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Champion of the Corvette, Feted in the Land He Left

By Jerry Burton on June 22, 2012

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HANDS-ON Zora Arkus-Duntov, the engineer who fought for the Corvette's survival, with a Sting Ray coupe. See More Photos.

FOR the most part, the objects in the display cases may be found in the den of any Corvette fan  models, books, vintage photos. One possible exception: on a lower shelf sits a copy of a memo, written in 1953 by a recently hired General Motors engineer.

The three-page document, "Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodding and Chevrolet," is considered by many to be the foundation of the brand's longstanding pursuit of high performance. It is familiar to enthusiasts, and a bit of G.M. scripture I have seen many times in my work as an editor and author.

But the difference last month was the setting. The pages, and the memorabilia, were not enshrined in a car museum or locked in a corporate archive, but part of an exhibition at the Alexander Solzhenitsyn Center for Russian Émigrés here, about two miles from Red Square. The show runs through June 29.

The memo was the work of Zora Arkus-Duntov, an outspoken Russian transplant whose 22-year career at G.M. included transforming the Corvette from a wimpy fashion accessory into an American legend.

Now approaching its 60th birthday, the Corvette is the longest continuously produced passenger-car nameplate in the Chevrolet stable. Expectations are that an all-new seventh-generation Corvette will be unveiled, as a 2014 model, at the Detroit auto show next January. (G.M. would not confirm the timing.)

But the Corvette's future has never been certain. It survived its delicate early days thanks in large part to the tutelage of Arkus-Duntov, who applied the principles learned from racing in Europe for brands like Allard and Porsche. He made the Corvette an enthusiast's touchstone and kept it there through constant engineering improvements, the development of a racing program and the introduction of daring midengine prototypes. The car is revered even in Russia, a country where G.M. does not market Corvettes.

The exhibition lays out the story of Arkus-Duntov's life. Born in Belgium and growing up in St. Petersburg as a child of Russian revolutionaries, he lived in a household with two fathers  his biological father, Jacques Arkus, and his stepfather, Josef Duntov. To honor both men, Zora appended Duntov's name to his own years later.

He witnessed Russia's February Revolution; was educated in one of Germany's top technical schools; joined the French air force; escaped from Nazi-occupied France after hiding out for weeks in a Marseille bordello; caught a refugee ship to New York; consulted for top United States defense companies; started his own munitions operation in New York; developed the Ardun overhead valve conversion kit for Ford's flathead V-8; entered his own racecar in the Indianapolis 500 (but did not qualify); won at the 24 Hours of Le Mans; and eventually found his way to G.M.

Along the way, Arkus-Duntov met and married Elfi Wolff, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde who would go on to her own fame as a dancer in the Folies Bergère in Paris, on Broadway and in Miami with the June Taylor Dancers. Photos of Zora and Elfi together are prominently displayed in the exhibition.

Arkus-Duntov is often cited as the father of the Corvette, but that title properly belongs to Harley Earl, the visionary who was the first head of the G.M. design staff. Arkus-Duntov saw a prototype of the Corvette on an auto show turntable in January 1953 at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. Despite its unimpressive engine, suspension and drivetrain, he was taken with the car.

He applied for a job at G.M., lured by the resources available at the world's largest corporation after years of working for poorly financed operations. Arkus-Duntov was hired and started at G.M. in May 1953 with an assignment in Chevrolet's research department under Maurice Olley.

He may have soon thought he had made a deal with the devil. G.M. was in the business of making money, not fine sports cars. His ambitions were often thwarted by the stifling bureaucracy of G.M. He was "punished" for honoring a commitment to drive at Le Mans for Allard just weeks into his new job and was reassigned to work on drivetrains for school buses.

Likewise, his managers may have had misgivings about him. Sparks flew when Arkus-Duntov's entrepreneurial, maverick style ran head-on into the conservative blue-suit bureaucracy.

Yet thanks to the influence of Chevy's chief engineer, Edward N. Cole, the volatile combination brought an energy to G.M. that helped ignite some of its greatest sales successes of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the company's share of the American market hovered around 50 percent.

Arkus-Duntov was assigned a number of minor tasks on the first-generation Corvettes, but it wasn't long before he was envisioning a midengine configuration for the second-generation Corvette.

The Moscow tribute explains Arkus-Duntov's memorable 1955 run up Pikes Peak in a 1956 model Chevy sedan disguised to conceal the annual styling changes, breaking a production car record by more than two minutes. Just months later, Arkus-Duntov broke the 150 m.p.h. mark in a Corvette on the sands of Daytona Beach, using a camshaft design he had developed for his Ardun V-8 conversions.

This led to factory racing efforts at tracks like Sebring in Florida, with production Corvettes and a purpose-built racecar, the Corvette SS, which had its debut and swan song during the same 1957 Sebring race. The SS was the victim of a new G.M. corporate policy that prohibited factory-sponsored racing programs.

Despite the corporate policy, Arkus-Duntov kept the Corvette racing program going by developing high-performance packages  racing suspensions, bigger brakes, oversize gas tanks  for private teams. He also helped by providing whatever backdoor technical support he could, often at the cost of infuriating his superiors.

His policy for production Corvettes was to make them close to racecars, a belief that ran against the grain of more conservative factions at G.M. He developed several bold engineering concept cars, including the CERV I and CERV II (the name was an abbreviation of Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicles) that influenced the engineering direction of future Corvettes.

Arkus-Duntov also helped develop one of the American auto industry's first fuel injection systems. Its debut as an option on the 1957 Chevys gave G.M. bragging rights to an engine that produced one horsepower for every cubic inch of displacement.

The Moscow exhibition contained many photos and models of Arkus-Duntov's most famous production Corvette, the 1963 split-window Sting Ray. The Sting Ray represented a leap in performance from previous Corvettes, with its independent rear suspension and sophisticated chassis.

The third-generation Corvette, introduced in 1968, would represent Arkus-Duntov's last chance to build his midengine road car. But G.M.'s design chief, Bill Mitchell, held sway in his preference for a long-hood, short-deck look. In addition, the Corvette was becoming so successful that Chevrolet was reluctant to change the formula.

Arkus-Duntov would continue the development of midengine concept cars, leading up to the memorable 400-horsepower rotary-engine Aerovette, but he retired in 1975 without bringing a midengine Corvette to production.

Still, in his 22-year career at G.M., he succeeded in something far greater  the immortalization of what might have been just another one-off concept car on the turntable at the G.M. Motorama.

His retirement years brought consulting assignments, including work on the stainless steel DeLorean. But he persisted in submitting midengine Corvette designs to Chevrolet management well past his retirement. Arkus-Duntov died in April 1996 at 86; Elfi, his wife, died in 2008.

Had Arkus-Duntov been able to command more influence at G.M., the Corvette might have been a far more technologically advanced automobile perhaps a midengine, all-wheel-drive machine with a lighter, more sophisticated chassis. But whether it would have sold in the numbers that the Corvette has today  approaching two million units  is another question.

It is worth noting that while Arkus-Duntov is being honored in Moscow, Russians are saying goodbye to Lada, the last of their indigenous automakers. But as thousands of Russians take in Arkus-Duntov's tribute, they can take a certain pride in the fact that they too have a genuine automotive hero, even if his accomplishments were for an American carmaker.

Jerry Burton, the author of "Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Legend Behind Corvette" (Bentley Publishers, 2002) and "Corvette, America's Sports Car"(Rizzoli USA, 2010), is a creative director at the Campbell Ewald advertising agency in Detroit.

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