By James Humphrey
Before you step through the doors of the National Corvette Museum, you know that this is a haven for car enthusiasts. A conspicuous yellow dome is designed to evoke the taillight of the Corvette Stingray. Vintage Corvettes sit out front; the signs on their windshields advertise rides for $20. The crossed flags in the logo evoke racing.
Inside, the first thing you see is the offices for the National Corvette Museum Insurance Agency, which insures high-performance and collector cars. The hublike lobby features a lineup of Corvettes. The main attraction is the museum tour, but you can also get to the Corvette Café and the museum’s other services from here. This lobby area is brightly lit, with checkered flag motifs and lighting from a red neon sign completing the mood.
The museum welcomed 228,363 visitors in 2016, which is about 3.5 times the population of Bowling Green, Kentucky, the city where it is located.
On a recent day, Christy May, 43, along with her husband and her children, stopped by while they were on the way from southwestern Mississippi to northern Kentucky to see an art exhibit. “We saw the museum signs on [Interstate] 65 and decided to stop in,” she said. They aren’t car buffs, but were drawn to visit anyway: “We’re not die-hard Corvette lovers,” she explained.
Background & History
The Chevrolet Corvette, produced by General Motors, was launched in 1953. It was produced in St. Louis, Missouri, until 1981, at which time production was moved to the new Bowling Green Assembly Plant. The Corvette Museum opened adjacent to the plant on Sept. 2, 1994. This year, it celebrated its 23rd anniversary.
Normally, the plant and museum are open for public tours, but the plant is currently undergoing renovations and will not re-open to the public until January 2019.
The Museum Tour
The tour starts with an educational exhibit that details the differences between the Corvette’s seven generations. Most of the tour features dozens of Corvettes, many of which are in period-correct settings. The lighting in here is fairly dim, with the focus lighting on the cars themselves. A silver 1974 model, owned by Zora Arkus-Duntov, the father of the Corvette, sits by a mural on a brick wall that says “Chevrolet, A Better Way to see the USA.”
Several late 1950s Corvettes are in an exhibit made to look like a similar-vintage Mobil service station, complete with oil cans in a glass display case and a mannequin driver pumping gas. Further along in the exhibit, there is a Corvette stripped down to its frame to showcase the running gear and exhibits showcasing computer-aided design. Just before you get to the Skydome, there is a 1997 Corvette that was crash tested at 30 mph into a wall. Its front end is crushed and its air bags deployed.
Scattered throughout the museum tour are televisions that play Corvette-related programming and exhibits to learn about Corvette greats, such as Zora Arkus-Duntov, known as the “Father of the Corvette,” and Bill Mitchell, who is responsible for the design of the famous 1960s Corvette “Sting Ray”.
At the very end of the tour, there is an exhibition hall that changes its exhibits every few months. Currently, the exhibit is entitled “Kentucky: 225 Years on the Move” and demonstrates vehicles built in Kentucky. It has a Corvette – a 1981, the first Corvette built in Bowling Green, built June 1 of that year – and other vehicles, from 1800s horse-drawn coaches to a 1994 Toyota Camry.
The Skydome, that structure that looks like a ‘60s Corvette taillight on the outside, houses some of the museum’s rarer cars.
There’s a 1983 Corvette in here; the Corvette “skipped” the 1983 model year, the third-generation 1982 Corvette being redesigned into the all-new 1984 model. There was planned to be a 1983 Corvette, launched in October 1982, but due to new California emissions requirements, the introduction was postponed to January 1983 to make the needed changes. There were 43 of the 1983 model Corvettes manufactured; all but one was destroyed, making this the rarest Corvette, and it gets the largest exhibition space. You’ll also find seven Corvettes, one from each generation, lined up to detail the changes from redesign to redesign. You can even find official pace cars from the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 in here.
Look up and you’ll see the Hall of Fame. These panels are dedicated to people who have been significant to the Corvette. A few of these panels are dedicated each year at the museum’s anniversary event. According to museum marketing director Katie Ellison, about 600 people showed up to this year’s event.
In 2017, the inductees were Peter Brock, whose concept sketch was the origin for the legendary Corvette Sting Ray; Jim Minneker, who worked on Corvette engine design in the ‘80s and ‘90s; and Tommy Morrison, a Corvette racer.
In the Skydome, you’ll see five broken and mangled Corvettes among the intact Corvettes. To the side, there is a large sign that says “SINKHOLE CAVE-IN!”
On Feb. 12, 2014 at 5:39 am, a 25-foot deep sinkhole opened up beneath the museum’s Skydome and swallowed eight Corvettes. The museum was closed at the time, and no one was injured. The value of the Corvettes swallowed by the hole was between $1 million and $2 million; the repair bill for filling the sinkhole and repairing the damage to the museum came to $3.2 million.
Ginger Hendrix, 60, manages the photo department at the museum and worked there at the time of the sinkhole. When she saw the hole, she “couldn’t believe how deep and how big the hole was, and that it opened into a cave.” Hendrix said the museum was closed for only one day.
In addition to the five mangled Corvettes, two Corvettes restored from their sinkhole damage are on display. Another Corvette, a 1962 model, is in the process of being repaired, and visitors can see it in its workshop. The outline of the sinkhole is marked in red tape on the floor of the museum; it’s easy to see how perilously close some other Corvettes came to falling in the hole as well. You can peer down a glass window just to get an idea of how deep the sinkhole was.
There is also a dedicated exhibit all about the sinkhole. In here, you can see 3-D models of the sinkhole and where the cars were, see information about all of the cars, and learn about sinkholes and their geology. News reports from the sinkhole play on the televisions.
Noel Lewis, 41, who works for GM supplier AC Delco, called the sinkhole exhibit “pretty wild” and said it was one of his favorite parts of the tour.
The sinkhole proved to be a boon for the museum in the long run: visitor numbers skyrocketed from 150,000 in 2013 to 250,000 in 2014 and have remained near this level since.
There’s more than Just the Tour
In addition to the museum tour, rides in a selection of vintage Corvettes are offered for $20; the Corvettes are driven on a 3-mile loop on roads near the museum.
For $199 you can drive a Corvette for four laps at the attached motorsports park, NCM Motorsports Park.
Other activities available at NCM include go-karts and hot laps, where a professional driver drives you around the track in a Corvette. Speeds top 100 mph.
Other events are also held on the museum grounds, such as sorority dances for WKU.
For more information, visit the Corvette Museum website.