Today’s modern Corvette may have ended up in the scrap pile of good ideas that never went anywhere if it hadn’t been for an immigrant with sketchy spelling.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Russian born in Belgium who came to America on the eve of World War II, managed to work his way into General Motors and became both the car’s first chief engineer and the first champion of the mid-engined Corvette.
Harley Earl, father of the Corvette, rightly stands in first place in the car’s history, but Arkus-Duntov is right behind him. He led the push to make the Corvette a real sports car, with fuel injection, an independent rear suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes.
Zora Arkus was born on December 25, 1909, in Brussels, Belgium, to Russian Jewish parents. He would later add “Duntov” to his last name as a tribute to his stepfather. He studied engineering in Germany but preferred hands-on work to the theoretical—a trait that would become a hallmark of his career. From Germany he moved to Paris. After war broke out in Europe in 1939, he enlisted in the French air force. Upon France’s surrender, he left for the United States with his wife, Elfi; his younger brother, Yura; and their mother and stepfather.
Arkus-Duntov in the States
Once settled in New York City, Arkus-Duntov served as an engineering consultant, eventually forming the Ardun (for Arkus-Duntov) Mechanical Corporation. As the war effort increased, so, too, did Ardun’s military contracts and its profits. After the war, Arkus-Duntov set about finding a new way to make a living, including designing a kit to convert flathead Ford V-8s to an overhead-valve setup, a failed attempt to race in the Indianapolis 500, working with Sydney Allard in England, and racing at Le Mans in 1952. In the fall of that year, he and Elfi moved back to New York. The course was set; everything was about to change.
In January 1953, General Motors brought its traveling Motorama to the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Far more than mere auto shows, Motoramas showcased a collection of concept and production cars, extravagant displays, orchestras, and stage productions. It was there that Arkus-Duntov saw the car that would forever be associated with him, slowly revolving on a turntable: Corvette. He was transfixed by its low-slung, sexy shape, but a quick review of its technical specifications revealed that the car was more show than go. “Mechanically, it stunk,” Arkus-Duntov related later in his typically blunt style, “with its six-cylinder engine and two-speed automatic transmission. But visually, it was superb.”
On January 28, he sent GM an enthusiastic letter saying that he found “the Chevrolet sports car breathtacking [sic]” and that, in his view, “this is the turning point from which european [sic] body designer can look for inspiration to Detroit.” Clearly Arkus-Duntov’s enthusiasm had short-circuited his spelling abilities; he even managed to misspell the last name of the letter’s recipient, Maurice Olley, repeatedly spelling it here and in future correspondence as “Olly.” After a bit of negotiating, Arkus-Duntov was hired and started at Chevrolet on May 1, 1953.
Arkus-Duntov Makes His Mark
Gradually but methodically, Arkus-Duntov set about transforming Corvette from an underpowered showboat to a performance car that could compete with the best from Europe. In 1955, the anemic 150-hp six-cylinder was replaced by the 265-cubic-inch V-8, the original iteration of the legendary small-block. In 1957, its displacement was increased to 283 cubic inches, and GM’s first application of mechanical fuel injection helped it attain the magic number of 1 hp per cubic inch of displacement.
Despite these improvements, Arkus-Duntov was well aware of the limitations imposed by the Corvette’s front-engine, rear-wheel-drive setup. In 1960, he introduced the CERV (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle), a test vehicle with a mid-engine V-8, rear-wheel drive, and an open-wheel body. CERV I evolved into CERV II in 1964, again with a mid-engine V-8 and all-wheel drive, separate automatic transmissions and torque converters for each end of the engine, and enclosed-wheel bodywork. Arkus-Duntov tested the CERV II at GM’s Milford Proving Ground and recorded a zero-to-60-mph time of 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 214.01 mph. Arkus-Duntov’s hopes for a chance to race the CERV II at Le Mans were dashed when GM management granted the honor to Jim Hall and his Chaparrals instead for the 1966 24-hour event. Arkus-Duntov nonetheless continued to advocate for a mid-engined Corvette, citing competition from Ford’s upcoming Pantera. But in 1968 his proposal was shot down again.
Persistence, Patience, Prototypes
Taking no for an answer was never Arkus-Duntov’s strong suit. This time he took the front-wheel-drive setup from the Oldsmobile Toronado/Cadillac Eldorado, placed it amidships, and located the V-8 engine transversely, with the automatic transmission on one side and the differential on the other. All-wheel drive could be made possible in the future by adding a front differential and a driveshaft. The car, under code name XP-882, debuted at the 1970 New York auto show; in the hurry to prepare the car for the show, there wasn’t time to come up with a name, so it was simply labeled “Corvette prototype.” Despite the sensation it created, GM once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, deciding the car would be too expensive to produce and would not offer any gains in performance versus the front-engined Corvette.
In the best Arkus-Duntov tradition, he remained undaunted. By 1974 and with his mandatory retirement in 1975 looming, he mounted one last campaign for a mid-engined Corvette. At the same time, GM president Ed Cole was looking for a way to showcase the Wankel rotary engine, to which GM had recently purchased rights. Cole and Arkus-Duntov agreed to create another concept car based on the XP-882, this time with a four-rotor Wankel engine and a snazzy new name: Aerovette. It boasted an even more aerodynamic shape (with a drag coefficient of 0.325), gullwing doors, and an engine output of 360 to 370 horsepower.
This time, the mid-engine effort was torpedoed by problems with the Wankel engine. Besides, GM was selling almost 40,000 Corvettes a year and couldn’t meet demand; there was no reason to risk this success with unproven designs and technology. Arkus-Duntov would officially retire in January 1975 without realizing his dream. He couldn’t have known that 44 long years later, his dreams would become reality.
But happen it has, and with the C8, Arkus-Duntov’s concepts come full circle. Automotive scholar, author, and former Car and Driver editor-in-chief Karl Ludvigsen called Corvette the star-spangled sports car; what started in the mind of a Belgium-born Russian who emigrated to America on the eve of World War II has become a reality—and that’s about as star-spangled as it gets.
Many details in this story were sourced from author Jerry Burton’s exemplary Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette, by Bentley Publishers, from which we excerpted in 2002.