It was a match seemingly made in automotive heaven. In the late ‘70s, American Custom Industries (ACI), established makers of quality fiberglass replacement body panels for Corvettes, and Zora Arkus-Duntov, the recently retired patron saint of Corvettes and now on his own as an engineering consultant, would team up to create the Duntov Turbo, a dramatically styled sports car based on the Corvette, and having a turbocharged V8 engine. For ACI, it would give them a chance to demonstrate the creativity and quality of their fiberglass products and teaming up with Zora Duntov, the most knowledgeable and respected Corvette person around, would boost their reputation within their most important customer base, the Corvette community.
For Duntov, the project was a chance to have the final say to General Motor’s management about a turbocharged Corvette. For years, he had been arguing for a Corvette turbo and each time GM’s answer was the same—there was not a sufficient market to justify the development costs for such a program. With a successful Duntov Turbo, he could have the last laugh.
The Duntov Turbo
ACI had been supplying body panels for John Greenwood’s outrageous and brutally fast wide body racers and their design for the Duntov Turbo included similar body panels, but slightly modified so as to be somewhat more refined than the Greenwood panels—which is not to say that the design was subtle. The panels still increased the width of the Turbo six inches over the stock Corvette. All Turbos were to be white with red interior and production, which began in late 1979, was to be limited to 200 cars.
New Corvette coupes were bought from Richard Chevrolet in Temperance, Michigan and delivered to ACI in Sylvania, Ohio. Remember, there was no factory-made Corvette convertibles during this time period and all of the coupes were transformed into convertibles by ACI using the same frame and cowl stiffening, as well as the same hardware that GM used for the last Corvette convertibles in 1975.
Each car was given a special suspension and wheel package, as well as a custom interior including digital secondary gauges. The suspension and wheel package included Bilstein shocks, and Weld wheels with Goodyear Wingfoot tires—P255/60 in the front and P265/60 at the rear.
It seems that everyone had grossly underestimated the difficulty of literally stuffing a turbocharger and related plumbing into an existing engine compartment, especially one as tight and crowded as the Corvette’s. ACI became acutely aware of the problem of dissipating the heat generated by the turbo and piping when a prototype Duntov Turbo melted several rubber hoses. This problem was resolved by using braided metal hoses throughout the engine compartment, installing additional air vents in the hood and the air cleaner—all increasing the production cost.
ACI soon realized the escalating production costs and suggested to Duntov that the turbocharging be dropped. Zora made it clear that turbocharging was, for him, the “raison d’être” of this project and without it he would not agree to the use of this name on the car. ACI went back to work and eventually used a Turbo International unit at 7 pounds of boost to get an additional 70 horsepower out of the engine.
Insignificant Performance Boost
For 1980, the 49-state stock Corvette only came with a 350 cu. in. engine that produced 190 horsepower and if you were “lucky” enough to live in California, you could only have a 305 cu. in. engine with 180 horsepower.
Even with the extra 70 horsepower, the Duntov Turbo was only marginally quicker than a stock Corvette in the quarter mile and from 0-60, certainly not enough to support their sporty, performance car design. Compounding their image problem was the fact that the Turbo only came with an automatic transmission—in an era before paddle shifters and high performance automatics, this was not a positive sales factor for a performance car.
The base price for a 1980 Corvette was around $15,000. Even loaded up with options, it was difficult for a Corvette price to exceed $25,000. The price of a Duntov Turbo started at around $30,000 and went up from there. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong about charging more, even a lot more, for a specialty performance car as long as that car can deliver something to the buyer that the stock version cannot.
Potential buyers quickly realized that the only thing the Duntov Turbo offered was an excessively aggressive styling that many found unattractive. In the absence of any real performance advantage over the stock Corvette, there just wasn’t enough in the Turbo to justify its inflated price.
The Duntov Turbo hit the market to deafening silence and ACI soon perceived that their business plan wasn’t going to survive. Due to the lack of sales, they expanded their offerings from only new cars into converting customer’s cars into Duntov Turbos. Several conversions, both coupes and convertibles, were made in various colors depending on the customer’s request, but a groundswell of customers never materialized.
Mid 1981 marked the end of the new and conversion Duntov Turbos. It is thought that 86 were made, but no one is certain, since ACI lost some records during a subsequent move. There seems to be only 27 with consecutive ACI/Duntov serial numbers, but even this history is cloudy.
Zora Gets the Last Word
One of the ironies of this whole episode is that the car’s namesake, Zora Duntov, never received his own Duntov Turbo. His agreement with ACI contained a clause that Zora would be given a car after the first 100 examples were sold—a milestone that was never reached.
Zora still had the last words, although probably not the ones he wished. In a 1991 interview, he was asked about the Duntov Turbo and his only reply was, “The less said about that car the better.”