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Who was Zora Arkus-Duntov?
from Idaho Corvette Page 2005

Zora Arkus-Duntov
Image: Corvette Museum

The Corvette was saved by a man of vision: Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Zora was determined to develop the 'Vette into a true world class sports car. A Mid-Engine Corvette  was his dream.

"He looked at the Corvette with the trained eye of a European enthusiast, having thought long and hard about how to
successfully market a sports car."
-Dave McLellan



Zora was born Zachary Arkus in Belgium on Christmas Day, 1909. His father was a Russian born mining engineer, and his mother, also Russian, was a medical student in Brussels. After the family returned to their hometown of Leningrad, Zora's parents divorced. His mother new partner, Josef Duntov, another mining engineer, had move into the household. But even after the divorce, Zora's father continued to live with the family. And out of respect for both men, Zora and brother Yura took on the last name of Arkus-Duntov.

 In 1927, his family moved to Berlin. While his early boyhood ambition was to become a streetcar driver, streetcars later gave way to motorcycles and cars. His firs motorized vehicle was a 350cc motorcycle, which he rode at nearby racetracks as well as through the streets of Berlin. When his parents, fearing for his safety, insisted he trade the cycle in for an automobile, Zora complied…. He bought a racecar. The car was a cycle fendered contraption called a "Bob", form a short-lived manufacturer of the same name. The Bob was set up for oval track racing. It had no front brakes and very little at the rear.

In 1934, Zora graduated form the Institute of Charlottenburg. He also began writing engineering papers in the German motor publication Auto Motor und Sport. Later in Paris, he would meet Elfi Wolff, a German native who danced with the Folies-Begère. In 1939, they married just as Zora and his brother joined the French Air Force. When France surrendered, Zora ingeniously obtained exit visas from the Spanish consulate in Marseilles, not only for Elfi and himself, but for his brother and parents as well. Elfi, who was still living in Paris at the time, made a dramatic dash to Bordeaux in hr MG just ahead of the advancing Nazi troops. In the meantime, Zora and Yura hid inside a bordello. Five days later, Elfi met up with Zora and his family and later they boarded a ship out of Portugal Bound for New York.

Settled in Manhattan, the two brothers set up Ardun (derived from Arkus and Duntov) which supplied parts to the military and also manufactured aluminum heads for the flathead Ford V8 engine. The overhead valve design enabled a dry lake of oval racer to squeeze 300 plus hp out of the Ford V8. Ardun grew into a 300 employee engineering company with a name as revered as Offenhauser, but the company later went out of business after some questionable financial by a partner that Zora and Yura had taken on. Later, Zora left America for England to do development work on the Allard sports car, co-driving it at Le Mans in 1952 and in 1953. He also won class victories at Le Mans in 1954 and 1955 while driving an 1100cc Porsche Spyder.

Zora joined General Motors in 1953 after seeing the Motorama Corvette on display in New York. Perhaps it was just fate that Zora happened to be among the thousands of people who attended the GM event. Zora found the car to be visually superb, but was disappointed with what was underneath. He wrote Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole that it would be his complement to work on such a beautiful car, he also included a technical paper which proposed an analytical method of determining a car's top speed. Chevrolet was so impressed that engineer Maurice Olley invited him to come to Detroit. On May 1, 1953, Zora Arkus-Duntov started at Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer.

Zora Arkus-Duntov (Center) with Dr. Dick Thompson
and Dave McDonald at GM proving grounds for the road test of the new 1963 Corvette Coupe and Convertible

Shortly after going to work for Chevrolet, Zora set the tone for what he was about to accomplish in a memo to his bosses. The document, entitled Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet ", laid the foundation for the strategy that Chevrolet has used since to create one of the most successful performance parts programs in the industry. As well as to become on of the winningest manufacturers ever in the history of motor racing. Soon, Zora became director of high performance at Chevrolet and set about transforming GM's largest division from a conservative company into a youthful, exciting one. In the process, he would change the Corvette from a docile roadster into a full-blown sports car that measured up on and off the racetrack against the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, Maserati, and Mercedes. As was his way, Zora led by example. After helping to introduce the small-block V8 engine to the Corvette in 1955, providing the car with the much needed grunt, he set about showcasing the engine by charging up treacherous Pikes Peak in 1956 in a pre-production prototype Chevy and setting a stock car record. Not satisfied, he took a Corvette to Daytona Beach the same year and hit a record setting 150 MPH over the flying mile. In his spare time, the brilliant and vocal GM driver/engineer also developed the famous Duntov high-lift camshaft and helped bring fuel injection to the Corvette in 1957.

In 1963, Zora launched the Grand Sport program. The original idea captured the interest and imagination of Corvette fans all over the world. The idea was to create a special lightweight Corvette weighing only 1,800 pounds and race it on an international circuit against not only Cobras and other GT-Class cars, but also racing only prototypes from Ferrari, Ford and Porsche. Power for the Grand Sport was to come from an aluminum version of the small block V8, equipped with special twin-plug cylinder heads. At 377ci, output was a projected 550hp at 6,400 RPM. But as it had so often, GM policy prohibited Zora from going racing, but not before five Grand Sports were built. The five Grand Sports eventually fell into the hands of private owners, and Zora somehow found a way to support them in spite of the official ban.

Zora retired in 1975, turning the reins over to Dave McLellan. At 81 years of age, Zora Arkus-Duntov was still passionate and opinionated about his car, the Corvette. It was during the time between Zora's retirement and his death that his legend grew. When ever anything Corvette happened, Zora was there. A member of the Drag Racing Hall of Fame, the Chevrolet Legends of Performance, and the Automotive Hall of Fame, Zora took part in the rollout of the 1 Millionth Corvette at Bowling Green in 1992. He also drove the bulldozer at the ground breaking ceremonies for the National Corvette Museum in 1994. Six week before his death, Zora was guest speaker at "Corvette: A Celebration of an American Dream", an evening held at the showrooms of Jack Cauley Chevrolet Detroit. On had that night were Dave McLellen and the Current Corvette chief engineer Dave Hill, but no one could argue that Zora stole the show.

Arkus-Duntov died in Detroit on April 21, 1996,[9] and his ashes were entombed at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will wrote in his obituary that "if... you do not mourn his passing, you are not a good American."[12]

Despite Duntov's work on the CERV I and CERV II and many mid-engine design studies, the idea of a mid-engine Corvette was not approved by GM management until 2019 with the announcement of the release of the eighth generation C8 Corvette. Rumors circulated that a high-performance version of the C8 could be named the "Zora".On a pre-production camouflaged version, observers noted small stickers that resembled the profile of Zora Arkus-Duntov.

Video Zora's Last Public Interview - SuperFlow 1991

Chevrolet Archives
Corvette Quarterly
John Allard
Corvette Fever
Idaho Corvette Page 2005
Excellent Article from Society of Automotive Engineers: History of Mid-Engine Corvette,
Zora's Envolvement.


From GM Archives:

When Zora Arkus-Duntov arrived at GM in May 1953, he had an agenda: to make the Corvette the performer he knew it could be. Arkus-Duntov first saw the Corvette at the 1953 Motorama in New York City, and it so inspired him that he wrote a letter to Ed Cole, sharing his desire to work on the car. His vision, energy and determination shaped the early years of the Corvette legend, and that spirit continues to drive the destiny of the sport coupe even today.

In 1956, an Arkus-Duntov camshaft, mated to Cole's small-block V8, boosted horsepower from 195 to 240, and Arkus-Duntov set a record behind the wheel of this 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. In 1963, Zora launched the legendary Grand Sport program. The idea was to create a special lightweight Corvette weighing only 1,800 pounds and race it on an international circuit.
By 1968, he'd become chief engineer of Corvette, and helped introduce technology such as disc brakes, independent rear suspension and limited-slip differential. He developed the famous Duntov high-lift camshaft and helped bring fuel injection to the Corvette in 1957. He also pioneered the CERV experimental research vehicles, a moniker still in use today.

Yet his life in America was just a fraction of the Zora story. Born in Belgium on Christmas Day in 1909, he graduated from the Institute of Charlottenburg in 1934, and started writing engineering papers for a German publication. In 1939 he married Elfi Wolff, a German native who danced with the Folies-Begère. They later escaped Europe when France surrendered, with Elfi piloting an MG, Nazi troops in close pursuit, and Zora cloistered in a bordello until the danger subsided. Several days later they set sail for New York. There, Arkus-Duntov and his brother, Yura, started a business that manufactured parts for Ford and the military. Later, he worked on the Allard sports car in England, co-driving it at Le Mans in '52 and in '53, and then winning class victories at Le Mans in 1954 and 1955 in a 1100cc Porsche Spyder.

Arkus-Duntov retired from GM in 1975, but remained intimately connected to the Corvette culture until his death, just months before the 1997 launch of the fifth-generation model. He was a fixture at most of the major Corvette gatherings, shows and events, and was always accessible to the car's many loyal owners.

"The one impression I'll cherish is the warmth," said John Cafaro, chief designer for the fifth-generation Corvette. "Zora was held in such high esteem in Corvette and automotive circles. Yet, he'd sit there for hours and hours signing autographs. He always had time to devote to Corvette lovers."

Passionate, opinionated and brilliant, it's fair to say the Corvette's soul will always belong to Zora.