Known as the “Godfather of Corvette”, Zora Arkus-Duntov is arguably one of the most famous people in Chevrolet history. Responsible for taking the Corvette from its stylish but under-powered beginnings to the racing legend that it is today, Duntov is featured on just about every Chevrolet website and in every automotive history book you can find. But what was Duntov’s life like, prior to becoming involved with Chevrolet and the Corvette in 1953? That’s exactly what we set out to find out!
He was born Zachary Arkus on December 25th, 1909 in Belgium. When Duntov’s mom remarried when he was a young teenager, Duntov decided to take on his step-father’s last name as well, creating Duntov’s now famous hyphenated last name.
When Duntov was 17, he moved with his mom and step-dad to Berlin, where he got a job as a streetcar driver. Influenced by the growing automotive industry, Duntov developed a fondness for driving fast, whether it was in cars or on motorcycles. Due to concern from his mother about his safety, riding and racing motorcycles didn’t last long, and he moved on to seemingly “safer” exhibitions behind the wheel of his first car – known as a “Bob.” This three-wheeled race car was powered by a 1,500cc Siemens and Halske engine, lacked front brakes, and relied on sub-par rear brakes, according to the GM Heritage Center.
Duntov went on to college after high school, studying at Berlin’s Charlottenberg Technical University. In 1934, Duntov graduated from the university with a degree in mechanical engineering, which quickly lead to his publishing of various automotive-related papers, including subjects like the benefits of power steering and four-wheel-drive in racing.
After marrying famous dancer Elfi Wolff in 1939, the onset of World War II prompted Duntov and his brother, to join the French Air Force. Though this was a short-lived piece in Duntov’s history, since France surrendered shortly after the brothers joined, it helped to fuel Duntov’s love for speed and mechanics that much more. After France’s surrender, the brothers and Duntov’s wife fled Europe, ultimately settling in New York City. It was here that Duntov and his brother founded Ardun Mechanical.
During the early ’40s, Ardun Mechanical produced military weapons, equipment, and supplied ammunition for the war efforts. Once WWII was over, the brothers switched their focus from munitions to mechanical innovations for automobiles.
With the help of George Kudasch, the Ardun cylinder head was produced, making history as the cylinder head that converted the Ford Flathead V8 into an overhead valve configuration, which increased the reliable power output from the engine for countless hot rodders and racers.
In 1950, Duntov joined forces with Sydney Allard, in developing the Allard J2 racecar. By 1952, the racecar was complete, and the two men competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans behind the wheel of their creation. Gaining attention for not only his mechanical abilities but also his driving skills, Duntov was recruited to race in the 1954 and 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans as well, only this time behind the wheel of the 1,100cc Porsche 550 RS Spyder.
While Duntov’s racing career was developing, so was the next big thing from Chevrolet – the brand new Corvette. When Duntov saw this new marvel at the 1953 New York Motorama, he was instantly smitten with the car, prompting him to write a letter to then Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole, complimenting him on the creation of the Corvette, and even giving him some suggestions on what could be improved upon for future models, mainly the under-powered Blue Flame six engine under the hood.
Impressed by his letter and suggestions, Chevrolet reached out to Duntov and offered him a position on the Corvette project. Mechanically talented and racing-versed, Duntov was the light of Chevy’s eye, and by 1955, due to Duntov’s promptings and work, the Corvette, now equipped with a Chevy V8, was finding fame in the stock car circuit. He even drove a pre-production 1956 Corvette model to a Stock Class victory at the 1955 Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
In 1956, Duntov continued his testing and development of the Chevy V8, taking V8-equipped Corvettes to Sebring and even Daytona, where he set the Flying Mile record at over 150 mph. Towards the end of 1956, Duntov was named the engineering coordinator for Corvette. From there, Duntov became instrumental in the development of the Rochester Products fuel injection system, the SR-1 and SR-2 Corvettes, the magnesium-bodied Corvette SS, and Chevrolet’s image as a performance car manufacturer. It is these accomplishments, as well as countless others, such as the development of the 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, the Cerv I and II cars, and Corvette’s numerous powerhouses, that ultimately lead to Duntov being named Chief Engineer of the Corvette Program in 1968 and forever identifying him as the “Godfather of Corvette.”