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.