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Idle Chatter - A Study In Contrasts

Jay Heath Apr 1, 2013
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Like our counterparts in the mainstream media, we in the automotive-journalism sphere tend to fall victim to an overreliance on certain catchphrases, expressions deployed by so many, for so long, and in so many different outlets that they eventually become the default descriptors for certain aspects of the hobby. “Tackling the twisties”—used in reference to a vehicle’s handling characteristics—is an especially noxious example, as are “tenacious tire grip” (roadholding) and “spent gases” (the results of the combustion process). Thumb through any car magazine printed in the last 20 years, and one or more of these chestnuts is virtually guaranteed to make an appearance.

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Colorful personalities from the motoring pantheon also make tempting targets for the cliché-ification treatment. Perhaps the best example is that of Carroll Shelby, for whom the shopworn characterization of choice has long been “the irascible chicken farmer from Texas.” The similarly accomplished Zora Arkus-Duntov, meanwhile, has earned no such designation, aside from his unofficial (and not entirely accurate) title of “Father of the Corvette.” How could this be?

You’ll recall from last month’s column that we recently put together a special, newsstand-only publication celebrating the Corvette’s 60th anniversary. In editing the book—and in particular Steve Temple’s splendid bio on Duntov—it became clear to me that the only possible explanation had to do with the two men’s radically different circumstances, as well as their unequal capacities for self promotion.

The folksy, garrulous Shelby built a business, a name, and a not-inconsiderable fortune by shoehorning large, American engines into small, British sports cars. The quietly competent Duntov and his lieutenants, meanwhile, designed and built Corvettes ex nihilo, often overcoming bureaucratic inertia and even outright corporate meddling in the process. Whereas Shelby was essentially given carte blanche by Ford to assemble competitive racing machines, Duntov was forced to perform his development work surreptitiously, in darkened warehouses, and spirit experimental performance parts out the back door of the GM test center.

And yet, a look at the ultimate evolution of each man’s signature vehicle is instructive. Where the 427 Cobra was crude—a ladder-frame kit car with a hopped-up truck motor—the Grand Sport was sophisticated, a reflection of the worldly and urbane man who conceived it. When the two cars faced off on the race circuit in the early ’60s, the GS proved more than a match for its factory-backed foe.

So what, then, are we to call this Belgian-born race driver, engineer, businessman, and brand evangelist? Zora Duntov, International Man of Mystery? The Most Interesting Man in the World? Either appellation would fit, and yet neither seems wholly appropriate. As was the case with the cars that bore his imprimatur, Duntov’s reputation always preceded him. Perhaps the greatest compliment we can pay him is to continue to let that reputation speak for itself.



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