Until the 1980s, most cars used V-belts to drive engine accessories, but the limitation of belt surface area also meant some components needed two belts to drive a single accessory, and some cars required as many as six belts to drive all the components. In the mid 1970s, inventor Jim Vance was working for the Gates rubber company when he conceived the idea of using a single belt that snaked around all of the accessories and eliminated the need for multiple belts, yet offered the surface area to drive larger components.
After developing a working system, they first proposed the idea to GM, but were turned down—but Ford saw merit in the idea, and serpentine belts were first available in the 1978 V4 Mustangs. But out of the gate, the V4 offering didn’t fare well. Vance pressed Ford, demonstrating that V8 models could utilize the serpentine belt system without significant retooling. So they built another 10,000 Mustangs with serpentine belts, and the success of the system pushed Ford to deliver all of its Mustangs in 1980 with serpentine belts. By 1982, GM took notice and also adopted the serpentine belt system. Today it’s almost impossible to buy a new car without a serpentine belt system, and although Vance never made much personally off the invention due to the nature of his contract with Gates, he did go on to patent numerous other inventions.
Thanks to the efforts of Jim Vance, the benefits of the serpentine belt have found their way into classic cars as well. Manufacturers have responded with numerous kits to incorporate these great systems into a wide variety of classics. While most of these kits incorporate the full serpentine belt system approach, others have chosen to utilize the serpentine-styled belts for their greater surface area and longer wear life in more traditional multiple belt setups. Join Mark Simpson as he takes on the task of upgrading Ross Kiehl’s high-performance 1968 Chevelle with a new style of serpentine belt.