Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette
by Jerry Burton
Understanding the Corvette
By Christopher A. Sawyer, Executive Editor
Here's a confession you don't often hear: I've never been a big fan of the Corvette. True, some of the versions through the years have appealed to me, but I've never had a love affair with ?America's only sports car.? In the late 1960s, the car was synonymous with Big Block V8s, horsepower wars, and straight-line acceleration. Finesse wasn't part of the equation. The styling was over the top, and the car became a symbol for every arrested adolescent, gold-chain wannabe in the land. Much like the way BMWs today ? despite their dynamic abilities and neatly tailored looks ? conjure up images of self-absorbed Yuppies.
To me, cars like the ?63 to ?67 Vette had style in their more basic form with a stock 327-in.3 V8 under the hood. Ditto the ?68 to ?82 version, though after 1972 or so, there wasn't much to talk about. The Big Block cars left me cold, though design studies like the AeroVette caught my attention as a sign of how broad a Corvette family could be. I could never understand the appeal of these cars, or whether GM was trying to build a road racer or a street racer. Now I know.
After the one-two punch of Jerry Burton's book Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette, and Dave McLellan's Corvette From the Inside (both from Bentley Publishers), I now know more about the Corvette, what went on behind the scenes, and the epic battles fought over this nameplate. And the grand egos involved. One of the more low-key characters in the Corvette drama, Dave McLellan replaced Arkus-Duntov as chief engineer on the Corvette, and was responsible for the 1984 to 1996 model, including its ZR-1 derivative. It's interesting to read his history of the car, placed in the historical context of sports car development before and after World War II, and compare this to Arkus-Duntov's story. Both men wanted to produce a high-technology platform for Chevrolet, and both were left building cars that fell far short of their dreams. Arkus-Duntov, for example, presented three proposals to GM management in the late 1950s. Perversely, the least adventurous model ? proposed as a straw man designed to make the two other concepts more attractive ? was the one chosen for the 1963-1967 model. McLellan suffered similar disappointments.
If Burton's book has a fault, it's the reverence he has for Arkus-Duntov. Personally, I don't care if Arkus-Duntov had an emotionally remote Russian revolutionary mother who divorced his father, took up with another man she eventually married, or that all of them lived together under one roof. It's an interesting fact, but not an excuse for Arkus-Duntov's myriad indiscretions, which are just as easily explained by the man's towering ego. This failing, and his lack of political shrewdness, often prevented Arkus-Duntov from gaining the power base necessary to build the Corvette he wanted, or having the reserves to be able to fight another day. (Should a Hollywood producer want to film an automotive soap opera ? an unlikely prospect after the movie Driven ? he could do worse than fashion a story line based on Arkus-Duntov's life.)
Contrast this with McLellan's book, which steers clear of the corporate politics, yet tells more than he intended by outlining the various hurdles and deals necessary to get the fourth generation car into production. Very low-key in its delivery ? much like the man himself ? McLellan's book makes use of diagrams drawn by the author to explain fundamental engineering principles, and illustrate the concepts under discussion. And, as if to prove that he too was bitten by the same bug that drove Arkus-Duntov, McLellan outlines how Chevrolet could expand the Corvette lineup to include a 1,000-hp, four-wheel-drive, mid-engine model, and various variants in-between.
By the way: I'm still not a big fan of the car.