Now that the mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette Stingray has been in production for a year, General Motors is starting to roll out variants. First up, the 670-horsepower Corvette Z06 arriving shortly, boasting a zero to 60 mph time of 2.6 seconds, about half a second faster than C8 Stingray.
It will be followed by a new ZR1, which uses two turbochargers produce about 850 hp, according to online reports. A Corvette Grand Sport gasoline-electric hybrid is expected as well, and will be the first all-wheel-drive Corvette.
But topping them all is the Corvette Zora, that will produce 1,000 hp and named for “the Father of the Corvette,” who, this week in 1953, was hired by General Motors.
A confluence of interest
Ed Cole’s career is going well. Having worked his way up to chief engineer at Cadillac, he develops the groundbreaking 1949 Cadillac 5.4-liter (331 cubic-inch) high-compression V-8. Not long after, Cole is promoted to Chevrolet chief engineer by 1952, where he comes across plans for a V-8 to replace Chevrolet’s existing Blue Flame 6-cylinder engine, a powerplant whose character has earned the sobriquet the “Stovebolt Six.” Scrapping plans for the V-8 under development, he starts over.
It’s about this time that someone else is looking for a new job: Zora Arkus Duntov.
Born in 1909, Duntov earned an engineering degree from Charlottenburg Technical University in Berlin, Germany before moving to New York City after World War II, where he and his brother establish Ardun Mechanical, the firm that develops the Ardun cylinder head for Flathead Ford V-8s.
Nevertheless, the 43-year-old Russian engineer approaches Studebaker, Chrysler, Lincoln-Mercury, Ford and General Motors — writing specifically to Ed Cole. Cole replies, saying, “if you are ever in Detroit, let me know.”
A winter’s day changes his life
Then, as fate would have it, Duntov attends the GM Motorama at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in January 1953, where he sees the EX-122 concept car — which would later become the first Corvette. Loving the car’s looks he’s disappointed to find out the concept is powered by the Stovebolt Six.
So, Duntov writes to Cole, suggesting how the car’s performance might be improved. Impressed, Duntov lands an interview with Cole and Maurice Olley, head of Chevrolet Research and Development.
On May 1, 1953, Duntov starts his career at Chevrolet as an assistant staff engineer, at a salary of $14,000, or $150,750 adjusted for inflation.
It proved to be a wise hire.
Not your typical GM suit
Outgoing, even gregarious, Maurice Olley, an Englishman who heads Chevrolet Research and Development, doesn’t get on well with Duntov. It worsens six weeks later, when Duntov requests time off to drive a Cadillac-powered Allard at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Olley refuses, but Cole agrees, albeit time off without pay.
Duntov’s passion is performance, having raced and developed not only Allards, but Porsches and Mercedes-Benzes as well. Having developed the Ardun head, and knowing the Ford hot rod culture, he knows that Ford had a reputation for performance that Chevrolet did not, and an inline-6-powered Corvette was doing nothing to change that. But he thought it could.
So he writes a letter to Cole and Olley titled, “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet,” which broachess a subject the creator of the Ardun head knew well: young hot rodders preferred Fords.
What he said
“The majority of hot-rodders are eating, sleeping, and dreaming modified Fords. They know Ford parts from stem to stern better than the Ford people themselves,” Duntov writes. “As they progress in age and income, they graduate from jalopies to second hand Fords, then to new Fords. Should we consider that it would be desirable to make these youths Chevrolet-minded?”
“The existence of the Corvette provides the loop hole. If the special parts are carried as RPO items for the Corvette, they undoubtedly will be recognized by the hot rodders as the very parts they were looking for to hop up the Chevy. … Since we cannot prevent the people from racing Corvettes,” he writes, “maybe it is better to help them to do a good job at it.”
It is this passion that would guide the Corvette’s chief engineer for the rest of his life and career.