Times of Tonawanda
Expanding for Performance
Barry Kluczyk - August 20, 2014 08:00 AM
General Motors was strategic in its selection of the Tonawanda site, because it was closer to East Coast manufacturing facilities and close to Bethlehem Steel’s mill in Lackawanna, N.Y. A significant portion of that steel is seen her in the hundreds of Stovebolt cylinder blocks stacked nearly to the ceiling.Courtesy of GM
A worker machines crankshafts in the plant. Tonawanda was one of the most self-contained facilities in the industry, producing and machining almost every component in-house.Courtesy of GM
Connecting rods for the new Chevy V-8 – before it was known as the small-block – are shown being machined a prepped for installation.Courtesy of GM
A rare color shot from the Tonawanda floor shows small-block engine advancing on the assembly line, with a row of W-engines in the foreground. The 348/409 W-engines were the Mark I big-blocks.Courtesy of GM
General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant has been operating for more than 75 years, building iconic engines for enthusiasts. This section focuses on activity from the end of World War II into the ‘60s. (View Part 1 at http://www.carsandparts.com/Articles/Gm/Features/times-of-tonawanda)
Post-war production of the Stovebolt resumed in 1946. In 1950, the 235-cubic-inch version originally produced for trucks ended up in Chevy’s passenger cars and, of course, the 1953 Corvette a few years later, with the Blue Flame moniker. Tonawanda personnel were credited with helping convert the Stovebolt’s antiquated splash oiling to a modern pressure system and integrate the changes economically at the plant. It was a significant achievement that helped pave the way for Tonawanda’s nod to produce Chevrolet’s new overhead-valve V-8 engine in 1955.
Tonawanda produced 924,000 examples of the 265-cubic-inch small-block, including those for the estimated 693 ’55 Corvettes believed to be built with it that inaugural year. In the following years, the plant would also produce the 265, 283 and 327 engines. It also built the ubiquitious 350 small-block from 1969 to 1981. The final iteration of the Gen 1 small-block produced at the plant was the 305 engine in 1982.
In additional to the enduring Stovebolt and stalwart small-block, Tonawanda’s production expanded again in 1959 with the 348 “W” engine – the Mark I big-block. It would prove to be plant’s longest-running engine line, lasting until 2009. Indeed, Tonawanda is synonymous with the big-block. Throughout the 1960s, identifying valve cover stickers imprinted the plant’s name on the consciousness of everyone who lifted the hood of a Stingray or Chevelle SS396, but the big-block was one of six engine families produced at Tonawanda during the decade. In addition to the Chevy six, small-block and big-block, there was also Chevy’s 153-cid straight-four, as well as the Corvair’s flat-six engines.
Tonawanda was the exclusive production facility for Corvette big-blocks, as well as the all-aluminum ZL-1 427 engines, which were hand-assembled in a special clean room and broken in for an hour before being validated in the plant’s test dyno lab, according to a historical overview produced for the plant by Annette Herrman. The ZL-1’s production methods were resurrected in the mid-1970s, when the clean room was used to hand-assemble the twin-cam four-cylinders used in the 1975-76 Cosworth Vega.
The 1960s were, in many ways, a high-water mark for the plant. Chevrolet vehicles were the best-selling in the country and being turned out in numbers that would make the sales department in Detroit weak at the knees today. Consequently, Tonawanda expanded to meet demand. A vacant, adjacent aircraft engine plant was purchased from the federal government in 1960 and dubbed Plant #4, adding 535,000 square feet to Tonawanda’s overall footprint. It would be expanded two more times during the decade.
Tonawanda marked the production of its 15-millionth engine in 1968, but the 1960s alone accounted for a staggering 9,199,000 engines – most of them V-8s.
In the next installment (August 27), times of uncertainty