automobile designer, race driver
December 25, 1909 - April 21, 1996
Zora Arkus-Duntov was a famous American automobile designer and racer of Russian-Jewish descent, the godfather and creator of the cult American sportscar Chevrolet Corvette.
Zachary (later Zora) Arkus was born to a Russian-Jewish immigrant family in Belgium. Soon after his birth, the family returned to their native Saint-Petersburg, Russia. There his mother divorced and re-married Joseph Duntov, whose last name Zora – out of gratitude to the man who managed to become his second father - would later add to his original one.
The new order in the Soviet Russia was not to the family's liking at all, and in 1927 the Arkuses immigrated to Germany, settling in Berlin. There Zora found interest in street racing, first - on bikes, then – on motorbikes, and later (after his mother expressed concerns as to the safety, or lack thereof, of her son's hobby) on "bobs", primitive self-assembled motorcars.
The hobby grew into a career: Zora graduated from the Technical University of Berlin, becoming an automotive engineer, and even started writing quite serious scientific papers in the field for the famous German magazine Auto Motor und Sport, a magazine which still exists today.
After the start of the Nazi persecution of the Jews he moved to Paris, where he married a well-known cabaret dancer and, surprisingly, an avid racer Elfi Wolff.
According to the family lore, when the Germans invaded France, she raced from the advancing tank columns in her trusty MG, driving hundreds of miles to the eventual safety. Zora entered the French Air Force, but after the capitulation of France was forced to escape to the United States.
In the New World, Zora became a full-time car designer and even created his own company Ardun (from Arkus and Duntov) that produced parts for the Ford V8 military trucks' engines - parts, that were also used by enthusiasts to create engines for sports cars, putting out the record-setting 300 HP! The business flourished, and soon Duntov became the head of a large engineering company, employing 300 people, including such automotive dignitaries as Offenhauser, the creator of the famous engine of the same name, the engine which revolutionized the car industry of the late 30s.
Once upon a time, while attending a motor show in New York in 1953, he saw the Chevrolet Motorama, and was so much impressed by its external beauty and internal technical primitiveness, that he wrote to Chevrolet (division of the manufacturer General Motors) bosses a letter, to which he attached a thesis on issues and ways of making the brand more youth oriented, with a lineup of powerful racing cars! The letter and the thesis impressed the higher-ups of Chevrolet, that Zora was invited to work in the company as the assistant chief designer.
Arkus became the creator of Chevrolet Corvette, personally setting several records at its steering wheel, including the absolute speed record on the quarter mile (150 mph) and ascending the Pikes Peak. In addition, he took part in the famous Le Mans race, at the wheel of his own Allard car, and won the race twice in the legendary Porsche 550 RS Spyder. Later he tried to qualify for the Indianapolis race with a special model Talbot-Lago, but failed both times.
Zora Arkus-Duntov retired at the respectable age of 75. He died in Detroit, the cradle of the American automotive industry, in 1996, and his ashes – quite symbolically – were interred at the National Corvette museum.
Burton, Jerry (2002). Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette (Chevrolet). New York: Bentley Publishers. p. 6. ISBN 0-8376-0858-9.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, Champ Car Stats, Retrieved 2010-12-24