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“I think these guys deserve some recognition…” (Part I)

It was around July of 1995.  Over the many years of our friendship, it was always obvious what the conversation would be about when I called him, whether the call was about getting some otherwise-unavailable information or simply to visit.  Both were always enjoyable.  But when he called me, anything was fair game…and it often turned out that way.  When he called this time, as usual, he came right to the point.  “I been thinkin’, Jim.  We’re right on top of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the small-block Chevy and there are still some of the original engineers out that ought to finally get some recognition for what they did.  The PRI Show is comin’ up and I’ve told Steve Lewis (Show owner and producer) it’s time to put these guys on stage in front of the industry.”   From this single conversation, Smokey Yunick made another indelible mark in his long string of historical contributions to the high performance and motorsports communities.

Mind you, nothing was said about “Is this a good idea?” or “Do you think anybody cares about these people?”  It was already a done deal.  The only question up for discussion centered on the best way to accomplish the task.  “I 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.  Then we need to start callin’ these guys to see who’s able to be on stage at the PRI Show” (in December of 1995).  What followed was a most memorable experience that I decided to share with you. The events will obviously never occur again.

 

Up to that particular time in my career, I believed I knew a fair amount about the small-block Chevrolet V8.  I could not have been more mistaken, as I soon started to realize when I began phone conversations with my “half of the list.”  Plus, besides contacting these unheralded and aging engineers to gather their recollections about how the small-block actually came to life, I was charged with compiling a brief history and chronology of the steps taken to produce not only the engine but the ’55 Chevrolet that showcased the venerable 265-incher’s introduction.  Both these tasks that I prefer to now call opportunities were loaded with surprises and stark revelations.  I’d not had a clue about how the small-block Chevy came to being. An expert I was not.

Between us, 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.  Particularly critical to the project was Ed Cole who became Chevrolet’s Chief Engineer in 1952 (later President of General Motors), subsequently heading up the development of both the ’55 Chevrolet passenger car and truck designs.  It was a consequence and combination of his engineering, managerial and people skills that he was able to assemble a team that took a “clean paper approach” to developing the 1955 Chevrolet (engine included) that moved from scratch to arrival of the new vehicle on dealership floors in just twenty-eight months!  By 1955 standards of design, engineering and final production, this feat was a GM development landmark that still stands today.  Perhaps even more remarkable was the fact that only fifteen-percent of the new ’55 Chevy’s parts were from prior models.  Everything else was freshly designed.

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