The Celebration of a Lifetime

A Year of 50th Anniversary Festivities Culminates With a 10,000-Corvette Gala in Nashville

Bob Wallace Oct 7, 2003 0 Comment(s)

You could be forgiven if you thought a Super Bowl game was being played at the Nashville Coliseum on Friday, June 27th or Saturday the 28th, at least if you came to that conclusion by looking from a distance at the overflowing parking lots. But nearly every car in the vast lots was a Corvette. Roughly 10,000 Corvettes and over 18,000 of the fiberglass fixated poured into the Coliseum for Chevrolet's official two-day Corvette 50th Anniversary Celebration.

It was the finale of a year of celebrations honoring the 50th birthday of America's sports car: A year that began with the National Corvette Museum's Historic Motorama, that featured countless regional and local fetes throughout the year; the most massive Corvette Caravan yet (see Cruzin' To The 50th Anniversary...Caravan Style starting on page 24); and would wrap up on June 30th, the actual date of the Corvette's 50th Anniversary.

Chevrolet picked Nashville, rather than Bowling Green (the "home" of the Corvette since 1981) as the celebration's site because Bowling Green does not have a facility large enough to host an event of the scale that GM planned, nor is there anything approaching an adequate amount of lodging and restaurants in B.G. and the surrounding area. And, Nashville is less than 65 miles south of Bowling Green.

The official Corvette 50th Anniversary Celebration included enough activities and displays to keep a person busy for several days. Among them were the Corvette Heritage Tour; Chevrolet's SS Vehicle Showcase, Rock and Roll Tour, and Racing Tour; GM Performance Parts and Accessories Tours; and the Chevrolet Powertrain: An Engineering Experience. The National Corvette Museum organized a superb exhibit of Corvettes of every year through 2003. Both the National Corvette Restorers Society and the National Council of Corvette Clubs had shows (judged for the NCRS and Peoples Choice for the NCCC), and the NCRS also conducted a series of extremely popular restoration clinics both days.

Additionally, there were numerous presentations and seminars about Corvettes past and present (plus a few hints about the future) by Corvette engineers, design staffers, and marketing types. There was also a merchandise village, with event souvenirs and some truly unique and cool new Corvette-related products; live music all day both Friday and Saturday; and for the smaller Corvette lovers, electric-powered, pedal-car-size Anniversary Edition C5 convertibles that youngsters could drive on in a closed course.

Friday's festivities concluded with a Corvette parade through part of downtown Nashville, featuring all of the cars from the NCM's 50 Years of Corvette display, plus marching bands and other diversions. Quite a few Corvette celebrities and notables were passengers in the parade Corvettes, including retired Chief Engineer Dave McLellan and current engineering honcho Dave Hill, C5 designer John Cafaro, Chevrolet Division General Manager Brent Dewar (in the lead '53 roadster), Bowling Green Plant Manager Wil Cooksey, and C5-R driver Andy Pilgrim. The mood at--and in--the parade was light and celebratory rather than respectful and sedate. The evening air crackled with the music of big-blocks throwing revs out the side pipes, and several drivers smoked their tires--repeatedly. You knew it was party time in Nashville when the driver of a Z06 smoked 'em big-time right in front of a Nashville motorcycle cop--and the cop grinned and gave the miscreant a thumbs up.

Saturday was more of the same, and that wasn't bad! Things wound down by 6:00 p.m., only to open up a couple hours later for a final 50th-anniversary blowout--closing ceremonies followed by a performance inside the Coliseum by "That Little Ol' Band From Texas," better known as ZZ Top.

But there was more. Even though Chevrolet's official celebration was over and done, there was more to come back at the National Corvette Museum. On Sunday, the 29th, activities included all Corvette drags at the nearby Beech Bend Racepark, a morning devotional service in the Chevrolet Theater, a and 2 1/2-hour Corvette Golden Jubilee Road Tour. The NCM's Corvette birthday party on Sunday concluded with the 50th Anniversary Block Party in the outdoor amphitheater, themed "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Corvettes." The hot dogs were free, as was a block party souvenir to each person in attendance. There was music and a fundraising auction ($85,000 was raised!), and the winning ticket was drawn in the Gold Power (a one-off, custom gold-painted, brand-new '03 Corvette) raffle. Anthony Yarnell of Cumming, Georgia, won the golden anniversary C5.

After a yearlong buildup, Monday, June 30th was THE DAY, Corvette's official 50th birthday. A stage had been set up directly in front of the Museum for the ceremonies led by NCM Board Chairman Mike Yager, Chairman-elect Larry Martin, Executive Director Wendell Strode, and aided and abetted by the likes of The Daves (McLellan and Hill), Wil Cooksey, and former Board of Directors Chairperson Dollie Cole. The birthday observances included introductions for the National Corvette Caravan organizers and leaders, James Pierce who'd organized and headed up a group of two dozen or so Australian Corvette fanatics who journeyed halfway around the world for the observances, presented plaques to the owners of the Vettes used in the NCM's 50 Years of Corvette Evolution display (the cars were shown both at the Museum and in Nashville), and drawing one more raffle ticket--this time for the winner of the Dale Earnhardt Edition '03 Z06E. Dale Edwards of Grand Blanc, Michigan, held the winning ducat. Incidentally, the two Corvette raffles raised over $700,000 for the Museum. While we're on the money topic, early on during Sunday evening's block party, NCM Lifetime Member Bob Patrella had offered to match, dollar for dollar, whatever was raised during the auction. During the June 30th birthday celebration, a rather stunned-looking Mr. Patrella handed over a check for 85 grand! It all seemed kind of anti-climactic when the ceremonial Corvette 50th birthday cake was cut, and the Museum's Bobbie Jo Lee led the crowd in a chorus of "Happy Birthday" to America's sports car.

And with that, it was over. It was time for goodbyes, time to pack up the mementos and the memories, and time to head home. There were a few final chances to hang out with some newly made friends. Rob and I ended up joining up with some of the members of Corvettes Limited, Bowling Green's very own club (and some of the most dedicated Museum supporters I have ever met!), and the entire Australian contingent--plus an honorary Aussie, Daniela Tax-Szilvay, a C5 owner from Austria, for dinner and an evening of Corvette camaraderie.

Dining and chatting with the Aussies, a charming and rabid Corvette owner from Europe, and a group of true believers from the Heartland of the USA was an interesting and international way to cap a once-in-a-lifetime event that celebrated and honored an all-American institution.

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The NCCC show field featured everything from beautifully restored early solid-axles...

...to radical rides like these two modified Sharks and the Jack Cauley Chevrolet C5 race car that has competed in venues up to and including the Daytona Rolex 24-hour enduros.

The NCM's 50 Years of Corvette Evolution encapsulated five decades of America's sports car along the west side of the Nashville Coliseum.

Here's a look at part of the 50 Years...exhibit from a less lofty perspective.

The NCRS show area offered great views of some very fine first-through third-generation Corvettes (the NCRS now recognizes C4s, but none were in Nashville for judging), plus nearly as nice views of the Chattanooga River and the skyline of downtown Nashville.

Across from the Heritage Tour trailer was a huge tent with a couple dozen historically significant Corvettes inside. In front were four more luminaries: (from left to right), The Tiger Shark C5 (see Dec. '01 issue for the details); the mid-engine Astro II (XP880) from 1968; the all-aluminum (body included) Reynolds Corvette (EXP 040) from 1969; and one of the two Cerv IVs (a prototype C5 chassis and drivetrain disguised under a lightly tweaked C4 convertible body shell) built in 1993 to allow real-world testing of the new platform in what looked like a normal early-'90s convertible.

For Friday's Corvette parade through downtown Nashville, the cars from the NCM 50 Years of Corvette Evolution were lined up in chronological order, starting with 1953 and then grouped by generation.

Quite a few Corvette celebrities rode shotgun in the parade. Could anything be more apropos for retired Chief Engineer Dave McLellan than to be chauffeured in one of his babies--a pristine ZR-1?

If the gargantuan banner with a C5-R and '04 Commemorative Edition Z06 wasn't enough, you could turn around and see the real things--a Commemorative Edition '04 coupe, convertible, Z06, and one of the C5-Rs that had competed in the 24 Hours of LeMans race just two weeks earlier. The C5-R was in as-finished-the-race condition, which was much more interesting than if it had been "prettied up" for show.

There were always long lines of people waiting their turns to see and hear one or another of the Corvette seminars. In spite of the heat and humidity, no one seemed to mind.

Speaking of lines, the line to get posters (or whatever else you had) autographed by C5-R driver and 50th Anniversary Grand Marshall Andy Pilgrim was always long. Andy never seemed to tire of greeting his many fans.

Chevrolet's SS display was small in quantity of vehicles, but the quality was quite high--like '57's spectacular Corvette SS race car.

We actually got a couple brief glimpses, from the inside, at the future during some of the press conferences in the Coliseum's press center. GM Vice Chairman for Product Development of GM North America Bob Lutz (left) and Gary Cowger, a GM Group Vice President and President of GM North America, appeared jointly. Mr. Lutz came right out and stated that the standard C6 would be more potent than a current Z06, and added that when the C6 version of the Z06 becomes available, he was going to sell one of his Vipers and buy a Z06! Remember, Lutz was the prime mover behind the Viper going from a one-off concept car to production. During another session, Chief Engineer Dave Hill told us that the C6 will be on display at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2004.

These future Corvette owners had a blast in downsized, battery-powered, Anniversary Edition C5s as they tooted around a closed course laid out in one of the parking lots. "I got to drive my first Corvette back in ought-three whenI was only six years old!"

ZZ Top put on quite a show Saturday night for approximately 10,000 of the Corvette faithful. That's Billy Gibbons on the guitar; his partner Dusty is out of view to Billy's right. (photo courtesy of General Motors)

During the NCM's Block Party on the evening of the 29th, Lifetime Member Bob Petrella offered to match, dollar for dollar, whatever was raised during the auction. Judging by the stunned look on his face Monday morning as he handed over a check for $85,000, he probably didn't expect the auction to do quite as well as it did.

The ceremonial cake for Corvette's 50th birthday.

Corvette aficionados come from all around the world. These folks are part of a group from Australia who journeyed to the USA to celebrate their favorite sports car's birthday. One of the Aussies is a ringer of sorts--Daniela Tax-Szilvay (sixth from the left) is a C5 owner from Austria! James Pierce, the Australian who organized the Aussies trip, is directly to Daniela's left.

During the dinner with the Aussies and members of Bowling Green's Corvettes Limited club, Daniela and I found that we shared our birthdays, June 30th, with the Corvette. A toast was definitely in order! And, what a great way to spend my birthday!

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