Back in the 1960s, Zora Arkus-Duntov and his team designed what would become one of the most talked-about and sought-after Corvette models in the marque's history. The car was called the Grand Sport, and only five examples were built. The story about what drove the company to build the Grand Sport starts with Duntov, a brilliant engineer and a passionate sports-car racer. He was born in Belgium to Russian parents, raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, and educated in Germany. He raced motorcycles and cars at a variety of European racetracks. In the late '30s, he moved to Paris to escape the rising tide of anti-Jewish sentiment that was spreading across Germany. He met and married his wife, Elfie, and spent a brief time in the French Air Force as tail gunner on a bomber.
In 1940, as the war engulfed France, Duntov and his wife escaped to the U.S. Soon after his arrival in New York, Duntov started the Ardun Mechanical Company, which produced critical engine components for the war effort. After the war he continued his engineering business and resumed his racing activities. This included winning his class in a Porsche at Le Mans. In 1953, Duntov visited GM's Motorama Auto Show and was thrilled to see the prototype Corvette on display. After the show he applied for a job at GM. His reputation as an innovative engineer was well known, and he was quickly hired as an assistant engineer.
Duntov's first assignment was working on full-size Chevrolets, but he soon transferred to the Corvette, where he immediately set out to transform GM's boulevard cruiser into a fire-breathing sports car. He and his small team of engineers unveiled a totally transformed Corvette in 1956. The car featured roll-up windows, a removable hardtop, and V-8 power. A factory-supported Corvette race car, modified by Duntov's team, finished Ninth overall at the 1956 12 Hours of Sebring. Sales, while still modest, were steadily increasing. Duntov believed if that if Corvette was to become a legitimate sports car, it had to not only compete at Le Mans, but capture an overall victory.
To that end, he and his team built the Corvette SS prototype. The SS used state-of-the-art materials and was tested extensively in late 1956. It was a sensation at its debut at the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring. However, mechanical problems forced the car to retire early in the race. Shortly after Sebring, GM decided to join the Automobile Manufacturers Association's (AMA) ban on auto racing. Duntov's SS program was stopped. Undaunted, he and his team began building special "off road" parts for street Corvettes that turned them into formidable production racers.
By 1962 Corvettes totally dominated production racing in the United States, but Duntov still wanted to compete at Le Mans. Ford had ignored the AMA racing ban, and Duntov wanted to take the same path. He had strong support from his boss, Chevrolet General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen. Knudsen authorized the Corvette team to build a Le Mans prototype called the CERV II. An overhead-cam small-block, two automatic transmissions (one each in the front and back), and an all-wheel-drive layout propelled the car. Duntov proposed building and entering four cars in the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mans, but GM's racing ban ultimately caught up to the project, and it was killed.
In the summer of 1962 Carroll Shelby introduced a Ford-powered sports car called the Cobra. The V-8 Cobra was 1,000 pounds lighter than the soon-to-be-introduced Sting Ray, and Duntov knew the new Corvette would be no match for the lithe Shelby. To meet this threat, he needed to remove weight from the car and find a way around GM's racing ban. So he decided to build 125 lightweight Corvettes and certify them with the FIA (Federation International de l'Automobile) as production cars. He would then sell them to privateers, putting him in compliance with the AMA ban.
Knudsen approved the pro-posal, so Duntov and his engineers set about removing 1,000 pounds from the Sting Ray. The cars were fitted with an extremely light fiberglass body, a tube frame, and Girling disc brakes. The interior was stark but included straps to pull the plastic side windows up and down. Power came from an all-aluminum 377ci (6.2-liter) V-8 that produced 485 hp at 6,000 rpm and 435 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The engine was fed by four Weber 58 DCOE carburetors and gave the 2,000-pound Corvette startling performance. Duntov said, "It was a quick-and-dirty sledgehammer project that we put together in a couple of months. There were so many compromises and constraints that we made something of which I am not particularly proud."
GM's Chairman, Frederic Donner, quashed Duntov's plans when he heard about the secret Corvette project. Parts for only five of the lightweight Corvettes, called Grand Sports, had been completed when Duntov was notified of Donner's order. In spite of this setback, Duntov continued construction on the five cars. Chassis No. 003 and No. 004 were lent to two private race teams. Chicago Chevy dealer Dick Doane received No. 003, and Gulf Oil Corporation's Grady Davis got No. 004. The cars were forced to compete in the SCCA's Modified division, against much faster competition. While their finishing record was poor, Dr. Dick Thompson-aka "the Flying Dentist"-ultimately managed to secure an overall victory at Watkins Glen in No. 004.
Meanwhile, Duntov's concerns about the Cobra were proving warranted: The new Ford-powered car was unbeatable in professional and amateur racing, humiliating the Corvette in every head-to-head matchup. Seeing the negative impact this one-sided rivalry had on the Vette's sports-car reputation, Knudsen told Duntov to find a way to reverse the trend. Next month, we'll learn whether the wily engineer was able to fulfill his boss's request.