Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Corvette Promised Land: Bowling Green, Kentucky-June 21, 2016--Part 1: the National Corvette Museum

The National Corvette Museum (NCM), Bowling Green, Kentucky

Driving south and west through Kentucky, we passed near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville as we made our way to Bowling Green (which, interestingly, is  midway between Lincoln's birthplace and that of his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, in Fairview).  But we were on Interstate I-65 for a more modern history lesson.  As we approached Bowling Green our anticipation built--there was a huge billboard for the National Corvette Museum!

The Chevrolet Corvette has been a cult object since its production began in 1953.  "America's Sports Car" is now in its 7th generation and the enormous enthusiasm for this car is manifested in the number of marque clubs, the huge events that attract thousands, the successful racing team, and the only museum in the world dedicated to a single model of car.  It is here in Bowling Green that one finds not on the GM assembly plant, where Corvettes have been built since 1981, but also the truly superb National Corvette Museum, which opened its doors in September 1994.  And as Corvette owners (albeit only since 2015), many had encouraged us to make the pilgrimage to Kentucky.  It was certainly worth the effort!

Here is a recent video that the NCM has prepared to give an idea of what to expect when visiting this excellent facility:

 The attractive modern building covers 115,000 square feet, while the surrounding campus not only features a great deal of parking for all those Corvette enthusiasts but also 60 landscaped acres.  Highly visible is the orange 12 story tall spire, "the Skydome," which was designed to provide a visible reference to take advantage of the nearby Interstate.

Upon entering the NCM, the first thing the visitor is confronted with is a whole lot of brand new C7 Corvettes behind theatre ropes.  This area is where customers can take delivery of their new cars, fresh from the factory down the street.  Museum delivery is an option on the order sheet and from what we saw a lot of people take advantage of this, which has no equivalent by any other domestic manufacturer.  Factory delivery is quite common in Germany but  the NCM makes a whole ceremony out of it.  You can even have your old Corvette polished up and presented on the floor.

For the devoted Corvette fan, the Museum has so much to offer.  After enjoying a short film presentation about our favourite car, you pass by a display devoted to the American astronauts who, in a brilliant publicity stunt by a Florida dealership, drove Corvettes on lease in the early 1960s.  But then entering the winding hallways of the museum proper we see a lot of early Corvettes and the beginning of the story.  While the Museum does have many cars of its own, there are also cars loaned to it on display, and what is on exhibit changes.  And there are special exhibitions as well.  When we were at the Museum there was an exhibtion marking the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 race.  As I write this there is a special exhibition devoted to the history of Kentucky transportation.

A bevy of fine Corvettes in a display echoing dealerships of the past
One of the most evocative displays was devoted to the unique and colourful Zora Arkus-Duntov (1909-1996), born in Belgium of Russian parents, who joined General Motors in 1953 and became the de facto Chief Engineer of the model until his retirement in 1975.  Arkus-Duntov, who certainly did not fit the staid image of GM's typical Midwestern executive, raced at LeMans, winning his class for Porsche twice, set a record climbing Pike's Peak, and another one for the flying mile in a sstripped-down Corvette at Daytona Beach in 1956.  He was married to a German beauty who had been a dancer at the Folies Bergere in Paris.  Arkus-Duntov is considered the man who turned the Corvette, with its initial two-speed automatic gearbox and six cylinder engine, into a true sports car.  After his retirement he was present in Bowling Green to turn the first spade of earth for the construction of the NCM in 1994.

The Arkus-Duntov Story

Arkus-Duntov entered the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1991.  His ashes, and those of his wife Elfi, are interred here at the National Corvette Museum.

The only Corvette, a 1982 Coupe, that Arkus-Duntov actually bought  himself.

As the exhibits continue as you meander through the museum, there is a section devoted to the long and impressive Corvette racing history, which includes recent class wins at LeMans but extends far beyond road racing to encompass all aspects of motor sports, including drag racing, sprints and autocross.

There are interesting individual cars on display as well, including one of only six Guldstrand GS90s built.  Dick Guldstrand, a noted racing driver and builder, used the Corvette C4 ZR-1 as the basis for a beautiful high-performance coupe.  High-performance meant high-cost as well and the planned production run of 100-150 cars never happened.  With a price tag of US$135,000 in 1995, or double the already costly ZR-1, there were not many takers unfortunately.

Another remarkable car is the bone-stock 2012 ZR1 Corvette with which GM engineer (and racing driver) set a lap time of 7:19:63 at Germany's Nurburgring track using the standard Michelin street tires.  The yellow supercharged ZR1 is on display with a big screen behind it so that you can actually watch the lap.  Impressive driving that is certainly beyond the range of most Corvette drivers.


The next section we came to was devoted to the design and engineering of the Corvette over the years.  Pride of place was given to a slew of concept cars, including the Aerovette and much-loved Corvette Indy, none of which ever approached production.  Zora Arkus-Duntov had always dreamed of a mid-engined car but it was not to be under his term or that of his successors.

Part of the exhibit showed how prototypes are actually conceived from drawing to clay models to mockups.

Our walk next took us to the Skydome section of the museum.  This achieved worldwide fame on February 12, 2014, when a giant sinkhole opened up under the floor, causing eight display cars to fall some 30 feet below ground.  The NCM, given a big lemon, turned it into lemonade: the sinkhole became alone responsible for a marked surge in Kentucky tourism!

The museum has made an impressive display about this geological incident, called "Corvette Cave-In: The Skydome Sinkhole Experience," which allows visitors to virtually experience what happened on that fatal night.

Of the eight cars that fell, two have been restored by General Motors, including a white C4 convertible, the 1,000,000th Corvette made.  An additional black convertible will be restored in the shops of the Museum but the remainder are beyond repair.  It is a grim picture for Corvette lovers but in the Skydome you are surrounded by a lot of pristine Corvettes still, so there's that...and on the dome one can read about the inductees to the Corvette Hall of Fame.

Superbly restored over two years: 1992 Corvette , No. 1,000,000

Only slight damage was suffered by The Blue Devil, the prototype C6 ZR1

Among the more unusual Corvettes (including a weird C6 that appeared to be modified for rally driving!), there was another unique car: the only 1983 Corvette C4.  With production delays experienced with development of this all-new model, GM managers took the decision to skip the 1983 model year and introduce it as an early 1984 car.  Around 60 engineering prototypes of the 1983 car were built and all were destroyed subsequently except for the car on display in the Museum.  No 1983s ever reached the hands of the public.

The National Corvette Museum contains an elaborate workshop for the maintenance of cars, including those now used on the recently-built nearby motorsports track.

Corvettes being serviced at the NCM
As we approached the large gift shop there was one more exhibit to enjoy: a special non-Corvette one marking the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.  I have a particular fondness for the big ol' front-engined roadsters that were such a mainstay of the track for so long.

1953 Kurtis Kraft 500B

1963 Watson Roadster
But what really excited me was seeing, yes, a Corvette in the display.  For some reason unknown to me except for GM's careless management of its own history, the 1957 Corvette SS (Super Sport) XP-64 racing car that ran at the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring, was given away at some point and ended up at the Indianapolis Speedway Museum, where it currently resides instead of at the GM Heritage facility.

Arkus-Duntov's brainchild, the car was rushed and was never properly developed.  Although exceedingly fast, it only completed 12 laps at Sebring.  The car, GM's first factory-sponsored raod racer, clearly had great potential but the project died a few months later when the US domestic industry trade group. thenAutomobile Manufacturers' Association, afraid of the liability implications of a developing horsepower war, instituted a ban on all factory-backed racing.

In addition to the Museum proper (which has a modest 1950s-style diner) and its track, the NCM offers a range of travel events and even the chance to watch the 24 Hours of LeMans live at the Museum.  It also offers copies of the original build sheets and window stickers of every Corvette built since the GM assembly plant opened in Bowling Green in 1961.  An impressive and lively facility, it is a must-see for every Corvette owner and enthusiast.

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