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
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