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The Father Of America's Most Iconic Car Was An Immigrant


No other words and no definition or description is needed. Regardless of gender or age, every red-blooded American instantly knows what that word means and the images it evokes. Adolescent boys hang posters of the car on their wall and grown men see the car as a salve to their "mid-life crisis." Sure, over the years at various times, other American cars have been more powerful, flashier or even more expensive. But these cars were always nothing but want-to-be debutants, left with mascara streaked faces as their dates roared off into the night - four red taillights and an exhaust note that Lucifer himself would be proud of was all that could be seen and heard.

Corvette. And the man who made this word synonymous with American automotive muscle was not a red-blooded American. He was an immigrant.

Zora Arkus-Duntov was born in Belgium, raised in Leningrad, Russia and obtained an engineering degree from a university in Berlin, Germany. His obsession with powerful cars began in his early childhood and by his mid twenties he was writing articles for a German automotive magazine. With the outbreak of World War II, he and his family fled to Spain and eventually were able to book passage to New York.

In New York, Duntov and his brother formed a company that supplied cylinder heads for Ford engines being used in U.S. military trucks. Although the company eventually went under, Duntov's passion for powerful cars, racecars in particular, never waned. Duntov attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1946 and 1947 (he failed) but was able to race in the 24 of Le Mans in the early 1950's. In 1953, Duntov was working for Fairchild Aviation when he attended the Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The star of the car show was a concept car, the Chevrolet Corvette, and Duntov was so taken with the sporty two-seater, he wrote a letter to the Chief Engineer of Chevrolet to compliment him but also expressed his disappointment with the underpowered 6-cylinder engine under the hood. In response, the Chief Engineer was so impressed with Duntov's letter and suggestions, he offered Duntov a job.

Although not specifically assigned to the Corvette project, Duntov relentlessly urged Chevrolet to install more powerful engines in its cars as a way to capture the "youth and hot rodder" market. Duntov is credited for saving the Corvette from the trash heap as sales of the car had been dismal - that is until, Chevrolet followed his lead and offered a small-block V-8 in the Corvette as an option in 1955. Duntov also pressed Chevrolet to start racing the Corvette as well. By 1956, Duntov was named Corvette engineering coordinator and in 1957 was promoted to Director of High Performance Vehicles. Despite his other duties, Duntov's devotion to the Corvette was constant and through his guidance the power and sophistication of the car continued to grow each year. In 1968, Duntov was named the first Chief Engineer of the Corvette program. Not only was he now responsible for the development for Corvettes' engine, body and chassis, he was responsible for developing a road map for where the program would go in the future. He retired in 1975 but remained a zealous promoter of the Corvette until his death in 1996. Seen as the father of Corvette, Duntov's ashes are entombed at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling, Kentucky. All of this for an immigrant who came to the U.S. and made the Corvette the first name of American cars.

After his death, conservative commentator George Will wrote a tribute to Duntov that was published in newspapers across the country: "If . . . you do not mourn his passing, you are not a good American."

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