Time-Tested Performance: The Stalwart Chevrolet Small Block

Josh Leatherwood Feb 22 2019


RK Motors

Literally hundreds, from all across the world…

That’s our answer when someone asks how many different makes and models of collector cars we can think of. In fact, aside from the seemingly ubiquitous knitting revolution, car enthusiasts might be the most globally diverse group of hobbyists in existence. So, the question becomes: what common strand weaves this group of somewhat single-minded loyalists into one? Well, the answer is easy – a devoted appreciation for the Chevrolet small block, or at the very least what it represents.


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Produced in a plethora of configurations for over 60 years, the Chevrolet small block has become the default choice for a wide variety of classic and performance cars. Got a seductive street rod that needs some reliable power? Slide a small block in it. Building a buff off-roader that needs plenty rock-crawling torque? Bolt a small block in it. Building a timeless GM muscle car that’s poised to turn heads? Drop a small block in it, even if it’s not a Chevrolet! Okay, okay… By now the purists in the room are surely rolling their eyes and sighing in disgust. We get it, it’s always a treat to see a lovingly restored classic that’s 100% true to form. However, even the staunchest traditionalists can’t deny the fact that, if you’re just a performance addict who wants a cool car that runs well, it’s hard to beat a Chevrolet small block.

Introduced in 1955, the archetype for the common Chevrolet small block was created for that very reason: to add a little sizzle to the division’s flagship Corvette, and to kick off a fresh Bel Air line with some all-American gusto. And man, was Chevy ever successful! Going from the drawing board to production in a mere 15 weeks, the venerable mill, nicknamed ‘Mighty Mouse’ by racers, quickly became one of the first V8s to achieve the coveted one horsepower per cubic inch metric. Soon enough, America’s largest division, affectionately known as USA-1, was cranking out small blocks by the thousands! Now, over the past century, General Motors has been many things. But the monolith is nothing if not innovative and adaptive. Chevrolet’s 1955 small block was plenty innovative, and with the engineering and manufacturing might of the world’s biggest automaker behind it, the engine was the perfect combination of useful, reliable and straightforward.

In the mid-1960s, the brand decided to throw roughly five liters of gas on the figurative fire by introducing an SCCA-bound 302, a performance-minded 327 and a top dog 350. Those variations of the small block proved so popular that they eventually became Chevrolet’s mainstream powerplants. With comparatively massive production numbers, and plenty of performance potential baked in from the factory, the Chevrolet small block began to inspire an aftermarket scene that would become the stuff of legend. Hot rodding these engines became so prolific that aftermarket firm Holley would eventually go on record saying they sell more Chevrolet small block bolt-ons than components for all other performance engines combined. As the decades passed, GM refined Chevrolet’s storied small block into the corporate standard for all its divisions, and production continued even as the corporation began engineering more advanced powertrains. The engine, still available to enthusiasts as a GM Goodwrench crate offering, enjoys a history that includes powering cars, trucks, boats, planes, and serving as primary motivation for smaller OEMs such as Avanti and Checker. And today, Chevrolet has sold over 100,000,000 Generation I small blocks, with some units enduring over 1,000,000 miles with nothing more than basic maintenance.


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Bottom line: reliability, affordability and performance are the heart of the Chevrolet small block revolution. Every hot rodder worth their salt knows that Chevrolet small blocks are tough engines that can take a lot of abuse. Better still, if you happen to abuse one too much, chances are you can head down to the local salvage yard and find another one for just a few bills. Plentiful parts and ample advice mean you won’t break the bank building a motor that can easily achieve 300 to 400 horsepower. But here’s the best part, in addition to being easy to work on, these engines can fit in almost anything. Theoretically, a resourceful gearhead could bolt modern Vortec heads on an original Turbo-Fire 265 and drop it in something as random as an early ‘90s Mazda. That universal appeal, and the ingenuity it inspires, are why the Chevrolet small block will continue to be one of the Lapped Seams of our diverse collector car hobby.


AUTHOR: Josh Leatherwood

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