Collector Car Corner – Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ Corvette

Collector Car Corner - Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ CorvetteCarroll Shelby and Ford quickly understood the advantages of a mid-engine design, and built this winning No. 2 Ford GT40 sports car in 1966. It won the 24 Hours of LeMans against the heavily favored Ferrari teams. A movie is slated for release later this year chronicling the victory starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. (Compliments Ford Motor Company)

Q: Greg I enjoyed your article on the upcoming 2020 mid-engine C8 Corvette and rumors of a probable Zora edition. Would you tell us about Zora Arkus-Duntov and what he meant to the Chevy Corvette? Also, was Shelby and his AC Cobras the main reason Duntov built those 1963 Grand Sport Corvettes? Thanks, Dave B., Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. 

A: Dave, this is yet another great example of the many Ford versus Chevy sagas of high performance, and may be the one that still is most talked about.

Collector Car Corner - Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ Corvette
The late Zora Arkus-Duntov, on the left in sunglasses, shows executives the assembly of one of five 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport racecars. Duntov had always campaigned for a mid-engine Corvette and come July 18 of this year, the 2020 mid-engine Corvette becomes a reality. Duntov passed away in 1996. (Compliments General Motors Archives)

Known as the Godfather, Father or Immortalizer of the Corvette, (take your pick) Zora Arkus-Duntov was born in Belgium in 1909 to Russian-Jewish parents and then moved with them first to Berlin, Germany, and then Leningrad, Russia. When WWII broke out and after serving in the French Air Force, Zora found his way to the United States where he and his brother, Yura, established the Ardun Mechanical Company in Manhattan, N.Y. Ardun is from ARkus DUNtov while Zora’s last hyphenated name combines both Arkus (his father) and Duntov (his stepfather after his mother remarried). Zora was also a successful race driver himself, winning many important events from Pikes Peak to first in class at LeMans. Ardun was famous for its hemispherical Flathead Ford V8 aluminum cylinder heads that pushed horsepower to an astounding 300-plus. Ardun was also one of the very first major eastern seaboard aftermarket performance parts companies as most operated out west ala Isky, Offenhauser and Edelbrock to name a few.   

Arkus-Duntov first laid eyes on the new Harley Earl designed 1953 Corvette at a traveling GM Motorama show in New York City. Although he liked the looks, the underpowered three-carburetor Blue Flame six-cylinder was totally underwhelming. He wrote to Chevy’s chief engineer Ed Cole, and along with co-engineer Maurice Olley, they were so impressed with Duntov’s letter that they interviewed and hired him on May 1, 1953, as an assistant staff engineer. Duntov’s main goal was to make the new Corvette a real sports car, not a slowpoke six-cylinder Chevy two-seater. He ended up in full charge of Chevrolet high-performance until his retirement in 1975. The only thing he didn’t accomplish was the mid-engine Corvette, much to his dismay.

Collector Car Corner - Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ Corvette
Arkus-Duntov in a 1955 Corvette SS show car that also saw action on the track a few times. (Compliments General Motors Archives)

As for the Carroll Shelby and Arkus-Duntov tie-in, it began when Shelby wanted to build the ultimate Ford sports car that would beat the now well-developed Arkus-Duntov commercially available V8 Corvettes both on and off the track. Shelby convinced the moguls at Ford to move forward with his new Shelby Cobra idea after he made a deal with A.C. Bristol Cars in England to buy bodies and chassis for his soon to be born Ford AC Cobra. 

Shelby’s initial Ford V8 Cobra came to life in 1962, and he dominated road racing by trouncing the usually dominating Corvettes in big events. Shelby was so good at what he did he even convinced Chevy’s top Corvette race driver, namely Dave McDonald, to drive for Team Cobra. MacDonald drove the Cobras to numerous wins, but sadly lost his life at the Indy 500 in 1964 in a double fatal crash with Eddie Sachs.  

Collector Car Corner - Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ Corvette
Here’s a Corvette Grand Sport in action in 1963. Arkus-Duntov’s philosophy at Chevrolet was simple and straightforward as he wrote a paper entitled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet,” thus laying the foundation that Chevrolet utilizes to this day in creating perhaps the most exciting performance program in the history of the American automobile. (Compliments Chevrolet Motor Division and General Motors Archives)

So, with the Cobras dominating road-racing action against the now heavier and outclassed Corvettes, Duntov was ready for a full out assault. He initiated the building of a 1,800-pound 1963 Corvette Grand Sport, utilizing lightweight pieces and powered by a special, dual spark plug, all-aluminum small block Chevy V8 under the hood. And yes, Duntov built these highly sophisticated Grand Sports specifically to beat Shelby and his Cobras.

The race was on.

Shelby’s Cobras were available to the general public at any Ford dealer and offered small block V8 Fords in either 260 or 289 cubic inches with up to 306 horses. For the ultimate adrenaline rush, the thundering 427-side oiler Ford V8 listed at 425 horses but putting out near 500, was the hot ticket and still is to this day. 

Collector Car Corner - Getting to know Zora Arkus-Duntov, his Grand Sport Corvettes and an upcoming 2020 mid-engine ‘Zora’ Corvette
An original Arkus-Duntov 1963 Corvette Grand Sport that was driven by George Wintersteen. Powered by a special 377-inch V8 that put out over 500-horsepower, only five units were ever built before Chevrolet dropped out of racing in February of 1963. (Compliments General Motors Archives)

Duntov’s Grand Sport, meanwhile, never made it past five units as Chevrolet pulled the plug on racing in February of ’63. Duntov had planned a run of 125 lightweight Grand Sports, but GM put the brakes on. However, the five that are still around today initially were powered by the aforementioned specially built 377-inch aluminum small block dual ignition with hemispherical combustion chambers fed by four Weber side draft carbs that developed 525-horses. 

However, these Grand Sports did see racing action. In its first head-to-head match against Ford Cobras, and amongst 58 entries from all over the world, the Corvette Grand Sports finished higher than any Ford Cobra at the Governor’s Cup December of 1963 Nassau event. Roger Penske finished third overall, beaten only by the ultra sports cars of winner A.J. Foyt in a Scarab Mark IV Chevy (big block) and runner-up Pedro Rodriguez in a Ferrari 250P. Duntov’s other two Grand Sports found Augie Pabst (yes, he of Pabst Beer) finishing fourth and Dick Thompson coming home sixth. The first Cobra to finish was George Butler, who finished 11th overall with Frank Gardner 12th. Dan Gurney and John Everly did not finish with transmission failure in Cobras. 

Still, with no cooperation from upper level boardroom, Duntov’s otherwise spectacular Corvette legacy will always include his numerous, unsuccessful attempts at building a mid engine Corvette. He tried as far back as the mid-1960s to get the go ahead, but fell to corporate overrides time and again. He understood back then that mid-engine dynamics offered the ultimate in road racing performance.

And so did Ford; and Ford did something about it. 

Specifically, thanks to Carroll Shelby and co-driver friend and race engineer Ken Miles, Ford successfully built the Ford GT40 mid-engine sports car back in 1966 and proceeded to stun the racing world when it won the 24 Hours of LeMans. Ford upset the heavily favored Ferrari team and this accomplishment will be chronicled in an upcoming movie starring Matt Damon (as Shelby) and Christian Bale (as Ken Miles) titled “Ford v Ferrari.” Look for it later this year.

In comparison to Ford’s winning 1966 GT40 mid-engine sports car, it took Corvette 54 years to bring to market Duntov’s ultimate dream, which is now all set for a July 18 introduction. Corvette enthusiast expect to see a special 2020 Zora Arkus-Duntov edition and rumors persist it will be the fastest Corvette ever built.

A 2020 Zora Corvette would be the ultimate tribute to the man who made Corvette what it is today.  

(Greg Zyla is a syndicated writer who welcomes reader input and questions on collector cars, auto nostalgia and motorsports at greg@gregzyla.com).

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