Book Review by Gary Smith
Man from UNCLE was a hit SCI-FI TV series that premiered on September 22, 1964. The TV show was a sensation. I was in 10th grade, first year of High School. The previous night’s show would be the only thing anybody talked about. Likewise, when the 1963 Sting Ray was announced, I was completely overwhelmed. The future had arrived. Nothing was ever the same again. Karl’s book took me back to not only relive the era, but revive old emotions about a car that I remember experiencing in the ’60s. But more than that, the book also unlocked many corporate development puzzles made even more intriguing because of my experience as a General Motors car designer.
Karl Ludvigsen’s exhaustive history of the Corvette from 1953 through 1982 fills 770 pages! This is a completely revised version of the earlier edition. I thought I knew something about the history of the marque until I read his book. Quite an experience. I would be reading along, and all of a sudden it’s, wait, what? What was that? I need to read that again. I found myself reading the book much more carefully than other Corvette books in my library. I didn’t want to miss anything.
Karl was involved with the history of the Corvette at several points. Eyewitness accounts pepper the narrative—Karl is often writing about what he has experienced first hand.
Early in the book there is a three-page sidebar about ocean-going Corvettes. “All Corvette sailors remember their ships as a source of numbing fatigue and indescribable discomfort.” But they were very effective in harassing U-boats, keeping them submerged, and succeeded in the war effort by accompanying destroyers protecting convoys. I’ve had several older Corvettes, and they have all been a love-hate relationship. Not every day drivers, that’s for sure. But in their element they are fantastic, and more than make up for their deficiencies. Not unlike their nautical namesakes.
Karl’s book is filled with insights and anecdotes that describe the characters involved and reveal the underpinnings of what made the Corvette what it is.
Example: Early Corvette engineering was contemporary and their performance faired well compared to other production sports cars. But the early Corvettes had more than a few rough edges. Reporting on the difficulty of erecting the top, Detroit’s Don MacDonald wrote that “this is no easy task, and Chevrolet makes no bones about it. Their conception of the Corvette market is that no owner will be caught in the rain without a spare Cadillac.” The ’53s were little more than hand-assembled prototypes.
The history of the Corvette up until the early ’70s was comprised of a sometimes unhappy marriage of styling, image, competition, show cars, funding, and corporate politics. The Corvette survived slumping sales, poor build quality, and efforts to either eliminate it entirely or morph it into another platform in hopes of making it profitable. Only by the efforts of a handful of dedicated enthusiasts did the car survive. Ford is actually responsible for keeping the Corvette in production in 1955 by bringing out the Thunderbird.
Corporate Sponsored Racing
More than once did Chevrolet attempt to become directly involved with racing (often with insufficient preparation), and when that outlet was turned off, supported racers under the radar. Examples: The assembly of the 1957 Corvette SS was completed in the trailer on the trip down to Sebring. Bill Mitchell designed the 1959 Corvette Stingray and campaigned the car using his own funds. In 1963 the lightweight Grand Sports were designed to take on the Cobras, only to be limited to a production of five cars campaigned by private entrants with back door support. The list goes on. Duntov’s CERVs essentially served as prototypes for Jim Hall’s Chaparrals.
However, Chevrolet demonstrated that if it was able to back a racing effort with full corporate support, they had the engineering and the hardware to dominate wherever they competed.
General Motors never whole heartedly backed Duntov’s racing efforts, but certain powerful factions within the Corporations (like Ed Cole) did see the value in terms of product development and image. GM shut the racing down seven times! But relentless Duntov and company would just find new ways get the hardware out.
Mitchell and Duntov
I learned in the book that Zora Arkus Duntov was born Zachary Yakovlovitch Arkus. “Zachery” morphed into “Zora” and later he and his brother Yura voluntarily added the name of their stepfather, Josef Duntov, to their surname.
Mitchell was always a bit of a conundrum to me. On one hand he was crude, flashy, and flamboyant, the creator of over-styled show cars. Yet from those designs developed classics that captured the imagination of buyers, and a lot of would be car designers, including myself. Mitchell was also a serious performance car enthusiast, campaigning his ’59 Stingray from his own funds.
Mitchell and Duntov were at odds with each other more often than not. The ’63 Split Window was a case in point. The compromise was that the spit window would be a one year only styling feature. That said, Duntov did have to admit that it was an asset at night blocking bright headlights from behind.
But they joined forces to do battle with DeLorean, who was Chevrolet’s General Manager in the late ’60s. “John Z. came up with a plan to combine the Corvette and Camaro into one platform. After learning of DeLorean’s plan, they realized that confronting him directly would not work. So they each submitted letters of resignation to Ed Cole in protest. Ed Cole was taken aback with the thought of of Mitchell and Duntov resigning, met with both of them, and in the end promised to intervene with DeLorean. The resignations were retracted. Ed Cole met with DeLorean who justified his plan to increase profitability. DeLorean was soon removed as Chevrolet’s General Manager and promoted to Executive Vice President of GM until his ultimate resignation from GM was negotiated.”
“Duntov’s final spin at Milford was in an L88 Corvette at full throttle—leaving just as he had arrived two decades earlier. ‘He had no respect for speed limits,’ said journalist Martyn Schorr, who was with him that day, ‘no respect for rules.’ At 65 Zora still had it. The man was a flawless driver in an animal of a car. He was sensational as far as knowing what a car should do and how it should feel. He really wasn’t a seat-of-the-pants engineer, but he could sort out a car just by driving it.”
Later Zora became involved with a limited production turbocharged Corvette modified by ACI. Besides the performance upgrades, the car had several modifications to the styling. Bob Schuller of ACI remarked, “But then I realized that Duntov is really more known for his emphasis on the performance of the Corvette than the looks of the car. As far as he’s concerned the car and the body are there to keep the rain off the turbocharger!”
Michell’s Mako Shark II
This streetable show car bristled with exotic features, one of which was never talked about. An array of switches included the operation of a retractable rear bumper that became completely flush, and then there was a switch that flipped the rear license plate around so it would be hidden from view. “Described by Shinoda as a ‘James Bond’ feature, this was for aesthetic and show purposes, but Mitchell preferred not to talk about it for fear that his motive for fitting it might be misunderstood. He was, after all, one of the more enthusiastic drag racers along Detroit’s justly famous Woodward Avenue. As if the police wouldn’t figure out who was driving this sensational-looking dream car.”
The 1970 LT1 350
There are many insights into the personalities of those involved in the development of the marque.
“Working on what would become the LT1 was a young and keen engineer, Herb Fishel. ‘Zora kept coming by,’ Fishel recalled, ‘asking me if the engine was ready yet. Then one day it was finished. I went over to his office to tell him that it was ready but he was in a meeting with three other people. He looked up and saw me. He said, ‘Is it ready?’ I nodded my head and he just got up and walked right out. ‘Let’s drive,’ he said.”
Until 1982, Corvettes were built at the marginal and outdated facility in St. Louis. The plant eventually needed to be remodeled to accommodate updated painting processes. This triggered the design and construction of the new plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The enthusiasm of the assembly line workers was very high at the St. Louis plant. The plant manager remarked, “But in spite of the old plant’s creaky infrastructure the opportunity for high motivation was present to a far greater degree than in the auto industry’s many factories producing faceless utility cars with numbing monotony. ‘When you ask a guy where he works in St. Louis, he’ll tell you Corvette rather than Chevrolet. Every Corvette he sees on the road is one he worked on. That’s quite an incentive.’ ”
The Mid ’70s
The book turns a sharp corner in the mid ’70s. Duntov retired in 1975, and Mitchell in 1978. The narrative shifts from the relentless enthusiasm of the two champions (and many others) of the Corvette for styling, innovation, performance, and competition to quality concerns, and federal emissions and safety compliance. Even though the cars sold in record numbers, they appealed to a different kind of buyer. I lost interest in Corvettes from the mid-’70s until 1989 with the arrival of the Z51 6-speed and the ZR-1 in 1990. Unfortunately I started my career at Design Staff in 1973, at the end of the era that got me there in the first place. I missed the excitement.
Between Dream and Reality
Chapter 52 begins with this quote from Motor Trend’s Peter Frey: “L81 Corvette—the results of this year’s wrestling match between reality and the dream.” That quote pretty much sums up Corvette’s history. Corvette—America’s Star Spangled Sports Car will hold your interest, not to mention becoming an important addition to your library.
10.75″ x 9.25″
ISBN: 978-0-8376-1659-9 (ISBN-10)
ISBN: 978-0-8376-1659-9 (ISBN-13)