The Chevy small-block engine is one of the most widely known and used engines across the board when it comes to performance cars, racers and even family sedans. But did you know that the small-block has truly stood the test of time? First introduced to the Chevy lineup in 1955, the small V8 engine continues to be produced today, and as we found out from The Globe and Mail, the history behind the iconic engine is quite an extensive one.
Although Chevrolet created their first V8, a 55-horsepower 288ci. engine, of which only 3,000 were made, in 1917, the Chevy small-block didn’t really get its start until four decades later. In wasn’t until 1952 with the arrival of Ed Cole as Chevy’s chief engineer that the iconic engine came to be.
Fresh from supervising the creation of Cadillac’s new V8 engine, Cole pulled the plug on Chevrolet’s new V8 design after seeing the plans. Instead of working with what Chevy already had in the works, Cole assembled a team of GM engineers to create his vision of a lightweight, compact and powerful V8 engine. The result was the overhead valve V8 introduced in the 1955 Chevys and still produced today for marine and industrial use, as well as in “crate engine” varieties .
Cole and the GM engineering dream team were able to create an engine block at the heart of the V8 that was more compact than any other engine. Thanks to new casting techniques, the new engine was strong but small, measuring only 21.75 inches long and nine inches tall. The engine was also more cost-effective to make and weighed less than other engines at just 531 pounds (the Chevy “Stovebolt” six engine weighed 41 pounds more than the fully dressed newly-created V8 at the time).
The newly-designed V8 featured a new oil metering system that used hollow pushrods and lubricated new lightweight stamped steel rocker arms. These rocker arms not only allowed the engine to achieve high RPMs, they were also cheap to make. To help the engine to reach high RPM without damaging the engine, the V8 had wedge combustion chambers, as well as a forged steel crank and connecting rods. The engine also came equipped with a one-piece intake casting complete with a cooling water outlet, distributor mount, oil filter, exhaust heat riser, and lifter valley covers.
The compact engine block eventually became known as the small-block after the “big-block” engine was introduced in 1958, giving any engine built on the compact platform the Chevy small-block nickname.
The first small-block V8 offered in the ‘55 Chevys had a displacement of 265ci. This engine was capable of producing 162hp. Compare this to the first Corvette Stovebolt engines that produced only 150hp, and there is a noticeable difference.
In 1957, the small-block grew to 283ci. and was one of the first engines to produce over one horsepower per cubic inch with the help of Rochester fuel injection. The 283ci. engine also won the NASCAR championship in 1957, but was banned the following year.
Many small-block varieties followed, including the 327ci. V8 in 1962, the 302ci. and 350ci. V8s used in Trans Am racing, the 307ci. and 400ci. V8s in 1970, a 305ci. in 1976, and a 110-horsepower 265ci. V8 produced shortly in the mid 1970s. The small 265ci. engine had the lowest horsepower rating of all the small-blocks.
The small-block is still being produced today in Mexico, Canada and the United States. With its fourth-generation engines, Chevy recently celebrated their one-millionth small-block build with the most powerful variety to date, the 638-horsepower LS9 V8.
Plans for a fifth-generation small-block engine are currently in the works for Chevrolet and we look forward to seeing just how powerful the beloved small-block platform can get.