The Duntov Manifesto Letter

If memory serves, it was in the Spring of 1966.  Fresh on the staff at HOT ROD Magazine, I’d been assigned a trip to the GM Engineering Center in Warren, Michigan.  It turned out to be one of many I would take during the next few years.  The GM person who was then the intermediary between Chevrolet Engineering staff and the media community was Walt Mackenzie, an early 60-ish, gray-headed, fatherly type who literally knew where all the bodies were buried at Chevy. 

As a result of this first trip, and I’ve previously shared the “Zora, how fast is my wife’s Camaro going?” story on the pages of MaxChevy, Walt made arrangements for me to meet and lunch with Zora Arkus-Duntov.  Can you imagine?  A somewhat wet-behind-the-ears engineer/journalist who’d paid some of his college tuition building various forms of small-block Chevrolet V8 engines, sitting across the table from Duntov?  Zora Duntov?  Don’t ask me what he had for lunch.

At any rate, following whatever it was we ate and the infamous ride in Walt’s wife’s Camaro (at speed) with three “bladdy marys” having washed down driver Zora’s lunch, we end up at his office in the Engineering Center.  Walt left to deliver his wife’s new Camaro while Zora and I got to know each other a bit better.

In the course of that conversation, I ask him if he recalled when the small-block Chevy had been introduced in ’55, if he remembered that you could buy GM performance parts for the engine right over the counter at dealerships.  I still recall the wry smile as he paused to pull a file of documents from his desk, offering one for me to read.  I was stunned.  It was a letter he written to Chevrolet management that was dated December 16, 1953.  I’ve also mentioned the letter in previous MaxChevy material.  It was titled, “Thoughts Pertaining to Youth, Hot Rodders and Chevrolet.”  It literally and in fact, outlined how Chevrolet needed to provide performance parts to hot rodders who previously identified with Fords and would be likely prospects to popularize the new small-block, if the right parts were available.

When I’d finished reading the letter, no surprise here, I asked if I could obtain a copy for my own, recognizing the clear and historical impact it had made in the entire high performance parts industry.  As he tucked it back into the folder and then into his desk, his response was, “No, that’s corporate business.”  Then he just smiled.

In the ensuing years that our friendship developed, and we did things both socially and professionally, the letter was never again mentioned.  But on a late Friday in 1974, while at Edelbrock, I received one of Zora’s frequent calls.  Only this time he said, “Today is my last day at Chevrolet and I’m calling a few friends.”  Typical Duntov.  Very shortly thereafter, he was inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame and came to the banquet to receive that honor.

So as I’m sitting down at the Edelbrock banquet table, with Vic and Nancy Edelbrock already seated, up walks Zora…again probably three “bladdy marys” into the evening because the cocktail of the festivities had just ended.  As he reached into his coat pocket, he said, “Give me your pen.”  He then laid a copy of that original letter on the table and began to write on it.  In the process, he looked up to courteously acknowledge Vic and Nancy at the table.  When he’d finished writing, he handed me my pen and the letter.  At the upper left-hand corner, he’d written, “To Vic from Zora” and dated it 8/30/74.  To which I responded, “If you're going to give this to Vic, please do.”  In his classic style of politeness, and obviously a bit embarrassed, he took my pen again and wrote right below his first note, “Sorry, not Vic but Jim,” and gave me the letter.

I framed the three pages of that document and they have hung in every office I’ve had since that time.  And I have it on pretty good authority that the original is locked in a safe that belongs to someone who long ago recognized the long-term effects it had, not only inside Chevrolet but to the specialty parts industry that derived considerable and significant benefit from what it caused to happen.

Be sure to check out the story of Zora Arkus-Duntov's last public interview here.