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The Great American Dream Machine: The Corvette

It’s mid-year 1953 and automotive history is about
to be made. On June 30, the first Corvette rolled off a primitive assembly line
in a General Motors garage. America’s love affair with what many people consider
the only true sports car ever built in this country had begun.

Over a span of 48 years, the Corvette has touched many
people-and many people have touched Corvettes. They include engineers, race drivers,
celebrities, teenagers, and the young at heart. Even Hollywood got into the act.
Some of us can recall the adventures of Martin Milner and George Maharis in their
Corvette coupe somewhere in the American Southwest on the Route 66 television
show.

The sports-car idea originated in Europe, came to America
early this century, faded from the scene, and then experienced a revival. In 1911,
1912, and 1913, American-built cars, such as the Mercer Runabout, could be taken
directly from a dealer’s showroom to the Indianapolis 500 and be raced.

World War II introduced a new sports-car boom to America.
Soldiers stationed in Europe were amazed to find automobiles that differed radically
from U.S. designs. Cars seen overseas were aerodynamically shaped vehicles having
a low center of gravity. Their steering and suspension were designed for precision
control at high speeds on curving roads.

Some GIs brought European cars home with them-others
were good prospects for the import-car dealerships that sprang up on both the
East and West coasts. Sports-car clubs were organized, race circuits were laid
out, and in 1953, Chevrolet introduced a sports car of its own.

In the spring of 1952, Chevrolet decided that it needed
a dramatic new symbol-something with youth, verve, adventure, romance, and a jazziness
of spirit. The answer was a sports car.

Before this decision, no big-time Detroit car manufacturer
had the guts or imagination to challenge the European sports-car companies. Now,
Chevrolet’s board of directors decided to take the plunge. But they wanted it
done right-and fast. The car would have to be ready for the 1953 Motorama Car
Show (which was to be held in January of that year). Chevrolet’s public relations
people could then unveil the Corvette as “America’s Only True Sports Car,”
and thus convey to the world the bold new spirit of the company.

The Corvette stirred the imagination of Zora Arkus-Duntov,
a European automotive engineer. Although his parents were Russian, he was actually
born in Belgium. However, the family eventually moved back to Russia, where Zora
received his basic education.

As soon as he felt he was ready, he applied for entrance
to the engineering school at the University of Leningrad. Entrance into a Russian
university was extremely difficult-particularly so for Zora because he was only
15 when he applied. In 1952, Arkus-Duntov wrote a letter (now enshrined in the
Corvette Museum in Bowling Green) encouraging GM to pursue the hot-rod market
by building a high-performance sports car. Before long, he joined Chevrolet as
a research engineer.

At the 1953 Motorama, the Corvette (a French word meaning
a small, fast, maneuverable escort vessel) made its first public appearance. The
display car was an all-white two-seater. Public response from Motorama patrons
was so strong, GM decided to rush the car into production.

Hailed as “the first dream car come true,”
there were, nonetheless, several things wrong with the 1953 ‘Vette. For one thing,
when you bought a Corvette, you bought an automatic transmission-like it or not.
Also, the top required two people and a crowbar to put it up.

Production rose from a little over 300 units in 1953
to 3,625 in 1954. But the car initially did not match sales expectations. By mid-1955,
production slumped to less than two cars a day.

Chevrolet executives had to face the fact that they
had a potential disaster on their hands. Simply stated, the trouble was that,
as a sports car, the Corvette showed great haste in planning. Sports-car enthusiasts
wanted, above all, performance. But the car’s mushy shock absorbers had the car
bucking in the corners. Also, the car lacked power. Nudged to the brink of extinction
by poor sales, the ‘Vette was rescued in 1956 largely through the efforts of Arkus-Duntov.
He proceeded to help develop a special engine, chassis, suspension, and brakes.
Almost overnight, the Corvette was transformed from a pretender to a true sports-car
contender.

The 1957 Corvette was the first U.S. car with a genuine
4-speed “stick” transmission. For many of us, the ’57 Corvette was our
first real chance to experience true shot-from-guns acceleration.

Stylist Bill Mitchell’s beautiful Sting Ray body knocked
the automotive world on its ear in 1963. In addition to the popular roadster,
the new, aerodynamically styled Corvette was available in a fastback coupe body
style. To this day, the 1963 Corvette is considered one of the classic shapes
in American automotive history.

As great a styling tour de force as the 1963 Sting
Ray was, Chevrolet came off the bench with another blockbuster in 1968. This time,
Chevrolet took the lines of the Mako Shark show car and formed them into the second
generation Sting Ray.

Then disaster struck. At the beginning of the 1970s,
time and money were abruptly directed elsewhere-toward meeting federal safety
and emissions laws. This put the Corvette program in a holding pattern.

The Corvette had the drop on every other car in town.
It was rip-the-pavement fast. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there wasn’t another
automobile fit to carry the Corvette’s spare. However, all that fire degenerated
into the automatic-only, single-exhaust floozies of the late ’70s. Weight reduction
was the priority of the ’80s. Everything that could be lightened was. Windshield
and roof panels were thinned-as were hood and doors.

The 1983 Corvette was so pathetic, GM couldn’t bring
itself to market the car. Forty-three Corvettes were built that year. Forty-two
were destroyed on the company’s order. There was serious doubt whether or not
the Corvette would survive. (The only surviving 1983 Corvette resides at the National
Corvette Museum.)

The first all-new Corvette since 1963, the 1984 model
represented a radical departure from anything Chevrolet had ever built. With this
car, Chevrolet resumed its role as a technological leader. Actually debuting as
an ’84 model in 1983, the new C4 bore little resemblance to the car it replaced.

In 1989, GM rolled out its $50,000 Corvette ZR1. Trade
magazines gushed about the car. “We have finally driven the ZR1,” raved
Automobile Magazine, “and without equivocation can pronounce it the
finest high-performance car America has ever produced.”

The Corvette continues today. The General Motors Corvette
Plant, located in Bowling Green since 1981, exclusively produces Corvettes. There
were 33,682 Corvettes produced in 2000 and they are currently producing the 2001
C5 Corvette, consisting of coupes, convertibles, and the Z06 Corvette. The plant
expects to produce 30,000-plus in 2001…and the love affair with the Corvette
continues.

Win a 2001 Magnetic Red Corvette

You can win your own Corvette!

The National Corvette Museum’s major fund-raiser
is their annual raffle. A 2001 Magnetic Red convertible Corvette will be given
away. It features oak interior and top and was donated to the museum by Chevrolet.
Raffle tickets are $10 and are available at the museum or can be purchased online
at www.corvettemuseum.com/raffle/index.htm.
Certain restrictions apply. A winner will be drawn at the museum’s annual Labor
Day celebration on September 2.

GM Corvette Assembly Plant Tours

Every Corvette made is produced in Bowling Green
since production moved to Bowling Green in 1981. The GM Corvette Assembly Plant
is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Here you can see the step-by-step production
of America’s favorite sports car. Public tours are available at 9 a.m. and 1
p.m. Monday through Friday.

Tours are not given during plant shutdowns (which
includes July 2-15). Reservations are available for 10 or more. No cameras are
allowed. Located off I-65 at Exit 28, across from the National Corvette Museum.
For more information call (270) 745-8287.

Bowling Green’s National Corvette Museum

Like the Corvette itself, the free-form National
Corvette Museum in Bowling Green doesn’t have a straight line in it. The facility
opened on September 2, 1994. Built on 33 acres of land, the museum resembles
the set for a science fiction movie-a long, curving, steel-gray facade anchored
by a bright yellow cone-shaped car salon, called the Skydome. Jutting from the
top is a red “Mobil 1 spire” that’s illuminated at night.

In the Chevrolet Theater, a 10-minute film highlighting
America’s fascination with the Corvette is shown. After exiting the theater,
museum visitors encounter dioramas where vintage ‘Vettes are displayed.

Many of the cars are shown in period settings, using
historically accurate props. For example, a 1959 Corvette is set in a ’60s-era
service station, complete with authentic gas pumps and a Flying Red Horse emblem
(which Mobil stations of the day featured).

There is also a Performance Area that is surrounded
by a great panoramic mural featuring Corvettes in various racing scenes. Many
racers are displayed in the Performance Area, including the 1990 EDS-LT5 (which
set a world endurance record). You can even witness a pit stop during a Corvette
race.

In the Corvette Salon (beneath the Skydome), 16 famous
and one-of-a-kind Corvette dream cars repose in quiet dignity. They include
the mid-engine AeroVette (which was originally designed to accommodate a rotary
engine). Also present are the original Mako Shark as well as the one millionth
Corvette-which came off the assembly line in July of 1992.

For 48 years it’s been the Great American Dream Machine-a
seductive two-seater with a spirit of adventure unlike that of any other automobile.
It’s called Corvette, and it has everything-power, speed, and agility, as well
as a healthy dollop of raw sex appeal.

The Corvette is an American icon, rooted in our collective
consciousness like the shape of Coke bottles or apple pie. The National Corvette
Museum in Bowling Green provides an informative and entertaining look at postwar
America, as seen from the rear-view mirror of its most beloved automobile.

Visiting the Museum

Located just off Exit 28 of Interstate 65, at
350 Corvette Drive, the museum is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST year-round (except
Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day). The facility is handicapped-accessible.

For more information, call the National Corvette
Museum at (800) 53-VETTE (83883), or visit the museum online at www.corvettemuseum.com.

Upcoming Events

The Rendezvous June 28-July 1: Celebrate the Corvette Assembly Plant
20th Anniversary at their permanent home, Bowling Green. Enjoy the sights and
sounds of the first-ever 1982 Collectors Edition Corvettes, seminars, celebrity
guests, car show, BBQ at the 1869 Homestead, dinner in the NCM’s Skydome, road
tours, plant tours, and photo opportunities at the Corvette Assembly Plant.

Corvette Celebration and Hall of Fame August 31-September 2: The museum’s
7th anniversary celebration and biggest event of the year, a reunion of Apollo
astronauts and their Corvettes, special motorama display, official introduction
of the 2002 model year, and the 4th Annual Hall of Fame Induction ceremony.

Pace Car Reunion October 11-14: Attendees can join the first-ever reunion
of the 1978, 1995, and 1998 Indy Pace Corvettes, 1986 Convertibles, and 1990
Parade Corvettes. A first-ever caravan from Indianapolis to Bowling Green, a
full day of celebrity seminars and autograph opportunities, road tours, and
Corvette Assembly Plant tours are also included.

To register for the events or for more information,
call (800) 53-VETTE (83883) or go online at www.corvette.museum.com/registration/index.htm.

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