Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov literally broke his back to improve the Corvette. But perhaps his greatest sacrifice was enduring the humiliation of having to wear a dress to work.
The Belgium-born engineer worked in England for sports car builder Allard before joining General Motors in 1953. By 1956, his primary responsibility was to improve the Corvette, which was stagnating in need of high performance to go with its sports car promise.
Duntov pushed himself harder for the Corvette than he might have for a more ordinary machine. Feeling the pressure to complete testing on the ’57, he even risked his life for it.
“It was my own fault,” Duntov told Consumer Guide in the late 1970s. “I arrived at the proving grounds to make carburetor tests and found that this car had no seatbelts. It had experimental disc brakes. There were many things wrong with this car. Still I drove it. Sure like hell, I got sideways and went off the track. I hit a drainage ditch, and with no seatbelts, I was thrown up into the hardtop. The sudden decompression broke a vertebra.
“I was in a body cast for six months. I went to work in a dress with nothing under. I couldn’t bend. I had strings to lift up my dress in the rest room. I was quite a sight.”
What kind of car could push a man to these extremes? The Corvette could. In fact, it’s only because of such passion that the Corvette has stayed in continuous production since its debut in 1953.
Throughout the Corvette’s history, accountants, executives, and product planners have mounted compelling arguments for dropping it. Yet Chevrolet’s flagship has survived — even thrived — amidst these threats. Dave McLellan and David Hill followed Duntov, who retired in 1974. Their dedication and the enthusiasm of Corvette’s legion of loyalists have kept the car alive through waves of slow sales, brutal competition, and seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.
But the real hero is the thrill of the machine. Corvette best represents the American ideal of V-8 performance, bold styling, and high dollar value. It’s a champion on road and race track.
Duntov died in 1996, a Corvette man to the end — and beyond. His ashes are interred at the Corvette museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.