Inside GM’s Performance Build Center
Corvette owners share a bond; whether newly inducted or a multi-generational member of the Corvette family, these individuals share a common experience and perhaps an obsession. Sometimes the car evolves from a mere machine to a new “family member,” and like the process of documenting a new child’s journey into life, those who order a new Z06 or ZR1 are given the opportunity to see the evolution of their new “baby.”
Chevrolet now offers future parents of a Z06 or ZR1 the opportunity to assemble their own engine at the state of the art Wixom Build Center in Michigan. This option is not a freebie, but after learning the details of the process and the amazing experience that comes with assembling your own engine, there is no price for this sort of bonding experience. JD Haase of Bowling Green, Kentucky was one of the first to take advantage of this unique experience at Wixom, and we were fortunate enough to follow along as he built his own LS7, destined for his new Z06 Corvette.
Wixom – Home of Dreams
GM’s Wixom Build Center started producing engines in 2005, like the LS7 for the Z06 and LC3 found in STS-V and XLR-V models. According to Carl Pickelman, the Site Manager at the Build Center, “(Wixom) is dedicated to building the high performance Z06 and ZR1 Corvette exclusively.” Currently the facility builds 7.0L LS7 engines, the 6.2L supercharged ZR1 engine, and the standard 6.2L engine for the Grand Sport Corvette. However, the Engine Build Experience is only available to those ordering the 2011 Z06 or ZR1 Corvettes.
Essentially this option allows the owner, regardless of his or her mechanical prowess, to assemble their engine under the careful supervision of a GM Experimental Assembler; these individuals have years of experience and most have worked as experimental engine builders for years. In fact, there are only 13 Experimental Assemblers from UAW Skilled Trades Local 653 that are tasked with putting together the supercharged 6.2L engine of the ZR1, 7.0L LS7 of the Z06 and the 6.2L engine found in the Grand Sport. At the time of our visit, Wixom has only hosted 9 customers who selected the Engine Build Experience, but there were 5 more in the works within the next three weeks. “We are the only ones in the industry to allow customers to build their engine from the block up,” said Pickelman.
This experience is possible thanks to experienced technicians, who hand assemble the three Corvette power plants on a daily basis. After several years of discussing the Engine Build Experience concept around the Wixom facility, the powers that be decided to give it a shot. It took nearly a year to plan and implement the program, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. When a customer orders their new Z06 or ZR1, they simply select the ‘Engine Build Experience’ option and $5,800 later they are set to take part in Corvette history. Customers are responsible for their airfare to Michigan, but once they arrive they are treated to a once in a lifetime experience with VIP treatment along the way.
JD Haase Builds Something Special
JD Haase nearly missed out on the VIP treatment when he ordered his new Z06 from a local dealership. Haase lives in Owensboro, Kentucky (although he considers Bowling Green to be his home) and decided that a 505-horsepower Z06 needed to be in his garage. While at the dealership, a friend of Haase informed him (along with the dealer) about the new program. Haase considered the costs of the experience, and decided it would be a worthwhile and would enhance his first Corvette ownership experience. Some may balk at the nearly $6,000 option, but Haase pointed out, “if it (the Build Experience Option) is less than 5 percent of the total price, it is a drop in the bucket.”
Despite anyone’s preconceived notions of whether or not an option is reasonably priced, it seems outrageous that Mr. Haase considers Bowling Green home, but had never owned a Corvette before. Haase’s father owned two Corvettes in his lifetime, and when combined with the allure of horsepower, torque and family ties to the sports car, it proved to be a perfect match for Haase. Admittedly, Haase had considering purchasing a BMW, but the power always seemed to be lacking and combined with his preference for American cars, it was not an perfect match for him. “I like to support the communities in which we live. I feel like I am helping hometown people,” said Haase.
Once the order was placed, it was merely a waiting game until the Engine Build Experience. Upon arriving in Michigan, Haase was picked up from the airport and delivered to a hotel near Wixom. The following morning started with a ride to the facility, where upon arrival he was greeted by the Wixom staff and treated to a presentation of the facility. During the meet and greet, Haase was introduced to John Ross, the Experimental Assembler who would serve as his guide through the experience. Ross took time to familiarize Haase with the process and the tools they would be using throughout the day while putting together the 7.0L engine. According to Ross, the customer need not be an engine builder to take part in the experience thanks to the close supervision provided by the technicians; at Wixom the customer can do as much or as little as they choose to – it depends on their comfort level with the process. On average it takes 6 hours to complete the process, but some have finished in 5 hours while others have taken up to 8 hours.
Sweating the Details
Haase was not altogether unfamiliar with the inner workings of an engine, having spent several years involved in racing stock cars. Together Haase and Ross started off the process by heading off to the Piston Room, for what else but pistons? Once the pistons were loaded on the cart, the guys moved on to the specific line to inspect the engine block prior to starting the build. There are over 10 work-stations that the engine will travel through during the process; each station is prestaged with the required tools and parts.
Once the engine block was bolted onto the cart it was time to install the caps, bearings, crank, cam, rod caps and timing chain. Following the timing chain instruction, the oil pump, windage tray and oil pan were put into place. At this point, the engine is flipped over to aid in the installation of the top end. Ross had Haase install the lifters, heads, rockers, valve covers and the press on balancer.
After going through several specific workstations, it was time for the intake manifold installation for the Z06 engine (on a ZR1, the tech and customer would be installing the supercharger at this point). A leak test was performed at the next juncture, and once everything checked out it was time connect the exhaust manifolds. Finally, the spark plugs, plug wires, EVAP tube and clutch were installed.
During the assembly process, mistakes in torque specs are nearly impossible thanks to their specialized system. Tom Read, GM Technology Communications representative, explained the process used by the Experimental Assemblers and their Engine Build Experience participants. Each and every bolt used in the facility has a specific UPC code that must be scanned in order for the torque gun to function. Once Haase scanned the UPC code at a work station, the gun would automatically adjust to the proper setting for the particular bolt and would only remain active for the specified number of bolts needed to complete installation of the specific part.
Read explained that once the torque gun completed the specified number bolts, it would not work again until a new UPC code was scanned. For example, if the installation of a valve cover requires 8 bolts the UPC code would be scanned and the gun would know the specific torque setting and number of bolts required for proper installation. This system has the specific torque settings for every bolt used in the entire 100,000 sq. ft building; if the gun stopped prior to installing the all of the bolts or it was still active after all of the bolts were installed, then it is obvious that improper code was scanned or the wrong parts were installed.
Before the completion of the engine, a test is performed to ensure that the flywheel and clutch are appropriately balanced prior to shipping. A natural gas-powered machine resembling a tire machine is used to bring the flywheel to within 0.5 ounce of overall balance. Like a tire machine, weights are added to the necessary points to ensure to the required standards are met. At the completion of the engine assembly process, the engine is subjected to a cold test. The cold test is a statistical test, featuring the use of an electric motor to run the engine while torque pressure, noise, ignition, oil pressure, air flow and misfires are monitored. John Ross stated the cold test is like an “EKG for the engine. Every engine is tested and must pass before leaving the facility.”
A New LS7 is Ready to Run
At the end of the day, Haase was treated to hearing his 7.0 LS7 fire up. John Ross described Haase as being like a kid in a candy store as he heard his engine roar to life for the first time. It may seem like this experience could not get more personalized, but at the completion of the process both Ross and Haase’s names are affixed to a plate that will be adhered to the engine.
Haase was very pleased with the overall experience at the end of day. “I was impressed with the overall experience and professionalism of the entire staff from the moment I got off the plane in Detroit,” said Haase. The entire experience exceeded Haase’s high expectations. “I would recommend anyone buying a Corvette to take advantage of this program,” he added. Despite the having option of watching the Z06 come together at the factory, Haase elected not to take part as he had taken tours of the factory in Kentucky previously. Once the metallic blue (or Kentucky blue as he referred to it as) Z06 is ready for the road, Haase has a WKU license plate frame waiting for it.
Don’t miss out on the huge gallery of photos below, as we follow Haase through the entire engine build process…