All great ideas are born out of spectacular and curious minds. Everything we know and love today, came from someone who had an “A-Ha” moment and didn’t let it get away. For the Corvette we hold so dearly to our hearts, while many people have played major and minor roles in the evolution of this highly regarded machine, there is only one man who earned the nickname “The Father of Corvette”. That man, is Zora Arkus-Duntov.
A CHEVROLET STAR IS BORN
It was a cold day in Belgium, on December 25, 1909, when Zachary Arkus entered the world. Born to a mining engineer father and a medical student mother, it stood to reason that Zachary, who we know as Zora, would evolve into a thinking child with a spectacular future. His parents divorced, and his mother found a new partner, Josef Duntov. After coming to respect the new parental unit in his life, Zora took on the name of Duntov, in addition to keeping Arkus.
In 1927, Zora moved to Berlin with his family. In his tender boyhood years, Zachary’s earliest aspirations were to be a streetcar driver. He was fascinated with anything fast and powerful, particularly motorcycles and automobiles. Fearing for his safety, as parents do, Arkus-Duntov’s parents urged him to sell his motorcycle, in favor of a safer mode of transportation. Arkus-Duntov obeyed and sold the motorcycle, and replaced it with a racecar. Not sure if this is what they had in made when they suggested something safer, but the motorcycle was no more.
In 1934, Arkus-Duntov graduated from the Charlottenburg Technological University in Berlin, with a degree in mechanical engineering. At this time, he began writing engineering papers in the German motor publication Auto Motor and Sport. While in school, Arkus-Duntov also became involved in lower-level racing. Though he crossed paths with several top drivers and engineers, the connections did not afford him the opportunity of advancing to higher levels of racing.
In February of 1939, Arkus-Duntov married his sweetheart from Paris, Elfi Wolff. Elfi was a German native, a professional dancer, and an overall sensational woman. Elfi and Zora fell madly in love and had many adventures together, and would stay wed for their remaining years. Stay tuned for a full Elfi post in the very near future.
Since World War II had just begun, Arkus-Duntov and his brother joined the French Air Force to do their part. While Zora was stationed in Toulouse, Elfi remained in their apartment on the west side of Paris, and fled when German tanks began rolling through the city. Through much luck and the kindness of strangers, Elfi was able to be reunited with Zora four days after her escape. After fulfilling his duty, and with the surrendering of France, Zora obtained exit visas for Elfi, his brother, his parents, and himself, so they could escape Nazi-occupied France. Out of Portugal, they all boarded a freight ship that had been converted for passengers, headed for New York in December of 1940.
ARDUN – THE FIRST AMERICAN VENTURE
After settling down, Arkus-Duntov and his brother opened Ardun—the name, a mashup of Duntov and Arkus. Ardun was a military parts supplier and also manufactured aluminum overhead-valve cylinder heads. These hemispherical combustion chamber heads for the flathead Ford V8 engine were designed to remedy the overheating of the valve-in-block design.
The Ardun design “siamesed” the two center exhaust ports into a single tube, passing the hot gasses between those two cylinders. This reduced the issue of overheating. In addition, the Ardun design also allowed for incredible increases in power output from the Ford V8. Utilizing the Ardun heads, a Ford V8 could reach over 300 horsepower.
After some difficulties, Ardun brought success for Zora and his brother. The company grew to a 300 employee engineering company. Unfortunately, the company went out of business due to some poor financial decisions made by a business partner.
During his Ardun years, Zora finally had his opportunity to get some real racing under his belt. After meeting Sydney Allard, he was afforded the opportunity to drive at the 1952 and the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans. Though held back from victory by mechanical failures, these events brought attention to Arkus-Duntov. Porsche took note of his skills and he was invited to pilot an 1100-cc 550 Spyder when the factory visited the Sarthe. This opportunity led to a class victory and 14th overall finish in 1954, and a 13th overall finish the following year.
ZORA JOINS THE GM FAMILY
The silver lining of Ardun closing its doors, isn’t too hard to find. Without Ardun to run, Zora was afforded the opportunity to join the GM family, perfecting the Corvette in its earliest and most impressionable years.
In 1953, Zora saw the very first Corvette on display in New York City at the General Motors’ Motorama auto show. He was enamored with the machine’s aesthetic components. Mechanically, however, he knew there was work to be done, but great potential. He also knew, he was the best fit for this very job.
He immediately wrote a letter to Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole and GM R&D director Maurice Olley, exclaiming that it would be a privilege to have a hand in the evolution of such an extraordinary car. In addition to expressing his enthusiasm for the Corvette, he also included detailed plans for how he could improve the spectacular machine to reach its greatest potential. Chevrolet was impressed with his letter and his well laid plans, and swiftly invited Zora to come to Detroit. On May 1, 1953, Zora Arkus-Duntov building his legacy at Chevrolet, as an assistant staff engineer.
According to The New York Times:
“Once hired, he pushed through the decision to turn the Corvette into a high-performance sports car with a succession of more powerful engines. Chevrolet offered a 195-horsepower engine on the 1955 Corvette, a 240-horsepower engine on the 1956 Corvette and a 283-horsepower engine on the 1957 model.”
TRANSFORMING THE CORVETTE
In a well-received document titled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet”, Zora set the stage for what he was going to accomplish at Chevrolet working on the Corvette. This document laid the foundation for the strategy Chevrolet has used ever since. It was this document that enabled Chevrolet to become one of the most successful performance parts programs in the industry, since the goals and plans laid within were believed in and adhered to.
It didn’t take long for Arkus-Duntov to move up the Chevrolet ladder. Moving to director of high performance, he helped to steer GM’s largest division away from conservative goals and plans, and towards a more exciting and youthful approach and mindset. A large piece of this shift was transforming the Corvette from a mild roadster into a formidable sports car, worthy of challenging powerhouses such as Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati, and Mercedez-Benz.
After aiding in the introduction of the small-block V8 engine to the Corvette in 1955, Zora knew he had to show the world what the Corvette was now capable of. He set out to showcase the potential of the engine through public demonstrations such as ascending Pike’s Peak in 1956 in a pre-production car. This stunt set a stock car record. The same year, he also took a car to Daytona Beach where he reached a record setting 150 mph over the flying mile.
While tirelessly and passionately working in and out of the Corvette plant and offices to perfect the machine, as a side project, Arkus-Duntov was developing the famous Arkus-Duntov high-lift camshaft. In 1957, this side project helped to bring fuel injection to the Corvette.
THE GRAND SPORT PROGRAM
In 1962, Arkus-Duntov presented the Grand Sport program. This program set out to create a special lightweight Corvette (only 1,800 pounds) and race it on an international circuit against Cobras, GT-class cars, and racing-only prototypes from Ferrari, Ford, and Porsche. This maneuver was also intended to keep the Corvette name in the game with Ford’s “Total Performance” publicity campaign. The power source for the Grand Sport would come from an aluminum version of the small block V8, equipped with special twin spark plug cylinder heads. The projected 550 hp at 6,400 rpm was bound to turn heads.
Unfortunately, Arkus-Duntov’s dream of seeing a Grand Sport Corvette finally beat out a Shelby Cobra, would never come to be. Chevrolet scrapped the whole project. Five Grand Sport Corvettes had been built before the hammer came down. Those five cars were ordered to be destroyed by Chevrolet, but Arkus-Duntov made sure they made it into the trusted hands of private owners where he could support them in their ventures, outside of Chevrolet’s rules and regulations.
After 22 years at Chevrolet, Arkus-Duntov made the decision to retire in 1975, leaving the Corvette in the hands of Dave McLellan. Arkus-Duntov remained passionate and prominent in the Corvette community even after leaving Chevrolet. Present at all and any Corvette event, Zora had no intentions of removing himself entirely, from the machine he had become so attached to. He and Elfi both remained heavily involved in all things Corvette, and Elfi would continue to do so, even after Zora’s passing.
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 roll out of the one millionth Corvette at Bowling Green in 1992. When plans had been laid for the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, he proudly drove the bulldozer that would break ground in 1994.
His last Corvette related appearance was as a guest speaker at “Corvette: A Celebration of an American Dream”, an evening held at the showrooms of Jack Cauley Chevrolet Detroit.
A sad day for Corvette enthusiasts, Zora Arkus-Duntov died in Detroit on April 21, 1996. Today, his ashes are entombed at the National Corvette Museum.
Zora spent over two decades making invaluable contributions to the Corvette name while employed at Chevrolet. Though many minds and hands played a part in the impressive evolution of the Corvette, it was the heart of Zora at the core. Without the love affair between Zora and that first Corvette he saw in New York City, who knows what a Corvette would be, let alone represent, today. Who knows what heights it would and would not have reached.
If you are someone who loves and honors everything the Corvette has given us over the past 65 years, you have Zora (Zachary) Arkus-Duntov to pay gratitude to. If you ever find yourself in Bowling Green, Kentucky, you can do just that in person at the National Corvette Museum, where his memory remains to be honored.
We had the incredible opportunity to visit the museum not long ago, and it’s an experience any Corvette enthusiast should make a priority.
Thank you for visiting us here at Hobby Car Corvettes, located in Martinsburg, PA. We hope you enjoyed this piece paying homage to “The Father of Corvette”. We know we wouldn’t be where we are without him; sharing a passion for Corvettes with fellow enthusiasts.
Feel free to peruse our pages and see some of the superb machines we currently have on the showroom floor, and sign up for our new arrivals alerts in your inbox!
DID YOU KNOW:
Arkus-Duntov attempted to qualify a Talbot-Lago for the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 and 1947. He failed to make the race both years
Arkus-Duntov spent time in England doing development work on the Allard sports car, co-driving it at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1952 and in 1953.
Driving an 1100 cc Porsche 550 RS Spyder, he also won class victories in 1954 Le Mans and 1955 Le Mans.
Arkus-Duntov is credited with introducing four-wheel disc brakes on a mass-produced American car for the first time.