(Update - The first part of this entry took place about four years ago when I made my first trip to visit a dealer in Bowling Green, KY. The camera I had that day, I forgot to charge the battery beforehand and I ran out of juice about halfway through the visit and I missed getting more pictures of the place. On a recent visit back to Bowling Green, I stopped in again and saw the 47,000 sq. ft. expansion that the museum went through in 2009. And I was able to get more pictures.)
A good friend of mine, "Coupe" Underwood, once told me years ago when I began to travel for a living, "Always take a camera with you. You never know what kind of stuff you're going to run across." So, I normally take a camera with me. And I did on my trip to Bowling Green, KY earlier this fall. But on this trip, I didn't heed my own rule - make sure the battery is charged before you take the camera with you! I found that out during my visit to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green.
Actually, I wasn't planning on seeing much in Bowling Green. I had a potential new dealer who was interested in our speaker line, so I went down there for a meeting. But when I came up Exit 28 to Bowling Green on Interstate 65, I was surprised to see the National Corvette Museum (see map). The museum is literally across the road from the plant where Chevrolet Corvettes are made. The museum is a mecca for Corvette owners of all ages.
Now, there's an old joke - What's the difference between a porcupine and Corvette owners? The pricks are on the outside on a porcupine. But I've always thought Corvettes are neat. It goes back to the early 60's when my dad would test drive a new Corvette for a day and he'd take my older brother and me along with him. He had a friend, Jack Bailey, who ran a Chevrolet dealership in Newton, IA who'd let him take one out for a drive. We'd always go around to the small towns in the area, but he'd open it up in between. This was before the interstate was finished so we REALLY couldn't see how fast one of those could go. I was, maybe, 4 to 7 or 8 when we used to do it. My mother would have crapped on the spot if we told her we were hitting 110 on the straight-aways along some back road blacktop.
I had some time to kill before I went to see my potential dealer. I parked my car and grabbed my camera from the trunk. I began to take pictures of the outside of the building. Suddenly, my battery indicator light began to blink 'red'. I thought, "Son of a BITCH!!" For a moment, I thought I'd go back out to the car, get the charger and let it charge up for about 15 minutes in the museum. But I thought I could get enough pictures out of it before the battery would let go.
In hindsight, I should have taken in the charger and plugged it in at the front desk and wandered around in the Corvette Store gift shop waiting for it to get a better charge. It turned out there was a lot to see at the National Corvette Museum.
The building itself is 68,000 square feet. They have over 75 Corvettes on display as well as engineering and design displays, motor displays and pictures of everything from cars to the men who designed the cars over the years. As I was there, they were in the midst of building a 47,000 sq. ft. addition that was scheduled to be done on Labor Day of 2009.
It cost eight bucks to get in and the museum is open 360 days a year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first part of the museum that you enter is the atrium area where they have a number of Corvettes lined up. Many of these Corvettes were either on loan or gifted to the non-profit museum. They had Corvettes on display in the atrium from the 1950's up to this decade. All were in mint shape and had to worth thousands and thousands of dollars.
The first Corvettes were built in Flint, MI and the body was made out of fiberglass - very revolutionary in it's day - mainly because of a lack of steel 7 years after the end of World War II. This is a 1953 Corvette. This was one of the first Corvettes ever produced. Each car had a story board beside it, telling its history and how it made it to the Corvette Museum. On the walls in the atrium area were a number of pictures of Corvettes and their owners. There were also kiosks that showed videos of Corvettes in action over the years.
From the atrium, you could go into the Chevrolet Theater which was playing a film on the history of the Corvette, or you could go into the Nostalgia part of the museum. I skipped the film and went through the museum. There, they had displays of old Corvettes from the 50's in a diorama. This is a 57 Corvette sitting in what was an old Mobil gas station. I think the price on the pumps was 29 cents for Ethyl (high octane).
Here is, I believe, a 1955 Corvette. A friend of our family, Howard Pelzer, had one exactly like this back in the 70's. He used to drive it in parades. One time at my aunt and uncle's house, he had the Corvette parked in the front yard. His grandkids were playing in the car and, somehow, the emergency brake was disengaged and the car rolled down a short embankment. It got hung up on a concrete retaining wall and broke the fiberglass along the bottom of the passenger side door. Now, I would have been kicking those kids asses from here to Mars, but Howard was rather laid back about the incident. "Aw, that's what insurance is for," Howard said, But, then again, I think he'd had about 8 drinks in him by that time.
(Note - one thing I noticed from my previous visit to the Corvette Museum was that there were more interactive displays in the museum that I remember. There were a number of "hands on" displays for both kids and adults in the Performance area.)
The next part of the museum was the Performance area where they showed concept and proto-type Corvettes that Chevrolet worked on over the years. This was a pretty neat area of the museum. This area also included a number of displays on the men who designed the Corvette over the years, including Harley Earl, widely regarded as the "Father of the Corvette." Displays featuring longtime Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and the man who designed the body for the first "Sting Ray", Bill Mitchell, were prominent in this area of the museum.
(Note - this is where I left off in my last entry on the Corvette Museum, basically where my camera gave out.)
Also in the Performance area was something new that I didn't remember seeing on my previous visit. Below left is a mosaic of thousands of small portraits of Corvette owners that were sent into the museum that were made up to be a picture of a 1955 Corvette. It was actually pretty cool. In the room where the mosaic was located were a number of vanity license plates from all over the United States with Corvette themes to them.
Going from the Performance area, you then get into the Corvette Museum's Skydome (above right). The Skydome honors the over 50 members of the Corvette Hall of Fame - designers, engineers, race car drivers, specialists and enthusiasts. This is also where a number of proto-types and historic cars were on display.
Below left is the 1,500,000 production Corvette - a 2009 model that was manufactured in Bowling Green. The state of Kentucky was able to lure the Corvette production facility away from St. Louis in 1981 with a series of tax breaks and incentives. Last ditch efforts by workers and politicians to save the St. Louis plant - which built Corvettes from 1954 thru 1981 - fell through and hundreds of plant workers made the decision to move to Bowling Green to continue working in the plant. At first, many of the workers, including a large number of African-American assembly line workers, were shunned by the locals in Bowling Green who felt a number of the jobs should have gone to local residents. As many as 750 people from around the Bowling Green area were trained by General Motors because they didn't know how many people from St. Louis would actually make the move. But over 900 workers ended up moving to Bowling Green and they had seniority over the locals. It caused a lot of animosity between the transplanted GM workers and the locals in Bowling Green for a number of years. Today, about 450 people work in the Corvette Plant across the road from the Corvette Museum.
And above right is the 1,000,000 Corvette built. This a 1992 model, white with a red leather interior. It was specifically made to be the millionth 'Vette built almost 41 years to the day the first Corvette was built on June 30, 1953. The first 300 production Corvette's built in 1953 were white with red leather upholstry and interior.
The Skydome also housed a number of Indianapolis 500 pace cars. The first Corvette used as a pace car for the annual Memorial Day race was a C3 model in 1978 and driven by 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann. Later on, famous test pilot Chuck Yeager drove a 1986 Corvette convertible in that year's race. Corvette's were also the pace cars for the 1995 and 1998 races and a special 50th Anniversary Corvette was the pace car in 2002. In all, 10 Corvette's have been pace cars at Indy, including a stretch of each year from 2005 thru 2008. At this year's race, television chef Guy Fieri will drive a 2013 C6 ZR1 Corvette to start the race.
The Astro-Vette (above right) was a concept car built in 1968 that was one of the few Corvette ideas that never took hold. Looking more like a Bonneville Salt Flats racer, this car was derisively named the "Moby Dick" by Corvette enthusiasts and relegated to minor car shows. It was eventually painted orange and put in storage before it was restored to its original color and put on display in the Corvette Museum.
It was about here that I happened to catch up with two men going through the museum. One of the men acted like he worked at the museum and I sort of hung back and listened to him explain to the visitor about some of the cars on display in the Skydome. I didn't want to intrude on his wonderful monologue telling the visitor about some of the cars on display and how they were able to procure the cars for the museum, but I almost stopped him a couple times to ask questions.
I followed the man and the visitor into a small room in the center of the Skydome that honored the 2012 inductees into the Corvette Hall of Fame - former GM Exec Gary Claudio, Corvette collector Bob McDorman, former President of the National Council of Corvette Clubs Patrick Dolan, and former Corvette racer Andy Pilgrim. I know people who are big Corvette fans and this is probably much more hallowed ground for them than it was for me, but it was still interesting to learn about some of these people.
From there, the man and the visitor moved toward part of the 47,000 square foot expansion that the museum went through over three years previous. I followed them into a large room that, as I heard the man explain it, as an all purpose room that could be used for displays or for active learning center for local schools. Today, it housed a display called "Country Music Cars and Stars" featuring a number of cars that are or were owned by Nashville recording artists and songwriters. Cars owned by Kix Brooks, George Strait, Marty Robbins, and George Jones, among others, were featured on display with little story boards next them.
Above right is a 1967 Corvette that belonged to singer Roy Orbison. The accompanying story said that Orbison drove the Corvette to nearly every recording session for the first Traveling Wilburys album that was made before his death in 1988. There was a picture of Orbison leaning on the car outside the recording studio in Los Angeles.
In the center of the room was a 2011 Camaro that was customized by record company owner Steve Borchetta in honor of the country group Rascal Flatts' song "Red Camaro" (above right). There was a video playing on a loop behind the car showing the members of Rascal Flatts getting seeing the car for the first time, getting in and starting up the engine. I think the sound from the engine genuinely scared them.
Further down, past cars owned by Steve Wariner and Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry, Brad Paisley's 1999 midnight blue Corvette stood out as probably the most beautiful of all the cars on display. I'm sort of a closet Paisley fan, more so for his guitar playing, and I found out that Paisley is a big Corvette guy. He toured the plant in 2010 and was able to drive his new ZR1 Corvette off the line and out of the plant. (As an aside, I have a friend from years ago who I ran into not long ago who told me that he won a Corvette in a raffle a few years back and got to travel to Bowling Green to tour the museum and plant, and then drive his car out of the factory. He said it was one of the best days of his life. They treated him like a king at the Corvette plant and museum, with workers cheering as he drove out.)
Like the previous incarnation of the museum, to exit you had to go through the gift shop - the Corvette Store. The gift shop looked to be about double (if not more) the size of the old gift shop that you exited into after going through the museum. While they did have some interesting items from clothing to hats to accessories for Corvette cars to mugs and glasses, it was all pretty expensive. They even had Corvette bags and backpacks in the shop that looked pretty interesting. I really liked some of the Corvette neon signs and clocks they had, as well as some of the Corvette sunglasses. They even had manuals from nearly every year and model of Corvettes ever made.
Out of the front of the Corvette Store took you into a large atrium area that had the entrance to the museum on the north end, the Corvette Cafe on the opposite end, and in between there was a reference library and an area for people to come to when they pick up their Corvette from the plant. Across the atrium is a large banquet room. I was told by one of the ladies to go in and take a look at the room as they were getting ready for a National Corvette Club dinner for that evening to coincide with a behind-the-scenes look at the new Corvette C7 production model. But it appeared the catering staff was having a meeting in the room, so I didn't go in.
In all, it probably took me about 45 minutes to an hour to go through the museum on this trip. And that's probably because I'd seen a lot of the stuff in the Performance area before. So, if you do have a chance to go to the Corvette Museum, I'd say you should figure a minimum of at least 90 minutes to go through the whole thing. I'm not as big of a car nut as some people that I know, so I could easily be low on my estimate for how long it would take to get through the museum, especially since there's so many minute details to see there. I don't get back to Bowling Green very often, so it was a treat to see what they had done to upgrade the displays and expand the museum. The Corvette Museum is truly a look at the history of the love affair between Americans and performance cars.
(Update - A massive sink hole opened up under the floor of the Skydome on February 12, 2014 swallowing up 8 of the vintage Corvettes on display including the 1,000,000 and the 1,500,000 Corvettes shown in the pictures above. Click here to read about it and see a video of the sink hole as it developed along with a video of a drone officials sent in to access the damage.)