Jean Baudrillard, a noted french sociologist, introduced a concept known as Simulation and Simulacra in his paper titled The Precession Of Simulacra in 1994. He put forth the idea that in our postmodern age, we tend to substitute things that are real for objects and concepts that have no basis in reality. That is to say we use objects not just as placeholders for concepts but as the concept themselves. If you ask anyone to name “America’s Sports Car” chances are they will name Chevy’s second-longest-running nameplate behind the Suburban… The Corvette. This is a vehicle that has had people running to their local Chevy dealer for decades.
Saying the name conjures up in our mind’s eye a long legacy of flashy sports cars, rumbling engines, and most recently, a high-tech juggernaut that can finally stand up to the supercars of the world. It all reeks of American exceptionalism, and that’s always been the point. So, let’s take a virtual trip through some highlights of the Corvette Museum, a token portrait of the American Dream.
(A note before we begin. The following is not meant to offend any fans of the Corvette, GM, or anyone else that happens to be reading this. Yours truly has driven many examples of every Corvette from each generation, up to and including the mid engined current model. As a lover of classic cars of all kinds, this is simply my opinion, take it as you will.)
This area is an introduction to the early history of the Corvette, with bright, shiny examples frozen in time as they stand alongside recreations of buildings from the period. These include a mid-century gas station, malt shop, and garage, among others. Folks that walk through this winding passageway will find themselves in a wonderful, polished facsimile of a Main Street that never was. Here you can indulge in the bright, colorful world the early Corvette inhabited, which is just as lifeless as the eyes of the mannequins that attend to them. The Alley acts as a shrine to the Corvette, even having the ashes of its engineer and his wife entombed within.
The name of Zora Arkus-Duntov is spelled out in lights above the tastefully lit exhibit. It was his wish that the museum be his final resting place. For those who are Corvette die-hards, I imagine it’s all very exciting. For someone who isn’t quite as big a fan, it comes across as a bit sterile and off-putting overall. That being said, the final portion of this area has a fascinating representation of the old Saint Louis Assembly Plant, where Corvettes were assembled from 1953 until 1981. There, one can see the body of a C3 being lowered onto its chassis by a mannequin in an authentic set of factory worker clothes.
It would be amiss for a vehicle touted as “America’s ONLY sports car” to not have a history of racing. Otherwise, all the trumpeting of its innovative design propped up by the museum would fall on deaf ears. It is here where visitors can traverse a huge circular room nearly 80 feet in diameter, where Corvette’s long racing history can be seen in the fiberglass. Starting in the ’50s at the car’s genesis, it ends at a race-ready C7.R. Alongside each car are a few artifacts related to each time period, such as racing suits, helmets, and trophies. It’s a trip through the ages for any fan of the Corvette and a nod to what the car was really made to do.
The SkyDome and Sinkhole
This is the largest portion of the museum and is certainly its most distinctive aspect from an architectural standpoint. A huge red spire rises up from the center of the room and is surrounded by a massive curved dome of silver scaffolding where a constantly rotating cast of Corvettes from every single generation can be seen. Some are on permanent display, and others are the cars of private citizens who wish to have the honor of occupying a space in the famous cone-shaped room. It is reminiscent of something one might find in the Smithsonian.
However, what really put the museum on the map and what most people will be familiar with is the sinkhole that destroyed eight cars in 2014. Timelapse footage can be found of the ground underneath them simply collapsing as thousands of dollars worth of history are dumped unceremoniously into a deep hole underneath the SkyDome, as easily as a child disposes of toy cars in a sandpit. What was a massive tragedy for the museum was turned into an interesting exhibit after the cave was reinforced and most of the damaged cars were restored. Others were left exactly as they were pulled out of the hole as a reminder of the devastation it caused.
One can learn all about sinkholes and the process of retrieving the cars in a walk-through exhibit. However, if your sensibilities aren’t quite up to the task, one can skip the section entirely through a discrete side door, the same way one can duck out of a haunted house if all the flashing lights and costumed horrors get too much. Perhaps the museum could provide a complementary Corvette branded teddy bear to those who pick this option?
The Exhibit Hall
Finally, one can get away from Corvettes in the museum of its namesake. This area offers an ever-changing exhibit to visitors, making each trip something different. At the time of writing, the museum offers what it calls Car-Toons, which (dropping my faintly sarcastic tone for a moment), looks very interesting! It’s all about the work and life of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, whose work can be seen most famously in that of Rat Fink, and any number of his signature vehicle drawings with insane, cartoon proportions.
With huge balloon tires bellowing out a neverending fog of burnt rubber and exhaust stacks shooting out streams of fire, each drawing makes the subject car look like it’s about to drive straight off the page and give Christine a run for her money. Tom Peters, one of the designers who grew up influenced by the work of Ed Roth, would go on to design the 8th generation Corvette Stingray. Cars inspired by the artist are scattered around of all makes, giving visitors the idea of his legendary influence with fans of all brands. Also featured is an example of the rivalry all Corvette fans are aware of; as they walk through the latter part of the exhibit, one can see an all-new Galpin Ford GTR1 supercar facing a Corvette Stingray C8, like two bucks about to lock antlers.
The Gift Shop
What museum would be complete without a gift shop? If the legacy of the Corvette has taught me anything so far, anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and at 4,600 square feet, where one can step into a wonderland of Corvette branded merchandise, this store does exactly that. I’ll freely admit that while one can pick up any number of cheap things there, like a black coffee mug with a printed logo.
There is a wealth of car care supplies and even a stock of owners manuals and sales brochures on offer for almost any generation of Corvette. I have owned a number of classic cars of all different makes and years, and one of the first things I buy is the owner’s manual if not found in the glove box, often at the whim of eBay scalpers. I imagine it would be very nice to walk into a store and purchase a brand new version of what would’ve come with your car when new, all at a reasonable price.
If someone buys a new Corvette, they can specify they want their new car shipped from the Bowling Green Assembly Plant (located less than a mile from the museum itself) to the “Nursery” wing of the museum. The new owner will be given a private tour of the museum and assembly plant where they can watch their car being built. Employees then prep the car before the owner takes delivery and drives their new toy down “Victory Lane.”
All in All
Sometimes one doesn’t need to try something to know it’s not for them. The Corvette has led and continues to lead a very interesting legacy. For fans of the car, the museum is a fantastic place to make a pilgrimage. For me, personally, it remains a place that I might visit once simply to say that I had done it. Having done so, I would pay it no mind more than I would to the fifteen dollars I spent to get me in the door in the first place.