The Man Who Made the Corvette an Icon

Hard-core Corvette fans know Zora Arkus-Duntov and the contributions he bestowed over his two-plus decades at General Motors. Anticipating the arrival of the next-generation C8 Corvette adorned with a ZORA nameplate, we provide this celebration of the life and times of America’s answer to Enzo Ferrari and Ferdinand Porsche.

Arkus-Duntov was born in 1909 to wealthy Russian parents studying in Brussels, Belgium. The following year, the Arkus family returned to Saint Petersburg in time to suffer through both World War I and the Russian Revolution. Young Zora, who was mesmerized by anything capable of moving under its own power, showed little interest in school. When the harsh times brought bread rationing, he armed himself with a revolver to safeguard the family’s food supply. A firearm also came in handy when a crosstown doctor had to be persuaded to come and care for his ailing mother.

Due to the severe economic conditions, Zora’s father Jacques Arkus stayed in the household following divorce and the arrival of stepfather Josef Duntov. Years later, in 1941, Zora finally had sufficient respect for his third parent to change his last name to Arkus-Duntov.

Inspired by Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz grand prix efforts in the 1930s, Arkus-Duntov dabbled in lower-level road racing before and after studying mechanical engineering at the University of Charlottenburg in Berlin. He met some top drivers and engineers but didn’t advance his dream of competing at higher levels through those connections.

Watching conditions deteriorate in Germany through the 1930s, especially for those of Jewish descent, Arkus-Duntov and his wife, the former Elfi Wolff, hastily relocated first to Paris and then to America on a freighter converted to passenger service. Both found fortune in their new world—she as a professional dancer, he as a consultant before becoming a war-munitions manufacturer.

Postwar prosperity opened doors to new motorsports opportunities. The “Ardun” overhead-valve cylinder heads Arkus-Duntov manufactured to tune up Ford flathead V-8s were not initially successful, although they eventually became highly prized. After failed Indy 500 attempts, Zora met Sydney Allard, which led to drives at the 1952 and 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans. Mechanical failures doomed both Allard ventures, but Arkus-Duntov’s rising prowess as an engineer and driver gained Porsche’s attention. He was invited to pilot an 1100-cc 550 Spyder for the factory’s visit to the Sarthe, earning a class victory and 14th overall finish in 1954, followed by 13th overall in another 550 Spyder the next year.

Amazingly, Arkus-Duntov’s success on the world endurance-racing stage came after he had joined GM as a development engineer. Upon seeing Harley Earl’s Corvette prototype at the 1953 New York Motorama, he was instantly smitten. He unleashed the full brunt of his persuasive powers to convince Chevrolet boss Ed Cole and GM R&D director Maurice Olley that a production Corvette would be a “turning point” for GM and that his contributions could be instrumental in advancing any high-performance automobile’s cause.

Convincing Cole only a few weeks after joining GM that driving for Allard at Le Mans was in the company’s best interests reveals the depth of Arkus-Duntov’s cunning. Seconding that motion in 1955 became the cornerstone for the Corvette/Porsche respect and rivalry that exists to this day.Olley was less convinced that racing relationships with other carmakers were a wise idea. For punishment, he dispatched the Russian to the proving grounds to work on trucks. Cole had other ideas. After reading Arkus-Duntov’s memo pointing out how the hot-rod movement might help Chevrolet reach younger buyers, he gave his rabble rouser a challenging project: developing the fuel injection scheduled for introduction on the 1957 model year Chevrolet V-8. Building on existing Mercedes-Benz 300SL technology, Arkus-Duntov devised a means of measuring the mass of incoming airflow instead of using the SL’s simpler speed-density approach.

Unfortunately, Corvette sales were faltering and GM was pondering the early retirement of its sports car. Arkus-Duntov stepped in at the last moment to save the Corvette and to recast it as Chevrolet’s halo vehicle. His views won broad internal respect and the job of evolving the Corvette from a fashionable, gutless two-seater into a world-class sports car.His new authority only encouraged Arkus-Duntov’s speed exploits. He broke a couple of Pikes Peak records in a disguised Chevy sedan, and he topped 150 mph in a slightly modified Corvette at Daytona Beach in 1956. That success set the stage for a long run of experimental projects, which fed yearly performance improvements to production Corvettes.

The 1957 Corvette SS originated a badge that Chevrolet still uses today. This purpose-built sports racer taught Arkus-Duntov an important lesson when it failed after only 23 laps at the 12 Hours of Sebring: that the best way to avoid cooking the driver is to mount the engine behind the cockpit. He earned his first real title at General Motors—Chevrolet’s director of high performance—later that year.

Taking that job seriously, Arkus-Duntov and his team created five mid-engine experimental cars to explore independent suspension designs, all-wheel drive, large-displacement V-8s, rotary engines, and aluminum body construction. He earned a patent for a new 4WD arrangement and nearly won approval to move the Corvette’s transmission rearward circa 1960.

Arkus-Duntov had to be an astute politician to rebuff internal forces that persistently drove Corvette in fruitless directions. R&D boss Frank Winchell constructed one prototype with a V-8 hanging out the back. Ed Cole and John DeLorean both suggested two-plus-two Corvettes. The magnificent split-window coupe, which Bill Mitchell’s design department created for the 1963 model year, was despised by Arkus-Duntov because of its impaired rear visibility and prodigious aerodynamic lift. He got rid of the glass partition after only one model year but never fully resolved the midyear (1963–67) Corvette’s poor aero performance.

Arkus-Duntov did score major wins with engineering advancements such as stiffer frames, independent rear suspension, and disc brakes. Power and performance climbed thanks to fuel injection, multiple carburetors, large V-8s, and tougher four-speed transmissions. The second-generation Corvettes he masterminded not only sold well, they earned GM profits.

These accomplishments came in spite of modest engineering resources thanks to Arkus-Duntov’s ability to inspire his small team. According to Corvette development engineer Roy Sjoberg, who later became the Dodge Viper’s chief engineer, “Zora got your emotions involved and when that occurred, your commitment followed ad infinitum.” Years later, Ed Cole noted, “Zora managed to bootleg more things through Chevrolet than any other engineer I’ve ever known.” To throw him a bone, GM finally gave Arkus-Duntov the Corvette chief engineer title in 1967.

The midyear Corvette chassis was such a stride forward that it supported the C3 generation for another 15 model years under Mitchell’s mako shark–inspired bodywork. That was not Arkus-Duntov’s intention. The mid-engine layout he longed for never reached fruition during his career for a host of reasons. Detractors insisted that Corvette fans didn’t want it and wouldn’t understand it. Sales were strong with the technology in hand. Engineering costs were also an issue; a new transaxle just for Corvettes would be expensive. When Arkus-Duntov reached the age of mandatory retirement in 1975, the glimmer of Chevy’s halo faded until a reengineered C4 finally arrived for the 1984 model year.

Departure from GM didn’t end Arkus-Duntov’s sensitivity to any harsh word spoken against Corvettes. Following a column I wrote in 1979, which characterized that car’s rear suspension as “ill-conceived,” he sued Car and Driver for defamation of character. The fact that his name wasn’t mentioned in the article and that his Corvette responsibilities had ended four years earlier made no difference in Arkus-Duntov’s mind. The suit was eventually dismissed.

The legacy of the man who championed Corvettes in general and a mid-engine version in particular will live forever when C8s hit the road with a ZORA—or ZoRa1—badge prominently displayed.

Many details in this story were sourced from author Jerry Burton’s insightful Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette, by Bentley Publishers, from which we excerpted in 2002.

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