GM Builds 100-Millionth Small-Block Engine

Milestone Center comes 56 years after introduction

Andy Bolig - November 29, 2011 01:02 PM


Denny Davis (left), a member of the original General Motors small-block engineering team, works with GM Experimental Assembler John Ross, to help build the 100-millionth small-block engine - 56 years after the first production small-block

Credit: GM

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General Motors built its 100-millionth small block engine – 56 years after the first production small block – representing an engineering legacy that continues to deliver greater performance and efficiency through advanced technology.

Chevrolet introduced the small-block in 1955 and the production milestone comes in the same month the brand marked its 100th anniversary. The small-block engine has been used in GM vehicles around the world and is currently found in global Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac vehicles, as well as Vauxhall in the United Kingdom and Holden in Australia.

The milestone engine is a 638-horsepower supercharged LS9 small block – the power behind the 205-mph Corvette ZR1 – which is hand-built at GM’s Performance Build Center, northwest of Detroit. It represents the fourth generation of the small block and is the most powerful engine ever built by GM for a regular-production car. GM will preserve the engine as part of its historical collection.

The small block has been adapted in almost innumerable ways throughout the auto industry and beyond. Updated versions of the original Gen I engine are still in production for marine and industrial applications, while “crate engine” versions offered by Chevrolet Performance are used by thousands of enthusiasts every year to build hot rods. The 4.3L V-6 used in some Chevrolet and GMC full-size trucks and vans is based on the small-block, too, but with two fewer cylinders. All of these versions contribute to the small block’s 100-million production milestone.

Current small blocks engines in car and many truck applications feature all-aluminum cylinder block and heads to help save weight and contribute to greater fuel economy. Many applications feature fuel-saving technologies such as Active Fuel Management – which shuts down four cylinders in certain light-load driving conditions – and camshaft phasing, which continuously alters valve timing to optimize performance, efficiency and emissions.

GM also announced that the fifth-generation small-block under development will feature a new direct-injection combustion system that will help enhance efficiency over the current-generation engine. GM is investing more than $1 billion in manufacturing facilities associated with producing new small-block engines, resulting in 1,711 jobs that have been created or retained. The Gen V engine is expected in the near future and is guaranteed to have 4.4-inch bore centers – the center-to-center distance between cylinders that has been part of the small-block’s architecture from the beginning. 

GM didn’t invent the V-8 engine, but interpreted it in a way that made performance accessible to millions of new customers. It got its start in the years following World War II, after Chief Engineer Ed Cole transferred to Chevrolet from Cadillac, where he oversaw the development of its premium V-8 engine.

Cole’s team retained the basic overhead valve design that was a staple of Chevrolet’s inline-six engine – affectionately called the Stovebolt. It was seen as one of the Chevrolet car line’s selling points, reinforcing a message of simplicity and reliability. Cole challenged his engineers to tighten the new engine package to make it more compact, less costly and easier to manufacture.

Upon its debut in the 1955 Chevy lineup, the new V-8 engine was physically smaller, 50 pounds lighter and more powerful than the Stovebolt six. It was not only a better engine for Chevrolet cars, it represented a better way of building engines, with a minimalist design that took advantage of streamlined production techniques.

After only two years on the market, the small-block began a steady march upward in displacement, power and technological advancement. In 1957, a version equipped with mechanical fuel injection was introduced, dubbed Ramjet. The only other high-volume manufacturer to offer fuel injection at the time was Mercedes-Benz.  Mechanical fuel injection was discontinued in the mid-Sixties, but the small-block debuted electronically controlled fuel injection in the 1980s and established a benchmark with the 1985 launch of Tuned Port Injection. This electronically controlled port fuel injection system was advanced in its day and its basic design is still used on most passenger cars and light-duty trucks more than 25 years later.

Small Block Fast Facts:

■One-hundred million engines since 1955 is the equivalent of more than 1.78 million produced every year – or about 3.4 small-blocks produced every minute for the last 56 years.

■With an average length of 29 inches, about 2,185 small block engines could be lined up front to back in a mile. It would take 45,766 miles to line up all 100 million small blocks – almost twice the distance around the equator.

■At an average of 230 horsepower per engine, the collective output of all 100 million small block engines is 23 billion horsepower.

■The introduction of the small-block V-8 in the 1955 Corvette is widely credited with saving the car from cancellation.

■In 1955 Zora Duntov drove a disguised, pre-production and small-block-powered ’56 Chevy in the Pikes Peak hill climb race and shattered the sedan-class record by more than two minutes.

■The fuel-injected 283 small-block in 1957 was rated at 283 horsepower, or one horsepower for every cubic inch. Today, the Corvette Z06’s 427-cubic-inch small-block produces 1.18 horsepower per inch, while the Corvette ZR1’s 376-cubic-inch supercharged small-block produces 1.69 horses per inch.

■The fuel-injected small-block was so dominant in NASCAR racing in 1957, it was banned.

■Corvette won its first race at LeMans in 1960 with a small-block engine and won its seventh title there in June 2011, again with a small-block engine.

■The largest-displacement small-blocks ever produced by GM are the LSX454/LSX454R crate engines offered through Chevrolet Performance, at 454 cubic inches (7.4L); the largest-displacement small-block for a production vehicle is the 427-cubic-inch (7.0L) LS7 used currently in the Corvette Z06.

■The smallest-displacement small-block V-8 ever produced included a 262-cubic-inch (4.3L) version used in the mid-Seventies – the same displacement shared by the current small-block-based 4.3L V-6.

■The most powerful small block ever produced is the LS9 engine used in the current Corvette ZR1. It is rated at 638 horsepower, making it the most powerful engine ever produced by GM for a regular-production car.

■The lowest-output small block was the 1975-76 262 V-8 rated at 110 horsepower. The supercharged LS9 makes 580 percent more horsepower than it with only 43-percent greater displacement.

■The 4.3L V-6 used today in some GM trucks and vans is based on the original small-block architecture, but essentially with two fewer cylinders – and a 280-hp turbocharged version was used in the 1991 GMC Syclone and 1992-93 Typhoon.

■Original-architecture small-block engines are still produced as crate engines for Chevrolet Performance and manufactured for marine and industrial applications.

■The small-block wasn’t known as the small-block until Chevrolet introduced the big-block engine family in 1965 – previously, versions were known simply by their cubic-inch designations, i.e. 283, 327, etc., or simply as the Chevy V-8.

■Small-block engines are currently produced in Wixom, Mich.; Romulus, Mich.; St. Catharines, Ontario; and Silao, Mexico.