Rats and Mice

  • May 22, 2023

What’s the difference between a mouse – and a rat? If you know cars, you know the answer. If not, here it is – in case you might be interested:

A mouse is the name affectionately bestowed by people who love cars – and specifically, those made once-upon-a-time by Chevy – upon the small-block series of V8 engines that made their debut in 1955 and could be found under the hoods of various Chevys for decades thereafter. They ranged in displacement from 265 cubic inches through the more famous 327s and 350s that powered Camaros and Corvettes and Novas through the ’70s and into the ’80s.

We used to refer to engines this way – rather than the metric way. Which is to say, the European way. The American way used to be different – and that was good because everything wasn’t the same.

Cubic inches of displacement also has better mouth feel – more emotional resonance – than anodyne liters. The latter being the same, irrespective of brand – if the size is. A 2.0 liter four under the hood of a VW vs. a Subaru vs. a Ford. It all sounds the same. And it makes you want to yawn. It certainly doesn’t inspire you to talk about it, except insofar as maybe ordering a part for it.

But it’s different – was different – when you had a 283 or 327 under the hood. Especially when it was a Power Pack, or a Fuelie. In part because those latter had emotional resonance and because no one else had them. Only Chevys had 283 Power Packs and 327 Fuelies – both denoted by the cross-flagged emblems that made you proud to show off what you had under the hood.

2.0 liter fours are covered by black plastic – because no one cares what’s under them.

And, of course, no one refers to them by affectionate names like mouse – or rat.  The latter referring to the family of big block Chevy V8s that came in sizes ranging from 409 to 454 cubic inches – and that had the cross-flagged emblems, too. A rat could be distinguished from a mouse at a glance, by dint of the obvious difference in physical size. A rat had valve covers that looked twice as wide as those of a mouse – and most rats were painted a bright red color while the mouse was usually dressed in orange.

Speaking of which:

Colors also used to differentiate one brand’s engines from another’s. Ford small blocks, for instance, were usually painted a dark blue color. Pontiac V8s were painted a lighter, almost pastel blue – as well as a magnificent light blue-green metallic, earlier on. Some of the very last of them were painted a deep blue metallic color that was similar to the color AMC – if you remember AMC – used on its V8s. Which had oddball displacements such as 304 and 401. Both of which made you feel something when you said them.

Oldsmobile Rockets were golden – literally. And (like Pontiacs) they didn’t come in big or small blocks but did come in displacements ranging from 260-something all the way to 455s. But they were entirely different engines, even if they touted the same displacement.

Hemi Orange was the factory hue of the Elephant – the name affectionately given to the 426 cubic inch Hemi of the ’60s and early ’70s.

The mighty Elephant made one horsepower for every cubic inch of displacement and came standard with dual quads – or two four barrel carburetors.

This was another difference that made one.

Some Chevy big blocks had three carburetors – and so did some Pontiac V8s. Some – a very few! – Chevy small blocks, as in the case of the original 1967-’69 Camaro Z28 – could be had with two four barrels mounted diagonally across from each other. This was the memorable cross-ram version of the 302 small block.

Today, of course – and for the past several decades, in fact – all cars, irrespective of brand, have been fed fuel the same way, via electronically controlled fuel injection. The system has many merits – but personality isn’t among them. Many of them use the same parts made by the same company (Bosch) and while they work very well and very reliably, the same can be said of most refrigerators, too.

New cars are “connected” – but it’s hard to connect with them, because there’s not very much to connect to, on a human level. They are like dress store mannequins in that one is pretty much like the others.

Unlike, say, a ’57 Bel Air with a fuelie small block under the hood. Or even a ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am such as the one owned for the past 30-plus years by the writer of these words, who drives something new – and anodyne – every week but repairs to the garage and goes for a drive when he needs to connect with something real, that was different, that makes him feel something other than bored.

It’s impossible to feel that when there’s a shaker scoop poking through the hood – and a 455 Indian underneath it.

. . .

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