In 1953, what was to become one of the world’s most respected sports cars was revealed, the Chevrolet Corvette. Aided by the legendary Zora Arkus-Duntov, General Motors was able to improve performance and design to develop the Corvette into a racing machine. With Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team leading the Corvette project, the Super Sport and the Grand Sport laid the foundation for future generations of Corvettes.
Background Photo: Corvette Grand Sport at the Bahamas Speed Week, 1964.
The Origin of the Corvette
After World War II, there was a growing awareness of British and European sports cars as returning military personnel and entrepreneurs began to import them to the United States. These sports cars not only served the need for basic transportation, but also satisfied the excitement of the open road. During this time, sports car racing continued to grow in popularity, and a variety of races around the world were arranged where sports cars would pit themselves against each other in a fight for glory.
In 1953, General Motors decided to enter the sports car market. Harley Earl, General Motor’s first Vice President of Design, led the project which would create a sports car that would appeal to American drivers. Earl intended the car to debut at the Motorama Traveling Dream Car Road Show in 1953, and with the support of General Motors it was decided that the car would be a Chevrolet. Chevrolet’s Chief Engineer, Ed Cole approved the name “Corvette” for the show car, named after a small and fast naval vessel.
During its appearance at the Motorama Traveling Dream Car Road Show in 1953, the Corvette was a sensation. Among the many who saw the car was none other than Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov wrote a letter to General Motors’ Ed Cole to compliment Cole on the car and to make a few suggestions. To Duntov, while the car was visually superb, it was a disappointment underneath with an under-powered Blue Flame six-cylinder engine. Duntov also included a technical paper outlining a method to determine a car’s top speed. Duntov’s letter so impressed Ed Cole that he invited Duntov to Detroit for an interview. In May 1953, Duntov joined Chevrolet Research and Development as an Assistant Staff Engineer and later became Chief Engineer.
Background Photo: Bahamas Speed Week, 1964.
Who Was Zora Arkus-Duntov?
Known as the “godfather” of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov was a brilliant engineer and daring racing driver. He was the first to have the title of Chief Engineer for the Corvette program at General Motors and was responsible for transforming the Corvette from an attractive roadster to the powerful American sports car it has become.
Zora was born Zachary Arkus on December 25, 1909, to parents of Russian-Jewish descent. His father, Yakov “Jacques” Arkus, was a slight, quiet, and introspective engineer. His mother, Rachel Kogan, was a bright and outspoken member of the Russian intelligetsia, who firmly believed in equality of the sexes.
For most of Zora’s childhood, the family lived near central Petrograd, Russia. Like many other university-educated people of the time, both Jacques and Rachel were dedicated to social change in Russia and attended many political meetings and demonstrations. This zeal resulted in their perceived absence in Zora’s life, causing Zora to feel that his parents were constantly preoccupied. To regain his parents' attention and interest, Zora would misbehave and soon became a risk taker. He was street-wise, prone to fighting, and a daredevil.
With the birth of his brother Yura in 1917, Zora naturally took on the role of protector. His love for and friendship with his brother was very strong, and he considered his brother his true family. His protectiveness extended not only to his brother, but to others as well, particularly as the Russian Revolution impacted Zora’s life. After finding and restoring a Smith & Wesson 45-caliber revolver, Zora would carry the weapon with him at all times. He would guard his school’s cabbage patch against thieves and helped a friend’s mother keep her place selling candies at a public market by pulling the gun on a man who objected to her sales.
While Zora had a tumultuous relationship with his mother, he was still loyal and extremely protective towards her. In the summer of 1920, she became extremely ill with a kidney disorder. To help his mother, Zora ran several miles to find the family doctor. He snuck past a security guard and made his way to the doctor’s home. The doctor, without opening his door, shouted “Well, your mother will die. No use for me to come.” Zora drew his 45-caliber revolver, shot his way through the door, and, at gun point, forced the frail doctor to his mother’s aid. Zora’s mother survived, but the weakened doctor died a short time later. Zora acknowledged he had pushed the doctor too hard, but with his mother’s life at stake he had no remorse.
When he was a teenager, Zora’s mother divorced Jacques and was remarried to Josef Duntov, an electrical engineer. Josef became extremely influential in Zora’s life, so much so, that Zora added his step-father’s name to his own. Growing up, Zora would see Josef become director of five different hydroelectric plants in Russia, spurring his drive for accomplishment.
After the family moved to Berlin in 1927, Zora discovered his passion for fast-moving vehicles. He had a job as a streetcar driver and for fun raced motorcycles. His mother, concerned for his safety, requested he find a safer alternative: an automobile.
After graduating from Berlin’s Charlottenburg Technical University in 1934 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Zora began writing and publishing papers, including one on the benefits of four-wheel drive and steering for racing. Soon after, he met Elfi Wolff who was a dancer in the Folies Bergère music hall in Paris. They married in 1939 remaining together for over 55 years.
During World War II, Zora and his family were able to flee Europe and make their way to the United States. In 1950, Zora joined Sydney Allard to assist in the development on the Allard J2 racecar. The Allard J2 competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1952 and 1953. Not just content to be an engineer, Zora also piloted at Le Mans scoring two class victories for Porsche.
At the Motorama Traveling Dream Car Road Show in 1953, Zora’s connection with Corvette was established. Throughout his career, he held various positions at Chevrolet and grew ever more deeply involved in the development of the Corvette. In fact, the Corvette not only became his project, but his life.
After his many successes with General Motors, in 1968, Zora was named Chief Engineer of the Corvette program. As Chief Engineer, he was responsible for the design and development of the Corvette body and chassis. He was now able to look ahead to the future and push his engineering ideas further, thereby enabling the Corvette to stand the test of time.
Background Photo: Stirling Moss and Zora Arkus-Duntov at the 12 Hours of Sebring, 1957.
Corvette Super Sport
With the reveal of the Corvette in 1953, the question of racing would eventually arise. In 1956, General Motors decided to move forward and begin design on a new model of Corvette that would be able to compete at Sebring in 1957. With the 1953 design in mind, Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team created the unique XP-64. This experimental prototype would come to be known as the Corvette Super Sport.
Duntov and his team worked around the clock to engineer a car that could compete with the world’s fastest sports cars at the time such as Jaguar, Maserati, and Ferrari. They were able to create the Super Sport which was powered by a fuel-injected V8 engine, innovative technology in 1957, that produced 310 horsepower at 6,400 rpm. The entire car, with its magnesium body and tubular steel space frame, weighed in at only 1,850 pounds. Due to time constraints, there was no time to develop and construct disc brakes, so the Super Sport had to use conventional drum brakes.
General Motors brought three Corvettes to the 12 Hours of Sebring race in 1957: a production model, the Super Sport prototype, and a test ‘mule.’ John Fitch and Piero Taruffi were the nominated drivers for the official race, while Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio were to pilot the ‘mule’ in practice. During his first time driving the ‘mule,’ Fangio broke the previous year’s record for fastest lap at 3:27.2 minutes. Moss also tested the ‘mule’ with success, leading General Motors to believe that the Super Sport would be just as victorious during the official race.
Piloted by John Fitch at the official 12 Hours of Sebring race in 1957, the Super Sport only completed 23 laps due to issues with the brakes and rear suspension damage. The Super Sport would never race again, but the ‘mule’ would later be developed and rebuilt into the Bill Mitchell Corvette Stingray. The Bill Mitchell Stingray then, reportedly, became the inspiration for the 1963 Corvette.
Background Photo: John Fitch, Zora Arkus-Duntov, and Elfi Wolff with the Corvette Super Sport, undated.
Corvette Grand Sport
In June of 1957, several months after the Corvette Super Sport raced in the 12 Hours of Sebring, growing safety concerns led the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association (AMA) to ban car manufacturer sponsored racing. This ban affected the production and support for racing at Chevrolet. Even with the AMA ban on racing, there were still those at Chevrolet who defied the ban and helped privateers with their racing endeavors.
In secret, as General Motors was adhering to the racing ban, Zora Arkus-Duntov and Bunkie Knudsen, general manager at Chevrolet, decided to create a Corvette that could claim victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1963. Duntov, Knudsen, and other engineers used the stock Corvette Stingray as inspiration and modified it, building an all-out racing car, the Grand Sport, that was designed to directly counter Carroll Shelby’s new Cobra. It featured an aluminum block 377 cubic inch V8 engine that developed 485 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Weighing in at only 2,150 pounds, the car was 1,000 pounds less than the production Stingray.
In order to race at Le Mans, Chevrolet had to adhere to Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) rules stating that 100 cars had to be built to approved specifications in one year. Chevrolet’s plan was to build at least 125 of the ultra-light, high-powered cars to satisfy these requirements, so they could race in the Grand Touring production class. After only five Grand Sports were built, General Motors executives increased the enforcement of the AMA racing ban, seemingly putting an end to Duntov’s project.
The Grand Sports slipped into the hands of private owners and racers, one of which is chassis number 004, now part of the Collier Collection. At the December 1963 Nassau Speed Week, the Grand Sports were able to compete directly with the Cobras. Two of the cars, including chassis number 004, were entered by “owner” John Mecom and, conveniently, several Chevrolet engineers chose this week to vacation in Nassau.
Driven during the week by Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Dick Thompson, John Cannon, and Augie Pabst, the Corvette Grand Sports demolished their Cobra rivals. “The Chevrolet equipment won so easily, there was even some embarrassment on the part of the factory personnel, who had hoped the journey south would escape unnoticed. But at the same time, they were smirking,” wrote Leo Levine, a noted automotive historian.
Background Photo: Two Corvette Grand Sport at Bahamas Speed Week, 1963.
As one of the most famous men in the American auto industry, Zora Arkus-Duntov expertly engineered and smartly designed the machines that represent the “ultimate form of freedom and mobility,” as stated by Jerry Burton, author of Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette. Duntov’s legacy can easily be seen in the millions of Corvettes on the roads today, with their premier performance and classic aesthetic. With the creation of the Super Sport and Grand Sport, Duntov launched Corvette into the racing sphere, proving that auto racing supports and promotes innovation, ingenuity, and, quite possibly, imagination.
Background Photo: Bahamas Speed Week, 1964.