Zora Arkus-Duntov was born 100 years ago Christmas Day. Known affectionately by enthusiasts as the “Godfather of the Corvette”, he is credited with turning around the floundering program by upgrading the Corvette’s power and handling and masterfully creating a balance of performance and value that is still present today. Although he retired from GM in 1975 after 22 years of service, he never left the hearts of the community and was active until his passing in 1996. Today, his ashes and those of his wife Elfi are in a special memorial at the National Corvette Museum.
Zora was born “Zachary Arkuss” on December 25, 1909 to Russian parents in Brussels, Belgium. During his teen years, his parents divorced and his mother remarried to Josef Duntov. Out of respect for both his father and his mother’s new husband, Zora and his brother Yura took the last name Arkus-Duntov.
In his early years, Zora worked on and raced motorcycles but eventually turned his attention to automobiles. In December 1934, he graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Institute of Charlottenburg in Berlin where he specialized in engine development and supercharging. One of his papers on supercharging led to a consulting job with the Mercedes Grand Prix racing team and another on four-wheel drive and steering in high performance vehicles was published in the German Auto Club magazine.
In 1939, Zora married Elfi Wolff, a 17 year old German girl who danced in the Folies-Bergere in Paris. Zora joined the French Air Force and served in the military until 1940. When the French surrendered to the Germans, Zora was able to leave get out of the country with his extended family where they eventually ended up in New York.
Zora and his brother Yura stared Ardun, a supplier of performance parts for the military. Another product was aluminum overhead valve heads for the Ford Flathead V8. The new heads enabled the Ford V8 to produce over 300 horsepower and cemented Zora’s reputation as an engineer.
In 1950, Zora returned to England where he worked on the Allard sports car. He co-drove the Allard J2 in Le Mans in 1952 and 1953. He also co-drove an 1100cc Porsche 550 RS Spyder to class victories in 1954 and 1955 at Le Mans.
Zora first saw the Corvette in January 1953 at the GM Motorama show in New York City. He wrote a letter to Chevrolet’s Chief Engineer Ed Cole outlining his ideas for improving the Corvette. The letter so impressed Cole that he offered an assistant staff engineer position to Zora who accepted on May 1, 1953. During his early tenure at GM, Zora was credited with writing two memos to upper management that turned the focus of Chevrolet from that of a low cost passenger car manufacturer into a company with serious performance credentials. The first letter is probably Zora’s most famous. Titled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet“, the memo highlighted Ford’s dominance in the hot-rod community and how that translated to sales. In the memo, he argued the importance of Chevy’s V8 engines and how to use performance to promote the Chevrolet nameplate to the youth of America.
It was his second letter he wrote to Ed Cole and Maurice Olley on October 15, 1954 that is referred to as “the letter that saved the Corvette.” Although the Corvette’s styling was well received, its performance was not. Powered by the Blue Flame 6-cylinder and Powerglide automatic, it failed to meet the expectations that sports car enthusiasts wanted. Zora’s memo outlined what he saw wrong with the car and his ideas to turn it into a world class sports car. Chevrolet agreed and Zora’s performance upgrades and speed demonstrations increased sales from just 700 units in 1955 to 14,500 units in 1962.
It was 1962 when Zora and his team launched the Grand Sport Program. Corvette’s engineering built 5 of 125 planned lightweight racers. Weighing in at 1800 lbs, the Grand Sports were powered by 377 ci small block with horsepower output rated at 550. GM stopped the program before it really took off and those pilot cars were sold off to privateers.
Zora continued to push for increased performance and gave buyers the opportunity to purchase various racing packages. The 1963 Corvette Z06 was one such configuration. Through the sixties and early seventies the horsepower battles were won by Zora’s legendary L88s as well as the ZL-1 and 1970-1972’s ZR-1 and ZR-2.
It’s also important to point out that as the 70’s energy and insurance issues brought an end to horsepower through displacement, Zora worked on a four wheel drive, mid-engined Corvette known as XP-882, which later became the four-rotor XP-895. Management nixed the idea of a mid-engined Corvette and Zora retired in 1975.
Zora continued to consult with GM as well as other companies like Holley and American Custom Industries. ACI and Zora collaborated on a special “Duntov Turbo” edition but costs and poor performance quickly led to its demise.
Zora spent the later years of his life enjoying his hobbies like flying and visiting with Corvette owners at the various shows and meets across the country. He was in Bowling Green in 1992 when the 1 millionth Corvette rolled off the assembly line and he participated in the ground breaking ceremonies of the National Corvette Museum in June 1992.
Zora Arkus-Duntov passed away on April 21, 1996 at the age of 86. His beloved wife Elfi passed away in 2008. Their urns are memorialized at the National Corvette Museum.
Hat Tip Corvette Central Blog