SEMA News—January 2013
By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy of the Petersen Archive
It has been 60 years since the first Corvette rolled off its assembly line in Flint, Michigan. A month before that first Vette was built, a Belgian-born engineer named Zora Arkus-Duntov joined Chevrolet.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Duntov’s influence over the Corvette. The two-seater was hurried into production back in 1953 after a show-car version drew rave reviews at GM’s Motorama event in New York. Though it was clad in an innovative fiberglass body, the Corvette was assembled beneath the skin using what was available in Chevy’s parts bin, including a fairly anemic 150hp Blue Flame six-cylinder engine and a two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission.
It is testament to Duntov’s innovative thinking—as well as his persistence—that the Corvette was a true sports car just four short years later, able to compete with the best Europe had to offer on the street and the track. Duntov’s efforts at raising the Corvette’s performance bar weren’t limited to production models, either. He was responsible for several Corvette prototypes and racing cars, including the gorgeous ’57 SS Corvette seen here.
What sometimes gets lost in the telling of Duntov’s legend is his key role in the development of the performance aftermarket. Just months after his hiring, he drafted a memo to his supervisor titled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders & Chevrolet.” In it, Duntov laid out what every teenaged car nut at the time knew: that Ford cars and parts to hop up Ford engines dominated the performance scene. The connection between young men and their hot rods established the kind of brand loyalty that kept them buying Fords as their age and means increased.
Duntov believed Chevrolet had an opportunity to get on hot rodders’ radar screens with its upcoming overhead-valve V8—especially if Chevy accompanied the introduction of the engine with “ready-engineered parts for high output,” he wrote. “This means the development of a range of special parts—camshafts, valves, springs, manifolds, pistons and such which will be made available to the public.” Should rodders be able to easily modify the new V8, Duntov reasoned, “the appeal of the new will take hold and not having the stigma of expensiveness like the Cadillac or Chrysler, a swing to Chevrolet may be anticipated.”
Duntov admitted that there was little connection between Chevrolet and high performance in 1953. “But possibly the existence of the Corvette provides the loophole,” he said in the memo. “If the special parts are carried as RPO [regular production order] 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.”
It took a while to convince the GM brass, but Duntov persisted, using the Corvette to roll out performance parts that would become state-of-the-art, high-demand pieces for rodders and racers of all kinds.
As the Corvette celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is still powered by a small-block Chevrolet V8 engine. The fifth-generation V8 displaces 6.2 liters and produces about 450 hp. Both it and the all-new, seventh-generation Corvette that surrounds it can trace their roots to that memo drafted back in December 1953.