The popularity of the Oldsmobile 88 and the “OHV” V8, helped to push General Motors as the number one name in performance in the USA, but that wasn’t enough, GM had broader plans for those engines. The idea was to maximize the profits as much as possible, making the V8 even more affordable. GM quickly transferred the “OHV” technology to its most popular brand: Chevrolet.
Chevy V8, Power to the People.
In 1955 Chevrolet unveiled its all-new automobile line up: the Model “150”, the “210” and the top of line, the Bel Air; all of them equipped with the optional 265CID “OHV” V8, cranking 160HP. Chevy also made available the “Super Power Pack” V8, with 190HP, for those who wanted a little more punch under the hood.
The combination of the sleek design and the power of the V8 made the new Chevy a smashing hit and a turning point for the company. That year alone, Chevrolet sold 250.000 more cars than Ford.
The company repeated the recipe for the next 2 years, making the Chevys from 1955, 56, and 57 instant classics and propelled the popularity of the Small Block V8 for years to come.
Saving the Corvette.
The Corvette was released in 1953 and its mission was to compete with the British roadsters that were invading the American market at the time. It was equipped with a 150 HP, in-line 6 engine and a two-speed automatic transmission, in other words, the car had the looks of a sports car, but was far from performing like one. The Corvette became a disaster in sales and Chevrolet was ready to axe the car after only 2 years of production.
One of the Corvette’s chief engineers, Zora Arkus-Duntov, insisted that the car deserved a second chance but with something more spicy under the hood. Duntov’s request was finally heard and in June, 1955, the 265CID V8 Corvette hit the showrooms across the USA. To make things even better, a 4-speed manual transmission was made available as well.
Sales were picking up thanks to this new combo, but Chevy decided to go even further, in 1957 the car received a 283CID with 10,5: 1 compression ratio that could have been optionally equipped with a Rochester mechanical fuel injection. With this combination, the Corvette reached a new milestone: 1HP per cubic inch, proving how efficient the small block can be. Chevrolet also provided lots of “race-ready” components like brakes, shocks, clutch, and so on, making the little Chevy a superb sports car.
The small block V8 gave the Corvette the necessary boost in sales and also made the car unbeatable at the race tracks. It was only in the early 60s that Carol Shelby, in partnership with the British A/C and Ford, came up with a car that could face the Corvette in equal terms: the Shelby Cobra.
The Horse Power war between the American automakers had officially began
The most popular engine in History.
Throughout the next decades, the Chevrolet V8 engines would not only power the company’s high-performance cars but also the less glamorous cars and trucks. Those engines were also extensively used in the marine industry, powering boats and on a much smaller scale, they even powered airplanes.
Chevrolet produced the “OHV” V8s in a variety of sizes, from the small block 265CID (4.3 liters) to big block 454 CID (7.5 liters) but was the 350CID that became legendary. Cheap, reliable, and pretty easy to squeeze lots of horsepower out of it.
The 350 Chevy became the engine of choice for the blue-collar Hot Rodders for decades, not only during the Golden Age of American High-Performance in the 1960s but also during those terrible years of the oil crisis in the 1970s/80s.
In the beginning of the 1980s, in order to optimize production, meet emission standards, and cut costs, General Motors decided for all its “satellite” brands (Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac) to stop the production of their own V8s and adopting the “corporate” Chevrolet “small block” V8 instead.
General Motors phased out the “classic” small block from its vehicles in the late 1990s, replacing it with the “LS” V8 family, but they kept the legendary 350CID V8 in production as “replacement part” for the millions of vehicles that are still on the roads powered by this venerable engine.
Chevrolet estimates that over 100 million small blocks were produced since 1955, making it the most successful engine in the history of the auto industry.
In the last post of this series, I will talk about the most legendary of the American V8s: the Chrysler HEMI.