Help was streaming in steadily from Chevrolet now, sometimes through the front door, and sometimes through the back.
On March 5, 1992, a fund drive was begun with the cooperation of the United Auto Workers union allowing Corvette Assembly Plant workers to make contributions to the NCM Foundation through payroll deductions. This significant step eventually raised $170,000 according to Schnoes; and although Bowlin had been working almost exclusively on behalf of the museum project for some time, he was still on the GM payroll.
At Chevrolet headquarters, Kramer was lobbying strongly on behalf of the struggling museum. “It seems like Ralph was talking continuously to me about it,” recalls Perkins, who told his people to “Do what you can, short of writing a check,” says Jim Minneker.
Minneker had only recently joined Corvette engineering when he was invited to speak at a Corvette event on the East Coast. He was two slides into a 50-slide presentation on the history of the Corvette when a voice rang out: “To hell with that, tell us about the new ZR-1.” It was Dan Gale.
Before long Minneker was serving on the NCM Board. Both his engineering department under Dave McLellan and the design team headed by Jerry Palmer and John Cafaro provided exhibits for the Annex and later the Museum. Cafaro also got involved with the Buildings and Grounds Committee advocating for a cutting-edge architectural design. Perkins approved the donation of the “One Millionth Corvette” to the still-unbuilt Museum, as well as the 999,999th Corvette to be used in a raffle fund-raiser.
Chevrolet was able to provide something else — media exposure. Kramer recalls a choice bit of showmanship ring-mastered by Gale, the June 5, 1992 ground breaking ceremony scheduled to coincide with a Chevy press show at the Corvette Assembly Plant. The Foundation had neither the funding nor the final plan for the building in place. Still, Gale could not pass up the two busloads of reporters that Chevrolet was willing to send his way.
“Dan saw it as an opportunity to get some media attention … which would translate into money,” says Fiet. “It was an opportunity not to let the momentum die.”
Zora signs autographs in his ‘Corvette Dozer’ during ground breaking ceremonies.
Gale coaxed the hot and tired reporters off the buses with the spectacle of the elderly Duntov, his vintage racing helmet on his head, manning the controls of a bulldozer with a hand-painted Corvette cutout hanging from the side. Soon, reports Kramer, people were down on their hands and knees, scraping up the rocks and dirt for souvenirs—even some of the reporters. Never mind that the whole ceremony took place on the parcel of land where a Wendy’s sits today. It was great theatre, and it signalled the next step.
By now Gale, determined to push the project through, had been living in a Bowling Green hotel for three months, and there he would stay until the Museum had opened. And that date was still anybody’s guess.
Although thousands of dollars in donations had been received from private individuals, plant employees, the local community, clubs and hobby organizations and Corvette-related businesses, thousands were also streaming out for pre-construction costs. The Annex was showing a modest profit but would never be a significant source of income, nor was it meant to be. The entire project was now projected to cost in the neighborhood of $15 million. There seemed to be no alternative but to seek a loan in addition to the bond issue.
Different by Design
If you’ve ever visited the NCM, the first thing you likely saw was the frustum. “At least, that’s what we called it in the beginning,” says Dale Fiet, speaking of the Museum’s famous dome and spire. The reason behind the design? “To establish an interstate presence,” says Fiet, “…so you could see this thing at some distance.” The light at the top of the spire is meant to suggest a tail light, explains Fiet, who adds that architect Ken Neumann ended up buying a Corvette, thus disproving GM’s early contention that the Museum would not promote the sale of new cars.
Based in part on a startlingly optimistic economic impact study, the NCM Foundation secured a $6.6 million loan from local banks. On June 1, 1993, the Bowling Green/Warren County Tourist Commission agreed to act as partial guarantor for the initial bond payments; shortly thereafter, the city and county stepped in to guarantee the remaining bond payments. Finally, the NCM was afloat. Construction began soon after.
The National Corvette Museum opened its doors on September 2, 1994, ten years and two weeks after Terry McManmon stood up at Copper Mountain, Colorado and proposed a Corvette library. That trickle of support which began with the NCRS had become a flood of Corvette enthusiasts and supporters from within Chevrolet and the Bowling Green area that together raised the National Corvette Museum. It was, according to Zazarine, “a divergent group of people who all believed the same thing at the same time”— a powerful idea that is still growing.