A Scale Visions Birthday Tribute to Zora Arkus Duntov

Dateline: 12.24.12

Master model builder Don Theune shares his touching encounter with Corvette maestro, Zora Arkus-Duntov 

Don-Theune-1Forward: Zora Arkus-Duntov was born on December 25, 1909 and would have been 103. Zora often joked that he had the birthday curse being born on Christmas Day.

When you are a kid and your birthday is on Christmas you tend to not get double gifts. But Duntov made up for any toy deficiency as a child after he took over the Corvette program. Arguably, no one had more fun playing with Corvettes inside Chevrolet than Duntov.

Not only did he design and develop the go-fast parts we all came to know and love, but he usually did his own track testing. What’a lucky guy! Here’s our Happy Birthday tribute to Zora Arkus-Duntov and a big THANKS to Don Theune.

Don Theune, owner/artist of Scale Visions, experienced a turning point in his career at the 1993 Corvettes at Carlisle Show. Don finally got to meet two of his Corvette heroes, Zora Arkus-Duntov & Larry Shinoda.  Zora was presented with one of Don’s most cherished possessions from his collection, his 1/25 scale 1963 Grand Sport Corvette #004. This was Don’s first model of #004 Grand Sport, and was blessed with the signatures of Zora and Elfi Duntov and Larry Shinoda.

Don-Theune-2Duntov signed the roof of the Grand Sport model and as he was signing it, he noticed the mini copy of the Dave Friedman’s book, “Grand Sport Corvette.” Zora pointed to the rear window and said to his wife, Elfi, ( in his Russian accent) “Elfi, look the book”, she laughed. Shortly after, Don ran into Duntov at the luncheon and asked him, “What would you like me to build for you ?” Zora held up three fingers and said in his deep Russian accent, “Tree Coupes,” then held up two fingers and said, “And two Roadsters.” Keep in mind that in 1993 the 1963 Grand Sport model kits were not yet available, so Don’s cars were created from a total of five stock 1963 AMT Corvette kits. To fulfill Duntov’s request for ”tree coupes… two roadsters” Theune had his work cut out for him!

Don’s Scale Visions business was gaining national attention by the mid-’90s and since the Duntov order for five models didn’t have a hard deadline, it took Theune two years to complete the cars. The Grand Sport Corvettes had not yet been exhaustively researched and cataloged as they are today. At 1995 Corvettes at Carlisle, Don presented Zora with the #001 Penske Roadster. The other 4 units still required a few small finishing touches.

When Zora took delivery of his Grand Sport model at the Corvettes at Carlisle luncheon, he had a sparkle in his eyes and looked like a kid at Christmas. Theune even made a little figurine of Zora in the model’s display case. Don was lucky enough, to have this moment captured on film by Chip Miller. Don explained to Duntov that the remaining four Grand Sports would be done in time for Zora’s birthday, December 25. Don recalls, “I was almost in tears, seeing that ole’ guy so happy.” Theune headed home from that years Corvettes at Carlisle and commenced completing the remaining Grand Sports.

Don-Theune-3Late in November 1995, Don called Elfi Duntov to inform her that the models were done and that he was sending them the next day. In her own unique European accent she said, “You better send them Over Night, we’re leaving for Aruba in two days.” Don put the pedal to the metal and with help from USPS Shipping Center, packaged up a huge box with four Scale Vision Grand Sport Corvettes and LOTS of packing peanuts.

The next day Don called the Duntov’s residence and Elfi answered the phone.

“Hello.”
“Hey there Elfi, this is Don, I wanted to make sure Zora received his birthday present.”
Elfi replied, “Yes…” (she sounded a little irritated, but continued) “I wished you hadn’t sent them today!”
Don asked, ” Why… what’s wrong ?”
“We’re leaving for Aruba tomorrow and there are peanuts all over the house! Zora hasn’t packed, all he’s doing is playing with those damn cars!”
I asked if I could speak with Zora and she yelled “Zora , pick up the phone.”
Zora picked up the phone , “Ya?”
Don asked, “Zora what do you think?”
Zora replied, “Very nice!”
Elfi got back on the phone, “OK Don, gotta go. Zora GO PACK!” Click! End of call.

Theune recalls, “A tear came to my eye. What can I say.”

A few months later , Don received a call from National Corvette Museum’s Dan Gale. “Don, I thought you’d want to hear this from me, before you read it on line, Zora passed today.” Reflecting back, Don says, “I had very mixed emotions about Zora’s passing. I was grateful that I got to know him a little, yet deeply saddened that he was gone.

In June 1996, I attended the Duntov tribute at the National Corvette Museum where I presented Elfi and the museum a Scale Vision piece of history, the Penske #001 Grand Sport Roadster with a mini figurine of Zora. I kept in touch with Elfi for many years after that, giving her surprise call’s on Mothers Day, Valentines Day, etc. Sending gifts of cassette tapes of old German beer drinking songs, and other various classics from her time, as well as VHS tape of archived footage of many interviews, race footage, that included Zora. During one of my many conversations with Elfi, she mentioned how much joy my Grand Sport gift had brought to Zora and that he said it was one of the best gifts he’s received in many years.”

Don-Theune-4In 2008 when Elfi passed, Zora’s biographer Jerry Burton informed Theune that the five car set of Grand Sports that he’d created for Zora as a birthday present had been bestowed to the General Motors Heritage Center, along with other personal effects of the Duntov’s. Theune’s comment, “I am Honored!” Nuff said!

Zora was kind enough to gift to Don a small supply of signed plaques. Don’s promise to Zora was, “Only on the Good Stuff.” A few of the signed plaques accompanied Don’s donations of the #001 to #005 Grand Sports models to the Corvettes at Carlisle Benefit Auction. The remaining Zora-signed plaque’s will accompany a very limited production projects and significant pieces to-be-determined and set to debut at the 2013 Corvettes at Carlisle Show.

The Grand Sport legend continues as Scale Visions is presently accepting private commissions on the 2010-2013 Corvette Grand Sport Coupes and Convertibles. For more information on Scale Visions models, visit www.ScaleVisions.com, or you can connect directly with the master model builder himself, Don Theune, at Scalevisions@aol.com. If you plan to attend the 2013 Corvettes at Carlisle Show, visit Don’s booth in Building T, across the room from the “Chip’s Choice” Corvettes.

Side Bar: Don Theune’s John Mecum Conversation

While diligently researching the Grand Sport, I placed call’s to as many individuals connected with the cars as I could, including, Bill Tower, Delmo Johnson, and John Mecom. The most interesting of all conversations was with John Mecom. John’s secretary returned my call and said, ” Mr. Mecom is on line for you.” I thought yea, sure. This must be a buddy messing with me.

The next thing I hear is an older man’s voice that said, “Hello this is John Mecom.” I said, “Hey there John, thanks for returning my call, I was wondering if you could tell me which of the Nassau Grand Sport cars had the white stripe on the front?” The phone went silent and I hear a stern, ” I’m a very busy man, is that what you called me for? (OOPS!) I swiftly apologized and explained that I thought I was being pranked by a wise guy pal. After smoothing over our bumpy start, John explained that the correct color on all the Nassau cars was a 1960 Cadillac “Pelham Blue ” because Johnson Chevrolet had a left over supply of paint. Another very interesting fact Mecum shared was that initially there were six titles (Pink Slips) written up for what was then called the “1962 Corvette Lightweights.”

Ed – This interesting detail about the “six titles” has been pointed out before and misconstrued to mean that there were SIX Grand Sport Corvettes built. Not the case. When the ‘63 Corvette Sting Ray was close to being complete and ready for production in early ‘62, Duntov was well aware of Shelby’s ultra lightweight Cobras. Wanting to take the Fords head on, Duntov convinced Chevrolet general manager, Bunkie Knudsen to approve a plan to initially build 125 lightweight Corvettes based on the new Sting Ray for FIA homologation to race against the Cobras. The plan also called for as many as 1,000 lightweight Corvettes to be built and sold through Chevrolet dealers.

Although six titles may well have been written, only five cars and various parts were built. Some of those proposed extra parts included a double-overhead-cam and hemi head small-block Chevy engine, along with an all-aluminum small-block. The hemi and DOHC engines were only mocked up for photography, where as the 377 all-aluminum engine was actually built and tested. One of a dozen or so all-aluminum SBCs survives and is on display at the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia.  Initially, the cars were just called “Lightweight Corvettes. It was only shortly before the cars were completed that the “Grand Sport” moniker was applied to the cars. – ST

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