Sales Ad Saturday- Zora Arkus Duntov
Honoring the man who helped the Corvette grow from infancy to rowdy adolescence for this week’s ‘Sales Ad Saturday’. Twenty-five years ago this week Zora Arkus-Duntov passed away in Detroit. While Harley Earl is rightly recognized as the father of the Corvette, it was Russian-born Duntov who saw it developed to its full potential as a true American sports car. A skillful engineer who was formally educated in Berlin, in the late 1930s Duntov was living in Germany and working as a technical writer. After WWII broke out, Duntov, who was Jewish, escaped to France, where he briefly joined the French Air Force. Shortly after the French surrendered in the summer of 1940 Duntov, his wife, and his brother made daring escapes from German-occupied France into Portugal, and onto a ship bound for New York.
In America, the brothers started a small company, Ardun Manufacturing, which initially produced munitions and aircraft parts to aid in the war effort. In the late ‘40’s the company successfully developed an overhead-valve cylinder head design for the Ford flathead V8. Ford was not interested in Ardun’s design, so they attempted to market the heads as a conversion product instead. Selling only a few hundred, the aluminum heads were both expensive and added significant size and weight to the engine. Ardun was soon out of business.
Shortly after, Zora left for the UK, taking a position at Allard, working on their racing program, and co-driving an Allard at LeMans in 1952 and 53. In May of 1953, he joined the engineering department at Chevrolet, his interest peaked after seeing the ’53 Corvette on display at the Motorama in January of that year. Duntov saw great potential for Chevrolet’s new sports car. That same year he also joined Porsche as a racing driver, campaigning Porsches at LeMans in 1954 and 55. Like Harley Earl when he first arrived at GM, Duntov was not universally accepted by his colleagues, and his moonlighting at Allard and Porsche was regarded by some in the company as controversial. Duntov’s boss, Ed Cole, disagreed and thought that Duntov’s experience racing other manufacturer's cars could be used to improve upon the Corvette back in America.
When it was introduced in ’53, the Corvette had the look of a sports car but was lacking the mechanical chops to make the car truly competitive. As a result, Chevrolet was having a hard time selling the car, despite its initial popularity when first shown to the public. By the end of 1955, even with Cole’s new 265ci. small block V8 available as an option only 700 units found buyers that year. GM brass was ready to pull the plug. One big problem with that strategy was Ford, who had introduced the Thunderbird that year and sold over 16,000 of them. Not wanting to back away from a fight, Cole turned to Duntov to improve upon the ’55 with an updated Corvette for 1956. That year, Corvette sales more than quadrupled, and the news was even better in ’57. Zora developed the special hi-lift ‘Duntov Cam’ in ’56. In 1957, having been recently promoted to Chevrolet’s Director of High Performance, Duntov was instrumental in the development of fuel injection for use in the new 283, Chevrolet’s first engine to develop one horsepower per cubic inch.
Duntov continued to refine the C1 as much as GM brass would allow, finally getting a chance at a blank canvas for the Bill Mitchell designed C2 introduced in ’63. The car featured a better frame, independent rear suspension, and the introduction of 4 wheel disc brakes and big-block power with a 396 available in 1965. The split window design of the '63 was a major point of contention between Mitchell and Duntov. Zora hated the design element, and both buyers and the press weren't enamored with it either. By '64, it was gone. Duntov never stopped improving the C2, and its success was reflected in the sales figures of both the C2 and C3 Corvette. Duntov retired as GM’s chief of Corvette engineering in 1975. The Corvette has long been known as America’s sports car, and a significant part of the car’s success is wrapped up in the vision of a Russian immigrant staring at a show car at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1953, imagining what it could become.