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posted on October 26th, 2019

Happy birthday to the storied GM powerhouse

The small-block Chevy is one of the longest-lasting engine designs in automotive history due to its interchangeability and reliability. It was so successful that it made it into some of Chevy’s most famous models and became the basis for engines at GM’s other divisions such as Pontiac and even Buick.

The early years 

Chevy was looking for a new engine to put in their Bel-Air and Corvette models — at the time the most powerful engine you could get was a 162-horsepower Chevy inline 6. Chevy went back to the drawing board and designed a new small-block V8 using the valve train from a Pontiac V8. On October 26, 1954, Chevy unveiled a 265ci (4.3L) pushrod engine with a 4-barrel Rochester carburetor, their first V8 since 1918. It would retain much of its basic design through various iterations for over 50 years.

The Muscle Car Era

Cameron’s 1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS (Redondo Beach, CA)

Thanks to the new V8’s relatively low production costs, a majority of GM’s ‘60s muscle cars were powered by the small-block. It was in this era that the small-block Chevy really began to shine. The engine was soon offered on just about all Chevrolet models, since at the time, Chevy was considered the entry-level GM brand, and it allowed them to keep prices down. The power the engine produced was enough to carry Chevy’s land yachts like the Impala, and provide that tire-spinning power that muscle cars are famous for.

In 1967 Chevy introduced the Camaro, their answer to the Ford Mustang, and with it came the Chevy 350ci (5.7L) V8. This 295-horsepower small-block was so successful that it was later offered in the Corvette, and soon replaced other V8 options in GM divisions like Pontiac.

Andrew’s 1978 Chevrolet Corvette (Marina del Rey, CA)

At this time, at the dawn of the pony car era, the Trans-Am Racing Series (SCCA) was formed. To compete in this new popular series, Chevy designed the 302ci (4.9L) V8 for their Camaro Z/28, and rode it to great success. Trans-Am racing became defined by the fierce competition between American V8 coupes, and manufacturer teams raced to glory and bragging rights with some of the biggest names in racing during the golden era of muscle. The 302 engine was successful enough to be offered in later Camaro and Corvette models, but was ultimately overshadowed by its famous Ford 302 counterpart from the same era.

Anthony’s 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle (Santa Clarita, CA)

Towards the end of the muscle car era, Chevy beefed up the small-block model again and the result was the beastly 400ci (6.6L) V8. It made its debut in an equally beastly car, the 1970 Chevelle.

LS engines and beyond

The ‘70s gas crisis brought about the end of the muscle car era — car companies started putting big V8s in fewer and fewer cars, soon eliminating them entirely from non-performance models. But the V8 continued to live on in trucks where the small-block Chevy was still going strong.

One of the long-running truck engines was the 305ci (5.0L) V8 that, while it suffered from quality issues and other bugs, proved an otherwise reliable and fuel-efficient engine. In 1993 the engine was only offered in SUVs and trucks, until the small-block Chevy was discontinued in production cars in 2003. However, it lived on as a crate engine.

In 1992 GM introduced the Generation II small-block engine, called the LT, immediately plopping it into the 1992 Corvette. The Generation II engines and their many iterations were well-received, but the 1997 Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird were the last vehicles to offer them before the LS1 took over.

Peter’s 2006 Chevrolet Corvette with LS2 V8 (Plano, TX)

The small-block design stuck around with its last iteration being the L30, a 305.9ci truck engine that lasted from 1996-2003. Even though GM stopped using Chevy’s small-block design after 2003, the basic guts have lived on in LS engines. The LS was designed to be the next generation of small-block engines for GM, improving on the mechanics while still employing the same basic principles that made the original small-block Chevy so successful. The LS became GM’s new gold standard thanks to its great performance and easy adaptability to fit in almost any type of car.

Because of their time-tested durable design, reliability, and easy maintenance, Chevy still produces their small-block engines for the aftermarket crowd. Enthusiasts everywhere use them for their builds and restorations. Ever since its inception in 1954 it has, and always will be, GM’s gold standard engine.

Danny Benson is a car fanatic and writer from rural Northern California (aka Bigfoot country). His friends are hoping that his being able to write about cars for a living will get him to stop talking their ears off with useless car trivia.