Photos courtesy GM Media: Corvette and Zora Arkus-Duntov
One of the first cars I learned to recognize when I was little (beyond a dump truck) was a Corvette. My Dearly Departed Dad and I would play a car game whenever we saw a corvette – we would yell out Corvette, the color, and the location. My Mom took me to car dealerships to look at the Corvettes on the showroom floors and we once stalked a Corvette owner. As luck would have it he parked in front of his home and my Mom parked behind him so I could run over and visit with him. The owner was friendly and more than willing to show me his car, he let me sit inside, gun the motor and play with the steering wheel. Unfortunately, I was only about 8 so a ride in the two seater without my Mom was out of the question. It was a memorable day
A portion of my paper of my Senior Project paper on Car Culture, of-course, includes the Corvette. I found the material so interesting before long I realized I had written more about the Corvette than the Volkswagen Bug.
Hot rodding, popular before the war, became even more popular afterward as racers took advantage of the newly created high-speed highways to make their way to Southern California. The lower part of the Golden State offered the perfect racing geography—open spaces, flat roads, and dry lakes. The advancing auto industry made it easier than ever for the hot rodder to scrounge for cheap, readily available car parts, and customize his own wannabe hot rod for racing. The popularity of hot rodding did not go unnoticed by the auto industry, and one of the first people to recognize the hot-rodding boomlet was Harley Earl who was still the VP in charge of design at General Motors. Soon after General Motors created what would become the first American sports car.
The Corvette debuted in December of 1953. It was sexy, curvy, and sleek. Perhaps Earl had movie star Marylyn Monroe in mind when he designed the outside of the car. Unfortunately, the image of Marylyn did not translate to the engine of the car; the corvette was slow. Under the hood sat a six-cylinder engine that made the car more of a go-cart for grown-ups than a true sports car. “The Austin-Healy will eat it alive and so will the Jaguar,” wrote Mechanix Illustrated’s Tom McCahill. “If you want an American-made ‘sporty’ car . . . to impress the hillbillies, the Corvette has a lot to recommend it “(Mechanix Illustrated 1954).
The Corvette’s early sales were slow, and before long Chevrolet considered discontinuing the car, which was losing money despite a hefty price that approached $4,000, more than triple the cost of the average car of its day. But wait—could America’s changing culture and a Russian save the desperate Corvette?
What do a southern boy named Elvis Presley, a northerner named Huge Heffner, and a Russian named Zora Arkus-Duntov have in common? All three were ready to challenge the cultural norms in 1953. Elvis launched his music career, Hugh Heffner published Playboy magazine with a nude center-fold of Marilyn Monroe, and Russian-born Zora Arkus-Duntov joined General Motors because he wanted to work on just one car—the Corvette.
Arkus-Duntov was disheartened at the prospect of his Corvette’s early demise. He pleaded for the car’s life with memos that combined the charms of immigrant English with the dreariness of corporate speak: “If the value of a car consists of practical values and emotional appeal,” he wrote in one, “the sports car has very little of the first and consequently has to have an exaggerated amount of the second. If a passenger car must have an appeal, nothing short of a mating call will extract $4,000 for a small two-seater (Ingrassia 351). And sex appeal was exactly what Duntov’s work would bestow upon the Corvette. To car lovers, Zora Arkus-Duntov is a hero. He saved the Corvette from a tragic and senseless demise and transformed it into a real sports car. Thank goodness. Can you imagine a world without the Corvette?
In 1955 Duntov upgraded the embarrassing slow V6 engine to a V8 engine which would put the Corvette into a sports car league and made subsequent changes that soon had everyone calling the Corvette “America’s only true sports car.”
The only evil villain in this story of power and speed is Congress (boo hiss), who shook their indignant finger and claimed that racing set a bad example for the youth of America. GM, Ford, and Chrysler, fearing more government interference in the auto industry, agreed to stop participating in automobile racing in June of 1957. “Zees people, zey try to keel the Corvette,” a stunned Arkus-Duntov moaned.
Winning an auto race can be compared to winning an Academy Award. It increases revenue all the way around. But from an engineer’s point of view, racing also allows engineers to learn how to improve their cars under stress. Naturally, Arkus-Duntov found a way to work around these no-race regulations and continue to push the Corvette to new levels.
In 1963, the Corvette Sting Ray, priced at $4,300, would be among the most successful Corvettes ever. (In 2014, the base sticker price for a Corvette is $54,000.) Most car enthusiasts would agree that while the Corvette has certainly had its ups and downs over the years, it has endured as one of America’s finest sports cars.
The Corvette Synonymous with freedom and adventure soon became a dream car for many Baby Boomers growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. The Stingray was the cultural icon that played the part of the sports car on the Television show Route 66 that debuted in October 1960, dramatizing the story of two itinerant young Easterners trekking westward in their sports car (Jenkins). Jan and Dean gave the corvette another cultural boost when they recorded “Dead Man’s Curve,” a song about a race between a Corvette and a Jaguar XKE through Los Angeles: “I was cruising’ in my Sting Ray late one night/When an XKE pulled up on the right…”
And what happened to Zora Arkus-Duntov? He retired from GM in 1974, but he stayed close to the Corvette for the rest of his life and beyond. His remains reside at the Corvette Museum in an urn that contains his ashes. The museum also features a life-sized plaster statue of Arkus-Duntov, while his original 1953 memo, “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet,” hangs nearby.
The Corvette was the extra car in the family, the successful man’s reward for putting up with the corporate grind, a corporate wife, and family life. The Corvette almost always shared its garage space with a more practical car that could tend to the needs of a family. One step down was the middle-class family man who could only afford one car but was satisfied to pick from the bevy of salon cars that were the brick and mortar of every car lot. The only car buyer whose needs were not being met were, oddly enough, the grandsons of Henry Ford’s everyman. The factory worker now dreamed of a fast, affordable, family car. The muscle car was the answer to this man’s dream; it was a car built to look fast even while standing still. Stay tune I’ll share about the bad boy of cars next. The Muscle Car.
Modern Corvette modeled after a 1967 Corvette–Chicago Auto Show 2014
I think Zora is toasting the 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray with a Stoli vodka while wishing he was behind the wheel of fastest, most powerful, most fuel-efficient Corvette ever. It’ll do 0-60 in 3.8 seconds, and I’m told it’s beyond amazing to drive. If anyone has one and would be willing to let me take it for a spin, I’d be happy to show it off on my blog, along with my confirmation that is fast and amazing. Heck, I’ll even throw in a ride in the June Bug.
June Bug Update: Autographs are being added daily. Ron Magers, Chicago’s ABC newscaster, has added his support. Could WGN’s weatherman Tom Skilling be far behind? I am working on it. The Bug and I are visiting the Volkswagen dealership where I bought my Audi and met the restored Bug that planted the seed for this project. (More about that field trip soon!) Also, I plan to update the autograph video over the next couple days.
Thanks for all your support and going along for the ride!
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