It was the sinkhole heard ‘round the world, at least for car collectors. Early Wednesday morning, the ground beneath the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., opened up unexpectedly.
Measured at around 40 feet across and 25 to 30 feet deep, the sinkhole swallowed eight rare Chevrolet Corvettes in a matter of minutes. Grief-stricken museum employees were forced to move the other 20 cars out of the Skydome building to safer ground and engineers are currently assessing what to do next.
General Motors has already made it clear that it plans to help, announcing Thursday that it will oversee the restoration of all Corvettes damaged. Not only did GM own two of the cars damaged in the sinkhole collapse, but it also donated several of the other Corvettes affected, including one of the jewels of the collection: the 1-millionth Corvette ever built.
“The vehicles at the National Corvette Museum are some of the most significant in automotive history,” Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president, said in a statement. “There can only be one 1-millionth Corvette ever built. We want to ensure as many of the damaged cars are restored as possible so fans from around the world can enjoy them when the museum reopens.”
Though the rest of the museum has reopened, the Skydome building will remain closed for an unknown number of weeks while the cars are retrieved and the building and surrounding areas are secured in the event of future sinkholes, the museum announced Thursday. It hopes to have the work on both the buildings and the cars done in time for the museum’s 20th anniversary celebration in August. The museum gets about 150,000 visitors a year.
The incident is a big deal within the classic car world because it affects a robust sample of America’s most popular sports car, a marque that is highly valued and sought-after by collectors.
“This is absolutely a significant event in the car world,” said Jonathan Klinger of Hagerty’s Insurance, a company that values and insures classic cars. “The Corvette is the most collected vehicle in the U.S. in terms of numbers. It’s America’s sports car.”
The variety of the cars affected is striking. The models include a 1962 convertible, a one-off design concept from 1993 and the first ZR1 that General Motors built in 2009.
Those last two Corvettes belonged to GM, which lent the cars to the museum on a long-term basis. The remaining six were owned by the National Corvette Museum, and several of those had been donated by collectors.
“They thought they’d be donating them to Corvette museum and they thought that people would be able to look at and enjoy their cars for a very long time,” Wendell Strode, executive director of the museum, said of the donated cars. “It’s not looking like that’s going to happen right now.”
For now, the exact status of the eight unfortunate victims is unknown, as the cars are still resting inside the sinkhole. Photos released by the museum show five cars visible, while the remaining three are presumed to be below the rubble.
The damage varies: One of GM’s cars sits on top of the pile of debris looking like it just needs a wash. Meanwhile, only the rear corner of GM’s other donor Corvette peeks out from the dirt.
So just what exactly is trapped in the pit? Here’s a look at each of the eight Corvettes.
1992 Corvette convertible
This white-on-red convertible is notable because it’s the 1-millionth Corvette ever built, a fact that could push this car’s value into the seven-figure range, Klinger said.
“That’s a milestone car,” he said. “You can debate the value but you don’t question its significance. Something is worth what people want to pay for it, and a lot of collectors would like to have that in their collection.” But take away its production number and you have a fairly ordinary Corvette, Klinger said.
The car was built July 2, 1992, at about 2 p.m., according to the National Corvette Museum. It was donated to the organization by General Motors. The car features a 5.7-liter V-8 engine and a four-speed automatic transmission. A similar car might sell for $15,000 to $20,000 today.
But this Corvette’s background means that it’s no ordinary car. “This accident becomes part of the car’s history, a footnote,” Klinger said. “This one is worth fixing.”
Judging by the photos of the sinkhole, the car is going to need some work. Visible to the far left of some of the photos, a muddied and dirty white convertible can be seen wedged into place among the detritus from the collapsed floor.
2009 Corvette ZR1
The recent ZR1 was the most powerful car GM ever sold, and this specific car was the first such model built by Chevrolet. Originally built as a Z06, Chevy engineers converted this exact car to the ZR1 specifications before unveiling it to the press at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show. Given this pedigree, a Chevy spokesman estimated that it could be worth as much as $1 million.
The ZR1 -- nicknamed the “Blue Devil” -- used a 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 engine to make 638 horsepower. The car was on long-term loan to the museum by GM. Judging by the pictures of the sinkhole, this car looks to be in the best shape of the eight that were damaged. Despite a layer of dust, it looks relatively unharmed and sits atop the pile of rubble.
1993 Corvette ZR-1 Spyder
This was the other Corvette affected by the sinkhole that GM donated to the National Corvette Museum. Though it looks to the casual observer like a run-of-the-mill Corvette convertible, it’s anything but. This is a non-running design study that debuted at the 1991 Detroit Auto Show.
The ZR-1 was a limited-series run of high-performance variants built between 1990 and 1995. Though the production cars were available only as a coupe, GM built this prototype design study for the aforementioned auto show. The car has a unique, custom-built hood, tonneau cover, windshield, front quarter panels and racing seats.
Like the other ZR1 from 2009, this car’s rarity makes it valuable; it could be worth as much as $1 million today. Based on the photos from Wednesday, this car may need a lot of work. Only the left rear corner of the car -- painted black -- can be seen poking out from the debris inside the sinkhole.
2009 Corvette convertible
This car was in the museum’s collection for one reason: It’s the 1.5-millionth Corvette ever made. Built with the same white-on-red as the 1-millionth Corvette (both pay homage to the color scheme on the first 300 Corvettes ever built in 1953), the National Corvette Museum bought this car new in 2009.
The fate of this car is unknown based on the photos from the sinkhole. It’s not visible in any of the photos provided by the museum.
1984 PPG pace car
This one-off project car was created by PPG, a paint supplier to numerous automakers. PPG built the car in conjunction with GM to use as a pace car in the 1984 PPG Indy Car World Series.
It uses a 6.6-liter V-8 engine paired with a five-speed manual transmission, and a custom-built body painted Orange Glow by PPG. The car was in the museum’s initial collection when it first opened its doors in 1994, having been donated by PPG.
The status of this car is unknown.
2001 Mallett Hammer Corvette Z06
This brilliant red Corvette was just the ninth car modified by Mallett, a tuning shop known for its work on Corvettes. After work was done on the car in 2002, this Corvette was rated at 700 horsepower, enough to help it do a quarter-mile run in 10.6 seconds.
The car was donated to the museum by longtime Corvette fans and collectors Kevin and Linda Helmintoller. Its fate in the sinkhole disaster is unknown.
1993 40th anniversary Corvette
This car was one of 6,749 Corvettes built to commemorate the nameplate’s 40th anniversary in 1993. Like all of these anniversary models, this car was painted ruby red with matching red leather inside. The coupe was donated to the National Corvette Museum by Hill and Karen Clark, who are lifelong Corvette fans and owners.
This is also one of the more visible cars sitting inside the sinkhole. Damage to the car looks moderate, based on the photos, with numerous scratches and scuffs to the paint and a shattered rear window and taillight.
1962 Corvette convertible
This car was one of more than 14,000 Corvettes built in 1962, all of which were convertibles. The tuxedo black version was bought new in 1962 by David Donoho, who was the only owner before donating the car to the museum -- somewhat ironically -- for its protection. Fortunately, this is one of the affected Corvettes that should escape the sinkhole relatively unscathed. It can be seen in the photos in an upright position, resting on its tail.