Times of Tonawanda

GM's Historic Engine Plant

Barry Kluczyk - August 14, 2014 07:32 AM


Construction of the Tonawanda plant began in 1937 to give Chevrolet much-needed capacity to produce more engines. The plant became operational in the spring of 1938, bringing much-needed jobs to the Buffalo area, which was still recovering from the Great Depression.

Courtesy of GM

Workers prepare cylinder head castings for Tonawanda’s first and long-running production assignment – Chevy’s “Stovebolt” inline-six, which would find its way into the 1953 Corvette 15 years later.

Courtesy of GM

Tonawanda’s shop floor was a model of advanced production methods when it opened. Approximately 1,700 electric motors were used to power about 1,500 machine tools for all facets of production.

Courtesy of GM

It’s unclear whether these workers are cleaning or painting newly assembled engines as they move down the line, but they represent only two of the approximately 3,000 workers who filled the plant in the early years – split between two shifts.

Courtesy of GM

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     It’s been more than 75 years since General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant began assembling engines in March 1938. It’s the plant that built the Blue Flame six-cylinder for first Corvettes as well as the first small-block engines for the 1955 Chevrolet lineup. It’s a household word to muscle car enthusiasts who know it as the assembly site for the legendary big-block engines – including the all-aluminum ZL-1 engines.
     The next chapter in Tonawanda’s long history began recently with production of the Gen 5 small-block engines that power GM’s full-size trucks, full-size SUVs and the seventh-generation Corvette. To prepare for this, the plant received a $400-million investment in state-of-the-art tools and advanced training for the 1,500 jobs that were retained or created for the production.
     That the plant is not only still building engines three-quarters of a century later, let alone producing what is arguably the most high-profile engine at GM, is something of a manufacturing miracle. Tonawanda’s future was far from assured a few short years ago. Small-block production had long since ceased and even the long-running big-block assembly line went silent. Those were the dark days during General Motors’ bankruptcy-driven reorganization – times that could hardly have been imagined more than seven decades earlier when the plant was born during the final throes of the Great Depression.
     It was automotive survival of the fittest throughout the 1930s. Even though the depression downshifted Detroit’s mass-production momentum, it continued to roll comparatively strongly for the companies with well-positioned products, strong dealer networks and manufacturing efficiencies.
     During those challenging times, Chevrolet thrived. The brand finally outsold Ford in 1931 and kept the best-selling crown for three hard-fought years, with the torque and smoothness from its inline-six engine one of the key selling points. The engine known as the Cast Iron Wonder or simply the “Stovebolt” was durable and powerful – and gave the company tremendous marketing leverage when Chevrolets were advertised as delivering six-cylinder power for the price of a four. Customers responded and so did Ford. Dearborn’s flathead V-8 debuted in 1932 and the dynamics of the market changed again, but Chevrolet’s six-cylinder had converted countless customers from the formerly faithful Ford flock.
     The popularity of the Stovebolt and a market rebound nearly doubled Chevrolet’s sales between 1932 and 1937, straining capacity at every level of manufacturing. The company needed a new engine production facility, among other things, and found an ideal location in the Buffalo, New York area – specifically River Road in Tonawanda, about 12 miles north of downtown Buffalo. Ground broke in 1937, with initial plans calling for a $5.5-million investment, but that was revised in relation to projections for the brand’s growth. The plant would also produce axle assemblies in addition to Stovebolt engines.
     In the end, the one-million-square-foot Chevrolet Motor and Axle Plant cost $12.5 million to construct, the equivalent of nearly $200 million today, when adjusted for inflation. Virtually every component in the engines was produced or machined on site and the gear-cutting equipment, for example, was considered among the most sophisticated and precise in the industry.
     Constructed only a couple of years after the UAW was founded, the plant was also renowned for its progressive conveniences, including a 600-foot-long cafeteria and a kitchen filled with the most modern of amenities, including electric potato peelers. There was also a hospital-level infirmary, staffed with full-time surgeons – a reminder all these decades later that shop floors were dangerous places in these times.
     By the end of 1938, after coming on line earlier in the spring, Tonawanda produced a relatively modest 10,500 engines and 21,000 axle assemblies. The plant was just getting into its production groove when World War II came along and aircraft engine assembly supplanted the Chevy six. A 114,000-square-foot addition to the plant was constructed to support assembly and testing of enormous, 18-cylinder, 2,100-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines for warbirds such as the P-61 “Black Widow” night fighter and the Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt.” A 14-cylinder engine for B-24 Liberator bombers was also produced at Tonawanda.
      In the next installment (August 20), post-war expansion.