Article by Mark Trotta
Along with thousands of other car enthusiasts, Zora Arkus-Duntov first saw the Chevrolet Corvette at the 1953 Motorama in New York City. The two-seat concept car inspired him to write a letter to Ed Cole, sharing his desire to work on the car. He joined General Motors later that year, bringing with him a European mind-set about what a sports car should be. These were the seeds that would, decades later, make the Corvette a world-class competitor.
"To establish the sports car, you have to race it" - Zora Arkus-Duntov
The first Corvettes were built on a budget, and used many existing off-the-shelf parts. Steering and suspension components were borrowed from Chevy passenger cars and trucks. Duntov had referred to the handling of these original Corvettes as "awful".
When Duntov was assigned to the Corvette in 1955, he set out to upgrade its performance and handling. Time was indeed on his side - Chevrolet had just introduced their small-block V8 engine earlier that year.
One of his most well-known developments was the 'Duntov' high-lift camshaft, which added over 30 horsepower to the rather sedate 265ci engine. In 1957, he helped bring fuel injection to the Corvette. Zora was soon promoted to Director of High Performance.
Read: Chevy Small-Block History
Further engine and chassis modifications followed, most significantly a four-speed gear box and more reliable brakes. Zora himself set a record behind the wheel of a 1956 Corvette, doing the Daytona Flying Mile at 150.583 mph. He also set a stock car record when he raced up Pikes Peak in 1956 in a pre-production prototype Chevy.
Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet
Duntov wrote a letter to GM management, suggesting Chevy should offer a line of factory performance parts for the Chevy V-8. The memo was titled, "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet". He felt (and of course he was right) it was a good way to attract young customers to the Chevrolet brand.
In 1959, the new Daytona International Speedway saw the Corvette SS project car running 155 mph. Despite the AMA ban on racing, Duntov, now director of high-performance vehicles, began working on engine and chassis development of the legendary Grand Sport concept car. The idea behind the program was to create a special lightweight Corvette weighing 1,800 pounds and race it on an international circuit.
1963 Corvette Sting Ray
Regarding the 1963 Sting Ray, Duntov commented, "I have a Corvette I can be proud to drive in Europe." The new chassis, featuring independent rear suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, evolved from the work on the Grand Sport project. The chassis was so good that it was used up to and including the 1982 model year.
In 1967, Zora was promoted to Chief Engineer of Chevrolet.
Small-Block vs Big-Block Corvette
It has been noted that Zora preferred small-block Corvettes over big-block Corvettes. With a better power-to-weight ratio, they simply handled better with the smaller V8. But GM was in the business of selling cars. So, in order to compete with the muscle cars of the day, Chevrolet began offering Corvettes with big-block motors in 1965.
Zora's 1974 Corvette
In December of 1974, Zora Arkus-Duntov turned 65 (he was born on Christmas day in 1909). At that time, 65 was the mandatory retirement age at General Motors. As Dave McLellan took over as Chief Engineer, Duntov purchased his company Corvette from GM, a dark green 454ci automatic. Zora had the car custom-painted silver and blue, with pin-striping and stripes across the roof and hood and down the sides.
Zora's '74 had a set of the '73 YJ8 aluminum wheels on it, the ones that were recalled by Chevrolet due to a porous condition (the option would return in 1976). Reportedly, Zora had to change out several of the wheels with later versions due to leakage issues.
During his tenure at GM, Zora must have driven hundreds of Corvettes, but this 1974 model was the only one that was actually registered to him. After 15 years of owning the car, he sold to collector Les Bieri in 1989.
Although Zora Arkus-Duntov retired from GM in 1974, he continued to play a part in Corvette history. He participated in the roll-out of the Millionth Corvette at the Bowling Green, Kentucky plant in 1992, and was at the ground-breaking ceremonies for the National Corvette Museum in 1994. After Duntov passed away in 1996, Bieri donated the 1974 Corvette to the museum.
The influence and impact that Zora Arkus-Duntov has made to the Corvette is immeasurable. Often fighting against corporate policy, his philosophy was to keep them as close to race cars as possible. His vision and energy brought the car to new levels, in what continues today as the longest-produced American sports car.