America's Sports Car

Sunday, September 25, 2011 Road Junkies 0 Comments

BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky — Letterboxes can lure us almost anywhere and today, the promise of eight boxes on site enticed us to visit the National Corvette Museum (NCM), a mecca for Corvette owners and aficionados and a place that probably wouldn't have even crossed our radar without the letterboxes.


With Corvette's only remaining manufacturing plant located there, Bowling Green was the natural choice for a museum honoring this iconic American sports car.  The organization's stated mission is to celebrate the invention of the Corvette, preserve its past, present and future, and educate the public about Corvettes.

World War II Corvette
The manufacture of corvettes began during World War II, but not the two-seat roadster made by Chevrolet.  In the early years of the war, Canadian and British navies struggled to protect the critical North Atlantic shipping lanes from attacks by German submarines.  The United States collaborated with its allies to develop a new type of anti-submarine ship.  Named a corvette (French word for fast boat), the new vessel could quickly maneuver, darting in and out of convoys to protect large ships from attacks, and enabling the Allies to gain control of the North Atlantic.

After the war, U.S. Army Air Force General Curtis LeMay convinced General Motors and other companies to contribute money to encourage auto racing on U.S. military bases to help keep enlisted men motivated.  LeMay badgered his friend Harley Earl, head of GM styling, and Ed Cole, Chevrolet engineering manager, to develop a sports car.

Harley Earl secretively began toying with a small inexpensive, sporty concept car beginning in 1951.  A young designer and sports car enthusiast, Bob McClean, proposed a radical "sports car" design package with a short, wide wheelbase.  Earl accepted the challenge, working with his team to create a unique sports car design using a new plastic material, fiberglass.  When presenting the concept to GM management, someone suggested the car be called a Corvette, after the British fast-pursuit ships, and the name stuck.  A prototype of the car was introduced at a GM car show early in 1953.

In spite of the restriction on the use of the American flag on commercial products, the original Corvette logo on the prototype featured the U.S. flag and a checkered racing flag to symbolize the Corvette's role as an American sports car.  When it was determined that the car would actually enter production, the logo was quickly changed to incorporate the crossed flags still in use-- a checkered racing flag and a flag with the Chevrolet logo and a fleur-de-lis to commemorate the heritage of the automaker's founder, Louis Chevrolet.

Only 300 Corvettes were built in 1953, the original production year.  The first Corvette reached the end of the assembly line on June 30, 1953.  All 1953 Corvettes were white with a red interior and a black canvas top, with a two-speed automatic transmission.  There were two options offered:  a signal seeking AM radio for $145.15 and a heater for $91.40.  The base price was $3,498, including federal tax and shipping charges.

1953 Chevrolet Corvette  (photo from legendarycollectorcars.com)

NCM curators have cleverly organized the museum with an eye to history-- exhibiting each of the six generations of the car in settings depicting the period of its manufacture.  Check the price of gas at this 1958-era station as the attendant prepares to check under the hood.


Of the many Corvettes on exhibit, one of the most interesting was a blue 1965 model.  The car itself is not unusual, but its history certainly is.  In November of 1970, Chance Mayfield parked his 1965 Corvette outside the Broadway Barn, a Nashville bar. After an evening of fun, he came out to discover that the Nassau Blue convertible with a white top was gone. Time passed and Mayfield gave up hope of ever seeing the car again. 

1965 Corvette returned to owner 39 years after it was stolen

Then in 2009, a collector tried to register the vehicle with the Arizona DMV and and received notice that the car had been stolen in 1970.  Although it had been previously owned by a variety of car collectors, this was the first time the car had been referenced by the National Insurance Claims Bureau while being registered.  Imagine Mayfield's surprise when he received a call notifying him that his car, stolen 39 years earlier, had been found.  And in a rare occurence, Mayfield actually benefitted from not having his vehicle insured.  The car, which had increased in value from $2,200 when it was stolen to $65,000 when it was returned, belongs to Mayfield, not an insurance company.  It is currently on loan to the museum.

Corvette owners are a loyal bunch, and many visit the museum each year, where they are made to feel especially welcome.  Special parking areas are set aside just for Corvettes.  Corvette Owners Clubs from all over the nation are recognized with banners.  And photos of Corvette owners abound, including a large composite image made up of thousands of ordinary Corvette owners.  (Click on the photo to see a sample of the individual images.)


Even without the letterboxes, the museum was a terrific place to visit.  The boxes just added a little turbo charge.  Vroom, vroom!