As gearheads and curbside carnivores, most readers here have probably heard of the tragedy that the National Corvette Museum suffered in 2014. In the overnight hours of February 12, a very large sinkhole opened up under a section of the museum. No people were hurt, but there were eight Corvette casualties. The internet photo above shows a few of the unfortunate Vettes on the day after.
I had the opportunity to visit the museum that year a few months later, after all the cars had been excavated and the room containing the hole was opened to the public. It was fascinating and sad all at once. Since I had a chance encounter recently with one of those cars, it occurred to me some of you might be interested the details of this event and the pictures I took on that trip.
The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky is a place I would want to visit, sinkhole or not. As a resident of Texas (and before that, Arizona), it had been sitting on my list for quite a while. On a trip to the midwest, I finally made that visit, as well as to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenburg Museum in Indiana. What a vacation!
I’ll show a few pictures from the main museum, then show the sinkhole and run through all the damaged cars.
Note: all photos were taken by me unless noted otherwise noted.
The primary part of the Museum walks visitors through Corvette history chronologically. According to the Museum’s website, they currently have about 80 cars. These include historically significant cars, prototypes and other assorted cherry Vettes. This is a 1953 model, the first year of production, a model seldom seen in the wild but well-known to all classic Corvette fans.
Non-car exhibits included a display of engines.
Many would say the second generation cars were the best Corvettes ever and they had a number of very beautiful C2’s. This is a 1967 convertible with a 390 h.p. 427, 4 speed and removable hardtop, a.k.a Corvette royalty.
The hole. It may not look all that big in the picture, but it did in person. I assure you, as indoor holes in the floor go, it was the Grand Canyon. I’ve read that the geology of this part of Kentucky makes it prone to sinkholes, so it was not too shocking to people familiar with the area. The nature of the collapse, though, was remarkably serendipitous, or providential if you prefer. It seems amazing that it happened fully within the walls of the room, without threatening the overall integrity of the building, in the middle of the night in a vacant museum and under an area densely occupied by cars.
This was not the chronological history part of the Museum, but an exhibit hall called the Skydome. If there was a blessing in the event, besides the fact that no people were in the building at the time, it’s that this was an area with mostly newer cars rather than the most valuable early Vettes found elsewhere.
When I visited, the damaged cars were all displayed together in a section of the museum that also housed other cars of interest around the edges including Zora Arkus-Duntov’s 84, the only 1983 Corvette in the world and a 1965 convertible that was stolen in 1970 and returned to its original owner in 2009.
The least damaged car was a 2009 ZR1, nicknamed “The Blue Devil”. It’s a preproduction car that was used for promos and press intros. 2009 was the first year for the C6 version of the ZR1, which had the highest power rating of any GM car ever sold up to that time at 638hp. Sticker price was over $103k.
This was the first car to be repaired, being unveiled in like new condition in November 2014. It was sent to GM in September to have all damaged parts repaired or replaced. Damage included:
- Cracked carbon-fiber ground effects and a broken passenger-side rocker panel
- Damaged passenger front fender, as well as cracks in both doors
- Cracked windshield, hood window glass and passenger headlamp assembly
- Bent rear control arms on the driver’s side
- Cracked oil lines to the supercharged LS9 engine’s dry-sump oiling system
Ordinarily, that would be considered quite a lot of damage for a museum car like this, but as we’ll see, compared to some of the other cars, it’s practically unscathed.
The 1993 40th anniversary model is not an especially historic car, but was a very well preserved example of one of the nicer versions of the C4. It was one of the three cars that came to rest on top of the sinkhole debris and escape being buried. Just prior to the event, it had been displayed in the Skydome sitting on a lift, with the black 1962 below it. In the photo of the hole above, the lift can be seen around the 62, with the 93 flipped upside down nearby.
Despite not being buried, the car still suffered extensive damage and given its relatively low value, it was decided not to repair it.
Though also a heavily damaged C4, the white 1992 convertible was deemed restorable due to its historical significance. The significance is that it is the one millionth Corvette produced. It was very intentionally made in white with red interior, like the first 1953’s, and has signatures on various parts throughout the car of most of the people involved with assembling it at the Bowling Green factory, which is just across the road from the Museum. Never sold to the public, it did PR duty for a while, then was donated to the Museum.
The car was restored by GM at their Design Center in Michigan. Over 1200 man hours were spent on the car. The signatures complicated the work as the decision was made to repair every part that had signatures, rather than replace those parts.
A single signed part (the lower body panel with the vent slots between the right front wheel and right door) was considered irreparable, so the employee who signed it (23 years earlier) was located and her signature obtained on the new part.
The Most Happy Ending Award goes to the Tuxedo Black 1962, the only sinkhole car made prior to the 80’s. It was a meticulously maintained, unrestored car donated to the Museum by its original owner 50 years after he bought it new in high school.
In February 2017, three years after falling down the hole, the Museum began an in-house restoration of the car. Their shops have viewing windows in the museum, so visitors were able to observe the progress. The finished car was unveiled on the fourth anniversary of the sinkhole (2018) and will be the last sinkhole car to be restored.
It is no longer an untouched original car, but it is beautiful. I happened across it at a car show held on the deck of the U.S.S. Lexington in Corpus Christi, Texas last October. I really don’t know how it came to be there, but I was delighted to see it again looking so fine!
Here begins the section of Corvettes that the Kentucky ground really had its way with. First up is a 1984 PPG Pace Car, heavily modified when new for IndyCar pacing duties. It was donated by PPG to the Museum on its opening in 1994.
Here is what it looked like before. Every body panel was custom save the doors and roof. It has a 450h.p. 401 c.i. engine and heavily modified suspension. When excavating the hole, it was found under a 10 ton slab of concrete.
In 2009, Chevrolet produced the 1,500,000th Corvette. It was ordered and purchased by the Museum when new. Like the 1992 above, it is fittingly a white convertible with red interior with most every option available.
Though still recognizable, you would probably have to look really hard to find a part on it that wasn’t damaged.
Next we have the 1991 ZR-1 Spyder, a show car modified by GM right in the Bowling Green factory. Here, the left side looks pretty decimated.
The left side is actually its good side, here’s what remains of the right side.
Mechanically it’s a ZR-1, very similar to the production car with its Lotus-developed 32-valve dual-overhead cam LT5 making 375hp (125hp over the also 5.7L standard pushrod engine). Visually it was quite different, though, as it is a convertible and it has a dramatically lower windshield, among other mods (no production ZR-1 drop tops were made, though I don’t believe this one has a folding top) . The windshield is even lower now!
The Grande Finale. The award for “Corvette Most Modified By Geology” goes to a 2001 Mallett Hammer Z06. In the Annals Of Corvette Calamities And Collisions, there may not be a car more severely and thoroughly damaged in history. At least without explosives being involved.
It was over a month into the excavation project before the Mallett Hammer was even located.
Here is the car before. Mallet Performance Cars modified the Z06 when new, bumping horsepower from 385 stock to 475. The owner later had Antivenom LSX Performance further enhance the car to approximately 597 rear wheel horsepower. The owner had recently donated the low-mileage, pumped-up Vette to the museum to be used at its new road racing track facility.
From this angle, it almost looks like a car still, or at least a go-kart. All that damage and it only lost one wheel!
Here is a poster the Museum had displayed showing the highlights of the excavation project. In July 2015, repair of the sinkhole was completed and the Skydome’s fully intact floor was opened to the public. The museum now features a display of the repaired and irreparable cars on the exact spot of the sinkhole. They also have a special exhibit called “Corvette Cave In: The Skydome Sinkhole Experience”, all about the sinkhole, the cars, the repairs, etc.
The Museum has made the best of the incident. You could call it a “mixed tragedy”, as the year following the cave in saw a 67% increase in visitors. They have ever since fully embraced the experience and made it a well-publicized chapter in their history. I would love to go back sometime and see how they have developed these displays and fully integrated the incident into the museum. However, I’m very grateful I got to see the sinkhole in person and experience the cars freshly exhumed from their would-be grave.
There is even a viewing window in the floor where visitors can peer into the cave (formerly the sinkhole) that is below the Skydome floor.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, here are some of the links I used in writing this story: