The National Corvette Museum was opened in 1994 to celebrate America’s first entirely homegrown sports car. Located next door to the Corvette assembly plant (tours of the production line can be organised through the museum), it traces the history of the model from launch through the latest Stingrays and C7s.
The museum constantly rotates the models on display, either from its own collection of cars or else vehicles loaned by enthusiasts and collectors across the USA. The permanent exhibits include a number of celebrity vehicles such as Roy Orbison’s 1967 Sting Ray (the name wouldn't be changed to Stingray until 1969) and various weird and wonderful prototypes and concepts like the XP-755 Mako Shark.
There’s also the sole surviving example of the aborted 1983 Corvette line. Production had begun on the revised model in 1982, but ground to a halt after just 43 were built because the engine didn’t meet new emissions regulations. The decision was made to break all 43 and withhold production until 1984 to revise the engine, but the heartbroken staff decided to hide one under a tarpaulin at the back of the factory, where it lay for over a decade before taking its place in the museum.
Cruising into history
Although sports car aficionado Harley Earl was responsible for designing the Corvette, he wasn’t the model’s true father. That was USAF general Curtis Le May, who had served in Europe and the Pacific during World War Two, as well as being an enthusiastic racer in his Allard J2. During the war, LeMay noted how US servicemen had enthused about the sporty Jaguars, Alfa Romeos and MGs they had encountered in Europe and, on his return to the US, approached Chevrolet with the idea of creating an American equivalent. The car’s name echoed its military origins – a corvette being a small and speedy warship
When Chevrolet created the first Corvette as a show car for the 1953 New York Auto Show it was still undecided whether it was even going to be put into production. But when that single appearance generated more than 300 advance orders, Chevrolet knew it had a winner. And a problem. The show car had literally been pieced together by hand like a jigsaw prior to the show and Chevrolet had no means of putting it into production. So the first 300 were all hand-assembled like kit-cars and were notable for not having exterior door handles or locks – you had to reach in through the window to open the door.
Launched in a country and era when the family car ruled, the Corvette had a difficult birth and took a while to get into its stride.
Designer Robert Bartholomew came up with a striking proposal for the exterior badge featuring crossed flags, one being a race flag and the other the Stars and Stripes, to emphasise the car’s American racing pedigree. Except that Chevrolet then discovered that it was illegal to use the US national flag for advertising purposes, so it had to be replaced with a generic flag with heraldic symbols. The only badge featuring the original, illegal design is in a glass case in the museum.
Then there was the car itself. Although the sleek glassfibre body looked quite unlike any other American car up to that point, it was mounted on the same chassis that Chevrolet used for its family cars and was fitted with the 136hp Blue Flame engine used in its pick-ups. It might look like a dream, but it drove like a truck.
Although Chevrolet were to resolve this under-performance by fitting a V8 into Corvettes from 1955, the car’s reputation was dented and sales were sluggish. What really cemented the Corvette into American pop culture was the 1960 TV series Route 66, which starred George Maharis and Martin Milner as two rebellious youths touring the country in a Corvette convertible, providing a window into social injustice at a turbulent time in American history as the country was rocked by the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement. Thanks to that, the Corvette became a symbol of youthful idealism and freedom, and its cult status was assured.
That sinking feeling
Kentucky is built on the longest cave system in the world, with more than 400 miles of underground caverns already mapped and likely much that has yet to be explored. The entire state is prevalent to sinkholes in the same way that Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley is prey to extreme weather. When the ground becomes saturated with enough water, a whirlpool effect is created on dry land as the earth collapses in on itself. The countryside is dotted with the scars of such events – one that formed near the farm of future president Abraham Lincoln actually had the beneficial effect of exposing an underground cataract that the Lincoln family could then use for their water supply.
The sinkhole struck the Corvette Museum before dawn, miraculously just minutes before the early shift of workers had been due to arrive, which meant that the Skydome was thankfully deserted when the floor fell away. Eight cars were lost to the disaster, but it could have been much worse.
When museum manager Debbie Eaton was awoken by the emergency services and told of the disaster, her first thought was that the priceless 1983 Corvette had been in the Skydome. Rushing over to the museum, she peered into the disaster zone and was relieved to see that the 1983 car was still poised on the rim of the sinkhole. Much to the horror of the emergency services, she tried to rally the museum staff to go in and drive the car to safety. The firefighters pointed out that not only was the entire Skydome full of petrol fumes from the crushed vehicles, thus likely to explode if anyone started a car, but there was no guarantee that the ground wouldn’t open up beneath them if they set foot inside. With great reluctance, the firefighters eventually allowed a small band of brave souls to go inside and manually push all of the surviving cars to safety, including the irreplaceable ’83 model.
Ironically, museum visitors more than doubled following the sinkhole disaster and after the museum hit the headlines. After the mangled cars were retrieved from the sinkhole, six of them were used for a special display area of the museum charting the disaster; two cars were beyond salvage.
At the time of CM’s visit, engineers were still working on shoring up the Skydome to make it safe. In addition, a decision had been made to laser-map the entire sinkhole, with a view to creating a new interactive attraction which will comprise a life-size replica of the sinkhole that allows visitors to the museum to descend into the disaster zone.
Until then you’ll have to make do with a burger in the museum diner.
National Corvette Museum, 350 Corvette Drive, Bowling Green, Kentucky 42101.
Tel 001 800 538 3883 or 001 270 781 7973. www.corvettemuseum.org