Editor's note - Heading into the new century, we felt compelled to take a look back at what will undoubtedly be one of the 20th century's biggest contributions to daily life-the automobile. Of course, Super Chevy looks at the history of the automobile through the eyes of the Chevrolet enthusiast. The following is the tenth in a series that will run throughout the year 2000 and cover the highlights of Chevrolet-from the creation of a company at a time when 270 other companies were vying for buyers of new automobiles, to the present day, when the competition is limited to just a handful of serious automobile makers. Much of the information is taken straight from Chevrolet sources, and some will be from the pages of this magazine's more than 25 years as "The # 1 Chevrolet Enthusiast's Magazine."
Chevy Engines Through Time
When Chevrolet began building vehicles, they were powered by a 299ci, six-cylinder engine. These automobiles could reach a top speed of 65 mph "without taxing themselves," and accelerated from zero to 50 in an "astounding" 15 seconds. By today's standards this isn't too impressive, but at the time Chevrolet was one of the fastest vehicles on the road.
In the early years, there was a great deal of research and development dedicated to coming up with a powerful engine that could be produced for a reasonable price. Chevy's first V-8 engine was released in 1917. The 90-degree overhead-valve design debuted in the D-series, the last of the original long-wheelbase cars. The eight-cylinder lasted only two years, as Chevrolet dropped these "large" powerplants to develop four-cylinder versions. It would be 1929 before a six-cylinder reappeared, and a V-8 wouldn't be available again until the introduction of the legendary small-block in 1955, 36 years later.
New engine technology-including "copper-cooled" models-was explored during Chevy's first decade. These were superior vehicles with air-cooled engines instead of the traditional liquid-cooled models. The engine was the smallest in Chevrolet history; a diminutive 135 cubic inches with a miniscule 20 horsepower. The experiment was brief; the engine was plagued with production problems and was scrapped after only 759 units were built-yet it was a bold move by a growing automaker willing to take chances in an oft-skeptical market. Another attempt at air-cooling would take place 37 years later with the '60 Corvair.
By 1925, Chevrolet was considering the use of six-cylinders again. Having just designed a small six for the Oakland division, Chevrolet realized it would have to maintain the corporate advertising image, "Valve-in-Head, Ahead in Value." The valve-in-head "Stovebolt Six" resulted: 3.2 liters big and 46 horsepower strong.
At first, the industry looked upon this six with doubt. Manufacturers were heading toward using aluminum to save weight, but Chevrolet made the decision to persevere with iron. The engine was derided as the "Cast-Iron Wonder," and the "Stovebolt Six" moniker was originally meant to mock the engine. But it gained respect for its durability and easy-to-service features in both cars and trucks. Advertised as, "A Six for the Price of a Four" in 1929 models, the "Stovebolt Six" was better, more powerful, and in the same price range as the previous year's four-cylinder.
A "power war" was developing between the major auto companies during the mid-'30s: Ford's V-8 versus the six-cylinder engines from Chevrolet and Chrysler. To battle Ford's horsepower and top speed claims, Chevrolet introduced a new high-compression design, the "Blue Flame" Six, in 1934. It generated 15 more horsepower than previous sixes without increasing engine displacement. Chevrolet promoted the achievement by advertising "80 horsepower at 80 miles per hour," the only time in Chevy history that top speed was advertised.
Ford was pumping the market with V-8 engines during this time, and Chevy developed a new four-main-bearing six for its 1937 cars and trucks. The Chevy engine produced as much horsepower as the Ford, but with better economy (estimated 15 to 18 mpg).