After more than four months and 1,200 man-hours of painstaking craftsmanship, restoration of the milestone 1-millionth Corvette – a white 1992 convertible – is complete.
It was unveiled today at the National Corvette Museum, in Bowling Green, Ky., where it returns as part of the permanent exhibit. The car was damaged on Feb. 12, 2014, when it and seven other rare Corvettes tumbled into a sinkhole that opened beneath the museum's Skydome area.
Chevrolet pledged to restore it.
"When we disassembled it, we found that each employee involved in building it had signed a part of the car, which was fantastic and moving to see," said Mark Reuss, General Motors executive vice president, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. "It brought the history to life, and reinforced the importance of the project."
After recovery from the sinkhole, the 1-millionth Corvette was moved from the museum to the Design Center on GM's Technical Center campus in Warren, Mich., for restoration. Approximately 30 craftspeople and technicians from GM Design's Mechanical Assembly group, along with GM Service Operations, took on the project. Mechanical Assembly and the Fabrication Shops at GM Design builds concept vehicles and maintains GM's historic vehicle collection.
"As the one and only 1-millionth Corvette, its preservation was important to us as the designers of the vehicle – and as Corvette enthusiasts," said Ed Welburn, vice president of GM Global Design. "The damage was significant in many ways; however we have one of the most highly skilled specialty shops and team of people in the industry, so they were fully prepared to take on the challenge."
Despite extensive damage, the team, represented by UAW locals 160 and 1869, vowed to preserve and repair as many original components as possible – a decision that involved posterity as much as history. That's because under the skin, the 1-millionth Corvette carried all those signatures from the Bowling Green Assembly workers who built the car.
Only two signed components couldn't be saved, so the team had the autographs scanned, reproduced as transfers and placed on the replacement parts.
"We went to great lengths to preserve every autograph," said David Bolognino, director of GM Global Design Fabrication Operations. "In the end, we saved every one of them, which was an unexpected and important element to the restoration."
One component with a single signature from Bowling Green Assembly employee Angela Lamb was too damaged to save or even accurately scan for her autograph. Chevrolet worked with the National Corvette Museum to secure a new signature from Lamb on the replacement part, so the 1-millionth Corvette will be historically accurate down to the last signature.
Among the parts replaced were the hood, front fascia and the lower panels between the front wheels and doors, as well as a number of ancillary supporting components under the hood. The replacements came from a vehicle of the same vintage and color, ensuring authenticity of the parts and materials involved with the restoration.
A few other components, such as the rear fascia and front exhaust system, would have probably been replaced in almost any other restoration project, but the team repaired them because they were also covered in signatures.
Additional highlights from the restoration:
• The front sub-frame was damaged in the fall into the sinkhole and required straightening
• The wheels were damaged, but reconditioned, with the original Goodyear Eagle GS-C tires
• Rather than replace the scuffed and scratched pad on the instrument panel, its soft cover was carefully removed and replaced to preserve the employee-signed structure beneath it
• The red leather seats, featuring one-off "1,000,000th Corvette" embroidery on the headrests were damaged but deemed irreplaceable, so they were restored, including a few replacement patches of carefully matched hide
• The 5.7L LT1 engine, transmission and other drivetrain components were inspected and found to be damage-free
Surprisingly, the one component the team didn't have to replace was the crushed windshield header. When the car first rolled into the shop, an overhead crane was used to raise it enough to make the car drivable, but the frame pulled up surprisingly close to the original position, encouraging the team to save it.
"The header restoration was a wonderful surprise for what everyone assumed would be the toughest aspect of the restoration," said Bolognino. "With access to the original specifications, we got it spot-on – and even the new windshield glass dropped in perfectly."
The final touch was replacing the unique "1,000,000th" windshield banner it wore when it rolled off the assembly line 23 years ago. The computer graphic file used for the original was still available, allowing creation of an identical banner.
The 1-millionth Corvette is the second sinkhole-damaged Corvette that Chevrolet has restored. The first, a 2009 Corvette ZR1 prototype known as the Blue Devil, was only lightly damaged and was returned to its original condition last fall. The National Corvette Museum will oversee the restoration of a third car, a 1962 Corvette.
The five additional Corvettes swallowed by the sinkhole will remain in their as-recovered state to preserve the historical significance of the cars. They will become part of a future sinkhole-themed display at the museum.