Remembering ‘Father of the Corvette’ at Dream Cruise

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Through seven generations, the Corvette has created a legacy of success on the race track, a performance parts program that rivals any in the auto industry and legions of devoted fans.

“General Motors is riding high on the Corvette now,” said car guy Ken Lingenfelter, owner of the Lingenfelter Collection and Lingenfelter Performance Engineering. “The car is so desirable.”

Without  auto designer Zora Arkus-Duntov, the Corvette probably wouldn’t exist today.

He would know. He’s got 75 Corvettes himself, including some of the most famous and rarest models built.

But none of them would exist without Zora Arkus-Duntov. He’s the man that put the Z in Z06.

“Frankly, Corvette wouldn’t not be what it is today if he hadn’t been part of the project,” said Lingenfelter, who has about 250 cars in his collection, including Arkus-Duntov’s most famous Corvette. “You wonder if it would have even survived.”

As Dream Cruise week heats up and hundreds of Corvette owners prepare to cruise Woodward Avenue on Wednesday in their annual charity car show and ride, there’s no better time to reflect on the legacy of the young engineer who immigrated to the U.S. and changed the trajectory of Chevrolet forever.

“Zora was the foremost champion of the car during its fragile early days back in the ’50s,” said Jerry Burton, author of “Zora Arkus-Duntov: The Legend Behind Corvette.”

“In a high-volume car company like Chevrolet, the emphasis was on selling station wagons and family cars and not low-volume sports cars,” said Burton. “A lot of people at GM and Chevrolet didn’t understand what the car did.”

The first Corvette was introduced to the world in January 1953. The car was named after the nimble Naval escort ship and was powered by a 150-horsepower, “Blue Flame” six-cylinder engine. The only options available were a heater and an AM radio.

Arkus-Duntov saw the car in New York and was impressed by its outside, but disappointed by what was under the hood. He wrote a letter to Chevrolet’s chief engineer Ed Cole, complimenting the design and offering technical expertise on how to determine the car’s top speed. The letter so impressed the engineers at Chevrolet that they offered him a job in May 1953.

Once with the company, Arkus-Duntov began experimenting, trying to figure out how to make the Corvette go faster. It’s thanks to him that the car moved to a V8 engine by 1955. What really earned him respect at the company, however, was a memo he wrote titled “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet,” which laid out his strategy for a successful performance parts program.

Cult-like enthusiasm for car

One of Arkus-Duntov’s most famous Corvettes is his development car or “mule” for the 1955 model year. That car is now owned by Lingenfelter and is on display at the Lingenfelter Collection in Brighton. The museum opens for special events, including fundraisers.

When he purchased the car 10 years ago, Lingenfelter said the auction house expected to get $750,000. But the bidding stalled, and he was able to get it for $310,000.

“Now it’s worth $2 million at least,” said Lingenfelter.

At different times throughout the company’s history, GM fought to kill the Corvette because there weren’t many being sold, compared to other models.

“Duntov had to go in and remind them that this was a halo car,” said Lingenfelter. “It turned out to be a great decision.”

The attraction has led to a cult-like following among Corvette enthusiasts.

Larry Courtney organizes the Corvettes on Woodward Drive 2 End Hunger event every year.

The Warren resident has had Corvettes since 2000 and can be spotted cruising around in his 1999 convertible fifth generation C5 with an American flag paint job.

Wednesday, he will lead a group of 400-500 Corvettes to the Open Hands food pantry in Royal Oak. Before to that, the cars will be on display at the Kingsley Inn in Bloomfield Hills.

For Courtney, the Corvette is special because the owners are family.

“Corvette people, we don’t care if you pull up in a really bad shape Corvette or a brand new one that you just paid $100,000 for, you’re part of the family,” he said. “It’s more of a cultural thing.”

Sales rising

The Corvette’s future seems secure for now. GM recently completed the seventh-generation Corvette and now has a Z06 that, for the first time, comes in a coupe and convertible models. The company is focusing on technology and refinement, said Harlan Charles, Corvette product manager.

“For most of our customers, this is their dream car. They want to make it something special,” said Charles. “Of course it’s about performance and design, but it’s also about making your own statement.”

Thanks in a large part to the popularity of the 2014 Stingray and convertible, General Motors Co. sold 34,839 Chevrolet Corvettes in 2014, up 101.5 percent. That success has continued in the first seven months this year, with Corvette sales totaling 21,101, up 1.4 percent.

As for rumors that Chevrolet is working on a mid-engine version of the Corvette, which was what Arkus-Duntov always hoped to accomplish but never did, Charles says for now, they are just rumors.

“When we get to the point where we feel it would make the sports car better, then we would do it,” he said. “It’s always something on the table that gets discussed, but for now it’s magazine speculation.”

Corvette has also garnered fans overseas as the No. 64 Chevrolet Corvette C7.R won its class at the 24 hours of Le Mans in June. Given his love of racing and how he poured that into the production of Corvette models, Charles says Arkus-Duntov would be proud.

“That race shows that it’s not only a great sports car, it’s dependable,” said Charles. “Zora really advanced the technology in the car to make it a truly competitive sports car.”

As the hundreds of enthusiasts get ready to rev their engines along Woodward Wednesday, it wouldn’t hurt for them to take a moment to remember the father of the Corvette.

“Every one of those guys can take a little extra pride in their car because of what Zora brought to the table,” said Burton. “It’s very true that the Corvette wouldn’t be there if not for him.”

lrazzaq@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2127

@laurenarazzaq

If you go:

Wednesday:

The Corvettes on Woodward car show takes place today starting at noon in the parking lot of the Kingsley Inn, 39475 Woodward, in Bloomfield Hills. Drivers participating in the event are asked to donate $5 to park in the lot. Visitors without a Corvette will not be able to park at the hotel.

Thursday:

“Dream Cars, Dream House, Dream Cruise,” the kick-off event and fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House of Detroit, takes place 6-9 p.m. at the Lingenfelter Collection, 7819 Lochlin Drive, in Brighton. Tickets are $60 and are available at (313) 745-5909 or www.rmhc-detroit.com. They can also be purchased at the door.

Saturday:

Chevrolet will have a display at the Woodward Dream Cruise that will include models like the Corvette, the Camaro and the Volt. The display will be located at the triangle near Woodward Avenue and Old Woodward in Birmingham and runs from 9 a.m.-9 p.m.