Surprise discovery shifts strategy to save sinkhole Corvette

Story highlights

  • General Motors restoration team finds hundreds of signatures hidden in priceless Corvette
  • The 1 millionth Corvette ever made was heavily damaged in 2014 when it fell into a sinkhole
  • The signatures forced restorers to repair more original parts instead of replacing them

(CNN)For Corvette lovers it's sort of like a painter being asked to touch up the "Mona Lisa."

Because — like Leonardo da Vinci's painting — there's only one 1 millionth Corvette.
Restoring the white, 1992 LT1 convertible roadster doesn't really come with as much pressure as that, said Dave Bolognino with a laugh. "But we don't take it lightly."
Bolognino, director of design fabrications operations at General Motors, is helping restore one of eight priceless 'Vettes swallowed by a sinkhole last year at the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
The stakes are high, because hard-core 'Vette fans care. They've made it one of the most collected cars in the nation. Globally, the Corvette has become — in GM's words — the "world's longest-running, continuously produced passenger car," since it debuted in 1953. The 1 millionth 'Vette paid homage to that '53 model, because both cars share the same black soft-top, white paint job and red interior color scheme.
The 1992 1 millionth Corvette,
in the foreground, sits next to a 1953 model.
So far, Bolognino and his colleagues at GM's design facility in Warren, Michigan, have restored about 15-20% of the car. They've got the car running and fixed its structural damage.
That's pretty impressive based on disturbing photos GM released last year that showed the car battered and caked with dirt. You could almost hear the Corvette Nation shake its head and whisper, "Good luck with that."
When members of the restoration team rolled up their sleeves and took the car apart for the first time last April, they discovered a surprise.
Hundreds of them, actually.
GM factory workers who rolled out the 1 millionth Corvette in July of 1992, had signed their names on hundreds of hidden places inside the car.
The surfaces underneath nearly every part were "absolutely covered with signatures," Bolognino said. The GM assembly line workers at the Bowling Green factory who rolled the car out in July of 1992, had signed it. They signed it in virtually every hidden place — under the carpet, under the side panels, under the dash pad. Each signature amounted to a personal salute from hundreds of proud men and women honoring their work and the museum piece they helped create.
"We said, 'OK, that changes our strategy,'" said Bolognino. From then on, the team decided to focus even harder on saving every piece of the car — even the most damaged parts.
"Somebody took the time to write their name on the undercarriage. We need to take the time to make sure that we straighten that piece of metal instead of replacing it," he said.
"It almost looks like it's been in a rock storm, or something," said GM Director of Design Fabrications, Dave Bolognino.
So, can GM's design experts bring this car back from the dead?
They've got to wrestle with some big challenges, including:
  • Paint damage: "If you look at the car closely — the driver door for example — it almost looks like it's been in a rock storm or something — all these little chips," Bolognino said.
  • The rear bumper cover: "Rear bumper covers during that era were made of a flexible material and were very difficult to repair well. It has dozens of signatures on it, so we're going to repair it," Bolognino said. "That will take a significant amount of work."
  • The hood: Whether to replace the hood — which was very badly damaged — is a question that balances "risk versus originality," Bolognino said. "While we know we can repair it, we don't want to see it degrade several years from now. So we're going to try some things ... and then we'll make that decision."
Perhaps surprisingly, the total parts lost on the car are relatively few. "The parts we need to replace, you can probably count on two or three hands, maybe," Bolognino said. "The front bumper cover was a total loss. But fortunately there were no signatures on that."

Homecoming

Back at the museum in Bowling Green, officials have asked GM to save any stray original parts that aren't used for the restoration. Those parts will likely end up in an exhibit — or sold as fundraiser items, museum spokeswoman Katie Frassinelli said. "You may see parts of that car on eBay," she joked. "You never know!"
The 1 millionth is one of three cars experts said were salvageable from the disaster. Last year GM unveiled a restored 2009 ZR1 Blue Devil that fell victim to the hole. A third car, a 1962 convertible, remains at the museum — its tuxedo black paint job still dusty and dented.
The museum intends to restore the '62 on its own. GM says it no longer has the institutional knowledge required to properly put it back in shape. Frassinelli said the museum is hoping to build a restoration and maintenance facility where visitors would be able to watch experts work on the '62 and other aging 'Vettes.
It has been 16 months since the cars got sunk by the sinkhole. And the museum has nearly finished repairing the floor of the 140-foot diameter yellow Skydome, where the ground opened up.
The dome's 11-story red spire — a longtime landmark visible along nearby Interstate 65 — has been patched, cleaned and painted, all the way down to its 20-foot-wide base. Engineers say the dome is on track to reopen by early July.
Inside the dome, workers have covered the hole with concrete and made the surface safe with a connected grid system of micropiles and concrete beams, Frassinelli said. "If the cave were ever to collapse in the future, the floor's gonna stay put."
The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is nearly finished repairing its Skydome which was severely damaged by a sinkhole in 2014. Eight valuable Corvettes fell into the hole. Three of them were salvageable.
The museum plans to install an underground camera and lights so visitors can get a look at the hole that did so much damage.
Frassinelli credited the sinkhole for an upward trend in museum attendance that continues to rise. The number of visitors so far this year, she said, is tracking higher than the same period last year.
The museum is still deciding which cars to display in the dome. A new exterior door and interior display configuration will make it easier to get cars in and out, Frassinelli said. Before the sinkhole, moving cars around inside the Skydome was "kind of like Jenga, or something," she joked. Thanks to the improvements, it will be easier, she said, and the dome will be able to hold a few more cars.
The 1 millionth Corvette is expected to be fully restored by Labor Day weekend, September 5-7 — just in time for the museum's 21st anniversary celebration. "We're very confident that we'll get it finished for that," Bolognini said. "We'll make sure the car is right."