It is the oldest continuously produced passenger car nameplate in the world: the Chevrolet Corvette. But despite its many years in production, it’s only been built in three factories. And this week in 1981, it moved to its current location in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
How it got here
Until 1981, St. Louis served as the Corvette’s home, despite an embarrassing debut for 1953, when it seemed that America’s sports car didn’t have much of a future.
Debuting in 1953 following its earlier unveiling at General Motors’ Motorama, the Corvette’s availability was initially limited to 300 units and sold only to the rich and famous. The attempt to stoke desire for the new two-seater flopped.
When full production ramped up in 1954, the public’s attention had moved on. With meager sales, GM executives considered cancelling the Corvette — until the arrival of Ford’s Thunderbird changed their minds.
An old plant builds a new sports car
Initially built in a small assembly operation in Flint, Michigan, manufacturing was moved to St. Louis, Missouri for 1954. One of GM’s oldest plants, Corvettes were built in the Wood Spoke Building, where GM manufactured the wood spokes for their wheels in the early 20th century.
Yet the outdated St. Louis factory would remain the Corvette’s home in the following decades. But in the 1970s, the plant’s final decade of Corvette production, it would be the site of a harassing strike by the UAW.
GM was reducing the number of workers at the plant, while increasing the amount of work each worker was assigned. The strike lasted three days, but the acrimony, worsening environmental issues, and the desire by management to improve the Corvette’s quality led the company to seek a new home for its sports car.
St. Louis was closed, and production shifted to a former Chrysler Airtemp factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Chrysler built large, rooftop air-conditioning units. Located approximately 60 miles northeast of Nashville and 100 miles southwest of Louisville, Chrysler sold Airtemp to Fedders Corporation in 1975. The following year, the plant was closed and the facility’s ownership reverted to the city of Bowling Green. GM took over the plant in 1979, which agreed to lease the plant for 30 years, after which point GM could buy it for $1.
Production was slated to begin on June 1, 1981, with manufacturing at St. Louis and Bowling Green overlapping by several months.
A new plant begets a new Corvette
The new GM facility measured approximately 500,000 square feet, with another 500,000 square feet added for a paint shop, powerhouse and sludge treatment facility. Given that Bowling Green’s production start would come before production ended in St. Louis, tooling wouldn’t carry over from the old plant.
The new plant also meant there would be a new Corvette.
The third generation Corvette was the longest lived, having debuted for 1968 and surviving through 1982. But GM’s outdated St. Louis plant and the variable build quality that emanated from it meant that executives wouldn’t green light a new Corvette, one all-new from the ground up, until a new plant was up and running. Once GM secured the plant, executives approved development of the C4 Corvette, with design work beginning in 1978.
Once production began at Bowling Green three years later, it has been the Corvette’s home ever since. Initially building the C3, it would give way to the C4 in 1984, the C5 in 1996, the C6 in 2004, the C7 in 2013, and the long-anticipated mid-engine C8 in 2020, which the plant continues to build today.
The facility also built the Corvette-based Cadillac XLR from 2003 through 2009. In 2016, GM invested $436 million in the paint and body line, and added 44,000 square feet of space in advance of the start of production for the new C8.
A note of infamy
While Corvette fans know of Bowling Green as its home, if mainstream America recalls Corvettes and Bowling Green, it’s for the National Corvette Museum, which opened in 1994, a quarter-mile from the plant.
There, in 2014, eight classic Corvettes sunk into a 40-foot wide, 30-foot-deep sinkhole. Six of the vehicles were owned by the museum, two by GM. Of the eight, five were put back on display unrestored, and three were restored. Today, it’s just another odd footnote to a car that has become an ongoing American cultural icon created in The Bluegrass State.