The little engine that could was heralded with
the usual corporate fanfare, but few expected it to be the
unmitigated success it became. It transformed Chevrolet, helped
drive America’s love affair with performance and became one of the
10 best engines of the 20th century. Fifty-six years later, GM says
it is about the crank out its 100 millionth small block Chevrolet
General Motors will crank out a V8 Chevrolet
engine that is a descendant of the engine born in 1955. But it isn’t
the same engine at all. Contemporary Chevrolet V8s have little in
common with the original small block Chevrolet beyond eight
cylinders, a single shared dimension and a pushrod drivetrain. So
it’s a faux milestone, heralded during GM’s 100th anniversary. But
that in no way detracts from the original’s place in history,
because the small block Chevrolet engine remains GM’s Mt. Everest.
The V8 engine was something of an anomaly before
World War II, when most automakers offered inline fours, sixes and
eights. That changed after the war as consumers demanded more
performance and power.
Chevrolet was among the last to the V8 party,
offering only a straight-six from 1929 until 1954. It was a fine
engine but lacked the oomph consumers, particularly the growing
post-war hot rod culture, wanted. GM chief engineer Ed Cole set out
to design a powerful, light and affordable V8.
Cole’s answer to that equation was elegantly
simple: A compact, efficient 90-degree V8 engine with overhead
valves, pushrod valvetrain and 4.4-inch on-center bore spacing. The
first engine had a displacement of 265 cubic inches and delivered
195 horsepower. It appeared in the (now) iconic 1955 Chevrolet
The engine was revolutionary for its light
weight, compact size, general simplicity and remarkable durability,
said John Wolkonowicz, an automotive historian and former industry
analyst. Although there were some hiccups during the first year or
so, GM worked them out and the engine quickly became a hit.
Consumers loved the performance and fuel economy,
which was on par with the six-cylinder engine it replaced. Racers
and rodders loved its performance and light weight, quickly dubbing
it “Mighty Mouse.”
“Until the the small block Chevrolet, the
flathead Ford engine was the rodder’s delight,” Wolkonowicz said.
“That shifted right away when the small block Chevrolet came out. It
was small, it was light and it lasted forever. Hot rodders loved
They still do. Even now, you’ll see the small
block Chevrolet and its descendants, the LS and LT engines, almost
everywhere, powering almost everything. There are no end to the
tricks tuners can use to generate enough torque to move houses and
enough horsepower to seriously warp your perspective of time and
“The performance of the small block transformed
Chevrolet,” Jim Campbell, vice president of GM Performance Vehicles
and Motorsports, said in a statement. “The small block made
Chevrolet the weapon of choice for grassroots racers on the
drag-racing and sports-car tracks across America.”
You’d expect him to say that, of course, but it
isn’t hyperbole because it’s true. The ubiquitous engine has
appeared in everything from stock car racing (more NASCAR wins than
any other engine) to drag racing to endurance racing, not to mention
an ungodly number of hot rods built in the past 50 years.
The original small block Chevrolet grew in
displacement and output over the years. In 1957, the 283 cubic-inch
engine fitted with Rochester fuel injection became the first engine
to produce one horsepower per cubic inch. The 350 cubic-inch variant
appeared in 1967 and eventually appeared in everything from station
wagons to sports cars. It almost certainly is the most popular small
block V8 engine of all time.
The first-gen small block engine reached its
zenith with the 400 cubic-inch monster in 1970. By that point, the
venerable mill was all but bulletproof.
“By the time the engine was truly perfected in
1970, 300,000 miles was the norm for a 350 cubic-inch small block
Chevrolet,” Wolkonowicz said. “It was a beautiful, remarkable
Those with jaundiced eyes might say, “Yeah, yeah.
That was then. What does an engine designed half a century ago have
to do with getting down the road in the 21st century?”
A lot, actually. The DNA of the small-block
Chevrolet can be found in modern GM engines.
General Motors revamped the small block when it
introduced the 347 cubic-inch LT engine in 1992 to comply with
tightening fuel economy and emissions regulations. The LT featured,
among other changes, reverse cooling (in which the coolant flows
down through the cylinder heads into the engine block) and an
optical distributor mounted at the front of the engine. But it was,
at its heart, the same engine Cole designed.
GM went back to the drawing board for the LS
engine, which first appeared in the Chevrolet Corvette in 1997. Yes,
it’s a V8, but it’s not a small block V8.
“Everything is different,” Wolkonowicz said. “The
only thing that’s the same is it’s a 90-degree layout with pushrods
and a 4.4-inch on-center bore. Every other part of the engine has
That doesn’t detract from the significance of the
original, or the potential of its descendants. GM has stuck with the
general design all these years because it still offers the same
benefits: small size, light weight and excellent power.
“As fabulous as the original small block was, the
new small block is better in every way,” Wolkonowicz said. “It’s
more durable. It’s got more performance. It’s quieter. It’s
smoother. It is is capable of better fuel economy and lower
emissions. It is simply a much better engine. It is to the 21st
century as the original was to the 20th century.”