40 Years of the Small Block Chevy, Part 2

Smokey Yunick & 40 Years of the Small Block Chevy, Part 2

Of the twenty-three remaining engineers that Smokey and I were able to contact and speak to, the principal one was not available. Even so, I was fortunate to have landed a conversation with his son, David, who was most helpful.

Born on September 17, 1909, in Marne, MI, Ed Cole served GM over a career spanning forty years. As a transfer from GM’s Cadillac division (where he was chief engineer), Cole came to Chevrolet in 1946, to become its chief engineer in 1952. In that capacity, he was charged with directing the entire passenger car and truck line, including the small-block V8 engine. In 1967, he became the President of GM, a position he held until retirement in 1974.

According to his son, “With regard to racing, this was an issue with my father, because he was deeply committed to racing and high performance. He loved competition and what he could learn from it.” (This statement alone accounts for the reason Smokey was involved early on, in addition to the friendship he had already established with Cole.) “He believed racing was the ultimate test of a product. Many of the engine’s features including cylinder heads and block, low friction losses and a free-breathing induction and exhaust system were all pursued because of his interest in racing. I think his desire to ‘push the envelope’ was focused on doing something that no one else had done.”

Hold that thought for a moment. Cole was Chevy’s chief engineer in 1952. Duntov had just joined Chevrolet as a transplant from Allard Racing in England. Although Maurice Olley was Zora’s immediate supervisor, he directed his Manifesto of Performance memo to him, instead of Cole, telling me once that he was simply following internal GM protocol by doing so. He later mentioned that there was no doubt that Cole would see the memo as well.

About that memo? While it has since been published in various venues, I received my signed copy in ’74, harkening back to my initial 1967 meeting with him in the GM Tech Center where, when I requested a copy then, was told that was not possible because it was “corporate business.” But the essence of the memo was clear. From a youth and performance perspective, GM had been battling Ford for years. Duntov reckoned that from a consumer point of view, “loyalty and experience is with Ford, hop-up industry is geared to Ford, the law of numbers suggested thousands of enthusiasts will be working on Fords for active competition, and appearance of the first over-head Ford is now one year ahead of us.”

Duntov believed that “Unless by some action, the odds and the time factor are not overcome, Ford will continue to dominate the thinking of this group. One factor which can largely overcome the handicap would be the availability of ready-engineered parts for high output.”

Further he stated, “In 1955, with the V8 engine and if unaided, this group will still be out-classed. The market-wise negligible number of cars purchased for competition attracts public attention and publicity out of proportion to their number. Since we cannot prevent the people from modifying the small-block and Corvettes, maybe it is better to help them do a good job at it.” Profound.

I once asked Zora what transpired after he sent the memo. He said, “Nothing. But then, after a while, all ‘hal’ brook loose.” And indeed it did.

In fairly rapid fire, non-production parts began showing up in Chevrolet dealerships across the country. Listed on production were 265-equipped Chevrolet passenger cars. You could purchase “Power Packs” that typically consisted of a mechanical-lifter camshaft, dual exhaust and a 4-bbl carburetor. Plus, if your 265-incher didn’t come with such Power Packs, you could buy the parts over-the-counter at dealerships and install them yourself…a direct fall-out from Duntov’s memo previously mentioned.

But there was an interesting twist to how these parts were priced. GM Parts Department (GMPD), in dealing with the suppliers of such components, created a plan by which they would make very large parts purchases with the intention of making them available over a several years period. Obviously, this was intended to at least make an effort to keep consumer prices as low as possible.

However, as the performance aftermarket parts industry (comparatively small at the time) began to latch onto the small-block, they had a different pricing structure. These were small operations that could sell direct, and they did, under-cutting the GM pricing structure by sufficient levels to encourage enthusiasts to direct their purchasing attention toward the aftermarket. After all, many of these parts “manufacturers” had grown out of post-WWII era of California dry lakes racers who, simply put, experimented to make their own cars faster and then responded to requests from their friends to make the parts generally available. If you don’t think this spawned an industry, consider the size of Edelbrock today, having begun in a gas station. In fact, it was Vic, Sr. who suggested to his dry lakes buddies that they warehouse their parts in and ship from a building he owned, thus centralizing parts availability and creating the first specialty aftermarket parts WD. But I digress.

By early 1954, Smokey was waist-deep in evolving the small-block into a reliable race engine, at least in terms of what it took to survive the NASCAR environment. While some of his work obviously had some impact on the high performance segment per se’, Cole had specifically charged him with the evaluation of existing parts from performance parts manufacturers (slowing getting into the fray) or the re-engineering of new parts being produced by Chevrolet.

In reflecting upon his involvement with the small-block, Smokey once said that “Over the years, this engine brought me to know some of the most brilliant engineers, technicians and racers of all time. Of course, it also dragged up some who weren’t. But that’s part of living. I remember the first time I ever went into Ed Cole’s office. He had a sign hanging on the wall that said, ‘The price of progress is trouble.’ So I guess in all my years of working on the small-block, we were making a lot of progress. But I think it’s all paid off in the long run. If you never say anything else about this engine, it’s a hell of statement of what can be accomplished if you assemble a group of hard-working guys, give ‘em a clear objective and then support their efforts. There’ll probably never be another small-block like this one.”

Of the engineers that Smokey and I successfully reached, some were able to reflect on their participation in the project and how they viewed the total effort. Though many of them are now gone, their reflections and perspectives live on, if only on these pages.

John B. Burnell was responsible for the initial designs for the small-block. Largely responsible for new casting techniques that reduced overall engine weight, Smokey once said his role was critical, early on. Burrell had said, “With little doubt, this project was a team effort. The fact that Chevrolet wanted to give this engine a performance orientation, the work done by Duntov and Yunick was critical to its success.”

Another was Ralph Johnson with whom I worked after he joined Holley and created the 4500 series carburetor design. His level of insight and creativity was remarkable. “I have so many recollections about this engine and its development that it would be difficult to single out a specific one. But along the way, I was fortunate to have worked with many of the original engineers. In fact, in 1957 while in charge of the small-block fuel injection system development program, I was sent out into the racing community by Maurice Rosenberger. My subsequent years working with Smokey Yunick just added more good stories to the ones I collected in the 1950s.”

We’ll close this segment with a final quote from the Duntov memo. It speaks volumes from how he viewed the rapidly emerging market for the small-block Chevrolet. “If it is desirable or not to associate the small-block and Corvette with speed, I am not qualified to say. But I do know that in 1954, sports car and performance enthusiasts will get hold of Corvettes and, whether we like it or not, will race them. Most frequent statement from this group is ‘we will put a Cadillac in it.’ I think this is not good. Most likely they will meet with the same problem as Allard. That is breaking, sooner or later and mostly sooner, everything between the flywheel and road wheels.”

Zora was a strong proponent of not only delivering superior performance but parts that lived in a hostile environment. It is abundantly clear that virtually every participant in the development of that original 265-incher was of the same mind set.

Source: HotRod.com

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