Few knowledgeable enthusiasts say the name Corvette without a silent nod to its patron saint, Zora Arkus-Duntov.
While the Russian engineer often is incorrectly called the "father of the Corvette," its paternity belongs to Harley Earl, the visionary who was the first head of General Motors' design staff. But it was Arkus-Duntov, a hot rodder at heart, who took Earl's beautiful curved form and gave it a hard performance edge. Zora drove the Chevrolet Corvette into sports car immortality while developing a racing pedigree to prove its credentials to the world.
Arkus-Duntov spent a career at GM as the consummate outsider, a maverick who was often misunderstood and not always aligned with the business of producing high-volume automobiles for GM's volume division. But his personal ownership of the Corvette program ensured its continued technical evolution and helped produce a halo vehicle for Chevrolet that would outlast higher-volume Chevrolet nameplates.
Arkus-Duntov brought an unusual background into GM. The offspring of Russian revolutionaries, he witnessed the Russian Revolution in 1917; was educated in one of Germany's top technical schools; joined the French Air Force; escaped from Nazi-occupied France; caught a refugee ship to Ellis Island; consulted for top U.S. defense companies for the war effort; started his own munitions operation in New York; helped develop an atomic compressor; entered his own car at Indianapolis; raced at Le Mans; and found his way to GM, where he sought to use the resources of the largest company on Earth to build his kind of cars.
Arkus-Duntov first saw a prototype of the Corvette on an auto show turntable in January 1953. He was so taken by the two-seater that he applied for a job at GM. But after accepting a GM job a few months later, he may have thought he was making a deal with the devil. GM was in the business of making money, not fine sports cars.
Arkus-Duntov's managers may have had similar misgivings about him. Sparks flew when his entrepreneurial, maverick style ran head on into the conservative, blue-suit bureaucracy. Yet thanks to the influence of Ed Cole, Chevy's chief engineer, the volatile combination brought an energy to GM that helped ignite some of its greatest sales successes in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when GM's market share sometimes exceeded or approached 50 percent.
Off to the races
Arkus-Duntov started at GM in May 1953 and went to work in Chevrolet r&d under Maurice Olley. He was assigned minor tasks on the first-generation Corvettes, but it wasn't long before he was envisioning a midengine configuration for the second generation. Just a few months into the job, Arkus-Duntov wrote a memo entitled "Thoughts pertaining to youth, hot rodders and Chevrolet" that defined a new approach to the performance youth market by the marketing of a performance parts catalog.
He also helped develop a mechanical fuel injection system along with Rochester Products' John Dolza that produced 1 hp for every cubic inch of displacement.
Arkus-Duntov also pioneered Chevrolet's fledgling race program, starting off with several small-block V-8 performance demonstrations.
They included a record run up Pikes Peak in a Chevy 210 sedan and a run on Daytona Beach to set a Corvette speed record of 150 mph. That led to factory racing efforts at Sebring and the construction of a purpose-built race car, the Corvette SS, which had its debut and swan song during the same 1957 Sebring race. The SS was the victim of a new GM corporate policy that prohibited factory-sponsored race programs.
Despite corporate policy, Arkus-Duntov kept the Corvette racing program going by developing high-performance packages available to Corvette racers. He was also more than willing to provide whatever technical support he could, often at the cost of infuriating his superiors.
His philosophy about production Corvettes was to make them as close to race cars as possible, a belief that ran against the grain of more conservative factions at GM.
Arkus-Duntov developed several daring engineering concept cars, including several Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicles, better known as CERV I and CERV II, which combined some of the most advanced thinking in
racing as well as influencing the engineering content of future Corvettes.
Arkus-Duntov's best chance to influence the production Corvette occurred with the second-generation Corvette Sting Ray introduced in 1963. While the car represented a quantum leap in performance from previous Corvettes with its independent rear suspension (from CERV I) and sophisticated powertrain, Arkus-Duntov had envisioned a sophisticated mid-engined Corvette that would have been lighter, faster and much more responsive. But he found out the hard way that GM designer Bill Mitchell really called the shots when it came to the look and configuration of Corvettes.
Risks and rewards
One of Arkus-Duntov's greatest triumphs involved one of his greatest risks -- the Corvette Grand Sport racing program. As a way around the GM corporate racing program, he envisioned building 100 lightweight Corvettes that could be sold to racing customers as a way to skirt the ban on factory racing.
He rationalized the program in a memo to chief engineer Harry Barr: "As a national characteristic, Americans do not like to be second-best, be it a space race or an auto race," Arkus-Duntov wrote. "Both are not individual, but rather national contests. They in-volve technological ability of the national industry and with this, become a matter of personal pride. If John Glenn's orbit makes all of us grow an inch taller, Corvette defeats in sports car racing make loads of people feel a quarter of an inch smaller and the younger part of the population possibly more than that. I feel a winning car would enable this vast group to grow a quarter of an inch taller and Chevrolet will have a new mass of grateful customers for all our products -- cars, trucks and second-hand vehicles."
The Grand Sport program never got off the ground as Arkus-Duntov envisioned. But five cars were built that found their way into the hands of racers with considerable under-the-table help from him -- and at great risk to his career. The pinnacle of success was at Nassau in 1963 when three cars entered by Texas oil millionaire John Mecom -- and driven by a team that included Dick Thompson, Jim Hall and Roger Penske -- beat the Shelby Cobras. Those five Grand Sport racers are among the most prized Corvettes.
The third-generation Cor-vette introduced in 1968 would represent Arkus-Dun-tov's last chance to build his midengined street car. But Mitchell still held sway in terms of his preference for a long-hood, short-deck look, and the Corvette was becoming so successful in the marketplace that Chevrolet was reluctant to change the formula.
Arkus-Duntov would continue developing midengine concept cars, leading up to the memorable Wankel-powered Aerovette, but he retired in 1975 at the mandatory age of 65, having failed to achieve his midengined dreams. During his 22 years at GM, Arkus-Duntov succeeded in something far greater: the immortalization of what might have been just another one-off concept car on the turntables at the GM Motorama. Thanks in great measure to Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette is the longest running Chevy nameplate.
Plans are in place to honor Arkus-Duntov in his native Russia next year. A special exhibit in Moscow is being created by the Russian Mini-stry of Culture as part of a series celebrating famous Russian expatriates.
Zora Arkus-Duntov might have been Louis Chevrolet's greatest alter ego. Both were fueled by a love of racing to make unforgettable street cars, yet both were thwarted by conservative contemporaries who held their dreams in check. Yet both made themselves famous by putting their foot on the throttle and never letting up.