GM team surprised while restoring milestone 'Vette

Larry Edsall
Special to The Detroit News

It was just before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, February 12, 2014, when officials at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, received a phone call from their security company. Motion sensors in the museum's Skydome, a room that housed the star cars, had set off an alarm.

When they arrived, what those officials saw was that a portion of the Skydome floor was missing — and so were eight cherished and historic Corvettes, swallowed by a sinkhole that opened beneath the Skydome's tall, red spire-style structure.

Recently, Chevrolet opened the super-secret Mechanical Assembly garage beneath the GM Design studios in Warren to show the progress — and shared a surprising discovery — that has been made in restoring one of those cars: the 1 Millionth Corvette to roll off an assembly line, a white 1992 convertible with a red interior.

"This is a very special place," Ed Welburn, GM global vice president of design, said as he stood in the five-bay garage built by his predecessors Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell to assemble and maintain their amazing concept cars and other special vehicles. The 1 Millionth Corvette and its yet-to-be-restored parts occupied three of those bays, bookended by two of GM's most cherished historic vehicles — the Buick Y-Job, the company's first concept car, and Mitchell's original Chevrolet Corvette Stingray race car.

"This is the right place to do this," Welburn said of the restoration of the 1 Millionth Corvette. "This is a very important restoration job."

Lately, the garage and other related facilities on the GM Tech Center campus have been used to restore and maintain eight of the company's historic concept vehicles, Welburn said. The expert crew also maintains various GM fleet cars.

The 1 Millionth Corvette is the second such restoration project done by GM Design. Earlier it restored the not-as-damaged 2009 "Blue Devil" ZR1 Corvette. The museum is handling the restoration of a 1962 Corvette. The other five cars were deemed too badly damaged and are being preserved in their damaged state as part of a new exhibit about the sinkhole.

The Millionth Corvette was pancaked beneath the rubble with its windshield flattened into the passenger compartment. But the frame and structure have been repaired and between now and the big annual Labor Day celebration at the museum, much of the work on the car is cosmetic, but must be done very carefully because of the big surprise discovered when the car was disassembled.

When the car was making its way down the assembly line, seemingly everyone involved in its construction left an autograph. Mark Orzeo, one of the mechanic technicians working on the car, said autographs even were found within the trim panels in the header and support pillars of the damaged windshield.

In addition to the challenge of restoring the car and preserving all of its original parts, the team is working diligently to make sure none of those autographs are lost.

While the Mechanical Assembly team has been working to restore the car, work has been underway at the museum to restore the Skydome as a display space for cars and the Corvette hall of fame plaques. One of those displays, scheduled to open for the Labor Day weekend, is a special exhibit on the sinkhole and the underlying geology of the Bowling Green area, which is not far from Mammoth Cave National Park.

Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at