General Motors today celebrated the assembly of the 100 millionth small-block V-8. The milestone engine was an LS9, the 638-hp supercharged 6.2-liter V-8 found under the hood of the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1.
Chevrolet officials admit this was a symbolic milestone, as it’s hard to establish exactly which V-8 was the 100 millionth. The celebrated LS9 built today, however, won’t ever be started, and is destined for display at the GM Heritage Center museum. The engine also will likely be shown at events like the Woodward Dream Cruise. Chevrolet has even inquired about displaying the LS9 at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit — it is, after all, an important piece of automotive history — but the museum has yet to respond.
The history of the Chevrolet small-block V-8 goes back to 1955, when the engine was launched in the 1955 Chevrolet. Even today, Chevrolet small blocks follow the same basic dimensions as the original engine of 1955 — but with massive improvements in performance. The original 4.3-liter V-8 of 1995 produced just 195 hp, which pales compared to the 638-hp output of the 6.2-liter LS9.
The many variants of the small-block V-8 design have powered everything from sports cars and trucks, to boats and construction equipment. Officials claim that if all the small-block V-8s ever produced were laid end to end, they would wrap around the equator twice. On average, 1.78 million examples of the engine family have been built for each of the past 56 years.
Like all other LS9 engines and the 7.0-liter LS7, the 100 millionth small-block was assembled at the GM Performance Build Center in southeast Michigan. GM let journalists and plant officials assemble various parts of the LS9, which may partly explain why the mill won’t be sold in a customer car. Corvette Z06 and ZR1 customers also can build their own engine at the Performance Build Center, although only about 15 have elected to do so since the program began. A trained assembly technician can hand-build the engine in two to three hours, but customers typically take six to eight hours.
Among the attendees was Denny Davis, who worked on the Chevrolet small-block development team from 1953. He says that the only thing he recognizes on today’s LS9 is the engine’s 4.4-inch bore spacing, but admits that developments like variable valve timing and supercharging have helped made the small-block an enduring design.
“Phenomenal, isn’t it?” Davis said. “This has got to be the most popular engine ever built.”
The small-block was pioneered by former Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole, whose son David Cole is now chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. David recalled his father spending nights and weekends tinkering with the design for the small-block, even working with fellow GM engineers in the family basement to develop the engine.
“I don’t think any of us back years ago expected 100 million of this engine,” Cole said. “Let’s try for 200 million now.”
GM also hinted again at the future of the small-block V-8. The next iteration, called Gen V, should debut in a few years’ time. It will have direct fuel injection for the first time, but is likely to retain its pushrod and two-valve architecture. Importantly for Chevy purists, the engine will retain the small-block’s 4.4-inch bore spacing.
Officials promised the new family of V-8 engines will have better power, torque, fuel economy, and refinement than the current generation. GM already has invested $1 billion to prepare its production facilities for the new generation of V-8s, which is expected to create or retain around 1700 jobs.
Davis, who worked on various GM engine projects through the late 1980s, said he doesn’t think the small-block V-8 will ever go away, in part because the engine’s simple, reliable design has proven so versatile over the years. But he concedes that such engines could be phased out based on market and government pressures — 15 years ago, Davis says he would have laughed if someone had suggested Chevrolet would one day sell a range of turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
“[The small block] was a lucky package,” Davis said. “It turned out to be an extremely responsive engine.”