February 12, 2014: Imagine, for a second, that you work as a security guard for the National Corvette Museum. It’s hours before opening, so nothing is going on. Suddenly, a motion sensor goes off. Someone trying to steal a ‘Vette? You head to the Skydome section of the Museum, expecting to confront would-be thieves; instead, you see that cars are missing, wait, there’s more. You see a massive hole where a floor used to be. Earthquake? No, not in Kentucky. A sinkhole! This might sound like the start of a Corvette-themed-horror film, but on that day in February, it was a reality.
Located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the National Corvette Museum is just across the street from the GM Bowling Green Assembly Plant, where Corvettes are made. Bowling Green is in the southern end of Kentucky, north of Nashville. Arriving at the Museum, we were greeted by a guide in a Corvette-styled golf cart who directed us where to park. Passing the “Corvette Only” parking spaces, we headed inside. The large entry hall is where Corvette buyers who opt to pick up their Corvettes at the Museum take delivery of their cars. After getting our tickets, we saw a cross-section 1953 Corvette and some early examples of sports cars, including a beautiful MG. The MG had served as an inspiration for the creation of the Corvette. Next, there was a short film tracing the history of the Corvette from its creation to the present day. The room it is in is indistinguishable from a movie theater, complete with licensed music, showing just how much went into making this a world-class museum.
The following section, called the “Nostalgia Area” of the Museum, traces the Corvette from its earliest days in the 50s into the late 60s. Not only are there some beautiful Corvettes on display (including a 1955 Thunderbird to give an example of some early competition), but it was set up like a 1950’s town, complete with a gas station with vintage gas pumps and garage. There are even a 1960s dealership showroom and a 1970s assembly line.
The next area is dedicated to Corvette’s extensive, decades-spanning racing career, from the earliest days to recent ones. There are two race cars from 1957, including the iconic 1957 Corvette SS race car. It looks like a concept car, but it competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring. There are some more recent race cars as well, such as the multiple race-winning 2015 Corvette C7.R (in as raced condition!). The section also has one of the wildest prototypes Chevy has come up with. A 1959 mid-V8 engine open-wheel car build to Indy-car Spec. It serves as proof that GM was experimenting with mid-engine design long before it becomes commonplace, even in race cars.
The mid-engine prototype works as a great segue into the next room: The mid-engine Corvette room. Starting in the 1960s, Chevy made many different mid-engine Corvettes. Interestingly, they looked more like production cars than an extreme, attention-grabbing show car made to generate buzz at an auto show. There was a pair of 1960’s era ones, who’s design reflected the aggressive late 60s-70s’ Vettes. An interesting piece of GM history intertwined with the Corvette in the form of a mid-engine Rotary powered Corvette is on display from 1973. GM had considered utilizing the Rotary-motor in their cars around this period. The section ends with the modern mid-engine Corvette. I love how the exhibit shows the mid-engine Corvette was a long-held dream.
Corvette Cave In! The Skydome Sinkhole Experience.
The next section of the Museum, right before you get to the Skydome, the Cave-in’s fabled site, is a section that explains the cave-in that caused multiple rare and historically significant Corvettes to fall into the cave below. The exhibit tells of the geology of Kentucky and its cave systems. In fact, The Corvette Museum is not far from Mammoth Cave, the longest known cave system in the world. Like everything else in the Museum, this exhibit is incredibly well done and looks like it was taken from a natural history museum. It also deals with the world-wide media storm that followed. Something the Corvette Museum was quick to capitalize on what happened. Turning a disaster into a triumph, as webcams were set up to document the construction crew’s recovery of the cars. At the end of the section is the chance to experience what the cave in looked and sounded like from underground. Complete with falling Corvettes.
The Post Cave In Skydome.
Walking out of the darkness of the cave in experience and into the light of the Skydome, it is hard to believe anything happened here. The only clues to suggest that anything happened, are the occasional dusty, smashed-up car, the lines in the floor indicating where the cave in happened, as well as the boundaries of the cave, and the window in the manhole cover that lets you look down into the cave itself. Beyond the remnants of the cave-in, there is plenty to see in the Skydome. There are, of course, the cars that fell into the cave. These included aftermarket-modified, classic, and significant Corvettes like the 1.5 millionth Corvette made. These had received varying degrees of damage, based on how they fell. When recovered, one ‘Vette was able to start shortly after it was brought up.
One especially interesting Corvette on display in the Skydome was the only Corvette ever owned by Zora Arkus-Duntov, known as the “Godfather of the Corvette.” There is also a V-12 boat motor-powered Corvette concept car. The V-12 powered Corvette was created in response to Dodge unveiling their V-10 powered Viper. The inside of the Skydome features pictures of people who have had a significant impact on the Corvette in some way.
Car-toon Creatures, Kustom Kars and Corvettes: The Art and Influence of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
After the Skydome was the special, limited-time (now closed) Ed “Big Daddy” Roth exhibit, Roth was the legendary custom car builder behind some of the wildest custom cars in the 1960s and artist behind the iconic “Ratfink” character. It featured many of his legendary custom cars, as well as vehicles inspired by him. Hidden throughout the Museum in various exhibits are small “Rat Fink” figures. Why here at the National Corvette Museum of all places, you are probably asking yourself. It turns out Ed Roth was a massive inspiration for former Director of Exterior Design for the Corvette Tom Peters.
One thing about leaving the Corvette is that when you go, you will be wanting a Corvette. If you have one, you’ll probably be wanting another one. Being in production for over 60 years, you will have plenty of types to choose. It is nothing short of incredible how the National Corvette Museum could take the cave-in and the international attention generated by the cave-in and keep the public invested in the recovery of the cars. You can learn more about the National Corvette Museum on their official website here: https://www.corvettemuseum.org/. In an upcoming blog post, I’ll delve into the details of Ed Roth’s many cars, as well as the Ed Roth Exhibit. Have you been to the Corvette Museum or know of a car museum I should visit? Let me know in the comments!