America’s Sports Car
Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of American performance, eight generations of Chevrolet Corvette represent a valuable piece of American history. In recognition of that legacy, among the rolling hills of Bowling Green, Kentucky, sits a museum dedicated to “America’s Sports Car.” Located a mile from the GM Bowling Green Assembly plant where the new C8 Corvette is produced, the National Corvette Museum provides a glimpse into the rich mystique of this iconic car, as well as a look behind the scenes at some Corvettes that never came to pass. Although an in-person visit remains the optimal experience, these photo highlights provide a virtual visit to the National Corvette Museum — enjoy the tour.
In the Beginning
The first Corvette rolled off the factory floor on June 30, 1953. At inception the cars were produced at a temporary pilot facility in Flint, Michigan — the only Corvettes ever built in Flint. Three hundred Corvettes were produced during 1953, most of which were built by hand. The one pictured here is number 262.
The 1953 Chevrolet Corvette was available exclusively in Polo White with a red interior and black canvas top. At a base price of $3,498, the first Corvette was powered by a 235 cubic-inch 150-horsepower inline 6-cylinger engine paired with a 2-speed automatic transmission. The only two options available were an AM radio for $145.15 and a heater priced at $91.40.
The third Corvette ever built, this car likely rolled off the assembly line in Flint on July 1, 1953. Not meant for sale, the model went directly to the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan, for testing. This third Corvette endured 14 hours of cold room shake testing, and a Belgian Block road test at the Milford Proving Grounds — eventually the body and chassis separated due to metal fatigue. A private party purchased the car in 2012, had it restored into this unique cutaway display, and donated it to the museum.
First to Fiberglass
In 1954 the Chevrolet Corvette became the first production automobile built from molded fiberglass, although the concept came about 10 years earlier. On display at the museum is the first fiberglass automobile — the 1946 Stout Y46 Concept Car. Built by William “Bill” Stout and Owens-Corning, the Y46 has a fully unitized body made from fiberglass so it doesn’t need a conventional chassis. Another unique feature of the Y46 is its rear-engine layout, which allowed designers to create a completely configurable family sized interior.
Preserved Since 1954
Richard Sampson of Brunswick, Maine, bought a brand-new Corvette in 1954. After driving the car for some years, he acknowledged that his wife did not enjoy riding with him in the car, so he no longer wanted to drive it. Rather than sell the car, Sampson had it entombed during construction of one of his new grocery stores, with instructions in his will stating that the car could not be disturbed until 2000. He removed that stipulation shortly before his death in 1969, and in 1986 Sampson’s daughter had the car removed to her home to Daytona Beach, Florida, where she kept the car in her living room for 10 years. This car is now on display at the Corvette museum, remaining exactly as it was when removed from the tomb.
In 1955 Chevrolet added V8 power to the Corvette. The 265 cubic-inch V8 produced 195 horsepower and was teamed with a Powerglide Automatic transmission. At a base price of $2,909, only 700 Corvettes were built that year. This particular example was one of 120 models painted in Harvest Gold with a Dark Green top.
Big Changes for 1958
For 1958, Chevrolet updated America’s sports car with four headlights and louvers in the hood. This example is one of four early Corvettes built for the 1958 model year, produced in August of 1957 as the Pilot Cars. Car number 00001 was primarily a test vehicle that was eventually cut apart by GM for body analysis. The vehicle on display at the museum is car #00002 which was used in all of GM’s promotional materials and advertising for the 1958 Corvette.
It’s hard to believe, but this 1961 Corvette has only had slight cosmetic restoration to its exterior surface — otherwise this car is primarily original. In 1961 Chevrolet gave the Corvette a major face-lift, removing the “teeth” from the grille and redesigning the rear with four round taillights. That year also saw new standard features like windshield washers and sun visors (a heater was still optional equipment). By this time power had increased to 270 horses from the 283-cubic-inch V8.
End of C1
This 1962 model is a beautiful example of a last first-generation Corvette. This model was the last to have a conventional trunk until the 1998 convertible, and would be the last to have exposed headlights or offer a power convertible top until the sixth-gen Corvette arrived in 2005.
A Disney Connection
Those who have been to Disneyland are likely familiar with the Autopia ride, which lets kids 32 inches and taller get behind the wheel of little sports cars and drive around a special track. In 1964 the Arrow Development Company began building the next-generation cars for the ride — the Mark VI. As part of the new range of vehicles, the company created a miniature form of the Corvette, for which they had to pay General Motors a hefty licensing fee.
Corvette Race Cars
Not long after Corvette took the country by storm, America’s sports car began competing at the racetrack. The next seven ’Vettes are prime examples of some notable racing Corvettes on display at the museum.
1957 Corvette SS XP-64
In 1957 the Corvette’s chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and Chevrolet VP of design Harley Earl created this advanced purpose-built racing Corvette with the intention of entering the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of LeMans. With styling similar to road-going ‘Vettes of the time, the XP-64 is pure race car with its magnesium body, tube chassis and a racing-spec V8 that generates just over 300 horsepower. Although the car had mechanical issues and did not finish at Sebring, in test sessions legendary driver Juan Manuel Fangio asked for some seat time and promptly set a new track record. Ultimately Sebring would be the only race for the SS.
1957 “Union Oil” Racer
This 1957 Corvette was the first of many Corvettes raced by SCCA division champion Paul Reinhart. Reinhart raced the “Union Oil” Corvette in the SCCA Pacific Coast B-Production, winning the division championship in 1960 and 1961.
1962 Gulf Oil Champion
Considered one of the most significant American race cars of the 1960s and the most successful Corvette racer of its time, this 1962 Corvette earned SCCA B-Production National Championships in 1961 and 1962. The car also took victory in its class at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Daytona Continental 3 Hour, making it the first Corvette to win back-to-back international endurance races.
1963 Z06 Racer
Although in the midst of an Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on factory-sponsored racing, Chevrolet sold the 1963 Corvette with a Z06 package which basically made it possible for customers to purchase a race-ready Corvette. Gulf Oil purchased two of these Z06 racers, one of which is on display at the Corvette museum.
1973 Bethke Corvette
Built by Doug Bethke, this 1973 race car was the fastest stock 359-hp Corvette ever built. In 1981 and 1982 the Bethke Corvette won the GT1 SCCA National Championship.
1997 Homologation C5.R
Chevrolet introduced the fifth-generation Corvette in 1997 and at the same time General Motors decided to put together a factory racing team. The company teamed up with Pratt and Miller to create one of the most successful racing programs in history. This C5.R homologation car was built to qualify in the American LeMans series.
2015 Corvette C7.R
This Corvette C7.R and its sibling car were the clear leaders at the 2016 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and team management decided to let the two cars race to the finish, despite the risk of an incident taking both cars out of the race. This #4 car beat the #3 car by a minuscule .034 seconds after an exciting 24th hour. This car also won at Sebring, Lime Rock and Road America, ultimately earning the manufacturer’s title for Chevrolet.
Over the years, GM engineers created a number of unique one-of-a-kind vehicles connected to Corvette, many of which are on display at the Corvette Museum. One of the more interesting examples is this Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle, or CERV1. After horrific tragedies at Le Mans and closer to home in NASCAR racing, factory-sponsored racing ceased during the late 1950s and early 1960s. During that time, this vehicle was pitched as a research tool and served as a bridge between the Corvette SS and upcoming production 1963 Corvette Stingray.
The current C8 is the first production Corvette that puts the engine behind the cabin, although the idea had been around for quite a while. In 1965 Chevrolet built this XP-819 as an engineering exercise to see if a rear-engine platform made sense for the Corvette. With 70 percent of the weight over the rear axle handling was not optimal and the car crashed during testing, eventually cancelling the project.
In 1970 General Motors acquired patent rights to the Wankel Rotary engine, which current GM President Ed Cole felt could transform the entire Chevrolet lineup. Engineers built the Corvette 2-Rotor XP-987GT concept on a modified Porsche 914 chassis, placing it under a car body fabricated in Turin, Italy. The Corvette 2-Rotor debuted at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, but the move to rotary power never went beyond the concept phase.
In 1989 the Corvette squared off with a new competitor in the shape of the Dodge Viper and its powerful V10 engine. In response to the Viper, Corvette engineers took an early production ZR-1 and added 8 inches to the chassis to make room for a Falconer-built V12 engine. The 600-cubic-inch V12 produced 686 horsepower — a considerable boost from the standard 375 horses in the ZR-1. Unfortunately the V12 Corvette didn’t end up making it to production.
The Corvette Museum often has special exhibits — during our visit a group of Corvette-powered vehicles were on display. This example is a 1965 Bizzarrini Monoposto Prototipi, a unique single-seater prototype created for French gentleman racer Regis Fraissinet. Weighing only 1,300 pounds, this car is powered by a heavily modified 327 cubic-inch Corvette engine that generates 420 horsepower.
1958 Scarab Sportscar Racer #003
In 1958 Lance Reventlow — heir to the Woolworth fortune, racer and raconteur — wished to compete against the European manufacturers on their own circuits. Working with Warren Olson in Los Angeles, Reventlow built eight Scarab race cars specifically designed for European endurance races. Scarab #003 was fitted with a 283-cubic inch Corvette engine, which was eventually modified with a longer stroke for more power, bumping displacement to 339 cubic inches.
1967 Bizzarrini GT Strada 5300
This beautiful sports car draws power from a 327-cubic inch Corvette V8 churning out 420 horsepower. Bizzarrini chose the Corvette engine for its excellent reliability as well as its massive torque. The engine sits far back in the chassis to achieve a 50/50 weight distribution. This Strada was originally purchased by Hollywood stunt driver Carey Loftin and can be seen in movies including “Bullitt” and “The Love Bug.”
1977 Avanti II
The Avanti was an Italian-inspired American sports coupe made by Studebaker until the company closed its doors in 1963. Two Studebaker dealers joined forces to save the Avanti, purchasing the rights to build the car and working with suppliers to source the chassis and body. After the formation of the Avanti Motor Corporation, the Avanti II was ready for production by 1965; however, the engine could no longer be sourced from Studebaker. An agreement with GM allowed Avanti to obtain numerous components from the Corvette, including its 327-cubic inch 300-horsepower V8 engine and Muncie 4-speed manual transmission.
1997 Malibu Corvette Boat
Since the Chevrolet Corvette was originally named after a warship, it seems fitting that there would eventually be a boat inspired by the road-going ‘Vette. In 1997 Malibu Boats — based in Loudon, Tennessee — introduced a limited run of Corvette ski boats. The boat took styling cues from the C4 Corvette including its four square taillights, a C4-inspired dashboard, Corvette-style exhaust tips and Corvette emblems. Even the trailer has genuine Corvette alloy wheels with Z-rated tires. Power comes from a Corvette LT1 V8 producing 400 horsepower, giving the boat a top speed of 65 mph. Only 150 Corvette boats were built.
Around 5:30 a.m. on February 12, 2014, a massive sinkhole opened up under the dome area of the Corvette Museum, swallowing eight rare Corvettes. The cars were all recovered from the massive chasm, and while some were able to be saved and restored, others were too rare to restore to their original condition, so they have been left as they were when exhumed from the sinkhole.
Mallet Hammer Z06
This rare Mallet Hammer conversion of the ninth Z06 ever built had a range of performance mods, including a 700-horsepower V8. This car was one of the two Corvettes that couldn’t initially be found in the sinkhole — it was eventually discovered upside down and the most heavily damaged of the eight cars. The last car to be removed from the hole, the Mallet Hammer Z06 remains in the condition it emerged from within the earth.
Corvette ZR-1 Spyder Prototype
This ZR-1 Spyder made its debut at the 1991 Detroit Auto Show as a one-off concept car with a unique hood and lowered windshield and door glass. Built in cooperation with roof company ASC, the concept was an exercise to see how extreme the ZR-1 could be in convertible form. The Spyder was finally removed from the sinkhole on April 1, 2014, after extraction workers pulled a large boulder from the car’s cabin. As a one-of-a-kind prototype the car cannot be restored.
1984 Corvette PPG Pace Car
Developed by PPG with Chevrolet, this bright-orange Corvette was a one-off concept designed to serve as an official pace car for the PPG Indy Car World Series. Unfortunately this car suffered extensive damage during its fall into the sinkhole, chopped by a slap of concrete that fell during the collapse. The PPG Pace Car is one of the five Corvettes that will not be restored.
2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 “Blue Devil”
The first-ever Corvette ZR1 — nicknamed “Blue Devil” — started out life as a 2008 Z06 before its transformation into the powerful ZR1. The most powerful vehicle ever sold by General Motors, the ZR1 boasts 638 horsepower and a top speed in excess of 200 mph. One of the least-damaged vehicles pulled from the sinkhole, this first ZR1 underwent full restoration by GM.
For those fortunate folks purchasing a new C8 Corvette, Chevrolet offers new owners the option to take delivery of their new sports car at the National Corvette Museum. Available from any dealership for an additional $995, the museum delivery includes a special VIP-guided museum tour where the new customer will find their new car on display in the lobby. Customers also receive a personalized interior dash plaque, a personalized wall plaque and an individual photograph in front of the Corvette museum.
Visit the Museum
The National Corvette Museum is located off I-65 in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and is open from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. seven days a week. Both entertaining and educational, the museum is a wonderful destination for the whole family.
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