In 1954, Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole introduced America to the Chevy small-block V-8, which was offered as optional equipment in the division’s 1955 passenger-car lineup. Since then, the small-block has become one of the most iconic and prolific of the company’s inventions, and the men lucky enough to have overseen its various incarnations have also found themselves in the pivotal role of preserving the Corvette’s horsepower heritage.
Enter Jordan Lee, the latest man to hold ultimate power over what is informally known as the “SBC.” He will usher in the fifth generation of this performance legend before the end of the 2012 calendar year.
Lee’s official title—Global Chief Engineer and Program Manager - Small Block Engines—puts him in charge of all GM small-blocks for passenger vehicles and trucks. But as you’ll see in our interview, he brings with him a true passion for Corvettes that dates back to his drag-racing days in high school.
Come with us now as we learn more about his past experiences, his current role, and how he plans to preserve the small-block Chevy’s performance edge well into the future.
VETTE magazine: Jordan, you graduated high school in 1979. That put your first car-driving experiences at the very end of the first muscle-car era, when souped-up small- and big-block Chevys were still the hot ticket to drive to school, and then to cruise nights on Friday and Saturday. How did these formative years shape the Jordan Lee who’s now the chief engineer of small-block engines?
Jordan Lee: I’ve always been a gearhead, and even as a kid I loved cars and engines. I was born and raised in Belle Glade, Florida, which was a tiny sugar-cane town; in my early teens my family moved to the West Palm Beach area. Being from Florida, I knew nothing about the automobile industry, but could think of nothing better than to one day work in the industry.
When I was 15 years old, my dad bought a Dark Green ’76 Corvette with an L48 350 small-block, a Turbo 350 automatic transmission, and Buckskin leather interior. I remember it really well. I loved that car. I drove it all the time from the moment I got my driver’s license…well, truth be told I drove it a lot even before I got my license.
At my high school, my buddies had Mustangs, but I had my dad’s Corvette. We’d trash-talk each other and ultimately end up racing. I’d sneak the Corvette out by telling my dad I was going to take it out of the garage and wash it, and then I’d meet my buddies and we’d drag race.
I really fell in love with Corvettes when I was a teenager, and never lost the passion for them. It’s something I remember every day in my current job at General Motors. It keeps me grounded and reminds me what an incredible job I have. There are a lot of day-to-day pressures, but in the end there’s nothing better than working on Corvettes and engines. It has been and always will be a thrill for me.
VM: What type of mods did you do to your parents’ Vette?
JL: My dad didn’t allow me to make too many modifications to it. With that said, I remember installing a low restriction cold-air induction system, disabling the EGR system, getting rid of the catalytic converter for lower exhaust backpressure, and installing a nice-looking pair of cast-aluminum rocker covers. I was always messing with the carburetor, also.
VM: When did you realize your love for small-block engines could be more than just a hobby for you?
JL: I was always a true engine geek. As a kid, I was taking apart lawnmower engines and rebuilding them. Things didn’t always go well, like when I used paper bags to make gaskets, and used Wesson vegetable oil because I didn’t have any engine oil. The engine didn’t run very long! Engines were always magical for me; they seemed as if they were alive when running, and they had personalities.
The small-block L48 in my dad’s Corvette really ignited my passion for engines. It was amazing to me how engine performance responded to little changes like reducing inlet restriction. I loved that L48. I was always cleaning it, changing the oil, and polishing the valve covers. It wasn’t long before my dream was to become an engineer and work for General Motors, and hopefully have a chance to work on small-block engines for Corvettes one day.
VM: How did you get your foot in the door at GM?
JL: After high school, I earned an Associate of Arts degree before I went to engineering school. When I learned about GM Institute [GMI] from a high-school science teacher, I knew it was the college I wanted to go to. It wasn’t easy to get in, because GM was going through an economic crisis at the time [the early ’80s], but I was very persistent. I convinced GM to allow me to fly up from Florida, at my expense, [to] interview for a co-op spot. You couldn’t attend GMI unless you had a co-op sponsor. I was lucky and got the co-op sponsorship, and was allowed to enroll in GMI. My co-op assignment was with GM Advanced Engineering at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.
VM: What was the path from GMI co-op student to chief engineer of the Chevy small-block, and how did the Corvette play a role?
JL: From my first day at GM, I’ve always worked in engine engineering, and always wanted to work on the small-block team.
Working up through the ranks, the Corvette entered my life again when I became the Design System Engineer for the small-block team. I was responsible for the LS2’s engine-management-system hardware. I worked closely with the engineers responsible for the powerplant’s fuel system, ignition system, intake manifold, exhaust manifolds, throttle body, lubrication systems, as well as other airflow-system hardware.
From there I became an assistant chief engineer working on other engine programs. Eventually I landed back on the small-block program as assistant chief engineer for small-block truck engines.
In 2010, I was very fortunate that my boss, Dean Guard, the chief engineer of small-block engines, got promoted. That left an opening for one of the most coveted jobs in GM’s Engine Engineering department. I really wanted the job, and interviewed for it, and so did others who also wanted it. I won’t kid you: There are many engineers who would be great in this job and are highly qualified to have it. I will always consider myself very fortunate and lucky to have landed it. It will always be a career pinnacle for me. It’s an honor to lead such a talented group of engineers as we continue to hone the legacy of the legendary small-block engine family, which has always been an instrumental part of Corvette.
VM: As a high-ranking engine engineer, what is your current objective for the Corvette’s V-8 engine?
JL: My objective is to make sure I shepherd the engine and the car so that it always maintains top billing as the premier sports car in the industry. The small-block engine is a unique animal in that it’s the only engine I know of that has been around for so many generations. Its roots began in ’55, and with each new generation it’s transformed and modernized to be relevant and segment leading for its day. No other engine has such a long-lived legacy as the beloved small-block. It will continue to [evolve] for many generations to come.
Today our Gen IV line-up is class leading. The 638hp LS9 helps make the ZR1 the supercar that it is. Our future Gen V lineup will be equally exciting and shepherd in a new age for the next generation of small-block engines.
VM: Theoretically, without advanced engine technologies, the Chevrolet small-block could still be 265 cubic inches and pumping out 190 horsepower, while achieving 8-mpg fuel economy. Let’s talk about advanced engine technologies today, and the role they’ll have in tomorrow’s small-block.
JL: We’re always looking at advanced technologies. Ultimately they all go into doing two things: improving combustion efficiency, and increasing power and torque. With improvements in combustion efficiency, we’re ultimately looking at burning every drop of fuel in the combustion chambers, so that GM vehicles optimize fuel economy and reduce emissions. Improvements in combustion efficiency also help improve power and torque, by allowing higher compression ratios and reducing knock sensitivity. I’d call that a win-win in the engine department.
VM: What specific advanced technologies do you foresee as most promising to Chevrolet’s small-block V-8?
JL: It’s no secret that Gen V small-blocks [for the ’14 Corvette and beyond] will have direct injection. It is a phenomenal technology that allows us to do some very unique things with the engine design. GM uses direct injection in a lot of our engines. So do our competitors, but they appear to use it selectively. GM doesn’t want to be as selective, because direct injection offers tremendous advantages in performance. It’s one of the few technologies that allow us to actually improve fuel economy, while also improving horsepower and torque.
VM: How will it do this?
JL: VETTE readers may already know that injecting fuel directly into the combustion chamber gives us much more control over the fuel-injection and fuel-mixing processes. What they may not know is that when fuel is injected directly into the combustion chamber, the evaporation of the fuel has a cooling affect on the piston and chamber, which significantly reduces knock sensitivity and allows an increase in the compression ratio. The higher compression ratio is the key to improving both fuel economy and horsepower.
VM: Are you intimating that the implementation of direct injection will allow Chevrolet to raise the compression ratio of the new Gen V small-block going into the Corvette?
JL: High compression, as VETTE readers know, helped muscle cars of the past make a lot of power—much more than lower-compression engines. It used to come with a detriment, however, in that high-compression engines were very knock sensitive. I think you’re going to be in for a surprise when you see the stats on the next-generation engine, and what we’re able to achieve in the subject areas of power, torque, and fuel economy as a result of this technology.
VM: What’s your prime mission for the Corvette?
JL: I want the Corvette to be what it always has been: one of the finest sports cars in the world, and not just the finest American sports car—though it is very American, and there is a lot of Americana with Corvette. It’s such a unique car in that it straddles a lower retail price and competes with cars that cost two, three, and even four times as much. I think the Corvette is on par with the best out there in the world.
VM: You recently visited the General Motors Performance Build Center (PBC), where select LS3 and all LS7 and LS9 engines are hand-built by Performance Build Specialists. You took the time that day to hand-build an LS9, which will be installed in a Corvette ZR1. First, what is your opinion of the Performance Build Center?
JL: I love it. I describe it as “our little crown jewel” for putting engines together. We have the finest technicians building these engines by hand, and they go into the finest cars GM produces in the sports-car segment.
VM: What prompted you to want to hand-build a LS9?
JL: As you know by now, I love engines. I’m always tinkering on engines, and having the opportunity to build one is always a thrill. With that said, there’s also a serious reason why I built an LS9 recently. The build process is an opportunity for me to get hands-on experience with the quality procedures and process, look at the quality of the parts going into our premium engines, and evaluate how we track part and assembly quality throughout the build process.
VM: Will select Gen V small-blocks be hand-built at the Performance Build Center?
JL: As we look at manufacturing future small-block engines, it’s possible we may do future engines at our Performance Build Center.
VM: Did you come away from your recent PBC experience with specific insight?
JL: Yes. One of the things that struck me when I was hand-building an LS9 is how elegant and efficient the small-block is—the way the parts are designed, the way they fit together, the simplicity in the construction, and how small the package is. That’s one of my big takeaways from that build experience.
Then there are the pieces themselves, such as the pistons and the connecting rods. Those titanium connecting rods and intake valves, they’re jewelry.
All of the precision that goes into making those components, and how easily the engine is assembled, is incredible to me.
VM: Is GM’s high-performance engine design and manufacturing the best in the world?
JL: Absolutely. I’m always looking at competitive engine designs. Many other high-performance competitor engines—Ferrari, Lamborghini, and even Porsche, for that matter—are extremely complex. Ultimately an engine is evaluated on a few key attributes: power, torque, fuel economy, mass, refinement, and package size. When I evaluate our engines against the competition, we win in most, if not all, categories. We do have the best engineering and manufacturing in the world. I’ll say it again: Absolutely.
VM: From racing Mustangs in your dad’s ’76 Corvette to being GM’s chief engineer of small-blocks, has it been a fun career?
JL: It’s been an incredible career. I truly have a dream job. Working with an incredibly talented team of engineers designing, developing, and manufacturing small-block engines for Corvette is a dream come true. I try never to forget that fact or take it for granted. As an enthusiast, there’s nothing better.