Zora Arkus-Duntov was arguably the ultimate corporate misfit, thanks to his penchant for “stepping over the line.” His basic desire was to go racing, and a Corvette of one sort or another was invariably his vehicle of choice. In 1962 Duntov devised a two-part plan for the lightweight Grand Sport. Five cars were built for development, but the ambitious engineer wanted to later build 125 units to homologate the car, and eventually sell thousands of them through Chevrolet dealerships. That was the first part of his plan.
Duntov had raced a Porsche 550 Spyder at Le Mans in 1954, taking First Place in the 1.1-liter class and 14th overall. But what he really wanted was to win the overall race. Three years later, the Corvette SS was scheduled to compete in the French enduro. But between its embarrassing first race at Sebring and GM’s adherence the 1957 AMA racing ban, the project was canceled.
Then, in 1961, Duntov built CERV-I as a test vehicle to showcase advanced GM technology. It also happened to be the same size as an Indy car, and it was perfect for hill-climbing at Pikes Peak. The CERV-I was bloody fast too, and for a time held the Milford Proving Ground speed record of 206 mph.
Part Two of Duntov’s plan was the 1964 CERV-II Prototype. Designed to be a sports prototype racer to compete at Daytona and Le Mans, the car featured an alloy-steel tube frame and tub construction, along with a 92-inch wheelbase. It was intended to use one of the all-aluminum 377ci Grand Sport engines, which provided 490 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. A methanol-fueled, Hilborn-injected version of the 377 was also considered, as was a DOHC, three-valve-per-cylinder hemi-head engine.
Firestone was happy to supply its new “ultra-wide” 9.5x15 racing tires, but the car’s most novel feature was its unique all-wheel-drive system. Unfortunately, this parts-bin setup was doomed from the start. Duntov decided to use two small automatic transaxles, rather than one large automatic transmission and a heavy transfer case. While the completed car provided blistering acceleration and speed, the transaxles—which were never intended for racing—proved to be a weak link.
Aerodynamics was another serious issue. Larry Shinoda and Tony Lapine designed a beauty of a car that was very sleek, but had horrible front lift. Duntov himself commented that at 150-mph the car wanted to fly. A retractable rear spoiler, nicknamed “the cow tongue,” helped a little. But more-powerful forces would bring Duntov’s latest stealth race car to a screeching halt.
When GM President Fred Donner caught wind of what Duntov was doing (with the approval of Chevrolet General Manager Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, yet), the hammer came down, and the program was finished. At least the car didn’t go to the crusher. Through the ’60s Duntov had CERV-II retrofitted with various big-block combos, including an all-aluminum 427 ZL1, all under the guise of “testing.”
Eventually the car was “lent” to the Briggs Cunningham Museum. Then, in 1988, when the Cunningham Collection was sold off, Miles Collier bought both CERV-I and CERV-II for $50,000. He quickly resold CERV-II to Steve Hendrickson and Kerrie D. Jones for $300,000. GM sued to get the car back, but lost.
Mid America Motorworks’ Mike Yager purchased CERV-II in 2002, by which time it was in pretty rough condition. When Yager turned the car over to Kevin Mackay and the Corvette Repair team in 2011, the body had pop rivets showing and lots of Bondo. The engine wasn’t functioning, and the transaxles were completely seized.
But here’s the good news: The chassis and running gear have been completely restored and are now functional. The plan is to take the “exposed” car on tour through the summer months, so if you attend any of the major Corvette shows, look for the little race car with the dragster-type headers on the engine behind the driver. The completed car is expected to make its debut in 2014 or 2015.