SHRINE TO THE CORVETTE

If the phoenix-from-the-flames story of the Na­tional Corvette Mu­seum isn’t enough to con­vince you of the pas­sion burn­ing within, the cars cer­tainly will

Classic Sports Car - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MICHAEL MILNE

Sink­hole sur­vivors star at Chevy Mecca

There’s no more iconic road in Amer­ica than Route 66, so it makes sense that when the Route 66 tele­vi­sion show first hit the small screens in 1960, the two in­trepid he­roes drove that most fa­mous of Amer­i­can sports cars – a brand-new Chevro­let Corvette. The views of the car cross­ing the sun-kissed desert in Ari­zona or glid­ing along the neon-lit Hol­ly­wood Boule­vard were em­bed­ded in the minds of TV view­ers – and po­ten­tial buy­ers – ev­ery week.

The legacy of Amer­ica’s sports car lives on at the Na­tional Corvette Mu­seum in Bowl­ing Green, Ken­tucky. It’s half a mile south of the Bowl­ing Green As­sem­bly Plant, where Gen­eral Mo­tors has built ev­ery Corvette sold world­wide since 1981. The mu­seum opened in 1994 and ex­hibits more than 80 Corvettes, as it traces the his­tory of the model from its 1953 birth to the present day; vis­i­tors can even sit in the lat­est edi­tion in the foyer for a photo. The mu­seum’s struc­ture is im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able by its Sky­dome, a ca­nary-yel­low, 100ft-high con­i­cal struc­ture, pierced by a red spire (right). Within, it’s di­vided into sec­tions – Nos­tal­gia, Mo­bil Gas Sta­tion, Route 66, Deal­er­ship, Per­for­mance/ Rac­ing, De­sign/en­gi­neer­ing and oth­ers – that high­light var­i­ous as­pects of the car’s his­tory.

If you’ve al­ready heard of the mu­seum, it’s most likely due to an event that oc­curred on 12 Fe­bru­ary 2014. That night, a gi­ant 60ft-by40ft sink­hole opened un­der­neath the Sky­dome’s floor, swal­low­ing eight Corvettes 30ft be­neath the earth’s sur­face. It was the lead item on news out­lets around the world, putting the Na­tional Corvette Mu­seum on the map.

The public­ity sur­round­ing the event caused at­ten­dance to soar within days – and, re­mark­ably, the mu­seum was closed for only one day. Rather than hid­ing from that un­for­tu­nate event, on the sec­ond an­niver­sary of the col­lapse the mu­seum opened a new ex­hibit called ‘Corvette Cave In! The Sky­dome Sink­hole Ex­pe­ri­ence’ that, with all of its ge­o­log­i­cal ma­te­rial, re­sem­bles some­thing from a nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum.

In­side the ren­o­vated Sky­dome, three of the man­gled cars that were beyond restora­tion are on dis­play, still en­crusted with pow­dery ev­i­dence of the area’s ter­ra­cotta soil. For­tu­nately, an­other three of the af­fected Corvettes were salv­able. Two of them – a 1992 model that was the mil­lionth Corvette built and a 2009 ZR-1 ‘Blue Devil’ – have been re­stored and are dis­played next to their dam­aged brethren. The third – a 1962 Corvette in Tuxedo Black – was re­stored at the mu­seum un­der the watch­ful eyes of vis­i­tors, and com­pleted this year in time for the fourth an­niver­sary of the col­lapse.

In 1953, the orig­i­nal run of 300 Corvettes was hand­built in Flint, Michi­gan, the only year the cars were pro­duced there. They were all Polo White with a red in­te­rior, black can­vas top and au­to­matic gear­box; num­ber 262 of that lim­ited, in­au­gu­ral run is on dis­play. Next to it is a model from 1954, when pro­duc­tion in­creased 12-fold to 3640 cars, built in St Louis, Mis­souri.

There are sev­eral fas­ci­nat­ing one-off ver­sions of the ’Vette on dis­play, too. One, the 1968 Astro-vette, is so sleek it would look more at home in a Flash Gor­don movie. It was built to see how aero­dy­nam­i­cally slip­pery the sports car could be made. As bizarre as the car may have looked in 1968, by 1973 new Corvettes had dropped their chromed front bumpers and taken

on the pro­to­type’s polyurethane front end – with the rear bumper fol­low­ing suit a year later.

An­other in­ter­est­ing ex­hibit is the 1989 Corvette ZR-1. Un­der a team led by le­gendary racer Tommy Mor­ri­son, this car set seven World Records in­clud­ing a 24-Hour Speed En­durance best by av­er­ag­ing 175.885mph (283.061kph) on a wet track in Fort Stock­ton, Texas. The stock but care­fully pre­pared LT5 5.7-litre, 32-valve, all-alu­minium V8 engine was de­signed by the Lo­tus Group and built in the USA by Mer­cury Ma­rine. The car also fea­tured a ZF six-speed man­ual gear­box and spe­cial Goodyear 12 x 17 ra­dial tyres that held up dur­ing the ef­fort, even help­ing to avoid one cu­ri­ous coy­ote who strayed on to the fence­less track.

Beyond all of the cars to ogle, there are many in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits at this mu­seum in­clud­ing trivia touch­screens and a driv­ing sim­u­la­tor. Screens through­out the build­ing bring the cars to life and show them in ac­tion, along with nar­ra­tive from Corvette’s de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers. There’s also a Kid­zone with ‘Pat’s Su­per Ser­vice Cen­ter’, where younger en­thu­si­asts can have fun chang­ing the car’s tyres, air fil­ter and ex­haust. In ad­di­tion, a ‘Just in time as­sem­bly line’ en­cour­ages vis­i­tors to work to­gether to put wheels on ve­hi­cles mov­ing down the line.

Nor­mally, call­ers to the mu­seum can also sign up for a tour of the Corvette’s Bowl­ing Green As­sem­bly Plant. How­ever, the plant is off-lim­its to the pub­lic un­til early 2019 as it tools up for the next-gen­er­a­tion Corvette. But there’s plenty to sur­prise and de­light within the mu­seum’s walls, and vis­i­tors can still sat­isfy them­selves with tales of glory about Amer­ica’s sports car. Per­haps they’ll even be in­spired to hop into one for a drive along Route 66.

Above: 1958 and ’59 Corvettes at ‘gas sta­tion’. Right: the sorry re­mains of a 2001 Corvette are on dis­play here, a vic­tim of the now-fa­mous sink­hole

Right: the Corvette’s motorsport her­itage is rep­re­sented by a Hall of Fame plus sev­eral cars, in­clud­ing this SCCA racer from 1973

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