If memory serves, it was sometime around July of 1995. Over the many years of our friendship, it was not always clear what the conversation would be about. Sometimes I called him to obtain some otherwise un-obtainable information or simply to chat about a variety of issues. Typically, I enjoyed both and Smokey seemed to reciprocate. But when called me, it could be anybody’s guess, it frequently turned out to be that way and he was always direct.
When he called this time, as usual, he came right to the point. “You know, Jim, I’ve been thinkin’. We’re right on the verge of recognizing the 40th anniversary of the small-block Chevrolet V8 and I believe there are some of the original engineering team still around that ought to finally receive recognition for what they did forty years ago. The PRI Show is coming up, and I’ve suggested to Steve Lewis (Show owner/producer back then) that it’s time to put these guys on stage in front of our industry.” Not surprisingly and from this simple conversation, Smokey Yunick made yet another indelible stamp in his long list of historical contributions to the high performance and motorsports communities.
Notice that nothing was mentioned about “Is this a good idea?” or “Do you think there’s a chance anybody in the industry cares about these engineers?” No. It was already a done deal. The only question up for discussion was how to accomplish the task at hand, and Smokey had already taken the second step. Remember, he’d already given a nudge to Lewis as the first.
“I’ve got a list of all the living small-block Chevy engineers. I’m gonna cut it in half, send one half to you and keep the other one. You and I then need to start callin’ these guys to see who’s able to be on stage at the PRI Show (December 1995).” What followed was one of the most memorable events of my entire automotive experience, an event that will obviously never happen again.
Up to that particular time, I had reckoned that I knew a reasonable amount about the small-block Chevrolet V8. I could not have been more mistaken, as I quickly began to realize during phone conversations with “my half of the list.” Besides this, contacting these unheralded and aging engineers to ponder and collect their recollections about how the small-block actually came to life, I was charged with the challenge of compiling a brief history and chronology of the steps taken and timing involved in producing not only the engine but the 1955 Chevrolet that introduced the venerable 265-incher. Looking back, I see all this not as a task but an opportunity that was loaded not only with surprises but stark revelations. I’d not had a clue about how the small-block had come into being. And expert I clearly was not.
Let me digress for a moment, and share some comments Smokey made in his reflections while pondering the focus of the PRI project, back in ’95.
“Consider this. Seventy-five engineers, draftsmen and designers start work on May 10, 1955 (with a clean piece of paper) to create a vehicle in total that would economically suit American’s working class of car customers. Some eighteen- to nineteen-hundred American dollars would be paid in full receipt on quite a few of Chevy’s 1955 V8 models. Performance, safety, appearance, fuel efficiency…a world-class rating of ten.”
“On September 15, 1955, this car is in showrooms as the 1955 Chevy, twenty-eight months from start to finish, and the only parts used that were on the ’54 models were the brakes and three-speed manual and automatic transmissions. Roll this around in your brain cells. Sixty-five million (by ’95) small-blocks have been built since day one, and still counting. I knew and worked with quite of few of the seventy-five engineers. And you know, it’s only been in the last few years that I realized how talented these men were. I have noticed and I believe that this engine, in the last forty years, has done more to educate our young people in skills that are useful and necessary to mass transportation and high performance than any other single reason”.
“This engine not only enabled education about certain thermodynamic principles but included an opportunity to learn about engine mechanical dynamics, air flow, petro chemistry, metallurgy and lubrication for the young, would-be racers and to upcoming engineers as well as engineering instructional institutions and pedigreed engineers.”
“Recently, I began having constant thoughts that these original small-block people should have names and faces and be honored by their peers. Racers, high-performance parts manufacturers and distributors, car buffs, race fans or (in general) all the people who, in some way, earn their living in part or whole or by those who entertain or amuse themselves with the history of mass transportation need to know about the small-block’s origin. The engine is a world-wide institution, actually used as a measuring standard for engines, certainly from the perspective ratios of cost, ease of modification, reliability and understanding.”
“Ed Cole is often noted as being the ‘author’ of this engine. In reality, Ed was the keystone. The people he assembled, his managing skills, his vision of a world-class engine and delivery vehicle, his courage of conviction and intrigue of cars…these were the driving forces that were integral to how the program was executed. He knew that in the 1950s, Americans considered a car to be an extension of their bodies. It was essential to our ability to earn a living, and it was our biggest and best toy.”
Return with us now to the initial story line. In total, Smokey and I managed to contact twenty-three of the original small-block engineers. Unfortunately, not all of them were of sufficient health to travel, but on the fortunate side, all of them were willing to talk about their respective contributions to the engine. But, from a personal perspective, I uncovered Smokey’s early role in the development of the high performance and racing phases of the small-block.
It was at the maiden piston displacement of 265 cubic inches that the engine was introduced to the high performance and racing communities. In the hands of Smokey, the “under examination” small-block began to dispel some of the initial rumors regarding questions pertaining to its performance potential. With Smokey on board, and with the hands of Herb Thomas on the wheel, the new Chevy small-block powered its way past sixty-seven other cars to win the 1955 NASCAR Darlington 500.
According to Smokey, “Above about 5800 rpm, the pistons, bearings and valve gear all went to hell faster than I could fix them. We had a list of problems to solve. Chevy was willing and NASCAR was grinnin’, saying ‘Load the wagons boys, the mule is blind!” As a consequence, Smokey’s shop served as the racing headquarters for Chevrolet racing throughout 1955 and 1956.
Even though GM corporate and the Chevrolet Division wanted a performance image for its new 1955 vehicles, the pre-racing engineering design team had not accounted for the severity of demands placed on engines on the track. But what the team had done was provide a fundamental engine design platform that caused the motorsports and high performance communities to seek solutions to the new set of problems that came with the engine in these two non-stock environments. Smokey was the first up at bat.
While time would reveal a corporate anti-racing policy in the latter 1950s, the new small-block V8 was pointed directly at its competition, specifically to conquer the flathead Ford V8 on the race tracks, the dry lakes and the street. With regard to the street, it was the infamous “Duntov manifesto letter” of 1953, penned ahead of the small-block’s production release that set stage for the high performance market. But that’s an entirely different story.
Cole may not have had specific intentions to carry the new engine into Motorsports activities, but his love for racing underscored a desire to have the small-block “convenient” to the racing world. History has proven that the foundation he laid could not have been more solid.