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1980 Chevy Corvette - Zora's Retirement Project

The Turbocharged Corvette He Always Wanted

Richard F. Newton Nov 1, 2004
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Retirement wasn't easy for Duntov. When he retired from General Motors in 1975, Duntov confronted the same problem that many of us are grappling with right now. Zora simply wasn't ready to go silently into that long night. Here was a man whose whole life was wrapped up in cars, especially the Corvette. Here was a man who used to sleep on top of the drafting tables at the GM Technical Center for days at a time rather than go home. Driving home every night would take time away from his Corvette projects.

Then suddenly came the day when he wasn't going to the office. He no longer even had an office. Zora's life had changed dramatically. The only problem was that Zora's drive to move in the fast lane was just as intense. GM didn't need Zora any more, but Zora needed something besides the golf course. Retirement certainly didn't mean it was time to start attending the dog races in Florida.

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Zora's final years with the Corvette were consumed with emissions and fuel-economy issues. From the time when he arrived at GM in the early '50s, the world had changed dramatically. The priorities of the '70s were very different from when he began developing the Corvette.

During his final years at GM, performance was no longer a priority. At every turn GM was rejecting Zora's vision for the Corvette. Before leaving GM, Duntov had been on a quest for the mid-engined Corvette. He was rebuffed at every turn. Zora Duntov always felt the Corvette had to make a technological statement. GM's upper management certainly did not share this vision.

Friends of Zora tell of how depressed he became with leaving Corvette at possibly the all-time low point in performance. When he retired, the Corvette was only developing 165 horsepower. If you ordered the optional L82, you got 205 horsepower. The hot new item for the '75 Corvette was the HEI ignition system. This was a system designed to reduce emissions and increase gas mileage. The old transistor ignition that produced horsepower in the L88 Corvette was gone. Times had changed, and now Zora was gone as well.

Zora immediately threw himself into the standard GM retirement program of consultation. A huge number of GM executives make a nice income off consulting fees.

Companies are eager to hire these retired engineers and executives for their special automotive expertise. They go from project to project and company to company to help firms make better use of technology.

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It turned out that just as Duntov was searching for something to do, the owners of American Custom Industries were involved in a similar search. ACI, an aftermarket fiberglass parts manufacturer, had been heavily involved in the Greenwood Corvette during the early '70s. The relationship between ACI and John Greenwood had come to its conclusion, and now Bob Schuller, owner of Sylvania, Ohio-based ACI, was looking around for another Corvette project.

Schuller had an idea for involving Zora Duntov in his next project. The only problem was he didn't know Zora Duntov. He had met Zora several times at various Corvette functions, but they had never really spoken at any length. Schuller, though, had a way of changing all this.

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Bob Schuller invited Zora to speak at ACI's annual open house. The most creative aspect of this plan was the rather nasty-looking '74 Corvette that Duntov owned. This '74 ran great, but it was a little (okay, a lot) worse for wear. Schuller suggested that instead of paying Zora his standard speaking fee, ACI would totally refurbish the exterior of Zora's Corvette. Zora's personal Corvette would then become a showcase for ACI technology.

The goal was to demonstrate the level of quality that ACI was capable of performing. Schuller felt that he had to demonstrate this quality to Duntov, not just talk about it. The best part was the plan really worked. Zora was very impressed with the result of the ACI work on his personal Corvette. Now it was time for Schuller to bring up the idea of a special-edition Corvette endorsed by Zora Duntov.

Duntov, though, wanted one special thing. He felt if he was going to have his name emblazoned on a Corvette, then it must be turbocharged. The idea of a new fiberglass Corvette body was about to get just a little more complicated.

Remember, GM had already turned Duntov down on the turbocharger. "Twice I asked for a turbocharger," reported Duntov in a 1980 interview. "Each time I was turned down. They said that a turbocharged L82 would only sell a thousand units. I said it would be more like 6,000. They just said it would be unprofitable, and that was the end of the turbocharger for the Corvette."

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The turbo thing was starting to get very big in the late '70s and early '80s. Saab had been the first to use turbocharging, followed closely by Porsche. Turbocharging was seen as the answer to a lot of problems. As long as you stayed out of the power, you could get incredibly high fuel mileage and had a really nice car for driving around town. Let the rpms build and the increased power was stunning.

Chevrolet had done a considerable amount of work on turbocharged Corvettes. Zora had become a huge proponent of turbocharging. At one point there was a very strong indication that the future of Corvette performance was going to be a turbocharged V-6 engine.

Keep in mind that in the mid '70s, the automobile industry was struggling with both emissions and fuel mileage. It was also a time when both items were controlled by mechanical devices. It would be a few years before computer technology was brought to bear on engine performance.

With all of the government mandates, GM had to admit the last thing they needed was a crazy engineer telling them that the Corvette needed to be a technological statement. Especially when this engineer's product line was selling less than 25,000 cars a year.

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When ACI agreed to let Duntov have his turbocharged Corvette, it was like a dream come true. Zora could finally show his critics how wrong they had been. ACI's Bob Schuller was just as pleased to show off his new design for the very special Corvette.

This Duntov Corvette was based on the old Greenwood body, but it was smoothed out to give it a little more beauty and less beast. The large scoops that Greenwood had on the front fenders were gone, as well as the giant hood vents. The idea was to eliminate the machismo look of the Greenwood and go for a more refined and elegant look.

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ACI then took every possible opportunity to place badges and little plaques all over the car. Then huge Duntov decals were placed on the front fenders. Just in case you missed all of that, a large Duntov decal was placed on the rear panel.

The body, though, was a statement in fiberglass perfection. Remember, GM was in the process of closing the old St. Louis Corvette plant. All capital expenditures were slated for the new Bowling Green (Kentucky) plant. The quality of the cars leaving St. Louis was horrid. The fact that ACI could improve on the quality of the Corvette wasn't very difficult.

The initial idea was to use a stock hood panel. This simply wasn't possible because of the tremendous heat generated from the turbocharger. This led to the addition of the hood vents you see in the pictures.

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When an '80 Corvette arrived at ACI, the car was totally stripped down to the steel structure. The only items that were retained were the front and rear bumpers and the hood. The interesting part was that ACI was able to assemble the new body using far fewer parts than had been used at the St. Louis plant.

"Normally a Corvette is assembled in a number of panels," said Schuller in 1980. "Hood, front and rear fender, doors... Wherever these panels are bonded together, you're likely to get defects. So for this car, we tooled a complete rear end and complete doors. There are no seams, so there is no bodywork necessary for our car."

The Duntov body is 6 inches wider than a standard '80 Corvette. The front headlights were changed to a rectangular design. All in all, this new body was the most impressive part of the Duntov Corvette. However, you might feel the design and quality was far beyond anything that ever rolled off of the old St. Louis assembly line.

The EngineThe engine was both the good and bad part of this project. Bob Schuller really wasn't too excited about the turbocharged engine. "I was reluctant to get into turbocharging 200 cars," Schuller told Corvette Fever in 1980. "But then I realized that Duntov is really more known for his emphasis on the performance of a Corvette than the looks of the car. As far as he's concerned, the car and body are there to keep the rain off the turbocharger."

Actually the turbo was a potential deal breaker. Zora Duntov saw this project as a way to get the Corvette that he couldn't get from General Motors. Unless ACI was willing to give him the turbo, this deal was not going to happen.

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The turbo installation gave the team at ACI more than a few anxious moments. The heat was an incredible problem. In desperation, ACI added a vent panel to the hood. It was placed directly over the turbo in an effort to remove at least some of the heat from the engine compartment.

The turbo heat was so great that the hoses around the turbo would actually melt. This necessitated going to a lot of industrial-strength hoses from Aeroquip. An engineer was brought in from Aeroquip and looked at all the possible trouble spots. As a result, all the water, fuel, and oil lines were converted to Aeroquip products. While this solved the problem of melting hoses, it certainly didn't do anything for the cost of the project. What began as a simple body project was suddenly getting more expensive every day.

Vemp_0411_10_z 1980_duntov_chevy_corvette Duntov_sticker 11/16

In the end, the engine was built to run 7 pounds of boost from a Turbo International unit, which was one of the least complex units on the market. By this time, Bob Schuller was getting concerned about putting a Corvette with all of this complexity into the marketplace. A great deal of care was taken to ensure that any Chevrolet dealer could work on the car. The folks at ACI looked at this Corvette as a car that would be driven. The emphasis was changing from pure raw performance to a car that could be used every day as a street-driven Corvette. Any pretense of performance was dropped.

"It took a full year to tool for the project, and the production costs were increasing dramatically," reported Schuller. The turbocharger was beginning to strain the relationship between Schuller and Duntov as the year went on.

The turbocharged engine became one of the real compromises of the project. ACI and Duntov finally just used the optional L82 engine with the turbo bolted on. There was too little time and too little money for much else. ACI simply didn't have the resources that Zora was used to having at GM.

Some people feel that when the car was offered with only the automatic transmission, there was very little hope. The whole notion of building a turbocharged Corvette with the Duntov name emblazoned on the front fender and then limiting the customer to an automatic was symbolic of the confusion developing in this project. They might as well have hung a huge sign on the car saying, "We're not really serious."

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People who are into performance really want to shift their own gears. The Porsche 911 Turbo had a four-speed, and Porsche couldn't build 911 Turbos fast enough to meet the demand. Even the Saab Turbo came with a five-speed transmission in 1980. Again, Saab couldn't meet the demand. Obviously, a lot of car buyers saw the turbocharger as an answer to their performance prayers. The Corvette buyer, though, wasn't really excited about turbo power-especially when it was in front of an automatic transmission. It quickly became apparent that GM management was correct about the demand for a turbocharged Corvette.

Even the top speed of this Duntov Corvette was compromised. Keep in mind that no one ever really drives these cars flat-out, but the speed is critical for bragging rights. The Porsche peaked out at 160 miles per hour, and the Saab was good for roughly 140 mph. The best the Duntov Corvette could do was 125 mph.

The Duntov Corvette could run the quarter-mile in 15.5 seconds. It took the standard Corvette 15.9 seconds to do the same distance. Even 0-60 times were lacking. The Duntov took 7.5 seconds while the standard Corvette could get to 60 in about 7.6 seconds. For all practical purposes, the turbocharger added zip performance gain.

Let's go back and look at what the Porsche Turbo did. A standard Porsche could get from 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds. The Porsche Turbo could do it in 5.3 seconds. It was the same at the dragstrip. A base-model Porsche could run the quarter-mile in 15.3 seconds. The Turbo Porsche got to the end of the quarter in 13.4 seconds. Here was a car that very few thought of as being a strong dragstrip car, and it literally blew a turbocharged Corvette away.

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Then came the price of the Duntov Corvette. It was right around $12,000 more than the Corvette at your local Chevrolet dealership. In 1980, the Corvette cost roughly $18,000. If you went wild with the little option boxes, it was still hard to get a Corvette over $25,000. The Duntov Corvette started at $30,000.

Selling a performance car, a turbocharged performance car no less, without any real performance was not a good sign. When all was said and done, the only good part was the Duntov Corvette could keep up with a stock four-speed Corvette. This was the setting for a sales disaster. The Duntov Corvette hit the showroom as a fairly slow car with an automatic transmission, and ACI was asking a premium price.

The Duntov Turbo landed in the marketplace with a huge thud. Once a prospective buyer got past the questionable styling, there wasn't a whole lot to like. Both Schuller and Duntov realized that there was no way they were going to reach the goal of 200 cars.

Today the Duntov Corvette is an interesting statement about the car collector hobby. It's a statement about how rare does not necessarily mean valuable. Owning a Duntov Corvette is like owning a three-speed '63 split-window coupe. Both are very rare cars that no one seems to want. Perhaps the best way to describe this sort of car is to call it interesting.

One final irony to this saga was that when Chevrolet finally did offer a turbocharged Corvette in 1987, the world got very excited; Dave McLellan did what Zora hadn't been able to do. The Corvette world finally got the turbocharger that everyone had wanted for the past decade. In the first year they sold 184 Callaway Corvettes, almost the number of turbo Vettes that ACI had projected.

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Bob Schuller and Zora Duntov were correct that a market existed for a turbocharged Corvette. An interesting footnote is to go back and look at how optimistic Chevrolet had been about the turbo market. When they turned Duntov down, they said the market would only support 1,000 cars. In fact it could barely even support 200. We won't even get into Zora's marketing estimate of 6,000 cars.

Nonetheless, a real market existed-no matter how small it might have been. While ACI charged $12,000 extra for the Duntov Turbo, Callaway was asking in excess of $20,000 more for his turbocharged Corvette. Keep in mind that the base price for an '87 Corvette was $27,000. The Callaway B2K option was even more expensive than the Duntov car had been.

The early Callaway turbo had a totally stock interior and only a few external differences. The extra $20,000 got you performance-not image. Essentially Callaway took the exact opposite approach from ACI and Duntov. When sales of the B2K went totally flat, Callaway began to offer a modified body to rescue the sales curve. Even outstanding performance alone couldn't sell the turbocharged Corvette.

You can really look at these two cars as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Duntov Corvette gave you a gee-whiz body design. The Callaway Corvette gave you incredible performance. Actually the B2K was very similar in performance to the ZR-1 Corvette, which Chevrolet couldn't sell either, but that's another story for another day.

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Today, the Duntov Corvette is seldom noticed. Most Corvette owners don't even know of its existence. It may be one of the rarest Corvettes ever produced. Eighty-six are thought to exist, but no one is very sure of this. There seem to be only 27 with consecutive ACI/Duntov serial numbers, but even that history is cloudy. None of it really matters at this point since the last one sold for just over $13,000, which was less than the average '80 Corvette.

It's hard to decide if the Duntov was more about an attempt by ACI to sell cars or if it was Duntov's attempt to prove that GM was wrong when they denied him his dream of a turbocharged Corvette. The only thing we can be certain of is that the dream died.

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The final irony was that Zora Duntov never even got an example of this car. One of the provisions in his contract was that he would be given a car after the first 100 examples were sold. That never happened. In a 1991 interview when he was asked about the Duntov Corvette, his only reply was, "The less said about that car the better."

Richard Newton's most recent book is 101 Projects for Your Corvette 1984 - 1996. He has also written two other best-selling Corvette books. One deals with the '68-82 Corvettes, How to Restore and Modify Your Corvette 1968-82, while another deals with the Sting Rays from '63-67, Corvette Restoration Guide 1963-1967. All of these books are available from MBI, or (800) 826-6600.



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