• Iconic GM designer, engineer & innovator
• Turned the Corvette into America’s sports car
• The force behind Corvette racing success
• Built Corvette SS, Grand Sport, CERV I & II
• As a driver, won class at Le Mans in 1954 & 1955
• Set driving records at Pikes Peak and Daytona Beach
Though technically not the father of the Corvette (the first cars predated his arrival at GM), Duntov is the man who turned Corvette into a force in racing despite continuous opposition from upper management. Because of Duntov, Corvettes raced and won at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, captured countless sports car racing and drag racing national championships and set numerous speed records. He built the Corvette SS and Corvette Grand Sport, and influential CERV I and II racing research vehicles. Trained at the Technical University of Berlin, he was a talented driver, winning his class at Le Mans two years running (1954-55), and set records at Pikes Peak and Daytona. Coming to America in the early ‘40s, he and brother Yura designed and marketed the legendary Ardun OHV heads for Ford flathead engines, still used by racers today. Inducted into almost every Hall of Fame you can imagine, it’s a sign of his enduring legacy that a hypercar version of the C8 Corvette is rumored to be called the Zora.
By Jerry Burton
Father of the Corvette, right?
No, not quite. He was more than that.
While Harley Earl owns paternity rights, Zora was its everlasting champion. His legacy helped propel the Chevy two-seater into the longest continuously produced automotive nameplate in the world today.
How’d he do it? Persistence and audacity were essential. Having encountered so many life-and-death situations during his tumultuous youth in revolutionary Russia, and later, Germany and France during World War II, he knew what it took to survive.
A trained engineer, he sought control by building and driving race cars. His quest for automotive immortality led to flirtations with Mercedes-Benz, Allard and Porsche before he landed at GM in 1953, right after catching his first glimpse of a Corvette.
It wasn’t a smooth marriage. GM was more about the business of volume transportation, not fine sports cars. Surviving the bureaucracy at the largest corporation on earth was daunting but even when he was trying to sell ideas that were 50 years ahead of their time, Zora never admitted defeat.
Like a good race driver — he won his class at Le Mans two years in a row — he anticipated the obstacles ahead. Later in life, he remarked he couldn’t understand how so many were stymied the first time they encountered resistance.
Could anyone else have kept the Corvette alive in those delicate early years when the corporation wanted to kill it?
Rather than being consumed by the frustrations, Zora made it a point to enjoy life and give himself plenty of pressure relief valves. One was the Chris-Craft with twin Chevy big-blocks that he kept on Lake St. Clair near Detroit. Summer weekends were often spent water skiing or playing tennis at the club.
Another was beautiful women, despite being married to one. Elfi Arkus-Duntov was a model, ballerina and professional stage dancer. Despite his wanderings, he never stopped loving Elfi and she never stopped loving him. A good martini or two also helped. Zora liked his up and extra dry. He preferred Tanqueray. Frosted glasses. No olives.
Socially, he could deftly handle a cold martini and a cigarette — unfiltered Camels — in one hand, leaving his other for gesturing or exploring.
Zora always dressed tastefully. At the office, he preferred tailored sport coats over suits and would occasionally wear an ascot if he was headed out for the evening. Elfi contributed to his fashion sense; the two were so eye-catching, that others wanted to go home and change their clothes.
Zora was the father of Corvette racing. The Corvette SS and the Corvette Grand Sports were his projects. Racers like Briggs Cunningham, Dave MacDonald, Dick Guldstrand, Tony DeLorenzo, Jerry Thompson and John Greenwood won races and championships because of the help and guidance he provided.
Racing was one of the reasons he was playing around with mid-engine designs as early as 1957. He kept that idea alive via numerous prototypes, and even decades after his retirement he was still taking mid-engine drawings to Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins.
Zora passed away in 1996. But today his dream has come true — the mid-engine 2023 Corvette Z06. Fittingly, a much-rumored future version will be called “Zora.”
Jerry Burton is the author of Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Legend Behind Corvette, Bentley Publishers, 2002. He got to know Zora and Elfi-Duntov personally during his 20-year tenure as editor and publisher of Corvette Quarterly. Jerry was inducted into the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame in 2014.
President of General Motors Mark Reuss (L) with Tadge Juechter, Executive Chief Engineer-Corvette, who accepted on Zora Arkus-Duntov's behalf