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Zora Arkus-Duntov; Engineer Hailed for Developing Corvette

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zora Arkus-Duntov, the automotive engineer known for transforming the Corvette from a show car and plastic toy into a true American sports car, has died. He was 86.

Duntov, a race driver who became known as “Mr. Corvette” and the patriarch of high performance, died Sunday in Detroit. He had been increasingly frail since a stroke five years ago.

A Russian-born, German-trained engineer, Duntov went to work for Chevrolet in 1953--the Corvette’s first model year. He joined the Corvette team after writing a memo now enshrined by General Motors suggesting that drivers were finally ready for an American high-performance car. He soon became the Corvette’s first chief engineer.

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“There are great designers, there are great motor people and great corporate politicians,” Reeves Callaway, who customizes Corvettes, once told The Times’ car columnist Paul Dean. “Zora Arkus-Duntov is all of these things. And a race car driver. So he was able to build a car where his personality shows through. The Corvette is him.”

Duntov himself downplayed the uniform adulation.

“A man puts his pants on one leg at a time. So the fuss about me is out of proportion,” he told The Times in 1991. “I really didn’t create anything. Genius? Hah! I just make a good car.”

He added several innovations to the Corvette that filtered through the automobile industry, including fuel injection in 1957 and four-wheel disc brakes in 1965.

But he clearly was thwarted on other ideas.

“I know that I give lots of people joy, and I’m happy for that. But my satisfaction with the car was never really full . . . because I was always constrained,” he said in 1991.

Had he been given free reign, he added, “Today’s Corvette would be a mid-engined car and four-wheel driven. Four-wheel drive for better traction needed in a high-performance car. Mid-engine for better balance, more efficient braking.”

He retired from Chevrolet in the mid-1970s, but continued to attend Corvette shows and events around the country, such as those at the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, which has a dozen vintage Corvettes owned by former Times publisher Otis Chandler.

Duntov drove a 1974 Corvette for nearly 15 years--until someone offered him $100,000 for it. He switched then to a 1989 Corvette, but never liked it as well.

The legendary engineer celebrated his 85th birthday on Christmas Day in 1994 at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., the city where Corvettes are produced. A street near the museum was named in his honor.

Duntov is survived by his wife, Elfi.


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