Duntov carried the heart and soul of the Corvette into racing and created an American legend.
(Dateline: 7-3-20 – This story was originally published in the now-defunct Vette magazine, June 2019 issue) Arguably, there had never been a chief engineer of an American car the likes of Zora Arkus-Duntov. When Duntov was hired to work at Chevrolet on May 1, 1953, the 43-year old European-trained engineer brought a background that made him uniquely qualified to become Corvette’s first chief engineer.
As a young man, Duntov was into boxing, motorcycles, fast cars, and pretty girls. After his formal engineering training in Berlin, Germany, Duntov started racing cars and applying his engineering skills to racecar construction. In 1935 Duntov built his first racecar with help from his racing partner Asia Orley; they called the car, “Arkus”. Their goal was to debut the car at the Grand Prix de Picardie in June 1935. But after a series of mishaps, the car caught fire and never raced. From this point forward, all Duntov wanted to do was build racecars.
In the 1930s Auto Union and Mercedes built the best racecars in Europe. Duntov wrote a technical paper about a new racing concept for the German Society of Engineers titled “Analysis of Four-Wheel Drive for Racing Cars”. at the 1937 Automobile Salon in Paris, Duntov met Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the Mercedes-Benz SS and SSK racers, and French performance-car builder and designer, Ettore Bugatti. Mercedes-Benz cars were complex engineering marvels, but Duntov appreciated Bugatti’s elegant simplicity, raw speed, and the success of his cars with privateers. “Simplicity and privateers” are two hints of things Duntov would later do with Corvettes.
After marrying Elfi Wolff in 1939, war broke out in Europe, and Duntov and his brother Yura had a brief stint in the French air force. France fell quickly and Duntov and his family made their way to New York. The brothers setup the Ardun Mechanical Corporation and worked through the war years as parts suppliers for the U.S. military. After the war Duntov and Yura turned their attention back to racecars and started producing their Ardun Hemi Head Conversion kits for flathead Fords.
Post-war years were difficult and by the early ‘50s Duntov was looking for an engineering job with a major Detroit car company. His goal was to find a company that would let him build racecars. When Duntov saw the first Corvette at the 1953 Motorama, he immediately pursued GM, specifically to work on the new Corvette. Chevrolet general manager Ed Cole hired Duntov and assigned him to work under GM suspension master, Maurice Olley; the clash was immediate. Olley was reserved and a numbers-cruncher; Duntov was outgoing and designed by intuition. Six weeks after being hired, Duntov requested time-off to race a Cadillac-powered Allard JR at The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Olley refused, but Cole got him off the hook to race at Le Mans, but without pay. Duntov was so irritated that he almost didn’t come back from France.After his return, Duntov reassigned and started testing special parts to improve the Corvette’s suspension and general performance.
When the 265 small-block became available in 1955, Duntov took a modified ’54 Corvette with the new engine and some aero mods to the GM Phoenix Arizona test track where he was clocked at 162-mph. The mule Corvette was later rebodied as a ’56 Corvette and was part of a team of three Corvettes that were taken to the 1956 Speed Weeks event at Daytona Beach where Corvettes set speed records. Then in March at the 1956 12 Hours of Sebring race, Corvette scored its first major class win. Duntov and three-time Indy 500 winner and engineer Mauri Rose were then tasked by Ed Cole to design, develop, and make available, special Chevrolet-engineered racing parts. When the Rochester Fuel Injection option was released in 1957, RPO 684 Heavy-Duty Racing Suspension was there for privateers that wanted to race their Corvette.
The Bugatti pattern was laid down; make simple, fast cars, and let the privateers do the racing. Duntov also built a few purpose-built Corvette racecars. The 1957 Corvette SS was a good first step but the timing was bad because of the 1957 AMA Racing Ban. The Grand Sport was similar to the RPO Racer Kit program, only a complete, basic racing Corvette was to be sold to privateers. Again, the AMA Racing Ban killed the project. If Duntov hadn’t pushed racing, the Corvette would have morphed into a Thunderbird-like four-seater and been killed by the early ‘60s.
Duntov laid out three design concepts that took decades to implement. The first was his proposal for the 1957 Q-Corvette. This design called for the following: an all-aluminum, fuel-injected small-block engine, four-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and a transaxle. This design concept arrived in 1997 as the C5.
The second design concept was the mid-engine layout. Duntov’s first mid-engine concept was the 1960 CERV-I. The design parameters were those of an Indy 500 racecar, but with a larger engine. Duntov’s second mid-engine car was the 1964 CERV-II. The third concept in the CERV-II was its unique four-wheel-drive system. Using transaxle parts from the Pontiac Tempest, the system “worked” but would not have lasted as a racecar.
Through the ‘60s several other mid-engine “Corvette” cars were built, but not by Duntov. Engineer Frank Winchell’s 1968 Astro-II Corvette was a beautiful attempt, but like all mid-engine Corvette proposals, it went nowhere. In 1970 Duntov showed his XP-882 with a transverse-mounted 454 engine. After the car was shown at the 1970 New York Auto Show, it went into hiding for some reason. Later, the chassis was used to build the Four-Rotor mid-engine Corvette that was later retrofitted with a small-block engine and rebranded “Astrovette” in 1976, after Duntov retired.
Just after the debut of the C7, the Corvette community started buzzing about the mid-engine C8. For a time the C8 was an unconfirmed rumor until Chevrolet announced that, yes, a mid-engine Corvette was in the works. In 2018 camouflaged mule cars started being seen on public roads. In July 2018 a camouflaged C8.R was seen being tested. Towards the end of 2018 speculation was that the C8 would debut at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show. Then in December 2018, Chevrolet announced that the C8 would be delayed “at least six months” due to “serious electrical problems.”
An insider friend has been telling me for over a year that they were having serious problems getting the car right, but he wasn’t specific. Then another hint was dropped; the problem is with the car’s 48-volt electrical system. Why would the C8 have a 48-volt system? Answer; because it will have auxiliary electrical front-wheel drive. Suspension and traction is everything, so AWD is inevitable.
While Duntov didn’t “predict” the Corvette’s future, he certainly set the course. His insistence that Corvette be tied to racing, kept the car from becoming Chevy’s Thunderbird. The features of the 1957 Q-Corvette are the very design foundation of the C5, C6, and C7 Corvette. The CERV I, CERV II, and the XP-882 (minus the transverse engine) will live in the mid-engine C8. And it is likely that the CERV II’s all-wheel-drive concept will live in the C8, only as an electrical, and not a mechanical system. Without one man’s obsession with building racecars, there’d be no Corvette legend. – Scott
Be sure to check out the Duntov installment of my “Founding Fathers, Pt. 4 Zora Arkus-Duntov”, HERE.
Also, catch all 5 parts of my Corvette Chiefs Series
Dateline: 7.31.19 – As seen in the January 2019 issue of Vette magazine, Illustrations by K. Scott Teeters – When the 1963 Sting Ray made its public debut in September 1962, it was a total, “WOW!” And it wasn’t just the Corvette’s stunning new looks; it was the all-new chassis and suspension. By late 1959 Zora Arkus-Duntov was in charge of Corvette engineering. When Bill Mitchell’s design team started work on project XP-720 (the all-new Sting Ray), Duntov was called in to set the parameters for an all-new chassis. The completed Sting Ray looked like the sportscar from another planet and the chassis had everything except four-wheel disc brakes. Today the running chassis looks like a buggy compared to the stout aluminum, steel, and magnesium chassis’ of the C5, C6, and C7 Corvettes. But in 1963 the top-performing L84 Fuelie engine only had 360 “gross” horsepower and 352-LB/FT of torque putting power-to-the-ground with 6.70×15 bias-ply tires. That’s not much twisting on the chassis, so the chassis was more than adequate.
Even when the high-torque big-blocks arrived in 1965, for street use, the Duntov chassis could handle the job. The design didn’t start to show its limitations until the 1968 L88 racing Corvettes with wide tires started competing in long endurance races. Tony DeLorenzo once commented that after long 12 or 24-hour races, their Corvettes needed new frames. Their solution to this problem was a Logghe Brothers full welded-in roll cage. Greenwood’s wide-body Corvettes were so reinforced many asked, “Is there still a Corvette in there?” But for street use and spirited driving, the Duntov chassis served the Corvette well until 1982. Lets look at the chassis’ basics to see why it lasted so long
The genius of Duntov’s chassis was how much lower the center of gravity was. Chevrolet engineer Maurice Olley was a production car chassis and suspension expert when he designed the C1 chassis. As a racing expert, Duntov knew he had to get the center of gravity much lower. The C1’s chassis had a parameter frame with x-bracing in the center for rigidity. The car’s occupants sat on top of the frame. Everything measured from there; the cowl height, engine height, and everything else.
Duntov’s design eliminated the x-brace so that the occupants could be placed down inside the frame, dramatically lowering every data point from there. For rigidity the new frame had five crossmembers. Duntov then mounted the engine and transmission as low and as far back as possible and routed the exhaust pipes through holes in the second frame crossmember. The passenger compartment was pushed back as far as possible and the spare tire was mounted below the back of the frame and under the fuel tank.
The lowering of the engine/transmission and passenger compartment lowered the center-of-gravity from 19.8-inches to 16.5-inches. Moving major components as far back as possible in the shorter 98-inch wheelbase created a front/rear weight distribution of 47/53-percent. The engine centerline was offset 1-inch towards the passenger side because passenger footwell requirements were less than the driver’s. The extra offset reduced the transmission tunnel width and allowed the crankshaft and rear axle pinion to be on the same centerline. Ground clearance was just five-inches.
The build of the frame used boxed longitudinal sides with five crossmembers that were designed to suit the needs of styling. The new frame actually received computer analysis to determine the thickness needed for the parameters of the overall car. The front crossmember was welded to the sides and not bolted-on like the C1 chassis. The new frame with mounting brackets weighed 260-pounds, the same as the C1’s frame, but torsion rigidity increased from 1,587 lb/ft to 2,374 lb/ft per degree.
The C2/C3 suspension was a parts-bin marvel, although it didn’t seem that way. Duntov wanted an independent rear suspension and was immediately told, “No! It’s too expensive.” To get around this, Duntov used almost 60 full-size passenger car front suspension parts, including pressed-steel wishbones and ball-jointed spindles, and just rearranged them. The parts had already been engineered and proven, thus saving production cost. With a 9-degree slope, the wishbones gave an anti-dive reaction upon heavy braking. Then the inner pivot points were lowered to raise the roll-center to 3.25-inches above the ground. A recirculating-ball steering unit was placed behind the suspension and used a hydraulic damper to reduce kickback. All of these changes were very apparent when combined with the right shocks and anti-roll bars when the cars were first driven and tested. The money saved was more than what went into the rear suspension.
The independent rear suspension started with the differential pumpkin bolted to the 4th crossmember with the driveshaft as a device to control forward thrust from the wheels. Axle half-shafts with universal joints are on each side of the differential. Steel box-section control-arms carry the outer half-shafts and attach to the rear frame kickup assembly. Shims at the forward pivot-points are used to adjust toe-in alignment. Strut rods attach to the strut-rod bracket bolted below the differential and connect to the rear spindle support on the control-arms. The nine-leaf transverse spring with polyethylene liners between each leaf to reduce noise, mounts under the differential and is sprung against the rear portion of the control arm with long bolts. Duntov’s proposal to use a transverse leaf spring was not well received by Chevrolet chief engineer, Harry Barr, but no one could come up with a better plan.
For its time, Duntov’s chassis worked very well, but I’m sure that no one imagined it would be used for 20 years. The design proved to be easy to update. Disc brakes were in development when the Sting Ray came out and arrived on the 1965 model. When the new Mark IV became available in 1965 the suspension got stiffer front springs and larger diameter front and rear stabilizer bars. The new chassis was totally adaptable and could be made near-battle-ready with suspension component changes. During the 20-years of Duntov’s chassis, Racer Kits included; the 1963 Z06, 1967-1969 L88, 1970-1972 LT-1 small-block ZR1, and the 1971 big-block ZR-2. And from 1974-1982 there was the FE7 Gymkhana Suspension for spirited street driving. On the street, Duntov’s chassis could easily handle the 327 Fuelie to the LS6 454.
In the ‘70s chassis changes were made to conform to tightening regulations. Starting in 1973 the chassis had to handle the new 5-mph crash bumpers and steel side-door guard beams. In 1975 catalytic converters helped reduce emissions, but cloaked engines. A steel underbelly had to added to the chassis as a heat shield against the very hot converters. 1980 saw a big weight reduction from 3,503-pounds to 3,336-pounds thanks to an aluminum differential, lighter roof panels, thinner material on the hood and doors, and the use of the aluminum L84 intake manifold on the standard engine. The following year, a fiberglass-composite rear leaf spring helped shed 29-pounds. Early ‘80s Corvettes don’t get much respect because their restricted engines, but their drivetrain and suspension was as good as ever. An early ‘80s Corvette with a classic SBC crate engine would make for a stout performer.
Yes, Duntov’s chassis looks crude by today’s standards. But Corvette development is always empirical. If it weren’t for the C2/C3 chassis, there never would have been a C4 chassis, and so it goes. – Scott
The Corvette Chassis That Maurice Olley & Mauri Rose Built
Dateline 7.17.19, As seen in the December 2018 issue of Vette Magazine – Corvettes are kind of like a beautiful woman. Sure, she’s a beauty, but is she smart and athletic? From the beginning, Corvettes have consistently been unique, beautiful cars that look like nothing else on the road. Even the hardboiled engineer and racer Zora Arkus-Duntov was disarmed by the beauty of the 1953 Motorama Corvette, such that he immediately knew he wanted to be part of Chevrolet’s bold American sports car effort. (Zora was always a pushover for beautiful women!)
Now, it is no secret that the 1953 Corvette cars were more like “pilot program cars” or “work in progress cars.” The assembly workers and designers were literally grooming and refining Corvettes as they were being built for sale! Consequently, many of the early Corvettes from 1953 to 1955 weren’t so good.
While the initial response by the press was very positive, as cars were road tested and customers gave their feedback, the Corvette’s glow diminished. The term “parts bin car” started being bantered about. This is only partially correct and dishonors the fact that the first Corvette’s chassis was designed by one of the best chassis men of the day, Maurice Olley. Former Allison Engineering Company engineer and three-time Indy 500 winner, Mauri Rose, oversaw construction of the first Corvette chassis.
The original mission of the Corvette was to be a “sporty” street Chevy, not a racecar. The basic design and structure was so good for its day that after the bugs were worked out, and Zora Arkus-Duntov and Mauri Rose started developing racing parts for Corvette customers, a properly optioned Corvette could easily be made into a competitive SCCA racecar! In fact, with the basic design in tact and optioned with the Fuelie engine, racing suspension and brakes, Corvettes were dominating SCCA B/Production and A/Production classes by the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Three hundred Corvettes rolled off the makeshift assembly plant in Flint, Michigan between June 30, 1953 and December 24, 1953. When the St. Louis plant came online on December 28, 1953, Chevrolet produced 3,640 Blue Flame Six-powered, 1954 Corvettes – now available in four colors: Polo White, Pennant Blue, Sportsman Red, and Black. 1955 saw the introduction of the all-new, lightweight 265 Chevy engine and a 3-speed manual transmission – you’d think that sales would have seriously taken off – but they did not! Only 700 1955 Corvettes were built and only seven had the Blue Flame Six engine. What happened?
Obviously, the car stumbled off the starting line. Corvettes were expensive and the build quality was spotty at best. Even the heater and radio were optional! Keep in mind that from 1953 to 1954, there were no mainstream-manufactured American sports cars. (Ford’s Thunderbird arrived in 1955.) Sports cars were a very, very small automotive market segment. From 1953 to 1955 Chevrolet sold 4,640 Corvettes compared to 1,774,238 Bel Air cars! European sports cars were being imported to America in the early 1950s, but in very small numbers compared to the gigantic market for big American cars.
Outside of the very small world of sports car enthusiasts, the Corvette made no sense at all. The Thunderbird “made sense” because it was loaded with creature comforts and had a solid, steel body with real roll-up side windows. That’s why even though the prices of the two cars were very close, Ford sold 16,155 Thunderbirds in 1955, compared to 700 ’55 Corvettes. T-Bird sales dipped to 15,631 in 1956 and then hit 21,380 in 1957, just in time for Ford to abandon the 2-seater sports car market in favor of the four-seater personal luxury car segment.
The two biggest criticisms of the Corvette were the six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. Lets take this apart. In-line six-cylinder or four-cylinder engines powered most European sports cars of the day, and several had exotic, double overhead-cam heads. Automatic transmissions were considered state-of-the art, advanced American automotive technology in the 1950s. Automatics freed drivers from dealing with clunky gearboxes, loose shifters, stiff clutches, and double-clutching. The automatic transmission was seen as a luxury feature.
Motor Trend Magazine’s editor (and MG owner), Walt Woron had this to say about the ’53 Corvette, “To a purist like me the idea of an automatic transmission in a sports car is unthinkable, even if the lever is next to the drive shaft tunnel.” But after three-time Indy 500 winner Mauri Rose gave Mr. Woron a ride around the GM test track, easily downshifting, braking, and accelerating out of corners, Woron said, “I had to admit grudgingly that an automatic could be at home in a sports car.” It is ironic that today the C7 automatic Corvette delivers performance on par with the manual transmission C7. It seems that we have come full-circle.
But the unkindest insult leveled against the C1 Corvette was that it was a clumsy attempt by Chevrolet to build a “parts bin sports car.” As if to say that Harley Earl, Ed Cole, Maurice Olley, and Mauri Rose slap-dashed together car and presented it as “America’s sports car.” I will dispel this myth once and for all. Although it was Harley Earl that came up with the concept and directed the shape of the first Corvette, it was Chevrolet’s new chief of engineering and soon to become general manager, Ed Cole that was the corporate driving force behind the project. Cole was part of the generation of WW-II era men with a “Let’s get it done, now!” attitude. Cole loved being a corporate rebel. His motto was, “Kick the hell out of the status quo!” Cole liked to “shake things up” so he created his Dream Team to create his Chevrolet sports car.
Maurice Olley was in the closing years of his long career as an engineer and was recognized as one of the best suspension and R&D engineers of his time. Olley was British had been the personal designer for Sir Henry Royce (as in, “Rolls Royce”) and was later the chief engineer for Rolls Royce in America. From 1930 to 1937 Olley was a special projects engineer for Cadillac and General Motors. During WW II Olley was the engineering representative for Rolls Royce LTD, USA (aircraft engines) and then was appointed to the British Ministry of Supply (tanks). Cole hired Olley in 1952 and knew he had the best chassis engineer he could find. Olley had over 40 U.S. and Canadian Patients to his name, authored numerous technical papers, and wrote the book, “Chassis Design: Principles and Analysis”. (This book is available on Amazon.com)
Mauri Rose was an engineer first and a racecar driver second – but his driving was a mighty fine “second”! Rose was the third driver to win the Indy 500 three times – 1941, 1947 and 1948. The first was Louis Meyer 1928, 1933, and 1936. The second was Wilber Shaw in 1937, 1939, and 1940. Rose was also one of the test drivers for GM’s 1953 Firebird XP-21 gas-turbine experimental car. Mauri drove the experimental car at (where else?) the Indianapolis Speedway – just for “feasibility testing.” Fourteen years later in 1967, Parnelli Jones almost won the Indy 500 with the STP-Paxton Turbine-Engine racecar.
When Ed Cole hired Rose, he told him, “You’re the man to do the sports car!” The rest of the main players on the dream team roster included stylist Robert McLean and body engineer Ellis “Jim” Premo. McLean was tasked with establishing the basic parameters for Earl’s Project Opel sports car. He set the wheelbase at 102-inches and placed the in-line-six engine back seven-inches closer to the dash than in a regular Chevy. Weight distribution came in at 53/47 front-to-rear. Earl wanted trendy wrap-around windshield glass and clear plexi headlight covers.
In April 1952, using a full-size model, Ed Cole and Thomas Keating pitched the concept of an “American sports car” to GM president Harlow Curtice. They were seeking approval to build an experimental version to showcase at the 1953 Motorama show. Curtice liked what he saw and approved the project. With an approval in hand, Cole showed Maurice Olley the full-size model and tasked him with designing a suitable chassis. The task was to: “produce a sports car, using existing, reliable components, adequate performance, comfortable ride, stable handling, in less than seven months to the Motorama Show and 12 months to production.” Ten days later, Olley had the basic chassis design sketched out for “Project Opel.” The name “Corvette” would arrive in September 1952, thanks to the work of Chevrolet PR man, Myron Scott.
Here are the basics of Olley’s “Project Opel” chassis. The box side rails were made from two U-channels per side, nested together in opposite directions to form a box-section, then stitched-welded together, and shaped. The center X-member was made from I-beam steel with holes cut in the “I” part of the beam for the duel exhaust to pass through. There were 11 body mount points on the chassis. The completed frame weighed 213-pounds – considered “light” in 1952!
R&D engineer, Walter “Walt” Zetye worked out the final details of the suspension and steering systems. The independent front suspension, while looking quite ordinary, had just been totally redesigned in 1949 by GM engineer Kai Hansen. Maurice Olley had also done independent front suspension R&D work for GM in the 1930s while running the Product Study Department. For its day this was considered a major improvement over I-beam front axles. The one-inch diameter Delco shocks were mounted inside each coil spring, between parallel-wishbone A-arms, with kingpin spindles and ball joints. The oversized front sway bar was mounted high atop the front engine cradle/crossmember that was bolted to the right and left side rails.
The rear suspension used a stock Chevy differential with 3.55:1 gears and 51-inch long Chevy leaf springs, commonly known then as a “Hotchkiss drive system.” The Hotchkiss system used a driveshaft with universal joints at both ends. Most Detroit cars used a torque tube that only had one U-joint behind the transmission. Because the centerline of the crankshaft/transmission driveline was above the X-member of the frame, U-joints were needed at both ends of the 36-inch driveshaft because the rear axle input was lower than the engine/transmission centerline. The rear axle sat atop four leaf springs and was held in place with U-bolts. The leaf spring shackles held the rear axle in position for-and-aft. Rebound straps limited rear axle rebound. (In 1959 radius rods connected both sides of the rear axle to the frame rails to cure wheel-hop.) A Saginaw worm-and-sector steering box was used with a mildly-quick 16:1 steering ratio. Remember, this was the days of no power steering, so steering ratios were high and steering wheel diameters were large for increased mechanical leverage to make steering easy. Brakes were to be the bane of Corvette racers for years, but for street use, stock Chevy brakes with 11-inch drums were used on all four wheels and were considered adequate.
The Blue Flame Six engine is much maligned, but for its day, was pretty stout and had many improvements over the old 235-CID, 115-hp Stovebolt Six. Inside, the Blue Flame Six had aluminum pistons (a first for this engine), improved lubrication, and more durable main bearings. Compression was bumped up to 8:1 and a more aggressive solid-lifter cam was used with .405-inch intake lift and .414 exhaust lift. A metal cam gear replaced the standard fiber cam gear, dual valve springs and stronger exhaust completed the valvetrain. A high-efficiency water pump was installed and shielding was added to the distributor and plug wires. To eliminate the need for a hood bulge, three horizontal Carter one-barrel carbs were used and mounted to a special aluminum intake manifold. The exhaust system used a split manifold with dual exhaust pipes and mufflers. A high-efficiency water pump with a remote header tank for the radiator kept the hot-rodded Blue Flame Six in the cool zone. While the final version of the Blue Flame Six was rated at 150-horsepower, Mauri Rose said, “We finally got 190-horsepower… but the idle isn’t so good and it didn’t start so well… so we gave up on the roller-camshaft. We ended up with around 150-160-horsepower.”
Mauri Rose literally hand-fabricated the very first Corvette chassis as if he was constructing a purpose-built racecar. Rose later said, “We did all the work in a loft, not the Chevrolet factory. We built the whole chassis there. This was a crash program. They took their sketches right to the build shop and roughed up the chassis in wood and Styrofoam right off the drawing boards. If it wasn’t right, they tore it down and started over.”
The use of the 2-speed Powerglide automatic transmission was purely for expediency. It was the least costly way to build the car on such a short notice. The three-speed manual transmission arrived in late 1955 and the four-speed in 1957. Most Americans considered the automatic transmission an automotive advancement, but to traditional sports car buffs, this was sacrilege. Performance of the 1953 Corvette was considered “good” for its day: 0-60 time was 11.5-seconds, the quarter-mile in 18-seconds, and the top speed was 110-mph.
Here’s how Maurice Olley defended the Corvette’s automatic transmission,“As the sports car appeals to a wider and wider section of the public, the center of gravity is shifting from the austerity of the pioneer towards the luxury of modern ideas. There’s no reason to apologize for the performance of this car with its automatic transmission.” Clearly, Olley wasn’t into racing, but then again, in 1952 when the Corvette chassis was being designed, here was Chevrolet’s official statement for their new two-seater sports car; “The car is not intended to be used as a racing car.”(By 1956 this was not the case.)
While the first three years of the Corvette were rough, the basic structure design was unchanged from 1953 to 1962. The makeover of the 1956 model was a game-changer, even though the basic structure and interior were the same. The public was used to seeing new designs on familiar cars, so a refresh wasn’t that unusual. The new design was still looked clean and light. Because Duntov went on to become the Corvette chief engineer, Zora is generally credited with the long series of performance parts, unofficially known as “racer kits.” However, there’s more to that story.
Rose and Duntov’s experience and expertise was so valued that in September 1955 Ed Cole decided that starting with the 1956 Corvette, the two men would be responsible for the design and development of RPO equipment necessary to make the Corvette capable of competing in racing events. By January 1956, “racer kit” options started to become available. This was the beginning of Chevrolet’s first venture into the world of factory-backed sports car racing, as plans were laid out for a racing team to field modified Corvettes to race at Sebring and Le Mans.
Initially, Duntov was not excited about the plan because of the1955 Le Mans disaster that killed 83 spectators, one driver, and injured over 120 others just a few months before. Zora knew the Corvette’s brakes weren’t up to racing standards and did not want to see a Corvette cause a similar disaster at Sebring. This was no doubt the impetus for the elaborate brakes that were part of the 1957 RPO 684 Heavy Duty Racing Suspension option.
Early in 1956, Chevrolet’s Marketing Department encouraged Corvette customers to race their Vettes with an ad headline that read, “Bring on the hay bales!” After the Corvette’s big class-win at Sebring in the March 1956, Chevrolet ran an ad featuring the Corvette Sebring racer with the headline, “The Real McCoy”. Chevy’s new general manager, Ed Cole announced, “We’re in the sports car business to stay.”
The magic that Duntov and Rose delivered via their RPO program was pure, racing parts development. Duntov and his engineers improved shocks, shock mount points, springs, sway-bars, brakes, rear suspension, added rear trailing arms, and many other small details. This added up to a car that was a solid foundation for a serious SCCA B/Production and A/Production racecar. Rose got the prototype parts to the racers and even thrashed a few Corvette racecars with Smokey Yunick. Rose’s strong, “Let’s get to work and get dirty!” work ethic impressed Yunick, a man NOT easily impressed! Smokey said about Rose, “He was a hard-working, sharp, ‘run to win or bust’ sort of cat.”
Maurice Olley retired on December 31, 1955 and was inducted into the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame in 2008. Mauri Rose went on to drive the 1967 Camaro Pace Car at the 1967 Indy 500 race, after which he faded into automotive history, and died on January 1, 1981 at the age of 74.
So, when you see stories about championship C1 Corvette racecars, remember that the commonality they all share is that they ride on the chassis that Olley and Rose built. – Scott
Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Performance Godfather of all Corvettes
Dateline: 10.23.18 – One of the definitions of the word, “godfather” is; “one that founds, supports, or inspires”. Of all of the Corvette’s “Founding Fathers” none are more deserving of the term than Zora Arkus-Duntov. It is not an exaggeration to say that were it not for Duntov, the Corvette never would have made it past 1970!
Although the Corvette fit the definition of a “sports car”, when Chevrolet released the car in 1953, they said that the car was, “not a sports car”. But when Zora saw the Corvette at the 1953 GM Motorama in New York City, he said that it was the most beautiful car he had ever seen, and knew instantly that he wanted to be a part of the new Corvette team.
Zora was born on December 25, 1909 and his birth name was “Zachary Arkus”. Both of his parents were Russian Jews living in Belgium. His mother was a medical student and his father was a mining engineer. After the Russian Revolution the family moved back to Leningrad, Russia, but his parents divorced. His mother’s new partner was Josef Duntov. Years later, Zora and his brother, Yura added the surname, “Duntov” to theirs.
Josef Duntov was an engineer for the Soviet government and was transferred to Berlin, Germany. Zora loved Berlin. When he wasn’t attending classes at the Charlottenburg Technological University, he was drawing cars, writing papers, riding motorcycles, roaring around in his Type 30 Bugatti, and chasing girls. When Zora met Elfi Wolff, a beautiful German dancer with the Folies Bergere, it was love at first sight, and the couple married in France in 1939. When WW-II broke out in 1939, Zora and Yura wanted nothing to do with fascism, and joined the French Air Force. But when France surrendered, the entire Duntov family made plans to get out of France and immigrate to America.
All Zora ever wanted to do was build and race cars. After the family settled down in New York, Zora and Yura started the Ardun Mechanical Corporation, a machining company. Quickly, the company became a success, receiving an “A” classification with the Army Air Force Quality Control. Government work for the war effort made Zora and Elfi wealthy. After the war Zora and Yura made their contribution to the burgeoning hot rod industry that set the stage for Duntov’s part of the Corvette story.
Ford brought the V8 to the masses and it wasn’t long before guys started hot rodding the Flat-head V8 Ford. The design was cheap and simple, but didn’t breathe very well. Zora designed an aluminum, overhead valve hemi-head bold-on kit for the popular Ford flathead engine. The Ardun OHV Hemi heads took output from 100-hp to 160-hp; a 62-percent increase! They offered a conversion kit, a complete engine, and an all-out, 200-hp racing engine. While terrific as a concept, Zora wasn’t a “development engineer” and didn’t have the patience to sort out details. Through a series of business mistakes, the company eventually folded. Also, in 1946 and 1947 Zora had two failed qualifying attempts at Indy.
By 1948 Zora was looking for a racecar company to work for and took a job working for Allard England. Without a company to run, Duntov was able to stay focused on engineering and development work for Sydney Allard’s sports racing cars. In 1949 Zora raced an Ardun-powered Allard J2 at Watkins Glen, but had braking problems. Then in 1952 Zora drive a new Allard J2X at Le Mans, but broke an axle at the 14-hour mark.
Working for Allard was fun, but Zora knew there was no future there. In 1952 he came back to New York and started looking for employment with an American car company. Duntov applied with Chrysler, Ford, Lincoln-Mercury, Ford, and General Motors. Chrysler suggested that his racing engineering skills would be more suited to much smaller companies. He even tried Jaguar, but was rejected. A letter to GM’s Chief Engineer, Ed Cole in October was responded with an invitation to, “…stop by if you’re ever in Detroit.” But Cole passed Duntov’s letter to his head suspension/chassis engineer, Maurice Olley, who responded to Zora on January 5, 1953 with an invitation for an interview.
Around this time Duntov had his “Oh, WOW!” moment upon seeing the Corvette at the 1953 Motorama. After a long series of letters and interviews, on May 1, 1953, Zora Arkus-Duntov was hired by GM to work in the Chevrolet Engineering Department under Maurice Olley, with a starting salary of $14,000.
Zora and Elfie Duntov didn’t fit into the GM corporate culture, and Olley and Duntov did not get along at all. Zora solved engineering problems with an intuitive sense of mechanics – Olley wanted to see calculations. GM executives socialized at country clubs and played golf – Zora went to races and played around with boats on his weekends. Elfie passed on invitations to social lunches, preferring to spend time with her entertainer friends. Yes, the Duntov’s were misfits in GM’s stuffy gray suit world.
Three weeks into his employment Zora was almost fired by Olley because he announced that he was taking off to drive for Porsche at Le Mans in June. Although Duntov worked for Olley, he reported to Ed Cole, who begrudgingly let him go racing, but without pay.
Fortunately for all of us, Duntov got beyond his issues with Olley and was transferred to the GM Proving Ground. The work was beneath him, but he needed a job and soldered on. It was a speech he gave at a Lancing SAE meeting about how high-performance programs can enhance efficiency and reliability of passenger cars, and that the Corvette would be the perfect platform for such R&D work. While other engineers were more thorough in their development work, Zora had the deep understanding of racing, and the enthusiasm that could make Chevrolet an authority on performance cars.
By the time Duntov got to work on the Corvette, his initial conclusion was, “… the car really stunk.” Zora was coming from a racing perspective and the Corvette was never intended to be a racer. He said, “Since we can not prevent people from racing Corvettes, maybe it is better to help them to do a good job at it.” Thus began the evolutionary transition of a car that was never designed to be a racer. Duntov was the perfect man for the job; truly, there was no one else in Detroit in 1954 that could have made Earl’s beauty queen sports car into a fearsome racer. The super-successful C5-R, C6.R, and C7.R Corvette Racing Team owes it all to Zora Arkus-Duntov – and a ton of work.
Duntov’s serious work began late in 1955, and by February 1956 at Daytona Beach, his trio modified 1956 Corvettes set speed records. From there it was a class win at Sebring and “Bring on the hay bales!” 1957 saw the introduction of the 283 Fuelie and the first of a long series of RPO “Racer Kit” Chevrolet-engineered parts for racing Corvettes. Zora wanted to take a team of Corvette SS Racers to Le Mans in 1957 but the AMA Racing Ban stopped him.
Take a test drive with Zora!
By the late 1950s, thanks to the parts Duntov and engineer Mauri Rose developed for the RPO program, privateer Corvette racers were winning championships. Then, closing out the C1 generation, the Grady Davis Gulf One Corvettes took the 1961 SCCA B/Production and the 1962 A/Production Championships. To jump-start the C2 Sting Ray, Duntov launched the now-legendary RPO Z06 racer kit and the Grand Sport Corvette. Again, Zora wanted to take a team Grand Sports to Le Mans, but GM’s strict AMA Racing Ban got in the way and only five Grand Sports were built.
Duntov was relentless in pushing performance and created numerous mid-engine Corvettes prototypes. “Brakes” had been troublesome for racing Corvettes since 1956. By 1965, all production Corvettes had 4-wheel disc brakes. When the big-block was introduced in 1965, Chevrolet realized that cubic-inches were the easiest way to more horsepower. By 1967 Duntov introduced the fearsome 427 L88. From 1967-to-1969 only 216 L88 Corvettes were built, and are super valuable today. In 1969 427 ZL-1 was an L88 with an aluminum block, offered L88 power, with small-block weight.
In 1970 Zora released the 350 LT1, best small-block Corvette to that date. From 1970-to-1972 RPO ZR1 was the Racer Kit for small-block racers. And lastly, Zora was responsible for the 1974, customer applied, “Greenwood” widebody kit, available from the Chevrolet Performance Parts catalog. When Duntov retied in December 1974 he had a mid-engine Corvette in the works, but management said, “We’re selling all the Corvettes we can, why to we need a mid-engine Corvette?” Sure, “business is business” but it would have been so cool.
Without Duntov supplying raw performance, even Bill Mitchell’s beautiful Sting Ray wouldn’t have saved the Corvette. The Corvette survived because of racing and Corvettes raced because of Duntov. Therefore, Zora Arkus-Duntov ultimately deserves to title as “Godfather of the Corvette”. – Scott
PS – You can readpervious installments of my “Corvette’s Founding Father Series from the bleelow links:
Dateline: 10.2.18 (All images GM Archives) The Corvette is arguably the greatest enigma in Detroit history. Every car line has to carry its own sales weight. In 1957 6,339 Corvettes were sold, the same year, Ford sold 21,380 Thunderbirds. Corvette sales didn’t surpass that figure until 1963 when 21,513 Corvettes sold. How did the Corvette survive? The Times and Angels.
It was the Wild West days whenWilliam Durant founded General Motors on September 16, 1908. By 1910 Durant lost control of General Motors to a bankers’ trust. In 1912 Durant started Chevrolet, secretly bought back controlling shares of General Motors, reorganized in 1916 as “General Motors Corporation”, only to lose control again in 1918.
Successful industrialist Alfred P. Sloan, became vice president of GM in 1918, then president 1923, and brought order and structure to the chaotic company. Sloan created autonomous operating divisions, centralized policies, planning, annual model changes, platform engineering, and emphasized “styling.” Sloan hired Harley Earl specifically to “style” GM cars. Eventually, GM owned 43-percent of all car sales! By 1955 GM sold over 5 million vehicles and was the first corporation to post $1 Billion dollars profit!
Ed Cole was born on September 17, 1909 and grew up on his family’s dairy farm. As a kid, Ed designed, built, and sold radio sets and when he was old enough, the natural mechanic started working at an auto parts supply store and building hot rods. For a time,Ed thought he wanted to be a lawyer, but that “car thing” got in the way.
In 1926 GM bought the Flint Institute of Technology and renamed it, “General Motors Institute”, focusing on creating industry and business leaders through a co-op program, teaching all aspects of automobile manufacturing. Cole enrolled in 1930 and was so bright that by 1933, without finishing his GMI education, he was hired by Cadillac’s engineering department. During WW-II Ed became the chief design engineer on GM’s light tanks and combat vehicles program. In 1946 Cole was promoted to chief engineer at Cadillac and was the lead engineer on the groundbreaking, 1949 Cadillac 331 OHV high-compression, high-revving engine. Ed Cole was the “go-to” guy in GM engineering, with great things ahead of him.
There was a tremendous economic boom after WW-II thanks to pent up consumer demands after the long depression and war, but by the early 1950s a slowdown was in the making. A month after the Corvette made its debut at the New York Motorama; Harlow H. Curtice became the President of GM and understood that to make money, you have to spend money. In February 1954 Curtice announced a $1 Billion dollar plant and facilities expansion plan. Ford announced their own $1 Billion dollar capital expenditure and Chrysler committed $500 Million for expansion. Curtice doubled down with another $1 Billion and third triage of $1 Billion in 1956! Time Magazine voted Curtice “Man of the Year” for 1956. Curtice said, “General Motors must always lead.” GM was the largest corporation in the world and Ed Cole’s star was rising.
With the success of the Cadillac 331 engine, Cole was in a prime position. In 1952 Chevrolet general manager Tom Keating promoted Ed to Chevrolet’s chief engineer. Cole’s major assignment was the replacement for the 23-year-old Chevy Stovebolt Six. A V8 project was in the works, but Cole hated it and started from scratch, instructing his team that the engine should be compact, lightweight, and powerful. By the fall of 1954, the new 265 V8 was ready for 1955 Chevrolet cars, including the Corvette. No one dreamed the basic design would still be produced over 60 years later. The next step in Cole’s career was Chevrolet general manager in 1956.
In 1952/1953 a 43-year-old Russian engineer seeking employment named Zora Arkus-Duntovsent letters to Studebaker, Chrysler, Lincoln-Mercury, Ford, and General Motors, explaining his background in engineering and racing. Duntov was told that he’d find better opportunities with smaller companies, because big car companies make bread-and-butter vehicles, and don’t have much need for his skills. Zora wrote two letters directly to Chevrolet engineering chief, Ed Cole. In November 1952 Cole personally responded with, “… if you are ever in Detroit, let me know.” Duntov wasn’t happy, at least is wasn’t, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
As providence would have it, Zora went to the GM Motorama at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and “fell in love” with Harley Earl’s EX-122 “Corvette” concept car.Years later Duntov said, “… I thought it was the most beautiful car I had ever seen…” Just before the event, Maurice Olley, Ed Cole’s chassis and suspension man, was given Duntov’s first letter to respond to. On January 5, 1953 Olley wrote to Duntov, “If you are still available, and would consider employment with Chevrolet Engineering, we can arrange an interview.” After numerous letters and an interview in March with Cole and Olley, Duntov was offered a job as an assistant staff engineer, with a salary of $14,000. On May 1, 1953, Duntov was “let in the door” and things would never be the same.
Ed Cole’s motto was, “Kick the hell out of the establishment!”. Cole also hired Frank Winchell and three-time Indy 500 winner and engineer, Mauri Rose. Duntov and Rose hit it off great. Their boss, Maurice Olley, was a quite Englishman who did not like outbursts of enthusiasm; such as whistling. Rose could be abrasive and Duntov was outgoing and gregarious. It didn’t take long for Duntov and Olley to start chaffing. The GM blue/gray suit world was a very different from Zora’s European continental culture. The culture clash was shocking to Duntov.
Olley did not like Zora’s “Let’s try this!” style of engineering, he wanted calculations. Soon, Olley suggested Duntov might consider employment somewhere else. The final straw came when Duntov told Olley he was off to the 24 Hours of Le Mans drive for Allard. Olley said, “No!” so Duntov went over his head to Cole, who wasn’t much happier. Ed explained that Maurice was retiring soon and Zora was in good position to fill Olley’s place. When Zora explained that the Allards used Cadillac engines and engineers for assistance, Cole grudgingly agreed, but Duntov’s junket would be without pay. Zora was so put off, he bought a one-way ticket, intending to not return, and send for Elfi later! I’m sure that Ed Cole’s colleagues were telling him, “Ed, he’s all yours!” Duntov would be both “angel and devil” for Cole for the rest of his career at GM.
Although Cole was a corporate man, in his heart he was a car guy, and knew that the new 265 Chevy engine would be hot. Cole decided that two 1956 Chevy 210s should run the Pikes Peak Hill Climb with Duntov as part of the team and driver. The project was very successful with the cars breaking records. At the celebration party, Duntov proclaimed, “We ought to introduce the 1957 Corvette in a spectacular manor… lets show how fast the car will go!” Cole said, “Sure! How fast?” Duntov answered, “150-miles-per-hour!” Cole responded, “Yea, we should do that.” Duntov, being from another culture, thought Cole was serious!
Back at work, Duntov told his team, “Ed Cole said we should make a 150-mph Corvette.” So, the team set about the task. After some impressive performances with a heavily-modified mule 1954 Corvette with a 265 engine using a Duntov cam and aero tricks of the day, a team of three Corvettes went to the 1956 Daytona Beach Speed Trials. With John Fitch, Betty Skelton and Duntov driving, records were broken and the publicity was great. Cole was so thrilled; he proposed a three-car team to race at Sebring. Shockingly, Duntov told Cole that he wasn’t interesting in racing streetcars, so Cole put racer and engineer John Fitch in charge of the four-car Sebring effort. Duntov couldn’t resist a racing experience and joined the group of Chevrolet engineers. The Corvette took two class wins and Chevrolet ran their famous “Real McCoy” ads.
Later in 1956, Duntov heard that Harley Earl wanted to take a D-Type Jaguar, make a new “Corvette” body, and drop in a Corvette engine. This might have been a ploy, but Duntov said, No way!” Thus began the Corvette SS Racer project. Despite an embarrassing Sebring debut, Duntov was confident he could get the car ready for a three-car team for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Unfortunately, GM chose to enforce the 1957 AMA Racing Ban. Not even Ed Cole could help.
The best Cole could do was to put Duntov and Mauri Rosein charge of a new “Off Road” parts program. Duntov handled the engineering and Rose worked with racers to field test the parts. This was the beginning of the Duntov “Racer Kit” series of options for Corvette customers. Cole’s idea birthed legends, including; 1957 RPO 684, 1963 RPO Z06, 1967 RPO L88, 1970 RPO ZR1, and many more. Ed Cole went on to become group vice president in 1961, executive vice president in 1965, and GM’s president in 1967.
Cole faced mandatory retirement from GM in 1974 at the age of 65. He immediately went to Checker Motors Corporation (Checker Cabs) and became chairman and CEO and was also chairman of International Huskey. Cole was an avid flier and a pilot. On May 2, 1977 Cole was tragically killed flying his private twin-engine Beagle B.206 Series 2 plane near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
1998 the National Corvette Museum launched there Hall of Fame. Ed Cole was one of the six men inducted that also included; Harley Earl, Zora Arkus-Duntov, Bill Mitchell, Joe Pike, and Larry Shinoda. – Scott
“For “Off Road” Use Only” was Chevy Code for RACING!
Dateline: 8.12.17 / Photos: WikiCommons, Illustrations by K. Scott Teeters –When I was a wee lad and would see the term, “For Off Road Use Only” I used to think, “Well who drives these cars in the dirt and grass?” What I didn’t understand was that the term is code for “RACING”! Beginning in 1957, Chevrolet’s new general manager, Ed Cole, made the command decision that he would let “customers” carry the Corvette racing mantle by offering Chevrolet-engineered parts, specifically designed for racing, available through the Chevrolet Parts Department.
For decades, Zora Arkus-Duntov has been credited for the implementation of the Corvette “Racer Kits” through the RPO (Regular Production Option) system. Zora was the face of the unofficial Corvette racing effort, but while researching C1 Corvette chassis design, I came across some interesting information in Karl Ludvigsen’s 2014 book, “CORVETTE: America’s Star Spangled Sports Car”. While Duntov was definitely the front man, Ed Cole also charged three-time Indy 500 winner and engineer, Mauri Rose with the development of the Corvette’s RPO parts program. So, the Corvette “Off Road” RPO effort guided by Le Mans racer and class winner, Duntov, AND Mauri Rose, the second man to win the Indy 500 three times (1941, 1947, and 1948)! Pretty cool, huh?
The Racer Kits weren’t a “secret” but unless customers were tuned into racing, most weren’t aware of this special program.In truth, since improvements in suspension and brakes were for racing, customers rarely used them for their street Corvettes. And typically racers used the expensive dual quad or Fuel Injection performance engines. The Racer Kit RPO option program enabled Corvette racers to be seriously competitive in SCCA racing such that by the end of the 1950s, Corvettes were a force to be reckoned with.
Engineer Maurice Olley designed the chassis and suspension of the first Corvette in 1952 and was considered to be the best suspension and chassis engineer in Detroit. It is essential to remember that the Corvette was NOT designed to be a racecar. Continue reading “
Don’t miss the Duntov video at the bottom of this post!
Corvettes are all about passion and that passion shows up in two powerful ways – visually and from performance. The two are so intrinsically connected that they seem one and the same, but a closer examination reveals that is not the case. Of course, the first thing one notices about the Corvette is its looks. The car’s appearance is totally unique, even though it did borrow a little here and there from other designs. But at the end of the day, the completed design only looks like a Corvette.
But looks will only get you so far. What completes the Corvette addiction is the visceral experience of driving one. To “get” the Corvette, you must drive the car. And if the driving experience was now much different from a mushy sedan, what’s the point? No, if the Corvette didn’t deliver responsive performance with gobs of sensory input for the driver, the car surely would have gone quietly into the night, fading into automotive obscurity, along with a long list of once interesting cars.
So who was responsible for infusing the Corvette with it’s Mojo? Zora Arkus-Duntov. Zora was, without a doubt, the ultimate automotive corporate misfit to ever work in Detroit. By the time he saw the very first Corvette at the 1953 Motorama, he was 44 years old, a seasoned mechanical engineer, race car driver and builder. he was quoted as saying, “When I saw the Corvette at the Motorama, I thought it was the most beautiful car I’d ever seen.” And Duntov appreciated beauty. Just look at his stunning blond beauty wife and former Bluebell Girls dancer, Elfie Duntov. yes, Zora new a good-looking dame when he saw one and one look at the Corvette and he knew where he wanted to be – in the engineering department of Chevrolet, working on the Corvette. Continue reading “Corvette Timeline Tails: Happy 102nd Birthday Zora Arkus-Duntov”→
Duntov’s Thoughts Pertaining To Youth, Hot Rodders, and Chevrolet
Zora Arkus-Duntov started working at General Motors on May 1, 1953. His first few months were a little bumpy, plowing through some junky assignments, such as sorting out why a prototype car with a heavy rear end wouldn’t handle right and solving a driveline vibration on a GM bus. A few weeks after Zora started, his immediate supervisor, the very capable senior engineer Maurice Olley, suggested that Duntov quit because he didn’t like Zora’s non-engineering solution to the prototype’s handling problem. And Duntov actually considered it! (for a very short time)