Inspiration for the introduction of the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette was attributable to a flood of young Americans arriving home after World War II who craved nimble, athletic sports cars.
A team of General Motors engineers, under the leadership of Harley Earl, set about creating a car bodied in fiberglass, with enough appeal to compete with Europe’s best MGs and Jaguars.
The outcome was a Chevrolet powered by a modified GM 6-cylinder engine that was lavishly displayed on a revolving centerpiece at the 1953 Motorama in New York. It was a tremendous success—over 300,000 people admired the Corvette during its first weekend in New York and collectively spent a reported $800,000 on GM products.
One of the many Motorama attendees was Zora Arkus-Duntov, an accomplished Belgian-born engineer and racing driver, who later submitted a letter to Chevrolet’s chief engineer, Ed Cole, requesting the opportunity to work on the Corvette’s development. He was hired and rose through the ranks to become a director of high-performance programs, a proponent of early fuel-injection projects, and founder of the Grand Sport project, among other undertakings. His contributions were so great that despite the fact he was not responsible for its initial design, Duntov is often termed the “Godfather of the Corvette.”
Although the specifics of its genesis are clouded in mystery, this particular Corvette was first owned by Mr. Duntov himself. It was officially titled as a “1956 Assembled Corvette,” as it was apparently one of two 1956 prototypes built upon a 1956 chassis with a 1955 body. It was presented to Duntov, although it is unknown whether he paid for the car or received it as a gift. Finished in silver with a blue center stripe, it was outfitted with a fuel-injected 283-ci V8, along with various newer features, including the steering wheel, dash instrumentation, hub caps, rearview mirror, and shift console. Interestingly, Mr. Duntov’s wife, Elfi, was the car’s primary driver, as it was registered in her name.
To a large degree, Zora Arkus-Duntov was responsible for Chevrolet’s recognition of its performance-minded youth market. Well-documented and boasting a remarkable provenance, this is, quite simply, one of the most significant early Corvettes ever assembled.
|Vehicle:||Elfi Duntov’s 1955 Roadster|
|Number Produced:||700 (120 in Harvest Gold)|
|Original List Price:||$3,389.10|
|Tune Up Cost:||$300|
|Chassis Number Location:||Driver’s side door post|
|Engine Number Location:||Pad on front of block below right cylinder head|
|Club Info:||National Corvette Restorers Society; Solid Axle Corvette Club|
|Alternatives:||1955 Ford Thunderbird, 1953 Oldsmobile Fiesta, 1954 Buick Skylark|
This car was sold for $134,750 at RM’s auction of the Al Wiseman Collection in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on December 1, 2007.
If cars could talk, what stories this mysterious 1955 Corvette could tell. First, there is the car’s description on the original title: Assembled 1956 Roadster.
There are other clues to this car being a work in progress, including a hole drilled in the firewall above the master cylinder that matches a stud on the brake pedal. Sheet metal was added to the frame around the front wheels and engine compartment.
The shifter console is like the 1956 Corvette design, and the steering wheel, instrument panel knobs, rearview mirror, and many other details date from the 1956–57 models. The front bumper brackets were lowered, possibly to increase airflow. And for years, owners claimed this car to be a ’55 body on a 1956 chassis, although the chassis serial number shows it’s a ’55. Confused?
The name of the first owner may make things clearer—Zora Arkus-Duntov. That’s right, the “Godather of the Corvette.” No doubt the car was used for experimental work for a time. We know that Duntov was constantly trying to improve the Corvette’s brakes, and based on the modifications to this car, it may have helped in that development.
A strong attachment to her home-built ’56
Other changes indicate this car was used for some kind of airflow testing. Additionally, the car was equipped with a 283-ci V8 with 4-speed manual transmission and an early Rochester “Ram-Jet” fuel injection unit—all options that were introduced on the 1957 Corvette. It seems that after some time at Chevrolet Engineering, Duntov either bought or was given the Corvette and then titled it in his wife Elfi’s name.
The fact that Duntov called it an “Assembled 1956 Roadster” on the title suggests this car was procured out the “back door” of General Motors. By this point, the car had been repainted from the original Harvest Gold to silver with a blue racing stripe, possibly by GM Design. A story about Elfi Duntov by Barbara Spear on the Idaho Corvette Page states:
“The only Corvette to which she [Mrs. Duntov] still has a strong sentimental attachment is her home-built 1956. Elfi’s 1956 Corvette convertible was a special car… Originally painted yellow with a green interior, the styling group repainted the car silver blue and added racing stripes. At the time she owned the ’Vette, Zora and Elfi had no garage, so the car stayed outside. Elfi mused that they would just get it cleaned up after one rainstorm when another would soak it. The side curtains couldn’t keep the water out. Eventually, Elfi and Zora sold the car to their former newspaper boy.”
That would be Chuck Schank, in 1962. Schank kept the car until 1968, when he sold it to Mike Casey, who painted it Pearl White, dyed the interior black, replaced the top, and went drag racing. In 1972, the Corvette was bought by James Dalesandro of Riverside, Illinois, who contacted Zora Duntov about his possible ownership of this car.
“Yes, I was the original owner…”
In a letter dated June 5, 1973, Duntov stated: “Yes, I was the original owner of your car. At the time it had a 283-ci FI engine equipped with ram-horn exhaust manifold. The car had a 4-speed transmission, and the rear axle was 3.7 or 4.11. The exterior color was silver, but the interior color, I don’t remember. It may have been yellow. It was a pretty car. Your car is not the 1955 Corvette used at the Arizona Proving Grounds that went slightly over 160 mph. The car I used in Arizona had a 3-speed transmission. The above is the extent of the information I have on your car.” Mr. Dalesandro subsequently restored the car to its original Harvest Gold paint with green interior.
Barnaby Brokaw of Omaha, Nebraska, bought the car around 1978. It only had 39,795 miles on it at the time, and it was featured in the pioneer Corvette magazine, Keepin’ Track of Vettes. After two more owners, Al Wiseman added it to his huge collection in the late 1990s. It was displayed at Bloomington Gold in 1999 in “The Roar to Zora—Field of Dreams” display and also at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 2005.
EX87, the experimental 1954 Corvette Duntov used for his famed 160 mph Arizona Proving Ground run and for the Daytona Speed Week trials, sold for $262,500 at Mecum St. Charles in October 2003 (CM# 36610). EX87 was thoroughly and accurately restored just before its sale, while the Al Wiseman ’55 was last worked on in the early 1970s and needs a proper restoration. Also, the developmental history of the Wiseman ’55 Corvette is less well documented. But this car has the unique distinction of being one of only two or three Corvettes the Duntovs ever owned, and it was the favorite of his wife.
The auction house expected $400,000 to $500,000 for this car, and the fact that the winning bidder, Terry Michaelis, owner of ProTeam Corvette Sales, now has the car for sale at $299,000 tells me this was a missed opportunity for the serious Corvette enthusiast