Building the LT1 Engine - Touring Tonawanda

A rare look inside GM's Tonawanda Engine Plant

Don Keefe Feb 20, 2014 0 Comment(s)
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From its controversial styling to its eye-popping performance, the '14 Corvette is making waves throughout the automotive world. And while some "connoisseurs" might bemoan its LT1 engine's lack of overhead cams, the truth is, this new "Gen V" small-block is world class in every respect.

VETTE was recently invited to GM's Tonawanda Engine Plant, just outside Buffalo, New York. Tonawanda has a storied history, having produced Chevrolet engines ranging from the Stovebolt Six to the ZL1. Indeed, Tonawanda and Chevy have gone hand in hand since the plant opened in 1938.

The tour made it clear that GM has stepped up its game considerably, by investing in the technology and equipment needed to make Tonawanda one of the most advanced engine-manufacturing facilities in the world. Robotic equipment has taken on a new prominence in the process, yet these machines are assisting workers, rather than replacing them. Factor in a comprehensive quality-control system, and the build quality of these engines is second to none.

Our tour covered the plant's major assembly areas, including the "Smart Cell," a robotic assembly station that builds cylinder heads from bare castings to ready-to-bolt-on units in about 40 seconds. Other stops included the area housing the Advanced Coordinate Measuring Machines (CCM), robotic quality-control devices that measure tolerances down to 1 micron (around 1⁄2,000 the width of a human hair), as well as the cold-testing area, where engines are spin tested to check compression and other functions without actually starting them.

Based on our visit, it's clear that the LT1 is fully worthy of its fresh generational designation. While it builds upon the foundation of the Gen IV small-block, it forges new ground in the areas of cylinder-head and piston design, fuel-injection technology, engine management, and volumetric efficiency. If this is just the starting point, we can't wait to try the more powerful variants to come.

Special thanks to Mary Ann Brown, Tom Read, and Steve Finch from GM Powertrain for their assistance with this article.

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