Home Chevrolet History Zora: The Legend Behind Corvette

RushMagazine.com- October 2, 2002

50th Anniversary Corvette Books

Review: Corvette Engineering Limited Edition Boxed Set. Bentley Publishers released a new box set today, collecting its two most recent books on the Corvette into a limited edition set featuring Corvette From the Inside by Dave McLellan and Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette by Jerry Burton. While each book is available individually, this set has the two bound in leather, encased, and signed by their respective authors, in a print run of 250.

The Chevrolet Corvette has a lot of pre-conceived notions associated with it; it"s not just a car that you can mention in the same light as a Corolla or Taurus. The Corvette, since its inception in 1952, has steadily entrenched itself more and more into the fabric of American cars. In fact, it"s quite safe to say that if you"re talking about sports cars from anywhere east of Europe, the Vette is going to have a prominent spot in your discussion. It is, arguably, the American sports car.

Thinking about all the sports car history in the last fifty years, it"s hard to shake the fact that much of it started with the Vette, and the people who designed and built it.
Two of the most important figures in the birth and continued growth of the car are Zora Arkus-Duntov, the original designer, and Dave McLellan, the chief engineer for much of the Vette"s lifespan. In two very different approaches to detailing the history of the car, the books in this set go into great detail about just about everything you could ever want to know regarding the Chevrolet flagship vehicle.

Let"s face it, you"re probably on one side of the fence about the Corvette -- and if you"re reading this, chances are that you"re a fan of the car, rather than a detractor. When I was young, there were a lot of cars that I loved, mostly thanks to the media showing me things like Bandit's 6.6 litre Trans-Am, or Mark Hamill"s Corvette Summer. All things being equal, I ended up a Ford guy, and my best friend was a Chevy guy. I had Shelby"s, he had Vettes. I had Bill Elliott, he had Dale Earnhardt. In the end, it was all benign competitiveness between us, but that"s not usually the case -- there are legions of people that are so fiercely loyal to their car makers, that they"d likely sell their own mothers down the river just to have the last laugh on their sworn enemy.

Whichever side you"re on, you"ve got a favorite car, a flagship that has a special place in your heart (and garage). If your car is the Corvette, then you"d probably love a chance to go through the annals of its history, to hear stories about all the inspirations and minute details that went into the making of this car, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette is quite the compendium on the life of one man. At over 400 pages, it"s not likely that too many facts or stories escaped the author, and yet, if you"ve made it so far as to purchase the book, then you"ll have no reason to put it down. The chapters of Duntov"s life are laid out in such an accessible way, that you"ll feel like you"re being guided through by the hand of Duntov"s guardian angel. This is certainly a biography, one that is filled with seemingly endless facts and pictures, but it really doesn"t read like a standard bio. Instead of sensationalizing or standing too far back and allowing it to become cold and impersonal, author Jerry Burton lets the man"s life tell its tale based on the merits of his incredible ascent to the top of the Corvette hierarchy.

Duntov"s life reads like a three-act play -- in twenty acts. There doesn"t seem to be a dull spot anywhere, as he goes from Russia to Germany to France to America, leaning and teaching all about engineering and designing cars to conquer roadways and raceways. His vision for not only the Corvette, but the myriad innovations in engineering are astounding, to put it mildly. That you may not have heard of him, if not for his fame tied to the Corvette, is equally amazing, based on the kind of life he"s had. Among all these journeys and passions, it is clearly the Corvette that stands out as his life"s work, his greatest accomplishment. While he didn"t invent the car outright, he came onto the team early, and influenced its course more than anyone else, constantly having to fight for the right to do things his way. Then again, this is not a book about the car itself, so don"t be looking for Chevrolets on page 10 -- a good half of the pages will be turned before that happens. Don"t get me wrong, you won"t feel the need to skip chapters, again because of how rich the content of his life was before 1952.

Burton himself has a very fluid style that he breaks up into subsections very well (okay, maybe his editor did that part), which makes for more linear reading, which is important when reading something like a biography, where the biographer is often tempted to pursue tangents. Not so in this case, as I found myself breezing through chunks of the book, forgetting that the narrative was simply stitching together details of Duntov"s life.

As far as learning about the car itself, rest assured, you will get so much more than just history. The author talks about the personal inspirations behind some of the car"s innovations, like Duntov"s fuel injection, which he was the first to employ on an American car. I"d recommend this book just based on how well Duntov"s life creates a panorama of eras and drama, but in the end, you"ll enjoy it for its appreciation of the man"s love for his baby, the Corvette. Corvette From the Inside is an altogether different creature. Nothing like a biography, and also caring little for extolling things like courage and genius, this is more of a "behind the blueprints" approach that will answer every tiny little question you ever had or thought about thinking up, about the innards of the Chevy beast.

McLellan was an engineer working on the Corvette for 33 years, and most of that was spent as chief engineer. During his tenure, he saw the car evolve from year to year and chassis to chassis, always looking for ways big and small to best last year"s efforts -- and almost always coming through. Of course, there were other influences at work, such as a gas crisis, or stubborn executives focusing on sales and not performance. It wasn"t, however, McLellan"s war to fight, to get the car made -- it was simply his job to make it a great car, and through putting together his memories and notes, he"s able to give such intimate detail on the car as no one else possibly could.

While there is a clear, linear narrative to this book, it"s not about getting from point A to point B, but rather about examining what point A looks like under a microscope. He"ll tell you how a very specific part on the car was made, or how something like vibration affects the ride, depending on what kind of tires you have. He"ll offer you the mathematical formulae that he had to use to find the right density for the frame, and exactly how much thicker the frame needs to be if the car is going to be a convertible. In other words, this is a behind the scenes textbook, that gives you an insider"s look at the car from the ground up.

What level of tech-speak are we talking about? I"d say that you should know something about cars before taking this book on -- as someone who"s very comfortable under the hood of an American car, I can say that I had no problems understanding anything that was discussed in detail, but I"d worry that a novice would. If you"ve dabbled, this is certainly a very didactic piece of automotive teaching, and if you"re interested in learning more about it, this is a fun way to do it, following the history of the Vette. This is a car that started out as a fairly basic rocket-sled, and has evolved into quite the high-tech transport, so starting off with those basic components gives you a chance to learn with the car.

In the end, either you appreciate detail, or you don"t, and this book is all in the detail. That"s not to say that it isn"t well-written, because it certainly is -- quite impressive for an engineer -- but rather that you and the author make a pact when you buy it that you"re going to be doing some learning. If that"s your cup of tea, then you can"t do much better than following around a teacher like Dave McLellan, talking about the work he loved so much.

Next up: Conclusions.

Keeping in mind that this is a boxed set, it"s important to know what you"re getting, outside of a couple of isolated books. With a run of only 250 units, this is clearly something for collectors, probably those who own a Vette, and have always worshipped at the altar of Duntov and Chevrolet. This may not be you, but rather someone you know, whom you haven"t selected a present for the holidays yet.

As a gift, it"s impressive to get something that"s limited edition, and when it"s in a nice presentation kit like this, it"s probably something they"ll showcase. Is it worth it? I think so -- while it"s not lavish, and the price isn"t something to be ignored, it"s really only going to be worth it to people who are interested in it for its limited run and its signatures, so it"s hard to put a price on. The books themselves retail for $39.95, or $27.97 apiece on Amazon or $31.96 at Barnes and Noble so if you"re more interested in one or the other, then getting one on its own isn"t a bad idea at all. If the subjects sounds interesting, then it"s almost guaranteed that you"ll really like the books.

Any complaints? Only one, really: that the photos in the books (and trust me, there are quite a lot) are all in black and white. I would have liked to have seen at least a section with a nice collection of color shots. With book prices today, $40 isn"t too much to pay for a book like this, but I would have rather had it for $45 with color, if possible. I mean, when was the last time you saw a Corvette in black and white? It"s such a vibrant machine, that it deserves more color than just the book cover.

Overall, this box set isn"t a revelation, but if you know a real Corvette lover, then see that the books get into their hands, they"ll thank you for it. If you"re not convinced, check out Amazon, they"ll let you peek the first few pages. If you"re hooked, then see if you can pick up a copy of the set before the 250 are gone.