Through The Archives: Zora Arkus-Duntov: 1909-1996

Last week marked the anniversary of the passing of Zora Arkus-Duntov. I had met Zora because of my decade-long involvement with Vette magazine, and we became friends. Not only would I see him at the many Corvette shows and events, but each time I visited the Detroit area I’d make sure to pay a visit to his home where he and his lovely wife Elfi warmly welcomed me.

Duntov’s love of flying meant that he sold his Chris-Craft boat in order to purchase a Rockwell Commander 112A, a low-wing single-engine aircraft that he used for recreational flights around Michigan. On this flight, the author and Duntov took a trip to look at experimental aircraft at two airports in northern Michigan. Photo: D. Randy Riggs

Since we were both pilots, our interest in flying resulted in some lively discussions about experimental aircraft and even into his 80s, Zora wanted to build one. We once spent a memorable day in Michigan flying to a few remote airports to check out some special homebuilts he’d heard about. Zora never let off the gas.

I’ve saved all of his letters and correspondence, and I was proud to be able to publish his stories in Vette magazine. I think of him often and miss him to this day.

On April 21, 1996, the automotive performance world lost one of its most legendary figures, Zora Arkus-Duntov. He was born to Russian parents near Brussels, Belgium, on Christmas Day, 1909. A year later, the family returned to Leningrad where Duntov spent his boyhood. He dreamed of becoming a streetcar conductor, while his mechanical interest grew.

Duntov’s parents divorced when he was a teenager, and he took the last names of his father and stepfather, hence Arkus-Duntov. During the Great Depression, the family moved to Berlin, and the young man’s excellent grades enabled him to attend the prestigious Institute of Charlottenburg in Berlin, where he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering.

Zora Arkus-Duntov raced at Le Mans during a four- year period from 1952-’55, taking class wins in Porsches in 1954 and 1955. Photo: Porsche AG

During the ’30s, Duntov published a treatise on the merits of supercharging as well as papers on all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive steering. He worked with Talbot and Auto-Union and consulted for Mercedes-Benz. In 1939, he married Elfi Wolfe in Paris, then joined the French Air Force as war swallowed Europe.

Duntov, Elfi and Zora’s brother Yura secured visas to the United States, and the Arkus-Duntov brothers formed ARDUN (for ARkus-DUNtov) Manufacturing, producing airplane parts for the war effort. When hostilities ended, the company introduced a revolutionary overhead-valve conversion for the Ford flathead V8. Though not a commercial success, ARDUN heads were highly coveted speed parts for the venerable flathead.

In 1993 to help celebrate the completion of the 1,000,000th Corvette, Chevrolet scheduled a number of events around the country that included the re-dedication of the Corvette Bridge at Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI. Duntov and his wife Elfi drove that special Corvette up the hill to the bridge from Turn 4 as onlookers popped champagne corks. Photo: D. Randy Riggs

Duntov returned to Europe to race Allards, his flathead conversion kits superseded by the new ohv V8s. On a trip to the States, Duntov saw the first Corvette at GM’s January 1953 Motorama in New York City. A letter to Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole soon followed, landing him a job at Chevy as a research and development engineer.

Over time, he appropriated the Corvette and transformed it from a mild-mannered two-seater to an internationally respected sports car. The Duntov camshaft, his contribution to mass-produced fuel injection and four-wheel disc brakes are a small part of his legacy. His race designs included the Corvette SS, Grand Sport, CERV I and CERVII, though GM policy forbade company involvement in competition during those years.

Duntov and wife Elfi traveled to many Corvette functions, car shows and speaking engagements and their later years, Corvette fans eager to meet the Corvette’s godfather in person. They both enjoyed it immensely. Photo: D. Randy Riggs

One of Duntov’s goals was to engineer what he called a “midship Corvette,” a mid-engine version of the car he devoted his career to. Sadly, he didn’t live to see that, but the 8th generation Corvette certainly has his fingerprints all over it.

Certainly, Duntov is remembered for his Corvette involvement and the icon he helped create. But mostly, he’s remembered as a friend to every automotive enthusiast who ever loved the thrill of exceptional performance.