For Zora Duntov, who designed the SS, the retirement of the car must have been intensely galling—but he is a philosophic man, and soon he was likening himself to a roly-poly that always bounces upright no matter how often it is toppled over. He is up again with a high-performance car.
Of Russian stock, Duntov was born in Belgium in 1909 and raised in Russia. At 17 he was taken to Berlin, where he was grounded in mechanical engineering at Charlottenburg's Institute. ( MIT is our Charlottenburg.) He worked as an engineering designer in Germany, Belgium and France and for recreation went road racing. Two heavy prewar crashes damaged his back, and for several years he was never without pain.
As Hitler's war swept Europe, Duntov made his way to the U.S. He returned later to race four times at Le Mans. His first Le Mans, in 1952, rewarded him with a spectacular accident. Barreling along in a British Allard on the Mulsanne straight toward the sharp right-hand turn at its end, he discovered that he had no brakes. "For a second," he says, "I thought it was only a nightmare; I would wake up and find that everything was O.K." It was no nightmare. Duntov recalled that the car burst through the track's perimeter fence and rolled a mile right into the town of Mulsanne before coming to rest. The accident did not shake his nerve a whit. In succeeding years he twice won the 1,100-cc. class at Le Mans in German Porsches—no small feat.
While test-driving a Corvette in 1955, Duntov reinjured his much abused back—broke it, in fact. Although three vertebrae are now fused together, the old pain is gone, and Duntov, a silver-haired 52 today, is a marvel of energy and good humor.
Needless to say, Chevy is fortunate to have a creative engineer who is also his own test pilot; the world counts few of that breed. And it is obvious that Duntov's racing experience has given him a profound distaste for cars that handle badly. It is his own neck—or more precisely, back—that he risks when he test-drives.
Two weeks ago, Duntov pitched one of the 1963s into a full-blooded, four-wheel racing drift on a sweeping proving-ground bend, at something over 100 mph, and went on to perform other agile maneuvers. Taking the wheel myself, I was delighted by the car's sudden acceleration, riding-on-rails stability on the straights and astonishing leechlike adhesion not only in smoothly paved turns but also on broken-up asphalt.
"Some drivers," Duntov says, "have had a habit of slamming the Corvette into turns. With the new car, slamming will go out. It will be more forgiving than ever to those who make mistakes, but the brutal driving we have seen will no longer be necessary."