There are a number of classic motors vying for the 20th century engine title, but certainly, one of the strongest competitors for that title is the Chevrolet small-block V-8. In fact, if not the best overall, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call this classic engine the most important and defining engine of the golden age of gas-powered automobiles.
With over 100 million Generation 1 small-blocks having been built, this beast is actually the most popular V-8 engine in history. Adding to its championship credentials, it has been rated by Motor Trend, Ward’s, and Hot Rod Magazine as one of the top ten greatest engines of all-time.
In an interview with Motor Trend, Bill Tichenor– the director of marketing for Holley Performance Products– says, “There are great engines from Ford, Chrysler, and others, but the proliferation of cores and affordability of making power with a small-block Chevy made it rise to the top. They certainly have been the engine of choice for street rodding, Chevy muscle cars and trucks, circle track racing, and a lot of drag car, too.”
As a mainstay of the auto industry for nearly 50 years, the history of the Chevy small-block started way back in 1955, with the 265-cubic-inch (4.3 liter) version of the V-8 engine debuting in that year’s Bel-Air and Corvette models. Dubbed “Turbo Fire,” the engine’s lightweight design, internal oiling system, and its potential to bore and stroke it to new heights helped propel the engine’s early popularity.
“At that time Chevrolet was making a little six, a grandmother type of car,” said designer and future GM president Ed Cole. “Nobody had ever built an enthusiast type of car around Chevrolet.”
The 265 Turbo Fire V-8 eventually inspired eight more renditions of the Generation 1 small block, culminating in the most popular version of the engine: the 350, which originally appeared as a high-performance 295 horsepower L-48 option for the 1967 Chevy Camaro. The 350 would go on to become so popular that it was featured in passenger cars and trucks for the next 30 years.
In fact, the 350 (and all of its brother and sister counterparts) powered everything from race cars and off-road trucks to boats and custom motorcycles during the latter half of the 20th century.
“The so-called Mouse is ubiquitous today, but in 1955 it was revolutionary, from its upside-down casting process to its sheetmetal rocker arms,” says Hot Rod’s Bill McGuire. “The last production version rolled off the line in a Chevy van in 2003. That very same engine will probably be powering a street rod sometime in the 22nd century.”
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