For nearly three decades, St. Louis was Corvette's birthplace. Some 695,214 Corvettes were produced there between 1954 and 1981. The manufacture of Corvettes at St. Louis was never simple for General Motors. Ongoing labor tensions, plant conditions, increasing environmental legislation and quality issues haunted the Corvette for a long time.
In the 1970s, GM understood the Corvette needed to be produced in a state-of-the-art assembly plant with modern technology to keep the car competitive. GM also needed labor-friendly conditions it was never going to have in St. Louis. By the late 1970s, it was time for a fresh-face Corvette, along with vastly improved quality, fit and finish. It was announced in March 1979 that GM would close St. Louis and move Corvette production to a shuttered Chrysler air conditioning plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Bowling Green produced its first Corvette, a C3 1982 two-tone coupe, on June 1, 1981, during a two-month period when production overlapped with St. Louis. St. Louis would buck and build its last Corvette on July 31, 1981. Job 1 Bowling Green was proof positive GM knew how to move quickly and produce a good product in short order. Because there were a lot of development issues surrounding the all-new C4 Corvette scheduled for production at Bowling Green, production of these cars was pushed back to June 1, 1983 where they would be produced and sold as 1984 models.
Although it has long been written no 1983 Corvettes were ever produced, GM built 14 prototypes and 43 pilot 1983 Corvette units strictly for testing purposes. None were ever sold to the public. The only surviving 1983 Corvette is on display in the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky. How this car survives is a remarkable story. The original game plan was for each of the '83 Corvettes to be destroyed. A crusher was brought to Bowling Green to crush all of the 1983 cars. Ralph Montileone, Quality Manager at the Bowling Green plant in 1983, was responsible for ensuring all of these Corvettes were destroyed. Word on the street is that it began to rain and Montileone didn't want his new cowboy boots saturated with mud. He suspended crushing activities for the day, with one car left. The next day, when he went outside, the crusher was gone. He drove the car around the back of the plant where it was parked, put under a cover and forgotten. Years later, Plant Manager Paul Schnoes discovered the forgotten car buried underneath a dusty car cover.
In Mike Mueller's excellent book The Corvette Factories it said, "Though improvements were made during the St. Louis years, overall fit and finish remained a Corvette sore spot from beginning to end, an understandable outcome considering all the custom handwork required to bond and finish the various FRP body components. And with so much sanding and grinding going on in the body area, preventing excessive dust from infiltrating the paint process was a full-time job, if not an impossibility. Furthermore, that process turned even more troublesome after EPA officials started sniffing around the plant during the late '70s." Leaving St. Louis was not only a consideration for GM, it became mandatory in order to produce a more competitive Corvette for the global market. As demand for new Corvettes increased at the cusp of the 1980s, the challenges of environment and quality became even more evident. There was no other choice but to close St. Louis and move Corvette operations to Kentucky.
Mueller further states, "Though the 'shark' generation stuck around so long, 15 years, probably had less to do with all that soaring demand seen during the 1970s and more with the plain fact that a new and improved model simply had to wait until a new and improved plant could open." He goes on to say, "According to Dave McLellan, he didn't stand a chance of getting approval for his C4 project, first seriously considered in 1978, until GMAD people knew they'd have a more expensive, more modern facility ready to build it." Mueller further adds four locations for the Corvette plant were considered: Waco, Texas; Wichita, Kansas; Montgomery, Alabama and Bowling Green, Kentucky. It took GM engineers 12-hour days for weeks on end to draw up plans for the plant.
"Converting the old AirTemp plant over to Corvette production required a scant 14 months. Total floor space was increased to about 1 million square feet, equivalent to 22 football fields," Mike Mueller writes. "During this expansion, all exterior walls were opened up, much of the existing floor jackhammered out, and 20 feet of bedrock blasted away beneath the building's north end to make room for a seriously spacious three-story paint shop. Some 7 million pounds of steel and 800 miles of wiring were installed during the rapid-fire reconstruction, and another 1.5 miles of extra railroad tracks were put down around the massive structure."
Bowling Green was a quantum leap in manufacturing technology. The all-new C4 Corvette was the most advanced ever, with an advanced manufacturing process to boot. The C4 sported a fully unitized galvanized steel frame where chassis and body frame were welded together as one piece. This is what made the C4 different than the "birdcage" C1, C2 and C3 Vettes. The front suspension cradle was bolt-on aluminized steel for easy powertrain and suspension installation and service. The Corvette's four basic fiberglass components were produced by General Tire not that far away in Indiana.
Bowling Green employed advanced manufacturing techniques, including robotics that replaced workers and reduced manufacturing costs. It is remarkable how many St. Louis plant employees relocated to Kentucky, about 1,100 of them, for a better quality of life and superior working conditions. Many of them had a lot of time invested in their GM careers. Moving to Kentucky was mandatory if they wanted to remain with GM. Kentucky locals didn't appreciate the influx of St. Louisans, especially when locals were edged out of employment at Bowling Green. This created its share of tensions. Another issue, according to Mueller, was divorce, where families remained rooted in St. Louis and GM employees continued working for the company in Kentucky. Some, according to Mueller, chose to commute from St. Louis weekly, a 520-mile drive roundtrip.
The advantage of moving Corvette production to Bowling Green was increasing production capacity to keep up with demand. This meant more jobs for the local economy and GM associates from other plants looking to transfer in. What made Bowling Green a better working environment was air conditioning. Working conditions at St. Louis had always been horrid, with plant floor temperatures skyrocketing to 110 degrees in the summer. Add to that the horrible itch of fiberglass and it became a hellish work environment. St. Louis plant workers complained of not being able to sleep at night from the itching. The searing heat drained the life out of many workers. By contrast, the Bowling Green plant floor was 75-degrees when Kentucky summertime temperatures and humidity outside were at their worst.
The greatest benefit of a new state-of-the art Corvette plant was building a better Corvette. Despite development and manufacturing delays, most could agree the wait for an all-new Corvette was worth it. Development of the C4 Corvette began with a clean sheet of paper where an all-new Corvette would be developed from scratch. GM started the design process in the late 1970s under the direction of GM Designer Dave McLellan. The first order of business was to get away from the tiresome labor-intensive process of making fiberglass body panels. The C4 Corvette would sport molded plastic body panels. The removable roof panel would be made of fiberglass.
The new Corvette's suspension system and chassis would be a radical departure from the time-worn C3. It would have lightweight fiberglass mono-leaf springs fore and aft. The chassis and body would become one integral unit GM's identified as "uniframe" on par with unit body construction, but not exactly the same. It would not be body-on-frame like the C1, C2 and C3. The uniframe was a traditional perimeter frame, with door posts, windshield frame, halo U-shaped frame overhead behind seats and the rear portion of the floorpan integrated into one welded assembly. The overhead frame acted as a rollcage to some degree to both protect occupants and provide structural strength. The body had deep rocker panels for body strength, which made it challenging to enter and exit.
C4 Corvette assembly was radically different than the way Corvettes had always been assembled, with abundant robotics and user-friendly work stations. Hours on the line became less tedious than they ever were in St. Louis. The C4 Corvette had a rewarding and lengthy run at Bowling Green, wrapping up on June 30, 1996, to make way for a completely redesigned C5 Corvette.
The C5 and C6 Corvettes employed similar engineering and manufacturing technique with each other, with a new torque tube/transaxle approach to the driveline that made them revolutionary. From a service standpoint, we're not convinced anyone likes this approach, especially if you're replacing a clutch. Nonetheless, it improved function and weight distribution.
In 2016, GM announced a major renovation to the Bowling Green plant with $436 million being invested in the paint and body line, including 44,000 square feet of additional space that includes more efficient baking ovens that ensure a better finish on the new C8. Operation of the new environmentally responsible paint line began in 2017 with C7 Corvette production and continues today as Bowling Green ramps up for the C8. To build a mid-engine C8 has meant retooling the line to support these manufacturing demands. GM has added 400 jobs to the Bowling Green operation to support production of the C8. This brings the plant's workforce to approximately 1,300 associates.
Recent upgrades to the Bowling Green plant include vertical displacement lifts (VDL), which carry each Corvette through the air to individual work stations to ease effort. Dry Scrubber Booth technology and a Limestone Handling System clean up sludge and other forms of waste. Fluorescent lighting has been replaced with LED technology to reduce manufacturing costs.
It is impossible to believe Bowling Green has been building Corvettes longer than Flint and St. Louis combined, a whopping 36 years and headed for 40. As Bowling Green bucks and builds its last C7 Corvette at press time, we look ahead to the C8 2020 Corvette and a new legacy of exotic Corvettes. Corvette enthusiasts and plant associates can take comfort in knowing America's sports car future is safe and that the name will hold true for generations to come. Vette
An interesting chapter in Bowling Green's history was that the Cadillac XLR, a two-seat Cadillac "Corvette", was produced there from 2003-09. The XLR is known for its power-retractable hardtop, Bulgari-designed interior and instrumentation, heads-up display, adaptive suspension marketed as "Magnetic Ride Control", rear-transaxle and a near 50/50 weight distribution for optimum handling. The XLR shared the GM "Y" platform with Corvette. The Corvette and the Cadillac XLR share the same hydroformed perimeter frame and composite bodywork. The XLR was not fitted with the LS2 engine, but instead the Cadillac Northstar Series V-8s. Two transmission types were employed: the 5L50 (five-speed automatic) and 6L80 (six-speed automatic).
The world-class Cadillac XLR was the first production Cadillac fitted with radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and also the first to offer both heated and cooled seats to keep our posteriors happy. Think of the XLR as a luxury Corvette with all the trimmings. Bowling Green built a grand total of 15,460, considerably less than the projections of 5,000 to 7,000 units a year. A crashing economy in 2008 put an end to XLR production. A bunch of 2009 models were retitled as 2010 and 2011 models.
Look What's Available From The GM Media Archive
The GM Media Archive manages General Motors' global repository of historical photography, motion picture film, video, digital media and vehicle documentation. This is a service unmatched anywhere in the auto industry. GM's corporate collection includes over eight million photographic images, 250,000 video masters and motion picture films, a million and a half digital media files and more than one million pieces of microfilm. These forms of media document the development, manufacturing and promotion of General Motors products, as well as its events, facilities and leadership. As we have learned at Vette, this is a service for enthusiasts and members of the media that enables you to take an in-depth look at GM products and how they have been produced.
The GM Media Archive also enables you to see your GM vehicle's original factory documentation. It manages General Motors' collection of historical build documentation for its U.S. brands. These documents detail how a specific vehicle was equipped when it left the factory. This means no more wondering or guessing. Dealer invoices and/or build records are not always available for all models and all years. The documentation for most brands dates back only to 1977. Please visit the Vehicle Invoices and Build Records pages for a complete list of availability. For more information, go to www.gmmediaarchive.com.
Photography Courtesy GM Media Archives
GM Media Archive