With the recent announcement from Chevrolet about the availability of an all-new Gen-1 small block, I got to thinking about how enthusiasts made horsepower throughout the last several decades. Yes, I know the latest engine release is for a replacement mill that is not being marketed as a performance engine, but how long until it is turned into one by an enterprising enthusiast?
Until the mid-1950s, Chevrolet passenger cars were equipped with six-cylinder engines. That is until the Ford flathead was released. This new Ford V8 engine was a popular mill with speed junkies in the 1950s, because… well… it made more power than Chevy’s stock six-cylinder. It wasn’t long until aftermarket companies were making performance parts for these new engines. Unfortunately, Chevrolet didn’t have anything that could compete with the Ford V8. That was soon to change.
In 1952, Ed Cole was hired by Chevrolet and spearheaded the development of the then-new Gen-I small-block engine. As chief engineer on the project, Cole set out to build a lightweight, inexpensive V8 engine that would outperform anything from Ford. In 1955, the 265-cubic-inch small-block Chevy debuted in the Corvette and Bel Air. It was a very potent mill—for the time—as it delivered nearly twice the horsepower (185 horses from the four-barrel version) as the venerable flathead in a package that weighed less than Chevrolet’s six-cylinder engine.
As soon as the first Chevy V8 was released, it didn’t take long for guys like Vic Edelbrock, Ed Iskenderian, and others to start designing parts to make it go faster. Heck, even within the walls of Chevrolet, performance parts were being developed.
I might be showing my age, but I can remember when big compression, raw-fuel-spouting camshaft events, and dual carburetors were the way to make big power—again, for the time. Engines were not as technologically advanced as they are today. Back in the day (crap, did I really say that?), if your exhaust note didn’t have perceptible “pop,” you didn’t have enough compression to be a threat at the local street race hangout. Likewise, if you weren’t suffering from a fumigated garage when “tuning” before you left for the hangout, you were not burning enough fuel to make power. Okay, I might be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Big carbs, big camshafts, big compression numbers, and big cubic-inch displacements were king.
The next step in performance involved adding cubic inches to a mill without changing the exterior (i.e. stroking). Again, I am giving away my age, but I remember when installing a crankshaft taken from a 400ci engine into a 350ci block was a big deal. Now it’s a common practice to find those dimensional parts combined. Whether you feel it unfortunate or not, times have changed.
While there is still a market for an old-school carburetor, electronic fuel injection is now more prevalent. It’s a polarizing subject among enthusiasts. There are—very vocal—supporters of each, and staunch cynics on both sides. It’s been a slow conversion rate of enthusiasts who have decided to take the leap of faith and have removed their fuel sipper to install new fuel squirters. Unfortunately, there are still those who have a hard time putting their faith in a computer-controlled fuel system that does what it does without most enthusiasts understanding how it does it. The main argument I hear is, “if I break down on the side of the road, I can fix a carburetor.” For many, that is a valid argument.
As I previously stated, I remember when big compression was king. It was a badge of honor when your “street car” needed to run race or “Av” fuel. Now, there are 1,000 horsepower hot rods driving across country drinking regular-pump unleaded fuel along the way.
It’s easy for enthusiasts to now achieve quadruple-digit horsepower numbers with a moderate—by previous-decades standards—compression ratio. However, the addition of turbocharging has really made that prevalent. While big roots blowers were once the pinnacle of performance, now, a turbocharger measured in millimeters is what drives many big-power numbers. This new ability to drop compression ratios and regain power with boost has also altered camshaft design.
Do you remember when the 3/4 race cam was king? Even that’s a little before my time, but you get the picture. Camshaft design has taken huge leaps and bounds to deliver performance increases. For instance, I can remember when a solid-lifter cam was mandatory for a performance engine. Nobody in their right mind would try to build a serious engine with a hydraulic flat-tappet lifter. Again, things change. It would be nearly impossible to talk about the myriad of design improvements valvetrain technology has received as of late, but let’s just say that a hydraulic camshaft with roller-tip lifters is now commonplace in performance engines.
Who would have thought that one day we would be performance tuning our cars with a laptop computer? Modern engines are no longer controlled by a carburetor and a distributor. Now, an Engine Control Module (ECM) controls the engine. An ECU controls how the engine runs and has everything to do with delivering power. It controls air/fuel ratio, ignition timing, idle speed, valve timing, and engine RPM. In the early days of ECUs, if you wanted to change its parameters, you had to swap out computer chips with a newer chip that had preinstalled software featuring the performance parameters you wanted. Today, it’s much easier. Anyone with the knowledge can install new software changes to the ECU that will alter its operating parameters simply by plugging a computer or hand-held controller into the OBDII port under the dash.
Finally, where did the small block go? It really didn’t go anywhere, there are a lot of enthusiasts who still rely heavily on the Gen-1 engine. However, when the LS was released to the public, that shift in engine design made it the go-to engine for swapping into classic rides and easily building a high-performance engine. Who would have ever thought about an intake port with a “cathedral” shape? Many were even surprised when Chevrolet replaced the LS engine a couple of years ago with the new LT-series, but performance never rests. We’ll just have to wait and see if the new LT has as good of a reputation for making easy power as its predecessors. Only time will tell.
The old adage about the more things change the more they stay the same is getting a little slanted these days. But one thing is certain, big power is still the end goal and that is one thing that will never be any different to car guys. What are your thoughts? Has the technological progression of making horsepower been a good thing for the hobby?