Friday, November 3, 2017

Capital Corvette Club Fall Colours Outing: October 21, 2017

The Corvette season was rapidly winding down and the Capital Corvette Club grouped together one last time for the annual Fall Colours Tour. arranged by Kim and Dave Cruikshank.

After meeting at the usual gathering place at Myers Chevrolet in Kanata, our group of Corvettes cruised leisurely through the countryside, passing Carp, Almonte and Pakenham, and eventually making our way to the village of Balderson.

Originally called Balderson Corners, the little crossroads village was named after John Balderson, a British sergeant who settled there in the late 1860s.  In 1881 a group of local dairy farmers banded together and built a small cheese factory, which became celebrated as the home of Balderson Cheddar.   A little community sprang up, centred on the factory.  The original factory burned down in 1928 but was replaced by another building, which was expanded a number of times.  A cheese shop was opened in 1970 but Balderson Cheese is now made in Winchester, Ontario under the direction of the multinational Parmalat firm.  The cheese shop is now a gourmet shop, with a neighbouring Amish furniture shop and snack bar and that is where we pulled in.

The History of Balderson Village, a sign that contains more information than you can find about Balderson on the Internet!
After everyone had bought their various gourmet items, we hit the road again, continuing down Regional Road 511 in Lanark County, coming to Perth.  

It should be noted that a group of cheesemakers in Perth produced the Mammoth Cheese in 1893.  It weighed 22,000 pounds and was shipped to the Chicago World's Fair, an impressive feat in those pre-refrigeration days.  It subsequently was bought by Sir Thomas Lipton and shipped to England, where it was finally consumed.  Apparently a small piece still exists at the Perth Museum but is not on display due to its fragility.  There is a monument in Perth, a replica of the Mammoth Cheese, but sadly we were not aware of this when passing through.

The Mammoth Cheese, being moved by lots of horsepower
After enjoying some more quiet country roads we were soon on the outskirts of Ottawa and the Cruikshanks brought us to our lunch location, a Scottish pub in Stittsville.  A good time was had by all even if we all knew that the Corvettes would all soon be under cover, awaiting the good weather next year.

No Place Like Home: the West Baden Springs Hotel, near French Lick, Indiana--June 21, 2016

Leaving Kentucky on Hwy 231, we entered the Hoosier State for the first time.  Turning east on Interstate 64 brought us to the Hoosier State Forest, fittingly, and a short drive north on the lovely Hwy 37 brought us soon to French Lick, a drive of about 2 1/2 hours from Bowling Green.  After looking around at French Lick and getting directions to our hotel, we headed up the road to West Baden Springs itself and one of the Hotel Wonders of the World, the incredible West Baden Springs Hotel.

Toronto's famed entrepreneur  Ed Mirvish had a big sign on his huge bargain store Honest Ed's saying: "There ain't no place like this place anyplace."  This certainly applies to the mammoth West Baden Springs Hotel, famous for its 200 foot dome, which was the largest unsupported dome in the United States until the construction of the Coliseum in Charlotte, NC, in 1955.  The 6-storey hotel, built to replace a prior and much more modest hotel that burned down in 1901, was constructed in an amazing 270 days and reopened to the public in September 1902, with the grand dedication the following August.

Located near a railway line, the hotel was convenient for people attending major events such as the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500.  Major improvements were made between 1917 and 1919, including the laying of the magnificent Italian tile mosaic floor in the atrium. 

The hotel offered many amenities typical of period resorts, including a sauna room, mineral baths, bowling, golfing and a beautiful indoor swimming pool.  A curious feature that survived the original hotel was a covered, double deck bicycle track that was 540 m in length, the longest in the country.  The upper floor was used for cycling until 4 pm, when chairs were put out and it became a sort of promenade deck.  The lower deck was used for pony cart rides.  The infield features tennis courts and other athletic facilities.  It was eventually demolished by a tornado in the 1920s, giving the owner, who did not want to pay to have it torn down and was letting it deteriorate prior, a big insurance settlement!

Current view of the site of the bicycle track

the hotel attracted a celebrity clientele.  Boxers John L. Sullivan and James Corbett trained there.  Other notables included New York Governor Al Smith, "Diamond Jim" Brady, Al Capone (and bodyguards) and General John Pershing.  It was a busy place in the 1920s but subsequently business fell off as the Great Depression in 1929 changed everyone's travel plans.  

Hotel lobby area, registration on the right
The owner did not want it turned into a speakeasy or gambling location (ironically as he had specialized in illegal gambling prior to buying the place) so in 1932 it was closed.  Two years later it was donated to the Jesuits, who removed most of the luxury interior features and dumped concrete into the mineral spring pools.  You still smell the sulphur from the underground springs.   It was a seminary until 1963, when declining enrollment and high maintenance costs forced its closure again.

1n 1966 it was reopened as an annex to a business school in the area and operated until 1983.  It was declared a National Historic Landmark but the unoccupied building was rapidly deteriorating and one of the walls collapsed in 1991 and tours were stopped as the building was declared unsafe.  Efforts were made to stabilize the historic structure, at considerable expense, by Indiana philanthropists.

There is much additional history, including a  2003 plan by Donald Trump to operate a casino in the building which was thwarted by his bankruptcy at the time, but eventually the wealthy Indiana philanthropist who had donated a great deal of money to the upkeep of the building (some $35 million!), ended up taking it over along with the nearby French Lick Resort and renovating both.

The comfortable library in the hotel

Renovations, undertaken at a cost for $100 million, took place from 2003 until 2006.  The hotel has a reduced number of rooms --243--but far higher level of luxury, far surpassing its original version.  The grounds have been very nicely restored as well.

We had a beautiful room, looking into the atrium.  The hotel is not inexpensive but it is worthwhile to spend a night in one of the America's most spectacular hotels.

Did Al Capone come here to get his shoes shined?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Corvette Promised Land: Bowling Green, Kentucky--June 21, 2016: Part 2--The GM Assembly Plant

Our car returns home, nine years to the month it was built in Bowling Green
The Chevrolet Corvette, as a comparatively small-volume vehicle, has only been built in a few places.  The first 300 cars were constructed in 1953 in a very makeshift arrangement in Flint, Michigan and then production moved the next year to St. Louis, Missouri, where Corvettes were assembled until 1981, when the Bowling Green, Kentucky, factory (formerly used for the manufacture of Chrysler air-conditioning units) was opened.

The plant sits on a 212 acre site and covers 1,450,000 square feet, including the recently opened paint facility which is nearly 500,000 square feet.   It has around 1,000 employees, of which 840 work on the line.  The plant generally produces about 150 cars daily in a single shift.

Parking in front of the administration office and the famous Corvette plant sign, I was pleased to see that there were lots of Corvettes owned by employees.

I was fortunate on this blazing hot day to be able to visit the plant, which typically gets around 50,000 visitors per year, with three tours daily.  The plant is now closed to visitors due to a number of changeovers until early 2019.  Rumours are rife about new Corvette models but I was there to see the fabulous C7 being assembled.

As photography is not allowed in the plant, I have downloaded a number of nice photos courtesy of General Motors:

The aluminum chassis of the C7 is made in Bowling Green now; previous C6 Z06 frames were brought in although the Base C6 had a steel chassis made in the plant.  In addition, the High-Performance Facility was moved to Bowling Green from Tonawanda, New York, in 2014 for assembly of the Z06 LT4 engine, with its supercharger and 650 hp.  For an additional fee (US$5,000) customers can assemble their own LT4 under the watchful eye of a technician--and the customer gets to sign it off in the end of the process.  Nice!

Here is a video showing the whole production process for the C7:

At the end of the line I was amazed to see the test driver start the car and then slam it over a series of ridges on the floor.  This apparently sets the suspension as up to this point the car has had basically no weight on the wheels.  This gives one confidence as to the integrity of the car.  The driver then takes the brand new car to a test cell where, after the doors closed, it is hammered with monsoon-like rain for 10 minutes in a search for leaks.  So those owners who never drive their cars in rain have no reason not to...

The plant is much quieter than I had expected, although plastic-bodied cars are part of the reason I suppose.  As well, air circulation was very good so one did not have the impression of the sweltering heat that was outside.

As I drove my older car away from the plant, some of the test drivers were out.  Their cars were covered with cloth that would be used as protection when being shipped on the transport trucks.  It was especially nice when one of the drivers beeped his horn and waved at me.  Corvette people for sure!  A very enjoyable visit and I sure that the employees must be proud of their handiwork.

(As we drove in Indiana a few days later we passed a car transporter that was coming from Bowling Green with a load of new Corvettes.  I missed a chance to photograph it as I was driving at the time but here are pictures of what it looks like:)

The Corvette Promised Land: Bowling Green, Kentucky-June 21, 2016--Part 1: the National Corvette Museum

The National Corvette Museum (NCM), Bowling Green, Kentucky

Driving south and west through Kentucky, we passed near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville as we made our way to Bowling Green (which, interestingly, is  midway between Lincoln's birthplace and that of his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis, in Fairview).  But we were on Interstate I-65 for a more modern history lesson.  As we approached Bowling Green our anticipation built--there was a huge billboard for the National Corvette Museum!

The Chevrolet Corvette has been a cult object since its production began in 1953.  "America's Sports Car" is now in its 7th generation and the enormous enthusiasm for this car is manifested in the number of marque clubs, the huge events that attract thousands, the successful racing team, and the only museum in the world dedicated to a single model of car.  It is here in Bowling Green that one finds not on the GM assembly plant, where Corvettes have been built since 1981, but also the truly superb National Corvette Museum, which opened its doors in September 1994.  And as Corvette owners (albeit only since 2015), many had encouraged us to make the pilgrimage to Kentucky.  It was certainly worth the effort!

Here is a recent video that the NCM has prepared to give an idea of what to expect when visiting this excellent facility:

 The attractive modern building covers 115,000 square feet, while the surrounding campus not only features a great deal of parking for all those Corvette enthusiasts but also 60 landscaped acres.  Highly visible is the orange 12 story tall spire, "the Skydome," which was designed to provide a visible reference to take advantage of the nearby Interstate.

Upon entering the NCM, the first thing the visitor is confronted with is a whole lot of brand new C7 Corvettes behind theatre ropes.  This area is where customers can take delivery of their new cars, fresh from the factory down the street.  Museum delivery is an option on the order sheet and from what we saw a lot of people take advantage of this, which has no equivalent by any other domestic manufacturer.  Factory delivery is quite common in Germany but  the NCM makes a whole ceremony out of it.  You can even have your old Corvette polished up and presented on the floor.

For the devoted Corvette fan, the Museum has so much to offer.  After enjoying a short film presentation about our favourite car, you pass by a display devoted to the American astronauts who, in a brilliant publicity stunt by a Florida dealership, drove Corvettes on lease in the early 1960s.  But then entering the winding hallways of the museum proper we see a lot of early Corvettes and the beginning of the story.  While the Museum does have many cars of its own, there are also cars loaned to it on display, and what is on exhibit changes.  And there are special exhibitions as well.  When we were at the Museum there was an exhibtion marking the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 race.  As I write this there is a special exhibition devoted to the history of Kentucky transportation.

A bevy of fine Corvettes in a display echoing dealerships of the past
One of the most evocative displays was devoted to the unique and colourful Zora Arkus-Duntov (1909-1996), born in Belgium of Russian parents, who joined General Motors in 1953 and became the de facto Chief Engineer of the model until his retirement in 1975.  Arkus-Duntov, who certainly did not fit the staid image of GM's typical Midwestern executive, raced at LeMans, winning his class for Porsche twice, set a record climbing Pike's Peak, and another one for the flying mile in a sstripped-down Corvette at Daytona Beach in 1956.  He was married to a German beauty who had been a dancer at the Folies Bergere in Paris.  Arkus-Duntov is considered the man who turned the Corvette, with its initial two-speed automatic gearbox and six cylinder engine, into a true sports car.  After his retirement he was present in Bowling Green to turn the first spade of earth for the construction of the NCM in 1994.

The Arkus-Duntov Story

Arkus-Duntov entered the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1991.  His ashes, and those of his wife Elfi, are interred here at the National Corvette Museum.

The only Corvette, a 1982 Coupe, that Arkus-Duntov actually bought  himself.

As the exhibits continue as you meander through the museum, there is a section devoted to the long and impressive Corvette racing history, which includes recent class wins at LeMans but extends far beyond road racing to encompass all aspects of motor sports, including drag racing, sprints and autocross.

There are interesting individual cars on display as well, including one of only six Guldstrand GS90s built.  Dick Guldstrand, a noted racing driver and builder, used the Corvette C4 ZR-1 as the basis for a beautiful high-performance coupe.  High-performance meant high-cost as well and the planned production run of 100-150 cars never happened.  With a price tag of US$135,000 in 1995, or double the already costly ZR-1, there were not many takers unfortunately.

Another remarkable car is the bone-stock 2012 ZR1 Corvette with which GM engineer (and racing driver) set a lap time of 7:19:63 at Germany's Nurburgring track using the standard Michelin street tires.  The yellow supercharged ZR1 is on display with a big screen behind it so that you can actually watch the lap.  Impressive driving that is certainly beyond the range of most Corvette drivers.


The next section we came to was devoted to the design and engineering of the Corvette over the years.  Pride of place was given to a slew of concept cars, including the Aerovette and much-loved Corvette Indy, none of which ever approached production.  Zora Arkus-Duntov had always dreamed of a mid-engined car but it was not to be under his term or that of his successors.

Part of the exhibit showed how prototypes are actually conceived from drawing to clay models to mockups.

Our walk next took us to the Skydome section of the museum.  This achieved worldwide fame on February 12, 2014, when a giant sinkhole opened up under the floor, causing eight display cars to fall some 30 feet below ground.  The NCM, given a big lemon, turned it into lemonade: the sinkhole became alone responsible for a marked surge in Kentucky tourism!

The museum has made an impressive display about this geological incident, called "Corvette Cave-In: The Skydome Sinkhole Experience," which allows visitors to virtually experience what happened on that fatal night.

Of the eight cars that fell, two have been restored by General Motors, including a white C4 convertible, the 1,000,000th Corvette made.  An additional black convertible will be restored in the shops of the Museum but the remainder are beyond repair.  It is a grim picture for Corvette lovers but in the Skydome you are surrounded by a lot of pristine Corvettes still, so there's that...and on the dome one can read about the inductees to the Corvette Hall of Fame.

Superbly restored over two years: 1992 Corvette , No. 1,000,000

Only slight damage was suffered by The Blue Devil, the prototype C6 ZR1

Among the more unusual Corvettes (including a weird C6 that appeared to be modified for rally driving!), there was another unique car: the only 1983 Corvette C4.  With production delays experienced with development of this all-new model, GM managers took the decision to skip the 1983 model year and introduce it as an early 1984 car.  Around 60 engineering prototypes of the 1983 car were built and all were destroyed subsequently except for the car on display in the Museum.  No 1983s ever reached the hands of the public.

The National Corvette Museum contains an elaborate workshop for the maintenance of cars, including those now used on the recently-built nearby motorsports track.

Corvettes being serviced at the NCM
As we approached the large gift shop there was one more exhibit to enjoy: a special non-Corvette one marking the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.  I have a particular fondness for the big ol' front-engined roadsters that were such a mainstay of the track for so long.

1953 Kurtis Kraft 500B

1963 Watson Roadster
But what really excited me was seeing, yes, a Corvette in the display.  For some reason unknown to me except for GM's careless management of its own history, the 1957 Corvette SS (Super Sport) XP-64 racing car that ran at the 1957 12 Hours of Sebring, was given away at some point and ended up at the Indianapolis Speedway Museum, where it currently resides instead of at the GM Heritage facility.

Arkus-Duntov's brainchild, the car was rushed and was never properly developed.  Although exceedingly fast, it only completed 12 laps at Sebring.  The car, GM's first factory-sponsored raod racer, clearly had great potential but the project died a few months later when the US domestic industry trade group. thenAutomobile Manufacturers' Association, afraid of the liability implications of a developing horsepower war, instituted a ban on all factory-backed racing.

In addition to the Museum proper (which has a modest 1950s-style diner) and its track, the NCM offers a range of travel events and even the chance to watch the 24 Hours of LeMans live at the Museum.  It also offers copies of the original build sheets and window stickers of every Corvette built since the GM assembly plant opened in Bowling Green in 1961.  An impressive and lively facility, it is a must-see for every Corvette owner and enthusiast.