In the Christmas season 20 years ago the Corvette, a bright new sports car immaculately conceived by a General Motors designer named Harley Earl, made its debut at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Although there was little to herald its coming, the first Corvette attracted a multitude of ordinary folk and also skeptical wise men from rival car companies. Many of the wise men were shaken by what they saw at the Waldorf and went back to their think tanks sore afraid.
Because of its recessed headlights and its wide grille, from head on the first Corvette resembled an albino toadfish with ill-fitting false teeth—but from every other point of view it was a slick little beauty. It was low in profile and low-slung on a short wheelbase. Except for rudimentary fins the Corvette had no unnecessary protrusions and little of the meaningless chrome that has afflicted so many American cars. In striving for a clean look, Designer Earl had even reduced the rear bumper to the point where it was a vestige, barely enough to withstand the impact of an onrushing bunny rabbit. Since the Corvette body was made of resilient fibered plastic, it could be dinged like a surfboard, but it took a Jot more than a bunny to rumple it.
The throbbing guts of the original Corvette were engineered by Chevrolet, the General Motors division that for a quarter century had been making useful automobiles that were about as exciting as a Good Humor truck. So when Chevrolet—the master builder of fuddy-duddy cars—showed up at the Waldorf with a cutie called Corvette, rival companies were naturally nervous.
The new Chevrolet Corvette was billed as "the first All-American Sports Car," a bumptious claim that ignored the prior existence of the Mercer and the Stutz Bearcat and the old chain-driven Apperson Jack Rabbit. Sixty-five years ago when a dollar was a lot, the Apperson Jack Rabbit cost five grand. If "feel of the road" is one of the criteria of a sports car, the Jack Rabbit owner got his money's worth solely on that count. Whenever the Jack Rabbit's wheels found a pothole in the Godforsaken byways of its time, the shock instantly shot up the driver's spine and rebounded off his skull. At such times as a Jack Rabbit was scorching along a country road at 65 and ran into a flock of chickens and got some of them tangled in its chain drive, it was truly an exciting car. On such occasions the feathers really flew, blotting out the sun.
December 4, 1972
Although in the beginning the Corvette had relatively no more to offer than the old Jack Rabbit, in time it became a very good sports car. The Corvette of today has power. It is nimble and quick. It bores deep into curves with no disturbing sway, and it comes out strong. In the modern Corvette the discrete trinity of man, car and road are fused. To appreciate this, one need only drive a Corvette for a day, then switch to a standard sedan. After a Corvette an ordinary machine feels like a large undulating mattress remotely associated with the road.
The car has taken on weight over the years—due largely to its increased power and steel reinforcement in its fibered body. Since 1953 its wheelbase has decreased by four inches, and its overall length has increased by 18. Its bucket seats are more comfy today, and its instrument panel is resplendent. Its tracks are wide; its tread is growing ever wider; its luggage space is shrinking. Still, through all such changes it has remained a sports car.
In 1955, two years after the Corvette, the Ford Motor Company came out with a dashing two-seater called the Thunderbird. The impending rivalry of the Corvette and Thunderbird turned out to be no contest because the cars took off in opposite directions. The sporty Thunderbird was not truly a sports car, never tried to be, and by its fourth year had become a four-seater. Then in the early '60s a trim and nasty sports car called the Cobra, conceived by a onetime chicken farmer named Carroll Hall Shelby and powered by Ford, made its appearance. In production competition on road courses the Cobra blew the Corvette off in the same convincing way that the Corvette had been scoring over Jaguars, Mercedes and other foreign marques. But while Shelby's Cobra was an honest sports car its virtues were dissipated by what is known as "rub-off" in the industry. Ford applied the names "Cobra" and "Shelby" to outsized, high-performance street cars, and about all that is left now of the original sparky enterprise is a lightly tarnished memory.
Although it was not the first American sports car, 20 years ago the Corvette was the only one, and it is that still. This coming year about 125,000 sports cars will be sold in the U.S. Twenty-seven thousand of them will be Corvettes; the rest will be foreign.
The Corvette has retained its sports-car integrity and has held its place against imports because in the vast warrens of General Motors there are men of assorted genius who have had an abiding, almost puckish, love for it. In the beginning the car surely needed love, or at least compassion and understanding. The first working prototype of the Corvette was known as EX-122. It was subsequently named Corvette by Myron Scott, a Chevrolet public relations man better remembered as the originator of the annual Soap Box Derby. A corvette by modern definition is a light, fast and maneuverable craft. The first production Corvettes were truly light, but beyond that they did not live up to their seafaring name. They were not very fast or maneuverable, and when it rained they leaked like a wicker basket.
The first Corvette engine was called the Blue Flame Special, although there was little special about it except three side-draft carburetors that helped it whomp out about 150 horsepower. In essence it was the six-cylinder, valve-in-head Chevrolet engine that had been in loyal and humdrum service for 16 years. A 1954 Oldsmobile with V-8 engine could outrun the six-cylinder Corvette and also outdrag it from a standing start. Although the early Corvette's leaf-spring rear suspension was far better than that of, say, the model 1848 Conestoga wagon, the car was not set up well enough to appeal to sports-car purists. On tight curves taken at speed the early Corvettes tended to wander, oversteering in front, understeering in the rear.
In its first three years the Corvette almost failed because it did not offer auto buffs enough, and in inclement weather it was almost too much to take. Edward Cole, an engineer who owned one of the first 300 Corvettes produced in 1953, remembers that on his first long ride in the rain—from suburban Detroit 150 miles to Kalamazoo—the water rising in the cockpit compelled him to take off his shoes and roll up his pants. When he got to Kalamazoo, he found that the door pocket where he had put his camera was flooded. Joseph Pike, a Wisconsin-bred car nut, counted himself lucky to get one of the 3,640 Corvettes made in 1954. A month after he got it, while he was bound from Minneapolis to Cedar Rapids in a storm, water came in, not only around the window panels but through the leading edges of the fabric top and both doors. Ninety miles out of Minneapolis, Pike bailed out the car with a coffee can and turned back.
Clare MacKichan, a designer from Farmington, Mich., drilled holes in the floor of his Corvette so the water could get out as fast as it got in. This complicated the problem. When MacKichan ran into a real dam buster in Naples, Fla., the water came at him from all the usual directions and also up through the holes he had bored.
The preceding accounts of water-soaked Corvette lovers seem to be extreme instances, but they are not. The three lovers cited have had a long and greater involvement with the Corvette than mere ownership and would not bad-mouth the original car beyond its deserts. All three are General Motors employees who helped the car become what it was supposed to be. Joe Pike, who bailed out his car with a coffee can, has been the Chevrolet merchandising manager responsible for the Corvette for 12 years. At the time he drilled holes in his Corvette, Clare MacKichan was chief of the Chevrolet design studio responsible for improving the car so that, among other things, it was less of a sieve. Edward Cole, the engineer who drowned his camera on the way to Kalamazoo, is now president of General Motors.
At the time Designer Harley Earl was shaping a brave new car out of common clay, Edward Cole was manager of a plant producing Army tanks. In early 1952 he was asked to become manufacturing manager of Chevrolet—a big step up. He declined because the line of cars he would be making did not appeal to him. Shortly afterward, when offered the job of chief of engineering at Chevrolet, he accepted. At the tank plant Cole had been noodling out a thin-walled V-8 engine. It was largely the development of this extracurricular V-8—weighing 60 pounds less than the old Chevy six cylinder and putting out about 75 more horsepower—that got the entire Chevrolet line out of a rut and started the Corvette on its way.
In time, perhaps, little old EX-122, the Corvette whose slick looks wowed everybody at the Waldorf 20 years ago, may become a museum piece. But not at the moment; it is still snorting around on the public roads of New York. EX-122 is presently owned by a textile machinery manufacturer named Jack Ingle, whose wife Caroline nearly totaled it 10 years ago in a nasty spin-out on a wet Connecticut road. Except for that squeaker the original, historic Corvette has led an ordinary life. It has been to the shop now and then, but it is not treated as the family jewel. In fact, 119 of the 300 Corvettes produced in 1953 are still alive—a remarkable survival rate. To judge by the number of oldies that one sees at rallies, at concours and parked alongside race circuits, possibly half the Corvettes made before 1960 are still in action. There are no hard figures available for the Corvette since 1953, but it scarcely matters.
Whereas all the Corvette's love affairs with water-soaked engineers, aboriginal buffs and latter-day collectors have counted for a lot, the Corvette prospers primarily because at its Waldorf debut it caught the eye of a Belgian-born, Russian-bred, German-educated, French-polished ban vivant named Zora Arkus-Duntov, who was not wholly enchanted by it. Zora Arkus-Duntov is a courtly man, a polite genius endowed with the earthy candor of a peasant. After, giving the Corvette a once-over and getting to know what lay under its smooth shell, he declared, "It is the prettiest car I have ever seen. But mechanically it stinks."
At the time, Zora Arkus-Duntov was employed by the Fairchild Aviation Corp. He was sufficiently impressed by the Corvette to write Edward Cole of Chevrolet, appraising the car and submitting one of his automotive papers. Edward Cole and Maurice Olley, the research chief of Chevrolet, were impressed enough to offer Duntov a modest salary with bonus promises. Although he was hired to work on advance projects for the whole Chevrolet division, in a style that Rasputin would have admired Duntov slowly appropriated the Corvette. In the early days, simply by altering the shape of its cams a few thousandths he got the car to accelerate and decelerate properly. He designed the fuel injection that made the early Corvette competitive, thus attracting the press and winning back buffs who had considered it a dog. Almost anywhere you look in the manifold complexities of the modern Corvette—in its transmission, suspension and aspiration, in its cam-shaftery and the sintered linings of its disk brakes—there is the mark of Zora.
In addition to bold advances and millimetric refinements, the present Corvette has a certain flair—an esprit, if you will—that seems to derive from Duntov. Whatever his influence, it is no more accurate to describe Zora Arkus-Duntov merely as the man who made the Corvette go than to remember Shakespeare as the playwright who popularized the rhymed couplet. Duntov is a latter-day Renaissance man, academically complete but always thirsty, intent but un-confined.
From his Russian childhood until 1950 Duntov's life was a progression of successes punctuated by near disasters and occasional pratfalls. Considering his helter-skelter past and his scattered genius, it is a wonder that he ever succeeded in a specialized field. Suppose, gentle reader, you were asked to design a better hand grenade, or a diesel locomotive, or a 14-inch lathe, or a torsional vibration damper, or an atomic compressor, could you do it? Could you modify the old Ford 100-horsepower flathead engine to get 160 honest horses out of it? If given the job of designing an eight-horsepower truck so that it would haul two tons at 12 miles an hour on the Strassen of Berlin, could you develop such an improbable low-powered machine with a clutch simple enough for a chimpanzee to operate? Suppose your teen-age noodling had impressed a Russian general in the early Stalin days, would you know what to do with the two airplane engines he assigned to you for experimental purposes?
It is from such challenges that the automotive genius Duntov emerged. He might not have survived at all if he had not also come up with fast answers to a lot of problems that exceed the orderly limits of engineering. Suppose that in the Bolshevik days when there were not enough schools, you had been expelled as an incorrigible. What would you have done? Suppose your mother had entrusted you to register your 5-year-old brother in school, but for a month you failed to do so. In such a case, what would you have done with your brother? If you had ever wanted to avoid premilitary training so you could go your own Villonesque way in Russia, could you have managed it without irritating the secret police?
Although he has never been a con artist or a political chameleon, in his early years Duntov was not against adapting facts to fit the uncertainties of the times. For example, neither his present name, Zora Arkus-Duntov, nor his professed age of 63 is correct. Actually he was born 62 years ago on Christmas Day and named Zora Yackovlevich Arkus by his Russian parents, who were studying in Belgium at the time. His father, Jaques Arkus, was an engineer; his mother, Rachel, a bright medical student who later became a superintendent responsible for thousands of children orphaned by war and revolution. Duntov's first recollections, at the age of four, are of deducing how steam is used in a turbine and reading about war in the papers of Leningrad—then St. Petersburg. His stronger memory is of prolonged hunger and cold and his brilliant mother's recurring comment that he was a dim-witted child. "She said it so often," he recalls, "that I believed it." When he was put out of one school—for being unruly, not stupid—he eased into another without telling his parents. He was habitually tardy, and as a consequence his 5-year-old brother Yura (who in time got a degree in fluid dynamics from the Sorbonne) spent part of his first-grade year in darkness. When he was entrusted with enrolling his brother, Zora Arkus did not get to the school in time for the registration. For more than a month he solved the problem by hiding his brother in a cabinet in his own classroom.
Zora Arkus' boyhood was influenced by America, in the main to his advantage. At Cub Scout age he was toting a Yankee-made Smith & Wesson revolver to keep thugs from stealing his bread ration. The two aircraft engines assigned to him for experimenting when he was 17 were old six-in-line Scott-Halls made in the U.S. Because Russia had adopted the Dalton plan, the revolutionary American system whereby each student advances at his own pace, Zora Arkus finished secondary school too young to get into the Leningrad Electro-Technical Institute. He convinced the institute that he had been born in Belgium under the old Julian calendar and was thus a full year older. Since Belgium used the Gregorian calendar and there are only 13 days difference between the calendars, this explanation makes no sense. Thinking it over now, Duntov merely shrugs. "What difference," he says. "What I told the officials was sufficient to confuse them."
In the early '20s Rachel fell in love with an engineer named Iosif Duntov. There is nothing remarkable about it except that the adult triangle—Rachel and her husband Jaques Arkus and her new love Iosif Duntov—lived amicably together in a large house overlooking the ancient Peter and Paul Fortress. Although her physical love was transferred, Rachel Arkus respected her legal husband and would never have left him. Furthermore, there were the children to consider, and separate lodging was hard to find. The children, Zora and Yura, loved both their real father, Arkus, and their acquired father, Duntov, and today they use the surname Arkus-Duntov, honoring both. As Yura Arkus-Duntov explains it, "Faced with the unconventional situation of having two fathers simultaneously, we took the English way out. We hyphenated."
By the early 1930s both Arkus-Duntov children and their Arkus parents and their other "father," Duntov, had emigrated from Russia, seeking a more pliant existence. After getting an engineering degree in Berlin, Zora Arkus-Duntov prospered fitfully as a designer and engineer in Germany, Belgium and France. When World War II began, he first considered trying to stay neutral since "Germany would eventually lose and everybody would be friends again." Yura joined the French Foreign Legion and was later transferred to the French Air Force. So Zora Duntov joined up as a private in the heavy bombardment group in which Yura was serving as a candidate officer. It has been French policy since Napoleon that brothers do not serve in the same unit. When the brothers Duntov were discovered together, Private Second Class Zora Duntov was reassigned. Several weeks later he turned up again in his brother's unit. "String pulling," he explains.
When the Nazi panzers swept around the hard corner at Sedan, the brothers Duntov were stationed in Bordeaux. In the last desperate days, Italian bombers swept over Bordeaux. "It was one of the picturesque engagements of the war," Yura recalls. "We had only one squadron to send up against them—a Belgian squadron equipped with Italian fighters. When the Italian bombers encountered the Italian fighters, the confusion in the sky was total."
After France surrendered, Zora knew he wanted to get off the continent, but on his discharge he became a stateless person without papers to travel, even in the unoccupied south of France. Nonetheless, he started moving, eventually reaching Marseilles. Trying to get exit, transit and entry visas that would take him from France across Spain to Portugal and on to the U.S. became a futile, chase-tail procedure. By the time he got all the necessary papers, one or another of them would expire. To get the job done, Duntov turned his personal charm on the sister of the Spanish consul in Marseilles. The Spanish consul learned that Duntov, the Russian rake, had been wining and dining his sister and had brought her home so late one night that she had to be boosted over the wall of the convent where she lived. "At our next meeting," Duntov relates, "the consul was very cool to me, but I had the necessary visa immediately."
Although Duntov has taken many roads in the past 40 years and built a variety of better mousetraps, the motor car has been his lasting mania. In his Bolshevik childhood his stomach was sometimes bloated for want of bread, but by 1924—the end of the Lenin era—because of their important jobs, his mother and Mr. Duntov both had state-owned cars with drivers at their bidding. It was the chauffeur of a 15-year-old Mercedes assigned to his family who gave Zora Duntov (then Arkus) his first break. In winter, while the chauffeur beered it up with companions in a bar, he allowed young Arkus to stand by the old Mercedes and fire it up every 20 minutes to keep it from freezing solid.
In his student days in Germany, Zora Duntov bought a motorcycle and later he bought an obsolete 50-horsepower race car that proved to be a real dog. And in the 40 years since, in good racing cars and in worthless dogs, on flats and uphill, in competition and on speed runs, on oval tracks and through the chicanery of road courses, Duntov has sampled it all—the dust and the glory, the roar of the crowd and the grease of the pits. He has competed in little-known affairs like the Rest-and-Be-Thankful Hill Climb in Scotland, and in classic events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Twice at Le Mans he drove thundering Allards and failed to finish; twice he won class honors in little screaming Porsches.
Today at age 63 (actually 62 by the Gregorian calendar) Duntov is still a restless man in a constant state of itch. Searching for important papers, he prowls around his office in the Chevrolet engineering building as if he had been recently captured and caged. He still road-tests the Corvette personally, feeling it out through the seat of his pants.
In perfecting the Corvette he has literally broken his back. Some years ago on the General Motors road course in Milford, Mich., he took a Corvette with grabbing brakes into a turn, lost the road and ended up on the far side of a ditch. The doctor examining the X-rays of his broken back asked him when he had broken it before, but Duntov did not know he had. As a boy he once rode his bicycle down a 45-degree slope, hit the lip of a footpath by mistake and took off. He traveled through the air above the foot bridge he had planned to coast across and crashed 100 feet from takeoff, bending his cycle like a pretzel. In dual gymnastics, when his bottom man did not give him enough lift into a back flip, on one occasion he landed on his head. In the late '30s, celebrating a winning lottery ticket with his beautiful wife Elfi, he drove a Nerva sports car into the Chamber of Deputies building in Paris. In a boxing match he was once floored so hard he dislocated a shoulder. The car carrying him from the boxing arena to a hospital ran into another car, and Duntov regained consciousness for the second time that night lying in a Berlin street. While recuperating from the boxing-automobile disaster, he made a gentle pass at the nurse washing his head. She knocked him backward, wounding his pride and, conceivably, injuring his spine. At some time in the mélange and carnage of his past Duntov broke his back, but he is at a loss now to remember when or how. And small wonder.
Because of his elaborate contributions to sports-car development, Duntov has been described as "Mr. Corvette," as "an automotive genius" and as "an innovative genius of the century." The finest tribute, perhaps, is one paid him by an automotive writer, Patrick Bedard. Whereas manufacturers today live by the fallacy that they should give the public what it wants, Bedard pointed out that Duntov never tried to give Corvette buyers what they wanted but what he, the expert, knew they could really use and would enjoy most.
From 1932, when he sold his motorcycle, Duntov never rode another one until three years ago when he bought a little Honda. His idea was to have fun puttering around on it in Grosse Point, his sedate hometown. But he soon found he was leaning on the curves and getting heavy on the gas. The racing animal in him was stirring. It was a question of getting a bigger machine or giving it up altogether. He quit motorcycling and took up flying.
When an air show hit Detroit last September, Duntov, the continental sophisticate, was among the 80,000 hicks who turned out to watch latter-day knights of the singing struts carve up the sky with plumes of smoke. When Bob Carter, Michigan's Flying Cowboy, did his stuff, Duntov, the apprentice aviator, was almost transfixed, his intentness reminiscent of the fictional motor-mad Mr. Toad. Unless he contains himself in the air better than he has on land—an improbability—any day Duntov may simply disappear into the wild blue, executing a series of lazy Cuban eights.
In any case, he leaves behind the Corvette, an unusual object of love. One is tempted to call the Corvette a unique car, but it is not. In specialty salesrooms there are Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis that are every bit as good as the Corvette and cost only three times as much.