Zora Arkus-Duntov: Father of the Corvette
GM has a problem, one that has plagued the automaker for nearly a century. It’s too big. Its too structured. Entire layers of the company are disconnected from what should be the firm’s only business: building incredible vehicles. This weakness has brought it to the edge of ruin time and again. This is a tragedy, because GM has the potential to be the world’s greatest car manufacturer, if only it were as passionate about autos as its profit margins.
Zora Arkus-Duntov was already familiar with these problems when he joined the company in 1953. A self-made man in every sense, he had already racked up an impressive series of accomplishments by the time he came on board with GM. An auto racer, engineer, and Nazi-fighter, he and his wife barely escaped France ahead of the invading Germans in 1940. He made it to New York, where he enjoyed success during the war selling parts to the military and building chamber heads for Ford trucks. After the war he went back to Europe, where he raced, racking up impressive records at Le Mans in 1952 and 1953. (Zora is seen on the right in the photo below. The man he is talking to is a young Sterling Moss)
He was man of profound genius and boundless energy, but by the early 1950s Arkus-Duntov was a man in need of his life’s defining passion. He found it when he spotted an unusual two-seater car called the Corvette at GM’s Motorama in 1953. From then on, he and the iconic American sports car would be deeply entwined with each other. Arkus-Duntov loved the Corvette’s exterior, but he was disappointed when he looked under the hood. He realized the car needed some steak to go with its impressive sizzle. He came on board with Chevy the same year, making a splash from the first with his abilities and outspoken nature.
In 1955 he gave the Corvette some serious horses when he wed it to a new small block V8. He proved the new engine’s capabilities setting a new stock record for ascending Pike’s Peak in 1955, then outdid himself later the year by taking the ‘vette to 150 mph at Daytona Beach.
During his career at GM, Arkus-Duntov’s overriding goal was to transform the Corvette into a serious mid-engined racer that could stand up to Europe’s great racing vehicles. He was stymied in this effort, however, by the company’s entrenched bureaucracy and its devotion to mediocrity. His individualistic passion nearly derailed his career numerous times, such as in 1963, when his Grand Sport program was chopped off at the knee before it could really get rolling. The effort did produce five Grand Sport Corvettes, which are currently in the hands of some fortunate private owners.
Arkus-Duntov retired in 1975. During his time with the world’s largest automaker he racked up an impressive series of accomplishments, despite constant efforts by the company to rein him in. He remained active in all things Corvette until his death in 1996. In fact, the National Corvette Restorers Society has named its award for restoration excellence after him.
Today the car he loved is one of the most innovative and best-built performance vehicles on earth, thanks to his passion, ability, and willingness to swim against the stream. If only GM would learn from his example, the company might finally live up to its enormous potential. Whether that will ever happen or not remains to be seen.