Zora Arkus-Duntov was a brilliant engineer, a daring racecar driver, and the “godfather” of the Corvette. He was the first man to hold the title of chief engineer for the Corvette program and was responsible for transforming that car from merely an attractive-looking roadster to the powerful American sports car it has become.
Zora was born Zachary Arkus on Christmas Day, 1909 in Belgium to parents of Russian-Jewish descent. His mother remarried when he was a teenager and Zora added her new husband’s last name to his own.
In 1927, the family moved to Berlin where young Zora developed an affinity for driving fast-moving vehicles. During this time, he had a job as a streetcar driver and began tinkering with motorcycles. At the request of his mother who was concerned for his safety, he stopped riding and racing his motorcycle through the streets of Berlin. She suggested that he opt for a safer alternative: an automobile. Ironically, Zora’s first car, a Bob, had no front and weak rear brakes.
Zora graduated from Berlin’s Charlottenburg Technical University in 1934 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He soon began writing and publishing papers including one on the benefits of four-wheel drive and steering for racing, a concept that he would champion throughout his career.
After graduation, he met Elfi Wolff, a dancer with the famous Folies-Bergere dance hall in Paris. The two married in 1939 and remained together for more than 55 years.
At the outset of World War II, Zora and his brother Yura joined the French Air Force as pilots. But soon after, France surrendered and the brothers made plans to flee Europe with their family. At one point, Zora and Yura hid out from the Nazis in a bordello. The family obtained visas and was able to make its way to America by way of Portugal.
Settling in New York City, Zora and his brother set up the firm of Ardun Mechanical. Originally, the enterprise built munitions for the war effort but it became famous for developing the Ardun head, an aluminum overhead-valve cylinder head that was used by hot-rodders to increase the power of a Flathead Ford V8 engine to 300 horsepower.
In 1950, Zora joined Sydney Allard in Great Britain to do developmental work on the Allard J2 racecar. Zora and Allard competed with this car at the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1952 and 1953. Zora also competed in the 1954 and 1955 races at LeMans, cruising to victory in his engine class driving a 1100cc Porsche 550 RS Spyder.
Zora returned to the United States in 1950 and was working for Fairchild Aviation when he attended the 1953 Motorama at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The star of the show that year was the Corvette. Zora was so struck by the beauty of this little car that he wrote a letter to Chevrolet chief engineer Ed Cole to compliment him on a job well done and to make a few suggestions as to how the future production model could be improved. While Zora was taken by the appearance of the roadster, he was somewhat disappointed by what he saw under the hood: the under-powered Blue Flame six-cylinder engine. Cole and his second-in-command Maurice Olley were so impressed with the letter that they extended an employment opportunity to Zora.
He began his career at Chevrolet on May 1, 1953 as an assistant staff engineer. Zora worked on many projects during his early days at Chevrolet but always had his eye on the Corvette and racing. On December 16, 1953, he wrote a memo to Ed Cole with the subject line of “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet” in which he touted the importance of advancing the development of the V8 engine and promoting Chevrolet to the ever-growing youth market.
Chevrolet management took his ideas seriously and by 1955, Chevy V8s had found themselves into the Corvette and into the winner’s circle on the stock car circuit. By pushing for increased performance and the installation of the V8 in the Corvette, Zora is credited with saving that model from an early demise as sales of the first generation of Corvettes (1953-1955) were quite poor. Another memo to Cole and Maurice Olley stated his case.
He believed that in order to establish the Corvette as a premiere sports car, Chevrolet had to race it. In 1956, Zora took Corvettes to Daytona and Sebring. He set the flying mile record at Daytona by cruising past 150 mph in a modified V8-powered ‘Vette. Later that year, he was named Corvette engineering coordinator.
Corvette engines began to grow in horsepower as the V8 evolved. The 1956 model had three engine options: a 265 cid V8 with 210 horsepower; a dual 4-barrel 265 cid V8 with 225 horsepower; and a special 265 cid V8 engine sporting the famous "Duntov” high-lift camshaft that increased horsepower to 240.
The 1957 Corvette received the 283 cid V8 with optional fuel injection. Zora was instrumental in the promotion and development of the Rochester Products fuel injection system that was designed and built by fellow engineer John Dolza. With the fuel injection option, the Corvette had an output of 283 horsepower, or one horsepower per cubic inch of displacement. It was the first production-based passenger vehicle in the world to achieve this feat.
Despite the AMA (Automobile Manufacturers of America)racing ban agreed to by General Motors, Zora always found a way to promote Chevrolet through racing and performance exhibitions. In 1960, he engineered and built the CERV I (Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle), a single-seat, open-wheeled Indy-style racecar that was unveiled to the public at Riverside International Raceway in November 1960. This event drew much fanfare and exhibitions such as this one became valuable promotional tools for Chevrolet.
The Corvette was completely restyled for the 1963 model year. Again, the car’s performance was improved and with the introduction of the famed Z06 special performance equipment package, Zora stated that Chevrolet had finally built a Corvette that he would be proud to drive alongside the grand sports cars of Europe. The Z06 package consisted of a 327 cid, 360 horsepower fuel injected V8 with 4 speed manual transmission, a posi-traction rear-end, a whopping 36-gallon fuel tank, heavy duty shocks and springs, and power brakes with finned drums. To compete with the Carroll Chelby-built Cobras on the GT-class circuit, Zora took the ’63 Corvette a step further with the introduction of the Grand Sport. The Corvette Grand Sport was a lightweight version of the 1963 model featuring an aluminum block 377 cid V8 engine that developed more than 550 horsepower. Unfortunately, production of the Grand Sport was halted at five as GM’s management increased their enforcement the AMA racing ban. The Grand Sports were sold off but Zora again found a way to support his babies in competition through private owners despite GM policy.
After the Grand Sport program was shut down, Zora began work on the CERV II. This four-wheel drive racecar was built on a monocoque chassis and was powered by an aluminum 377 cid single overhead-cam V8 with a Hilborn injection system. The engine put out 500 horsepower and was clocked at more 200 miles per hour.
Zora continued to push for bigger and more powerful engines for the Corvette. This push led to the L88 engine packages in 1967-1969, the aluminum block ZL-1 in 1969, and the ZR-1s of the early 1970s.
On December 1, 1968, Zora was named chief engineer of the Corvette program, a job he had been lobbying for as far back as 1955. In this role, he had responsibility for the design and development of the Corvette body and chassis. As such, he began looking to the future of the Corvette line. A couple of years earlier, he had begun tinkering with the idea of a mid-engined Corvette as the replacement for the current year’s model. He believed that the only way to progress and compete with new performance makes such as the Ford GT was by building a mid-engine Corvette.Bill Mitchell to develop the Astro II as a possible future mid-ship ‘Vette. His next experiment was the XP-882 Corvette prototype that debuted at the New York Auto Show in 1970. A couple of years later, Zora installed a Wankel Rotary engine into the XP-987 GT at the behest of Ed Cole, then GM president, and the Two-Rotor Corvette was born as another step along the path to a mid-engined Corvette.
In 1973, one of the extra XP-882 chassis was used for the 4-Rotor Corvette. The 4-Rotor Corvette was powered by two two-rotor Wankel engines that were mounted just in front of the rear axle. When GM finally deemed the rotary engine to cost-prohibitive to produce, this engine was removed from the car and a transverse-mounted V8 was installed. It was renamed the Aerovette in 1976 and saw some duty on the auto show circuit in the late 1970s. During that period, many car magazines speculated that the mid-engined Corvettes GM was exhibiting at auto shows were a preview of the redesigned 1980 Corvette. The fact that this never came to pass greatly disappointed Zora.
In 1975, Zora retired from General Motors. After his retirement, Zora continued to promote the Corvette by appearing at car shows and other speaking engagements. In 1992, he attended the celebration of the one-millionth Corvette at the Bowling Green Assembly Plant to great fanfare.
Zora Arkus-Duntov died quietly on April 21, 1996 in a hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. His engineering achievements were great and his passing was mourned by many in the enthusiast community. With the development of a new generation of powerful Corvettes such as the 2009 ZR1, Chevrolet has found a way to appropriately honor Zora’s legacy.