No Watches Allowed: Inside Chevrolet's Secretive Performance Build Center
This iconic American carmaker has taken a page out of the luxury watchmaking playbook to produce its high-performance engines.
It’s no secret that the Americans perfected the art of mass-producing watches in the 19th century – brands like Elgin, E. Howard & Co., Hamilton, Waltham, Westclock, and more were responsible for producing millions of pocket watches (and later wristwatches). In the late 1800s, the Swiss started to catch up, and many of these American watch brands became Swiss (i.e., Hamilton, IWC, Ball, etc.).
Of course, these days, the art of watchmaking is very much a “Swiss Made” affair. Only a handful of American companies make watches to any level of scale and even rarer by hand. Today, most American watch brands import many of their components from China or Switzerland. Hence why most of what you read on Watchonista is about Swiss-based brands.
While today’s topic might feel entirely out of left field for a Watchonista editorial, there’s a compelling storyline here that’s worth exploring.
The Europeans vs. The Americans
Before we get to the topic at hand, let’s look at the always complex geopolitical quagmire that is the American car manufacturing industrial complex versus the relative simplicity of the European method. Remember that scene in Ford vs. Ferrari where Lee Iacocca visits the Ferrari manufacture in Maranello, Italy?
In the scene, Iacocca discovers why Ferrari automobiles are so highly regarded for their craftsmanship. It’s because of the personal touches and individual attention the Italian brand gives to each of its cars, with one single-engine builder responsible for assembly, from start to finish, of each engine.
Of course, Iacocca and his crew proceeded to bring this know-how and expertise back to America from Europe, in much the same way watchmakers transferred the secrets of timepiece mass production to Europe from America. It’s also worth mentioning that following World War II, many American soldiers came back mesmerized by the small European sports cars they encountered during their tour overseas, which is one of the motivating factors behind the Chevrolet Corvette’s introduction in 1953.
The Now Iconic Corvette
Fast-forward to today and Chevy’s now-iconic Corvette: The longest-running car nameplate (aside from the Chevy Suburban) in automotive history. Since its launch in 1953, the Corvette has had just eight significant revisions to its design. With each subsequent generation of Corvette garnering more and more fanfare and love from the Corvette faithful.
Fun Fact: Chevy tracks each Corvette model with a code: C1 for cars produced from 1953-1963, C2 for Corvettes made from 1963-67 (my favorite), the C3 from 1968-1982, and so on from C1 to C8.
The Corvette Performance Build Center
On the occasion of the new Corvette Z06’s launch, Watchonista was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Chevrolet’s Corvette Performance Build Center (often referred to as the PBC) located in Bowling Green, Kentucky. For the uninitiated, this location is the official home of the Corvette assembly plant.
During our visit, we had unfettered access to the PBC. And ahead of its official unveiling, we got a sneak peek at the all-new LT6 5.5 Liter dual overhead cam (DOHC) V-8 engine boasting 670hp that will power the 2023 Corvette Z06.
No Watches Allowed
Our interest in this story from a watchmaking standpoint is motivated by two primary factors. First, we believe that watch lovers and enthusiasts have interests in other categories outside of watches, which is why we launched The Lounge in Watchonista: Volume 01. And the second is what we learned five minutes into our tour of the PBC.
At the PBC, there is a strict “no watches allowed” policy due to the potential for “mutilation” presented by wearing watches and jewelry, which are considered major scratch hazards, in the manufacturing center. The carmaker can’t afford to have a watch ding, dent, or scratch on the super-intricate components of high-performance engines produced by the PBC.
Hence why you won’t see a single watch in any of our photographs from the tour. Instead, we’ll let the craftsmanship do the talking.
My first impression of the PBC was feeling like I was in a cleanroom at one of the world’s leading watch brands. Every piece of technology and camera equipment we brought was cataloged and tracked throughout our visit to protect the secret nature of what we were seeing.
You might not know this, but the assembly process for every Z06 Corvette engine is performed by hand at the PBC in Bowling Green. From bearings to pistons: every single component is precision checked, QC’d, cataloged, and installed by one of Chevy’s Master Builders.
One such individual was Gary Oakman, a long-time GM employee. Oakman is one of 30 Engine Builders at the PBC, and it’s his job to oversee the engine build process from start to finish.
In recent years, Corvette found the best way to deliver consistent performance and durability was to re-introduce the human element into the production of its performance engines. And it’s not just the Corvette that receives these engines; numerous other GM car models benefit from the efforts of the PBC, including GMC, Cadillac, and more.
Furthermore, every engine that leaves the PBC for its new home inside a GM vehicle, primarily Corvettes, receives a barcoded nameplate with the engine builder’s name and signature engraved. And as we learned during our visit, the PBC’s Engine Builders are not held to production numbers as much as they are held to quality and performance standards.
Bryan Lee, the PBC’s Area Manager, explained: “In terms of [the PBC], it’s not so how many engines they do throughout the day, it’s the quality in the craftsmanship and what they bring to the customer in terms of, knowing your engine builder, their signature and having that peace of mind of hand craftsmanship.”
As I witnessed, the building of a Corvette engine is not a one-size-fits-all operation. Every single component is measured and checked. There are many components, like engine bearings, that aren’t standardized and have dozens of different options to fit the demanding tolerances of a Chevy engine. Thus, it’s the engine builder’s job to accurately select and install the parts that correspond to an individual engine’s exact dimensions.
Like watchmaking, the PBC is also a multi-generational affair, like we found with Team Leader Charisse Walters, a third-generation GM employee and the first hire of the PBC. Having been a GM employee of 17 years, she added, “People make the difference, and that’s what you see at the Performance Build Center.”
Speaking of people, Oakman has even had Corvette owners reach out to him on Facebook to tell him how well his name-plated engines run. It’s a point of pride for all of the PBC’s employees. The group is so passionate about making perfect engines that they have even started a year-end perfect engine award. The current streak is at ten engines in a row without a single hitch.
Similar to the components inside of a highly complicated timepiece, the hundreds of parts that make up an engine like the LT6 5.5L DOHC V-8 Direct Injection each have a role to play when it comes time to mash the gas in your new C8 Corvette. And with a 0-60 time of just 2.6 seconds, future Corvette owners will be pleasantly surprised that it was human who made this adrenaline-filled ride possible.