Zora Arkus Duntov: "The Father of the Corvette"

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Born in Belgium on Christmas day in 1909, Zora Arkus-Duntov was destined to become one of the most celebrated engineers in the history of General Motors.  Yet even while his seemingly innate mastery of complex automobile engineering principles and unwillingness to settle for “good enough” rapidly captured the attention of GM brass, his road to the virtual pinnacle of GM engineering was coarse and circuitous.  

Like those of so many others during the tense economic and social environment leading up to World War II, Arkus-Duntov’s family roots were shallow.  His parents were Russian-born Jews who began their life together in Russia before moving to Western Europe for a time only to return to their hometown of Leningrad in an ongoing search for opportunity.  His father, a trained engineer, ultimately moved the family to Berlin, Germany in 1927. First-hand exposure to the permissive, modernist attitudes that prevailed during the days of the Weimar Republic could only have contributed to the impressionable 18-year old’s attitude toward the promise of a better world.  And a big part of that better world would have been the universal adoption of more enlightened approaches to mechanized transportation.

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When Arkus-Duntov had finally gathered the means to purchase a motorized vehicle of his own, it was a small, 350cc motorcycle on which he competed at nearby racetracks and rode throughout the streets of Berlin.  When concerns for their adolescent son’s safety prompted his parents to insist that he trade the cycle in for an automobile, he purchased an early-1920s Bob. Predictably, he drove the little car in local competition, which enhanced his vital practical knowledge about the operation of an automobile and the interrelationships of its many mechanical systems.  Such exposure undoubtedly contributed to his comprehensive understanding of technical issues even at a young age. It also helped him establish the foundation of a career that began in earnest after he graduated from Charlottenburg Technological University (now the Technical University of Berlin) in 1934, about the time he began to write engineering papers for the German publication Auto Motor und Sport.  

When it became clear that Germany was no longer a safe place for an individual of Arkus-Duntov’s international heritage, he joined the French Air Force (along with his brother) then met and later married Elfi Wolff, a German national who danced with the Folies Bergère.  Facing the Nazi threat that by then had reached France, he and his wife obtained Spanish visas in 1941, boarded a ship in Portugal, and came to America. After reaching New York, Zora Arkus-Duntov settled in Manhattan and, with his brother, established Ardun. Its name a contraction of ARkus and DUNtov, the firm supplied parts to the American military and manufactured aluminum heads for Ford V-8 engines that boasted overhead valves arranged to provide an efficient hemispherical combustion chamber shape for maximum power and performance.  But like so many fledgling firms run by creative individuals with no formal training in financial management, the enterprise failed after dubious business decisions made by a partner went unnoticed, driving the firm into bankruptcy.

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Turning back to racing after the disappointing end of Ardun, Arkus-Duntov attempted to qualify a Talbot-Lago for the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 and 1947, but failed to do so both years.  By 1952 he had returned to England to assist with development of Allard sports cars, which he co-drove at Le Mans in 1952 and 1953, capturing the attention of Porsche for whom he also later drove.  That the Allards failed him proved fortunate because it left him free to pursue the opportunity that came to define his life, a career at General Motors. His entrée to the corporate giant began with a visit to the 1953 Motorama, an elaborately produced, multi-city touring display of automobiles that touted GM styling and engineering prowess.  The marketing-oriented Motoramas were also the venues at which it debuted the experimental vehicles that were intended to whet the appetites of consumers for the exciting production cars that the company was planning for them. Two years old, but still on the cutting edge of technical achievement, the GM Le Sabre was a centerpiece of the show, which also featured a number of evocative two-seat, one-off sports cars from other GM divisions including the Buick Wildcat, Oldsmobile Starfire, and Cadillac Le Mans.  But the Motorama’s most talked about dream car proved to be the Chevrolet Corvette, a fiberglass tour de force whose sleek lines and purposeful stance captured the imagination of both the press and public, including Arkus-Duntov.

More audacious than most Motorama attendees, Arkus-Duntov had the temerity to call GM’s attention to the opportunity it had missed by not endowing the car with an engine and transmission that would give it the performance to complement its looks.  To make his point, he sent a technical paper to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole analyzing how to determine the new car’s theoretical top speed, which he reasoned could not be achieved with the evocatively-named, but extremely underpowered Blue Flame six-cylinder engine.  He also stated that it would be a pleasure for him to work with the Chevrolet engineering department to help such an attractive car achieve its performance potential. Chevrolet engineering was so impressed with Arkus-Duntov’s analysis and recommendations that engineer Maurice Olley invited him to come to Detroit for a face-to-face meeting.  The meeting must have gone well because on May 1, 1953, he began employment at Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer.

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A member of the influential Chevrolet engineering team at last, Zora Arkus-Duntov became instrumental in transforming the Corvette from a docile boulevardier into a fearsome sports car by installing a succession of ever more powerful engines beginning in 1955 with the 195-horsepower small block V-8.  Keenly aware of public tastes, he later wrote a memo entitled "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet", which served as the impetus behind the creation of Chevrolet’s successful performance parts program. But he was best known as the driving force behind the development of mechanical fuel injection, which obviated the need for carburetors that would have subjected the engine to fuel starvation during spirited driving over winding road courses.  The hits kept coming and Arkus-Duntov later spearheaded the development of CERV I (the 1960 Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle), the Corvette Grand Sports, the magnesium-bodied Super Sport, and numerous others.

Later in his life, Arkus-Duntov was heralded as “father of the Corvette” among countless other accolades, which he regularly downplayed because of his well-known belief that arbitrary constraints had been imposed upon him by the very company that hired him to push the limits of vehicle development.  If asked, he likely would have considered his biggest disappointment to be his failure to convince GM decision-makers to adopt for the Corvette a mid-engine configuration, a layout that would have paired nicely with the performance oriented four-wheel drive system he also envisioned. But the sound engineering approach that led to the mid-engine 1968 Astro II, 1969 XP-882, and 1972 XP-897GT prototypes may yet be vindicated when the first mid-engine production Corvette debuts, prompting many to wonder what it would have been like with an additional 60 years of development.

By Leslie Kendall, Chief Historian

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