Perhaps more than any other single technology, the small-block V-8 helped the Corvette cross the threshold into serious sports-car territory—and its descendants have kept it there to this day. Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole had the potential of the small-block in mind from the very beginning, when he claimed the Corvette for Chevrolet back in 1952 after seeing the concept in Harley Earl’s design studio.
While brilliantly designed and engineered with lightning speed by Cole and a team of engineers, the small-block was not going to be available until 1955. So the original Corvettes debuted in 1953 with the heavy, yet reliable, “Blue Flame” inline six that had been the mainstay of Chevrolet powerplants since the 1930s. The need for more power was immediately apparent: early Corvettes furnished barely acceptable performance that was on par with much heavier sedans.
Research into the origins of the small-block Corvette drew us to a particular V-8–powered ’53 model located in southeastern Michigan. The car had been in the same family for five decades and was driven regularly to local car shows and cruise nights. Yet it’s a car that may have played a role in the horsepower evolution of Chevy’s sports car.
Let’s lay out what we know: the current owners of the Corvette, two brothers named Ron and Darwin (they prefer not to disclose their last name), inherited the car from their father, Walter, who died in 2003. Walter was the third owner of the car and was intrigued by where the V-8 came from, and who installed it. That led him to write to the original owner, Harry Dumville, a GM engineering executive. (His official title was director of new devices for Chevrolet.)
Dumville replied in a letter dated September 20, 1975: “Your letter seems to infer [sic] that you believe this car to be an experimental model with many modifications made by GM or Chevrolet for use on future models. Such is definitely not the case, as it was a stock ’53 Corvette purchased by me through the Corporation and modified by me as part of an effort to convince Bunkie Knudsen and Ed Cole, general manager and chief engineer of Chevy, respectively, that if they wanted to have a competitive sports car, several changes were needed, not the least of which were more power and a four-speed manual transmission.”
(Dumville mistakenly identified Knudsen as the General Manager of Chevrolet at the time. Thomas Keating actually held that position until 1956, when Ed Cole assumed control of Chevrolet. Knudsen was at Pontiac in the mid 1950s and did not come to the Chevrolet division until 1961.)