Bowtie Breakthroughs: The Genesis of GM Performance Parts

It all started with a part number. Well, that and an instruction to a young GM Materials department employee, who was tasked with supporting the racing efforts of Roger Penske and others in the Trans Am racing series in 1967. The instruction to 27-tear old Ernie Callard was simple – Don’t run out of parts.

Roger Penske and Mark Donohue would dominate the Trans Am racing series in this Z/28 Camaro which was supported by Ernie Callard's logistics at GM's Chevrolet division.

Callard had previously worked in other logistics functions at GM, including Dispatch, Shipping/Receiving and Scheduling and was a strong candidate to look after the ongoing needs of fifteen Trans Am teams and the 300 different performance parts they needed.

Sedan racing had leapt to the forefront, with epic battles going on between Ford, Mercury, Dodge and Chevrolet. None were giving any quarter and factory support was available for just about any credible team effort, though seldom by writing a blank check. Free competition grade parts was about the next best thing, though.

Callard explained, “I remember them telling me that I was to never run out of parts — Never. I was told that they didn’t care if we had to eventually throw them into the Detroit River, but I was never to run out of parts!”

To maintain competitive advantage, the performance parts were going to be built without any codes marked on them, so that no outsider would be able to establish any significant information. However, Callard had something else in mind. He wanted to make the parts available to anyone that wanted them – whether they were racing or the general public.

In 1972, the Chevelle as as popular at the oval tracks as it was at the drag strips.

To do this, they would have to put part numbers on the components to keep track of them, if for no other reason than the race engineers kept coming up with new and better parts at an astounding rate. Perhaps surprisingly, GM executives supported Callard’s notion and the need for a marketing plan surfaced.

Callard is credited with invention of the 'crate engine,' which became a significant portion of the GMPP business.

Along the way, Callard had also come up with the concept of the crate engine, so when Chevrolet dealers were approached in 1968 with this expanded line of performance parts, they were highly receptive. So were the hot rod enthusiasts at the time, who were enthusiastically buying up Corvette-spec 427 V8 engine for their projects.

“GM built many more engines than vehicles that were sold,” explained Callard.” So we grabbed up the remainder, put them into crates, and sold them as the first crate engines.” When GM’s Tonawanda, NY, engine plant began building the ZL1 engine – an all aluminum 427 V8 that delivered an estimated 600hp, in spite of its official 425 hp rating – Callard’s team was able to crate those and add them to the lineup.

Between this and the release of the COPO (Central Office Production Order) system for dealers, the muscle car era was kicked up a notch or two. Performance driven GM dealers, such as Yenko Chevrolet, Berger Chevrolet, Baldwin Chevrolet/Motion Performance, Fred Gibb Chevrolet, Nickey Chevrolet and others began building their own legendary performance cars.

By this time, many of the items were now appearing in the Chevrolet Merchandising Department’s catalog, which also increased demand for the products. In 1969, Callard was put in charge of marketing, materials and ordering for what was now called the GM Performance Parts line. His crate engine business was running well. Anyone could pick up a brand new 454cui LS6 engine for $1200, or the exotic ZL1 mill for less than twice that.

History began to repeat itself in 1970 with the emerging popularity of NASCAR. While GM’s involvement was unofficial, Callard supported each team, acting as go-between for the teams and Chevrolet engineering. New performance parts poured out of the development labs for the teams, but were also added to the parts catalog, much to the ongoing delight of hot rodders and muscle car enthusiasts across the nation.

Small and big block enthusiast alike would find a friend within the pages of the GMPP catalog.

Callard’s canny sense of meeting the market’s needs soon resulted in publication of The Sheetmetal Book, which was a catalog for the GM body parts that were routinely replaced after a NASCAR race was done. The parts group had a long association with a number of well known racers, but it took Richard Childress to publicly acknowledge their contribution when he prominently displayed the GM Performance Parts logo on Dale Earnhardt’s #3 Winston Cup car.

The involvement of Chevrolet division and its huge dealer base was also instrumental in the growth of the performance parts business. Driven by Vince Piggins, who had been in on the original meeting with Callard and the GM executives, was instrumental in taking promotion beyond the catalog sales level. Chevrolet dealers found that people wanted both performance and personalization and GM Performance Parts were a profitable way to do this.

Still in touch with emerging markets, 1974 saw Callard and other GM people promoting their line at NHRA events. Callard first went to the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, displaying a few parts on a couple of tables on the return road. It was an investment that soon led to ever bigger displays and in a few years, a dedicated tractor-trailer display that toured the country.

Ernie Callard moved on from the GMPP Marketing role in 1974, replaced by Gerry Bennett and a list of others who have carried on the growth and leadership that Callard built into the GM Performance Parts organization.

However, the dark years were arriving, bringing the impact of gas prices, insurance costs and federal emissions requirements to bear on an industry that was shy on core technologies. While competition activities continued and hard core enthusiasts pulled their belts tighter in other areas, the business of performance suffered everywhere.

When GM moved the GMPP under the direction of the Materials and Product Development Department in 1986, it was to bring product engineering into play to expand the GMPP business. A version of the modern GMPP logo appeared in 1988 and the first, dedicated parts catalog arrived the following year.

That catalog contained the first non-production crate engine ever offered by GM Performance Parts – a 350cui/345hp small block called the ZZZ. It certainly wasn’t a snoozer though, as it sold 500 units in its first year.

The big block crowd was next in line for attention and it came in the form of a 502cui V8 that delivered more than 500 hp. Riding a tide of growth that started at the beginning of the 90s, the division continued to evolve, both organizationally and through product innovation.

The big block lineup saw the introduction of a monster 572 cui engine that would yield 620 hp on pump gas, or 720 hp on race fuel.

The group’s offerings continued to grow, encompassing circle track racing, bringing fuel injection to crate engines, establishing a GM Performance Parts Authorized Center Network of Dealers and bringing the product online in 2006. Early ithat same year, Ernie Callard retired from GM, but he remains as a consultant for GM Performance Parts.

With the introduction of the new Camaro, a modern cadre of supercar builders has emerged, using GMPP components to build in new levels of performance. DeNooyer Chevrolet from New York and Georgia’s NeSmith Chevrolet have rekindled the proven idea of using Chevrolet’s own parts to create specialty Camaros that simply aren’t offered otherwise.

Drag racing was identified as a new market in the 1970's, along with the needs of the conventional hot rodder.

DeNooyer uses a GM Performance Parts LSX engine block and other GMPP components to build a modern 454 engine for the Camaro SS, while NeSmith transplanted the Corvette ZR1’s supercharged LS9 engine into their Camaro.

Today, the GMPP Catalog is 324 pages of parts, specifications and dreams. The product lineup continues to evolve in response to the performance market direction and priorities. Much of GMPP’s success in the past has come from anticipating those needs and the 2011 catalog reflects that.

Whether your priority is green rodding, updating your daily driver or building a 600+ hp weekend track monster, you’ll only need to look in the GM Performance Parts catalog to find what you need.

About the author

Don Roy

Don's background includes 14 years in the OEM and Tier2 domestic auto industry, as well as three years as Technical Editor of a muscle car enthusiast print magazine. He is a mechanical engineer by trade and completed his first project car when he was 16 years old - after rebuilding the engine in his bedroom. His hobbies include photography, film making and building the odd robot from time to time.
Read My Articles

Hardcore Chevys in your Inbox.

Build your own custom newsletter with the content you love from Chevy Hardcore, directly to your inbox, absolutely FREE!

Free WordPress Themes
Chevy Hardcore NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

We'll send you the most interesting Chevy Hardcore articles, news, car features, and videos every week.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Chevy Hardcore NEWSLETTER - SIGN UP FREE!

We will safeguard your e-mail and only send content you request.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...



Hot Rods & Muscle Cars

Corvette Enthusiasts

Street Rods

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Subscribe to more FREE Online Magazines!

We think you might like...

  • Hot Rods & Muscle Cars
  • Corvette Enthusiasts
  • Street Rods

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Chevy Hardcore - The #1 Performance Bowtie Online Magazine

Thank you for your subscription.

Thank you for your subscription.

Loading