Who Was Zora Arkus-Duntov?

Zora Arkus-Duntov, undated

Zora Arkus-Duntov, undated.

Known as the “godfather” of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov was a brilliant engineer and daring racing driver. He was the first to have the title of Chief Engineer for the Corvette program at General Motors and was responsible for transforming the Corvette from an attractive roadster to the powerful American sports car it has become.

Zora was born Zachary Arkus on December 25, 1909, to parents of Russian-Jewish descent. His father, Yakov “Jacques” Arkus, was a slight, quiet, and introspective engineer. His mother, Rachel Kogan, was a bright and outspoken member of the Russian intelligetsia, who firmly believed in equality of the sexes.

For most of Zora’s childhood, the family lived near central Petrograd, Russia. Like many other university-educated people of the time, both Jacques and Rachel were dedicated to social change in Russia and attended many political meetings and demonstrations. This zeal resulted in their perceived absence in Zora’s life, causing Zora to feel that his parents were constantly preoccupied. To regain his parents' attention and interest, Zora would misbehave and soon became a risk taker. He was street-wise, prone to fighting, and a daredevil.

Stirling Moss and Zora Arkus-Duntov at the 12 Hours of Sebring photograph, 1957.

Stirling Moss and Zora Arkus-Duntov at the 12 Hours of Sebring, 1957.

With the birth of his brother Yura in 1917, Zora naturally took on the role of protector. His love for and friendship with his brother was very strong, and he considered his brother his true family. His protectiveness extended not only to his brother, but to others as well, particularly as the Russian Revolution impacted Zora’s life. After finding and restoring a Smith & Wesson 45-caliber revolver, Zora would carry the weapon with him at all times. He would guard his school’s cabbage patch against thieves and helped a friend’s mother keep her place selling candies at a public market by pulling the gun on a man who objected to her sales.

Corvette Super Sport at 12 Hours of Sebring photograph 1957

Corvette Super Sport at 12 Hours of Sebring, 1957 .

While Zora had a tumultuous relationship with his mother, he was still loyal and extremely protective towards her. In the summer of 1920, she became extremely ill with a kidney disorder. To help his mother, Zora ran several miles to find the family doctor. He snuck past a security guard and made his way to the doctor’s home. The doctor, without opening his door, shouted “Well, your mother will die. No use for me to come.” Zora drew his 45-caliber revolver, shot his way through the door, and, at gun point, forced the frail doctor to his mother’s aid. Zora’s mother survived, but the weakened doctor died a short time later. Zora acknowledged he had pushed the doctor too hard, but with his mother’s life at stake he had no remorse.

When he was a teenager, Zora’s mother divorced Jacques and was remarried to Josef Duntov, an electrical engineer. Josef became extremely influential in Zora’s life, so much so, that Zora added his step-father’s name to his own. Growing up, Zora would see Josef become director of five different hydroelectric plants in Russia, spurring his drive for accomplishment.

Zora Arkus-Duntov in Car photocopy, undated

Zora Arkus-Duntov in a pre-production Chevrolet 210 after setting a new class record at Pikes Peak, Colorado, 1956.

After the family moved to Berlin in 1927, Zora discovered his passion for fast-moving vehicles. He had a job as a streetcar driver and for fun raced motorcycles. His mother, concerned for his safety, requested he find a safer alternative: an automobile.

After graduating from Berlin’s Charlottenburg Technical University in 1934 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Zora began writing and publishing papers, including one on the benefits of four-wheel drive and steering for racing. Soon after, he met Elfi Wolff who was a dancer in the Folies Bergère music hall in Paris. They married in 1939 remaining together for over 55 years.

Corvette Grand Sport

Corvette Grand Sport, Nassau.

During World War II, Zora and his family were able to flee Europe and make their way to the United States. In 1950, Zora joined Sydney Allard to assist in the development on the Allard J2 racecar. The Allard J2 competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in 1952 and 1953. Not just content to be an engineer, Zora also piloted at Le Mans scoring two class victories for Porsche.

At the Motorama Traveling Dream Car Road Show in 1953, Zora’s connection with Corvette was established. Throughout his career, he held various positions at Chevrolet and grew ever more deeply involved in the development of the Corvette. In fact, the Corvette not only became his project, but his life.

Corvette Grand Sport in Workshop photograph, 1963

Corvette Grand Sport in workshop, 1963, courtesy of the Grand Sport Corvette [Pictorial] Record of Build of Car #4 Presented to Robert Adams Compliments of David R. McLellan Chief Engineer Corvette Prepared by A. Torosian.

After his many successes with General Motors, in 1968, Zora was named Chief Engineer of the Corvette program. As Chief Engineer, he was responsible for the design and development of the Corvette body and chassis. He was now able to look ahead to the future and push his engineering ideas further, thereby enabling the Corvette to stand the test of time.