"Father of the Corvette"
December 25, 1909
|Died||April 21, 1996
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Zora Arkus-Duntov (December 25, 1909 – April 21, 1996) was a Belgian-born American engineer whose work on the Chevrolet Corvette earned him the nickname "Father of the Corvette." He is sometimes erroneously referred to as the inventor of the Corvette, although that title belongs to Harley Earl.
Duntov was born Zachary Arkus in Belgium on December 25, 1909. His parents were both Russian-born Jews; his father was a mining engineer and his mother was a medical student in Brussels. After the family returned to their hometown of Leningrad, Duntov's parents divorced. His mother's new partner, Josef Duntov, another mining engineer, had moved into the household. Even after the divorce, Duntov's father continued to live with the family, and out of respect for both men, he and brother Yura took on the last name of Arkus-Duntov.
In 1927, his family moved to Berlin. While his early boyhood ambition was to become a streetcar driver, streetcars later gave way to motorcycles and automobiles. His first motorized vehicle was a 350 cc motorcycle, which he rode at nearby racetracks as well as through the streets of Berlin. When his parents, fearing for his safety, insisted he trade the cycle in for an automobile, Duntov bought a racecar. The car was a cycle fendered contraption called a "Bob", from a short-lived manufacturer of the same name. The Bob was set up for oval track racing. It had no front brakes and weak rear brakes. In 1934, Duntov graduated from the Charlottenburg Technological University (known today as the Technical University of Berlin). He also began writing engineering papers in the German motor publication Auto Motor und Sport. Later in Paris, he would meet Elfi Wolff, a German native who danced with the Folies Bergère.
When World War II began in 1939, Zora and Elfi were married, just as Duntov and his brother joined the French Air Force. When France surrendered, Duntov obtained exit visas from the Spanish consulate in Marseilles, not only for Elfi and himself, but for his brother and parents as well. Elfi, who was still living in Paris at the time, made a dramatic dash to Bordeaux in her MG just ahead of the advancing Nazi troops. In the meantime, Duntov and Yura hid in a bordello. Five days later, Elfi met up with the Duntov and his family and later they boarded a ship in Portugal bound for New York.
Settled in Manhattan, the two brothers set up Ardun (derived from Arkus and Duntov) which supplied parts to the military and manufactured aluminum overhead valve, hemispherical combustion chamber heads for the Flathead Ford V8 engine. Although the original purpose of the design was to cure the overheating tendencies of flathead designs under heavy load in truck use (due to the long exhaust travel through the block), the new heads enabled the Ford V8 to produce over 300 horsepower. Ardun grew into a 300 employee engineering company with a name as revered as Offenhauser, but the company later went out of business after some questionable financial decisions by a partner that Zora and Yura had taken on. Arkus-Duntov attempted to qualify a Talbot-Lago for the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 and 1947. He failed to make the race both years.
Zora joined General Motors in 1953 after seeing the Motorama Corvette on display in New York. Perhaps it was just fate that Zora happened to be among the thousands of people who attended the GM event. Zora found the car to be visually superb, but was disappointed with what was underneath. He wrote Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole that it would be his complement to work on such a beautiful car; he also included a technical paper which proposed an analytical method of determining a car's top speed. Chevrolet was so impressed that engineer Maurice Olley invited him to come to Detroit. On May 1, 1953, Zora Arkus-Duntov started at Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer.
Shortly after going to work for Chevrolet, Zora set the tone for what he was about to accomplish in a memo to his bosses. The document, entitled, "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet", laid the foundation for the strategy that Chevrolet has used ever since to create one of the most successful performance parts programs in the industry. Chevrolet quickly became one of the most successful manufacturers ever in the history of motor racing. Soon, Zora became director of high performance at Chevrolet and helped to transform GM's largest division from a conservative company into a youthful, exciting one. In the process, he would change the Corvette from a docile roadster into a formidable sports car that challenged Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz. As was his way, Zora led by example. After helping to introduce the small-block V8 engine to the Corvette in 1955, providing the car with much-needed power, he set about showcasing the engine by ascending Pikes Peak in 1956 in a pre-production prototype, setting a stock car record. Not satisfied, he took a Corvette to Daytona Beach the same year and hit a record-setting 150 mph over the flying mile. In his spare time, the brilliant and vocal GM driver/engineer also developed the famous Duntov high-lift camshaft and helped bring fuel injection to the Corvette in 1957. He is credited for introducing four-wheel disc brakes on a mass-produced American car for the first time.
In 1962, Zora launched the Grand Sport program. The original idea captured the interest and imagination of Corvette fans all over the world. The idea was to create a special lightweight Corvette weighing only 1,800 pounds and race it on an international circuit against not only Cobras and other GT-Class cars, but also racing-only prototypes from Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. It also served to keep non-racing GM's Corvette image somewhat in play in the face of Ford's "Total Performance" publicity onslaught, which included Carroll Shelby's Cobras. Power for the Grand Sport was to come from an aluminum version of the small block V8, equipped with special twin spark plug cylinder heads. At 377ci, output was a projected 550 hp at 6,400 rpm. But as it had so often, GM policy prohibited Zora from going racing, but not before five Grand Sports were built. The five Grand Sports eventually fell into the hands of private owners, and Zora was able to support them in spite of the official ban.
Zora retired in 1975, relinquishing command to Dave McLellan. At 81 years of age, Zora Arkus-Duntov was still passionate and opinionated about the Corvette. During the time between Zora's retirement and death his legend grew. Whenever anything Corvette happened, Zora was there. A member of the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Chevrolet Legends of Performance, and the Automotive Hall of Fame, Zora took part in the rollout of the 1 Millionth Corvette at Bowling Green in 1992. He also drove the bulldozer at the ground breaking ceremonies for the National Corvette Museum in 1994. Six weeks before his death, Zora was guest speaker at "Corvette: A Celebration of an American Dream", an evening held at the showrooms of Jack Cauley Chevrolet Detroit. On hand that night were Dave McLellan and his successor as Corvette chief engineer, Dave Hill, but no one could argue that Zora stole the show.
Arkus-Duntov died in Detroit on April 21, 1996, and his ashes were entombed at the National Corvette Museum. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will wrote in his obituary that "if... you do not mourn his passing, you are not a good American."
Honors and awards
- Pikes Peak hill climb record, 1955
- Daytona flying mile record, 1956
- SEMA Hall of Fame, 1972
- Automotive Hall of Fame, 1991
- International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, 1994
- National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame, 1998
- Zora Arkus-Duntov Exhibition, Alexander Solzhenitsyn Center for Russian Émigrés, Moscow, May–June 2012,
- Burton, Jerry (2002). Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette (Chevrolet). New York: Bentley Publishers. p. 6. ISBN 0-8376-0858-9.
- "Harley Earl, Father of the Corvette". corvetteactioncenter. The Torque Network, LLC. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
- Zora Arkus-Duntov, Champ Car Stats, Retrieved 2010-12-24
- Keith Bradsher (April 24, 1996), Zora Arkus-Duntov, 86, Who Made Corvette a Classic, Dies, The New York Times, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Daniel Strohl (March 2007), "Zora Arkus-Duntov", Hemmings Muscle Machines, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Will, George (April 29, 1996), A Tribute to 1950s and Man Who Revved Up Corvettes, Washington Post Writers Group, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Arkus-Duntov, Zora, GM Heritage Center, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Hall of Fame – 1972 inductee Zora Arkus-Duntov, SEMA, retrieved 2012-02-21
- "Inductee biography – Zora Arkus-Duntov". Archived from the original on 2007-08-11.
- International Drag Racing Hall of Fame alphabetical list of inductees, Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Zora Duntov inductee page, National Corvette Museum, retrieved 2012-02-21
- Burton, Jerry (22 June 2012). "Champion of the Corvette, Feted in the Land He Left". New York Times. Retrieved 22 December 2012.