x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Corvette invites handy enthusiasts onto the assembly line of their car

Inside a special factory in suburban Detroit, buyers of a new Corvette model can have the chance to build the engine themselves.

David Booth builds a Chevrolet Corvette LS9 engine with the assistance of a General Motors engine builder, Bruce Blomfield, at the GM Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan. Steve Fecht / General Motors
David Booth builds a Chevrolet Corvette LS9 engine with the assistance of a General Motors engine builder, Bruce Blomfield, at the GM Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan. Steve Fecht / General Motors

This will hardly come as a surprise, but I'm a gearhead. Like others so afflicted - at least that's how the rest of the human race describes our condition - I suffer a variety of the symptoms. I spend all my money on things internally combusting. My spare room is a magazine-cluttered homage to Gordon Jennings, David E Davis Jr and Henry Manney III. Perhaps most annoyingly, all my metaphors, no matter what the subject at hand, inevitably end up being automotive related; pathetic as it may be, the automobile is my context for everything in life.

I have raced motorcycles, screamed down the autobahn at speeds I really don't want my mother to read about and, on more than one occasion, had completely disassembled engines in my bedroom (in my kitchen, too, come to think of it). I even studied automotive engineering in university. In other words, there's grease under my fingernails.

But I have never built a Chevy small-block.

Quite how I missed this right of passage, I'm not quite sure. After all, General Motors has produced more than 90 million V8s of various displacements since 1955, and a large proportion of those have probably been rebuilt, hot-rodded or otherwise tinkered with in the ensuing 56 years. It's not for lack of experience; I've rebuilt everything from Honda Civics to two-stroke motorcycles. But somehow I have never spun a wrench on the most ubiquitous of North American engines.

Until now. It turns out that General Motors has a brand new, very exclusive (as of my writing, only 15 people have participated) programme that allows prospective customers of the company's Z06 and ZR1 Corvettes to go to suburban Detroit and build the 6.2L V8 that will power their very own supercar. It adds US$5,800 (Dh21,000) to the price of the car and, yes, paying extra to build your own engine is a little like going to McDonald's and paying a premium to fry your own burger.

But I suspect that there will be more enthusiasts clamouring for the opportunity, if for no other reason than "I built that engine" will get you some serious props at the weekend Show & Shine. And you really do build your own engine. GM's Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan, has a complete assembly line reserved for the amateurs among us, and while one of the small factory's master technicians follows your every step so that you don't put a camshaft where the crankshaft should be, you really do torque all the bolts and fit all the pistons.

The reason that General Motors is confident offering this service is that the entire process has been made virtually foolproof. The engine, as advertised, is completely hand-built - either by the technicians or by yourself - but the processes, tools and jigs the performance centre has created makes it very difficult for a mechanical faux pas.

One master artist - or as you can see from the picture, one ham-handed klutz supervised by a master artist - builds the entire engine along a line of 11 sub-assembly stations in a system that is a combination of small artisan shop and large automated factory. Unlike a conventional production line, for instance, our engine has to be pushed manually - thankfully, I had my morning's Wheaties - to the next sub-station.

On the other hand, every one of the torquing procedures is fail-safed by an intricate computer monitoring system. Before you can screw the rocker arms to the head, for instance, you use a scan gun to calibrate the powered torque wrench. Not only does the computer inform the gun that 30Nm of torque is the required amount of twist, it monitors that you're repeating the procedure exactly 16 times. Do it less - or more - and you will get a red light informing you, as it did me, of the aforementioned klutziness. You can't leave that sub-station until the issue is rectified and, indeed, at the very end of the entire production line the computer knows that a total of 367 torquing procedures is required for that particular engine and it checks to see if all have been tightened correctly. It even stores the information - right down to each bolt's specific torque - for that specific engine in case of future warranty issues.

Even more impressive, though, are the various jigs, guides and protectors that the technicians have contrived to make the assembly process as idiot-proof as possible. Installing the camshaft, a tedious procedure for the backyard mechanic, is a doddle thanks to the guide they have fashioned. An ingenious ring compressor and connecting-rod protector, meanwhile, make it literally impossible to damage either the cylinder wall or the crankshaft bearing surfaces when even you-know-who is hammering the piston into the block. Even something as relatively inconsequential as the electronic knock sensor has its own jig, so that after it's bolted on its outlet it is perfectly aligned for the wiring loom it will eventually have to join.

Of course, the highlight comes after the assembly is complete. The last production-line item is signing your name to the back of the intake manifold (some poor ZR1 owner is going to wonder who David Booth is). And, finally, there's joy/rapture/cold, clammy relief when the engine starts for the first time. For gearheads of all stripes, it's nirvana.

The Corvette Engine Build Experience is currently only available to residents of North America. However, according to Tom Read, GM's assistant manager of communications for the powertrain division, the programme will be soon available in select European countries. General Motors insists that availability is demand driven and that, should a sufficient number of Middle Eastern customer express their desire to visit Wixom, the programme could well be expanded. So let your voices be heard.