National Corvette Museum: Zora D. Would be Proud

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 01/2014
  • posted in: Great Garages

Whatever generation Vette you crave, the National Corvette Museum (NCM) in Bowling Green, Kentucky, has one, and then some.

Opened in 1994, NCM is the only independent museum in the world dedicated to a single marque: Corvette. The museum owns 46 of its total 143 cars, including 78 currently displayed.

Additionally, as a 501c3 nonprofit foundation, NCM is not owned by or financially supported by General Motors, although it celebrates America’s great sports car, from the first-generation 1953 to today’s 2014, the remarkable seventh-generation Sting Ray.

“It is considered a ‘living’ museum with exhibits that rotate on a frequent basis. Most of the vehicles on display are on loan from private individuals as well as General Motors,” says Katie Frassinelli, the museum’s marketing and communications manager.

Annual events begin each year with the NCM Bash the last weekend in April, with an average of 1,000 attendees. This is followed by the Anniversary Celebration Labor Day Weekend, which usually also attracts 1,000, but this year should draw as many as 20,000 attendees for the NCM 20th anniversary, she says. Finally, Vets ‘n Vettes, in its fifth year, is scheduled near Veteran’s Day in November. The NCM also offers “Museum in Motion” trips to various parts of the country as well as high-performance driving events and community activities.

In August, the museum will open a $20-million, 184-acre dual-track NCM Motorsports Park, providing a world-class venue for its annual automotive events. Mitch Wright is the new general manager of the facility.

Frassinelli cordially hosted us to see some of the cars, in particular, five focus Vettes:

1983 Corvette –– This is one rare Corvette. The plan for the newly designed 1983 called for production to begin October 1982, Frassinelli explains. But, although the technology was available for the new car, it had to be developed into the manufacturing process with proven quality, reliability and durability before production could be approved.

“Because the Corvette team insisted that every new design item and piece of new technology be defect free and of highest possible quality, a decision was made to withhold production until January 1983 and to serialize them as 1984 models,” she adds.

The result was that the new Vette incorporated some of the most far-reaching design changes in the model’s history. Many of high-tech changes had not been tested and approved for automobile application, such as the computer-controlled LED crystal instrument panel; high- strength/ low-alloy galvanized steel for the uniframe; basecoat/ clearcoat paint; one-piece sheet-molded (SMC) body panels, eliminating bond seams; urethane adhesive for stronger and more flexible body construction; and magnesium/aluminum metals for lightweight corrosion-free chassis and suspension.

Chevy built 43 pre-production models for the original 1983, and 33 were assigned to Corvette Engineering and GM Proving Ground activities to certify every aspect. The remaining 1983 Corvettes stayed in Bowling Green for development purposes. Of the 43 1983s produced, there is only just this one, with 205 stock horses, left.

Zora’s 1974 –– This was the only Corvette that Zora Arkus-Duntov, “Father of the Corvette” owned. While at General Motors, he often drove prototypes, and when he retired, he purchased this loaded 1974 Stingray.

Zora made some changes. He repainted from its original color green and modified it for improved performance to 270 horsepower. He drove it to Corvette functions until Vette collector, Les Bieri, offered him $100,000 for it in 1989. When Duntov died in 1996, Bieri donated the car to the NCM in tribute to the great engineer.

This Corvette is optioned out. Of the 3,494 big blocks in 1974, one had to be in Zora’s car, of course. Its prototype wheels did not make the Corvette option list until 1976. The rear bumper was replaced in 2004 and donated by Paragon, and the current paint was matched and mixed by Automotive Color & Glass of Buechel, Louisville, Frassinelli explains.

1953 Corvette –– The first Vette was completed June 30, 1953, in Flint, Michigan. “The 1953 factory wasn’t a factory at all but a temporary pilot assembly facility in the customer delivery garage,” she notes. Just 300 of the 1953 model Corvettes were built, much by hand. Understandably, they are prized by collectors.

All 1953 Corvettes were Polo White with a red interior and a black canvas top and had a two-speed automatic transmission and 150 horses from the Blue Flame 6-cylinder. You could choose from two “options,” which were nevertheless included with every car: the signal-seeking AM radio ($145.15) and a heater ($91.40).

Base price was $3,498, including the federal excise tax and $248 for shipping and handling. The radio had an interesting feature, she explains: “Because fiberglass is electrically inert, the antenna was incorporated in the trunk lid. This, of course, would not be possible with a conventional steel body.”

This 1953 is number 262 of the 300. When a Corvette “Library and Archives” was discussed, enthusiast Ray Quinlan of Champaign, Illinois, said that if the facility included display space, he would donate his 1953 Corvette. This became the Corvette Museum, and its Library and Archives opened 15 years later in 2009.

Incidentally, in 2003 the original Flint Corvette factory was razed, but the bricks can be seen throughout the National Corvette Museum. These can be purchased to take home for your GreatGarage.

1963 Z06 –– This is one of the first six 1963 Z06s built. GM Tech dismantled and reassembled it by hand. Two went to Grady Davis, president/CEO of Gulf Oil; two to Mickey Thompson; and two to Roger Penske. Leon Hurd acquired this one from Davis and donated it to the Corvette Museum.

With a length of 175.2 inches and a wheelbase of 98 inches, the car weighs in for shipping at 2,859 pounds. The solid-lifter car, with 360 horsepower, is fitted with a 36.5-gallon tank and features Rochester fuel Injection. Other components include heavy-duty front and rear springs and shocks; heavy-duty front stabilizer bar; power brakes, with a dual master cylinder; brake drum cooling air scoops; finned drum brakes with sintered metallic linings and forward self-adjusting mechanisms.

Frassinelli notes that the car has been raced competitively in the United States and Europe, including the Nürburgring in Germany and the Circuit Zolder in Belgium.

1989 ZR-1 –– Morrison Motorsports/EDS World Record Car –– With a stock 1990 Chevrolet engine, this ZR-1 set three world records plus seven FIA International Class records during the trials at Fort Stockton, Texas, March 1 and 2, 1990. At an average 175 miles per hour, it broke a 50-year-old record set by AB Jenkins in 1940 by almost 15 mph.

Championship endurance specialist Tommy Morrison of Albany, Georgia, completed the race and safety preparation of the ZR-1 and organized and managed the Texas time trial. He shared the driving with other veteran endurance drivers, including three Corvette engineers.

Other features: ZF 6-speed manual transmission; four-wheel independent suspension with selective ride control; uniframe construction with fiberglass body panels; 48-gallon fuel cell; and Goodyear 12 x 17 special radial tires.

“Volkswagen claims to have broken the record with its W12 Coupe, but Corvette fans point out that this was a prototype car and the ZR-1 a production car. Also, at three times the cost of a Vette, it isn’t exactly a high-production car either,” Frassinelli says.

“Corvette also wanted to prove that it had overcome the emissions regulations that had slowed down earlier Corvettes and were ready to take their place among the sports car elite again,” she adds.

This ZR-1 held the world mark for 24 hours of 175.885 mph until 2001. It later also set world records for 5,000 kilometers and 5,000 miles –– records certified by the Federation Internationale del’Automobile in Paris, France.

The National Corvette Museum is open every day, 8 a.m. –5 p.m. Central Time but is closed Easter, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. For more information, see www.corvettemuseum.org or call 270.781.7973 or 800.53.VETTE (83883).

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