valves, pushrod valvetrain, and 4.4-inch on-center bore spacing. The Chevrolet Big Block follows the same formula, with the exception of a wider 4.8 inch bore spacing.
When it debuted, the Small Block delivered 195 horsepower with an optional four-barrel carburetor, and outperformed most anything then on the market. But that was just the beginning. New technologies rapidly increased horsepower. Just two years after the Small Block was introduced, the addition of fuel injection increased output to 283 horsepower – or one horsepower for every cubic inch of the 283 cid engine. By 1970, the Chevy V-8 family grew to include a staggering 450 horsepower, 454-cid Big Block.
“The performance of the Small Block transformed Chevrolet,” said Campbell. “The Small Block made Chevrolet the weapon of choice for grassroots racers on the drag-racing and sports-car tracks across America. It also powered Chevrolet’s factory racing programs, leading to wins in stock car, endurance, and Trans Am series. Chevrolet’s racing experience in turn led to more potent production cars, creating legendary names like Corvette, Camaro, Impala, and Chevelle.”
The Culture of Small Block Performance
The combination of compact dimensions, impressive power and available aftermarket parts made the Chevy V-8 the most popular crate engine in the industry. For example, Tammy Ray never considered anything but a Chevy Small Block when building “Gold Digger,” her 1933 Ford Phaeton hot rod that won the 2010 Ridler Award:
“My builder will say you can get more horsepower out of a Chevy than a Ford,” she said. “For me, the decision was based solely on appearance. The Chevy V-8 is much cleaner, more compact, and with so many parts available, I could customize every part of engine – right down to the gold nuggets inlaid on valve covers.”
Today, hot rodders can select from a wide range of new Chevrolet V-8 crate engines from General Motors Performance Parts. For example, the classic 350 cid Small Block, with 290 horsepower, delivers affordable power and easy modification, making it ideal starting point for many project cars. The earth-shaking, 572-cid ZZ572R Big Block delivers 720 horsepower and 685 pound-feet of torque make it ideal for drag racing.
The newest addition to the GMPP line is the E-ROD engine family, the first crate engine in the industry to meet California emissions requirements. The E-ROD engine package includes everything customers need to get modern performance, emissions and fuel economy out of their hot rods, including: GMPP engine wiring harness and engine control module; exhaust manifolds, catalytic converters, oxygen and mass-airflow sensors; and even a fuel-tank evaporative emissions canister.
“More people do more things with a Small Block than any other engine, and probably more than all other engine platforms combined,” said Campbell. “There’s a Small Block to fit almost any hot rodder’s needs, whether they are building a gold-plated hot rod, a 1,000-horsepower dragster, or an emissions-compliant project car.”
The Continued Evolution of the Small Block
Today, Chevrolet sells more four-cylinder engines than V-8s. But, descendents of the original Chevy small block still power Chevrolet’s most-capable production and racing vehicles. As per the original, the newer V-8s are physically small and light – and extremely efficient at turning fuel into horsepower.
“Without question, the current Chevrolet V-8s are lineal descendants of the 1955 small block,” said Sam Winegarden, GM executive director for Global Engine Engineering. “They retain the 90-degree V-configured eight-cylinder layout, overhead valve placement and characteristic pushrod valve train. Where they differ are the modern technologies that would have sounded like science fiction 50 years ago, such as all-aluminum blocks, titanium connecting rods, Active Fuel Management, and variable valve timing.”
On the track, the Small Block has made Chevrolet the most-winning name in NASCAR history, and it powered the Corvette Racing team to seven class wins at Le Mans between 2001 and 2011.
On the street, the modern Small Block powers Chevrolet’s full-size trucks, such as Silverado and Suburban, as well as performance cars including the Camaro and Corvette. These modern engines deliver levels of power, durability, and efficiency that were inconceivable 50 years ago. For example, the 6.2L Small Block in 2012 Corvette delivers 436 horsepower, up to 26 miles per gallon, and is backed by General Motors’ five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
“Constant innovation and evolution have made the Small Block relevant for more than 50 years,” said Winegarden. “We are actively working on the fifth generation of the Small Block, which we believe will be the best V-8 engines ever made. By adding new technologies, such as direct injection, we will continue to improve the performance, durability, and efficiency of the iconic Chevy V-8.”