Zora Arkus-Duntov was born in 1909 to wealthy Russian parents studying in Brussels, Belgium. The following year, the Arkus family returned to Saint Petersburg in time to suffer through both World War I and the Russian Revolution. Young Zora, who was mesmerized by anything capable of moving under its own power, showed little interest in school. When the harsh times brought bread rationing, he armed himself with a revolver to safeguard the family's food supply. A firearm also came in handy when a crosstown doctor had to be persuaded to come and care for his ailing mother.
Due to the severe economic conditions, Zora's father Jacques Arkus stayed in the household following his divorce and the arrival of stepfather Josef Duntov. Years later, in 1941, Zora finally had sufficient respect for his third parent to change his last name to Arkus-Duntov.
Watching conditions deteriorate in Germany through the 1930s, especially for those of Jewish descent, Arkus-Duntov and his wife, the former Elfi Wolff, hastily relocated first to Paris and then to America on a freighter converted to passenger service. Both found fortune in their new world — she as a professional dancer, he as a consultant before becoming a war munitions manufacturer.
Amazingly, Arkus-Duntov's success on the world endurance-racing stage came after he had joined GM as a development engineer. Upon seeing Harley Earl's Corvette prototype at the 1953 New York Motorama, he was instantly smitten. He unleashed the full brunt of his persuasive powers to convince Chevrolet boss Ed Cole and GM R&D director Maurice Olley that a production Corvette would be a "turning point" for GM and that his contributions could be instrumental in advancing any high-performance automobile's cause.
Olley was less convinced that racing relationships with other carmakers were a wise idea. For punishment, he dispatched the Russian to the proving grounds to work on trucks. Cole had other ideas. After reading Arkus-Duntov's memo pointing out how the hot rod movement might help Chevrolet reach younger buyers, he gave his rabble rouser a challenging project: developing the fuel injection scheduled for introduction on the 1957 model year Chevrolet V8. Building on existing Mercedes-Benz 300SL technology, Arkus-Duntov devised a means of measuring the mass of incoming airflow instead of using the SL's simpler speed-density approach.
The 1957 Corvette SS originated a badge that Chevrolet still uses today. This purpose-built sports racer taught Arkus-Duntov an important lesson when it failed after only 23 laps at the 12 Hours of Sebring: that the best way to avoid cooking the driver is to mount the engine behind the cockpit. He earned his first real title at General Motors — Chevrolet's director of high performance — later that year.
Taking that job seriously, Arkus-Duntov and his team created five mid-engine experimental cars to explore independent suspension designs, all-wheel drive, large-displacement V8s, rotary engines, and aluminum body construction. He earned a patent for a new 4WD arrangement and nearly won approval to move the Corvette's transmission rearward circa 1960.
Arkus-Duntov had to be an astute politician to rebuff internal forces that persistently drove Corvette in fruitless directions. R&D boss Frank Winchell constructed one prototype with a V-8 hanging out the back. Ed Cole and John DeLorean both suggested two--two Corvettes. The magnificent split-window coupe, which Bill Mitchell's design department created for the 1963 model year, was despised by Arkus-Duntov because of its impaired rear visibility and prodigious aerodynamic lift. He got rid of the glass partition after only one model year but never fully resolved the midyear (1963–67) Corvette's poor aero performance.
Arkus-Duntov did score major wins with engineering advancements such as stiffer frames, independent rear suspension, and disc brakes. Power and performance climbed thanks to fuel injection, multiple carburetors, large V8s, and tougher four-speed transmissions. The second-generation Corvettes he masterminded not only sold well, they earned GM profits.
These accomplishments came in spite of modest engineering resources thanks to Arkus-Duntov's ability to inspire his small team. According to Corvette development engineer Roy Sjoberg, who later became the Dodge Viper's chief engineer, "Zora got your emotions involved and when that occurred, your commitment followed ad infinitum." Years later, Ed Cole noted, "Zora managed to bootleg more things through Chevrolet than any other engineer I've ever known." To throw him a bone, GM finally gave Arkus-Duntov the Corvette chief engineer title in 1967.
The midyear Corvette chassis was such a stride forward that it supported the C3 generation for another 15 model years under Mitchell's mako shark–inspired bodywork. That was not Arkus-Duntov's intention. The mid-engine layout he longed for never reached fruition during his career for a host of reasons. Detractors insisted that Corvette fans didn't want it and wouldn't understand it. Sales were strong with the technology in hand. Engineering costs were also an issue; a new transaxle just for Corvettes would be expensive. When Arkus-Duntov reached the age of mandatory retirement in 1975, the glimmer of Chevy's halo faded until a reengineered C4 finally arrived for the 1984 model year.
Arkus-Duntov's use of cigarettes as a fashion accessory eventually caught up with him. After surviving prostate surgery in 1967 and a stroke in 1969, he contracted lung cancer in 1995, even though he had given up smoking years earlier. He died in 1996.
The legacy of the man who championed Corvettes in general and a mid-engine version in particular will live forever when C8s hit the road with a ZORA — or ZoRa1 — badge prominently displayed.
Many details in this story were sourced from author Jerry Burton's insightful Zora Arkus-Duntov: , from which .