The Crazy Experimental Racers Built by Corvette Engineer Zora Duntov

The brilliant Chevrolet engineer Zora Duntov is widely revered by Corvette aficionados. Duntov was the primary mover behind many of the ‘Vette’s mechanical innovations over the years. At times his ambitions were focused on experimental racers based on the mechanics of the Corvette, as well as some ideas derived from the Corvair. His two most famous were called CERV I and CERV II. Following is the story behind CERV II as described in the Motorbooks publication Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance. At the end of this blog you’ll find a pic of the equally wild SERV I which is also described in detail in the book.

Chevrolet corvette, history of the corvette, birth of the corvette, evolution of the corvette, corvette racing, harley earl, bill mitchell, zora duntov, ‘vette, vintage corvettes, collector corvettes, chevrolet, corvair, Zora Duntov’s second engineering research vehicle, CERV II, grew out of his desire to win the 24-hour race at Le Mans, France. His experiments with CERV I taught him about handling and road holding and he decided to assemble CERV II as an all-wheel-drive race car.

Personal goals are great motivating forces. Zora Duntov had been to Le Mans. He had won his class there in a car whose entire engine displacement—1,100 cubic centimeters—was about the size of one and a quarter cylinders of an L88. And it produced barely one-tenth of the horsepower. He had accompanied Briggs Cunningham when four 1960 Corvettes went to France and one finished, winning its class.

Duntov wanted the big trophy, not the smaller one that celebrated sectional wins. Duntov wanted his car to finish ahead of every other car. He wanted to win Le Mans. With that in mind, he called on Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine, friends from the Corvette SS days and from CERV I, to style a new sports racer. They came up with a closed coupe and open roadster design. Then he sent a memo to Harry Barr in January 1962, outlining his idea. Once again, it was a little too obvious a race car for GM; he was told to put it away.

Within a year, many things changed. Ford bucked the AAMA recommendation, launching a promotion called “Total Performance: Powered by Ford.” Henry Ford made a diligent effort to acquire Ferrari, and when that collapsed, he made an even greater effort to beat him on the racetrack. What’s more, Ford-powered Shelby Cobras had humbled the Z06 and Duntov’s Grand Sport Corvettes and that re-energized him. Ford wanted to beat Ferrari. Duntov wanted to beat Ford.

Chevrolet corvette, history of the corvette, birth of the corvette, evolution of the corvette, corvette racing, harley earl, bill mitchell, zora duntov, ‘vette, vintage corvettes, collector corvettes, chevrolet, corvair,Duntov ultimately fitted the car with an all-aluminum 427-cubic-inch ZL1 engine that developed more than 600 horsepower in the 1,500-pound car. The car accelerated from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds and lapped the Milford test circle at 214 miles per hour.

He developed four-wheel-drive systems and earned a patent for his concept of using an engine with separate transaxles front and rear. When he assembled his low, wide sports racer—using the same 377-cubic-inch aluminum engine he had used in CERV I—he tested it at Milford again. The car accelerated from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds and lapped the circle faster than CERV I had done, averaging 214.01 miles per hour.

By this time, Duntov had bucked too many systems too many times. True, Frank Winchell provided support, parts, and engineering know-how to Jim Hall in Texas. But Winchell had learned how to stay nearly invisible. True, Vince Piggins, head of “Performance Products” for Chevrolet division, funneled many “heavy-duty, off-highway-use-only” parts to NASCAR teams. But Piggins had learned how to make the company a great deal of money in aftermarket sales. Duntov had neither of those credentials. His supporters, Ed Cole and Bunkie Knudsen, were scolded. Funding for Duntov projects disappeared. He and Winchell conducted tests with CERV II against Chaparral prototypes and the lack of development crippled Duntov’s project. GM stored the car for several years, and then in 1971 the corporation gave away CERV I and CERV II. They went to a public museum operated by Briggs Cunningham, an outside racer who had learned how to work within the GM system.

Chevrolet corvette, history of the corvette, birth of the corvette, evolution of the corvette, corvette racing, harley earl, bill mitchell, zora duntov, ‘vette, vintage corvettes, collector corvettes, chevrolet, corvair,In 1962 Duntov ran laps around the banked speedway at Daytona Beach, Florida, in CERV I but was unable to meet his 180-mile-per-hour target. He took CERV I back to Michigan and continued working on it for another two years. In March 1964, with this new nose and a larger more powerful engine behind his seat, Duntov lapped the 4.5-mile Milford banked circle at 206 miles per hour. This car is also described in greater detail in the book. (GM Media Archive)

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Chevrolet corvette, history of the corvette, birth of the corvette, evolution of the corvette, corvette racing, harley earl, bill mitchell, zora duntov, ‘vette, vintage corvettes, collector corvettes, chevrolet, corvair,Explore a complete history of America’s original sports car.

Through hundreds of rare and unpublished photos from GM’s media and design archives, special gatefolds and in-depth analysis from noted Corvette historian Randy Leffingwell, Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance celebrates six-plus decades of America’s sports car, covering the revolution and evolution of America’s longest continuously produced nameplate, from Harley Earl’s initial concept to the latest seventh-generation car, the 2014 Corvette Stingray.

Officially licensed and created in cooperation with General Motors, Corvette: Seven Generations of American High Performance focuses on the Corvette’s place in popular culture as well the its engineering and design success. This book offers something for everyone who has ever lusted after a ‘Vette. From the inaugural 1953 Corvette to today’s stunning Stingray, this book touches on all aspects of Chevrolet’s iconic sports car: history, racing, period ads, posters, memorabilia, key designers such as Bill Mitchell, engineers such as the fabled Zora Arkus-Duntov, celebrity ‘Vette fans, and more. No Corvette fan will want to miss out on this ultimate history of America’s first and foremost sports car.