How a Corvette gets built

CNET New.com's Road Trip visits the assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky., where every one of the iconic cars has been built since 1981--and comes away impressed.

A convertible Corvette makes its way up the body production line at the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

BOWLING GREEN, Ky.--The four trucks loaded down with Corvettes that I saw heading south as I drove north on I-65 from the Huntsville, Ala., area had to mean something.

What it meant, of course, is that those cars, and every Corvette made since 1981, had come off the line at General Motors' assembly plant in this southwestern Kentucky town. I was on my way here to see that process in motion.

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My visit to the Corvette factory was one of the stops I had most been looking forward to on Road Trip 2008, my voyage around the South in search of the best technology-, science-, business-, or manufacturing-related destinations I can find.

And I have to say that, although my tour was fairly short and to the point, it did not disappoint.

How could it when you get to see how one of the most iconic cars in history is made, step by step, from nothing but a shell to when the key is turned and a brand new, ultra-shiny Corvette drives away for the very first time?

Each day, the factory turns out about 148 Corvettes. Counting the painting of the many panels, the process takes between two and two and a half days. There are just less than 1,000 employees working the line, mostly turning out Corvettes, though the factory also builds eight Cadillac XLRs every day.

An assembly line worker at the Corvette factory installs the driver's seat, one of the first steps in the vehicle's production process. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

According to GM Public Affairs Officer Andrea Hales, who took me on my tour, each task on the line takes about three minutes. That's far longer than the industry average, she explained, which is closer to 30 seconds.

A Corvette is put together in two totally separate processes. On one production line, teams work on building the car's chassis, which includes its engine and drivetrain. On the other line, workers piece together the car's body and its interior, including the seats, steering wheel, tires, and more.

Eventually, the two lines converge, much as two train lines would, and a process known as "body merge" occurs, in which the body is lifted up and brought down on top of the chassis (see video below).

But, of course, that's long after the process begins.

I was surprised to find, as was explained by Hales, that each and every Corvette is made to order. That is, someone somewhere has purchased the exact vehicle they want, and now, it is put together here in Bowling Green.

In order to make sure that the right car is put together, each new frame that comes onto the line sports a purchase order that is taped to its front. This tells the line workers exactly what options to put on the car. And that explains why, as you look up and down the line, you see a vast array of different configurations of Corvettes: some are red, some black, some convertible, some hard-top. Some are the top-of-the-line Z06, others are the more standard models. But all are Corvettes.

For many people, Corvettes are the be-all and end-all of cars. That explains why there are Corvette enthusiast clubs almost everywhere you can think of. And many of the car's owners consider it a Mecca-like pilgrimage to visit the factory for one of the several tours offered each day.

Of course, as a member of the media, I was allowed to take photographs, something the public is expressly forbidden from doing. In fact, I later talked to one Corvette owner who had been on a tour as I was being led through, and he told me that he thought I had bought one of the cars on the line and was photographing it as it was being built.

I wish.

This fellow, it turned out, was from the Corpus Christi, Texas, Corvette club, and he and several of his fellow club members had come to visit the factory while I was there. As I was leaving, I noticed that there were 23 Corvettes parked together in one section of the parking lot--one lot is for GM cars, another for all other makes--and all but one of them had Texas license plates.

I assumed that these cars were all together, but it turned out that they were from three separate Texas-based clubs, and all had come, by coincidence, to the plant on the same day.

I thought they might be pulling my leg when they told me this, but the fascination the Corpus Christi crew had in examining some of the other Texas Corvettes seemed to demonstrate the truth in what I'd been told.

Completely by coincidence, three separate groups of Corvette enthusiasts from Texas brought their cars to Bowling Green, Ky., on June 17 to visit the Corvette assembly plant. All told, they came with 23 of the iconic cars, and parked them all together. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Near the factory, but across a state highway, is the National Corvette Museum, which Hales told me is not affiliated with GM, but which she said actually sells more of the cars than any dealer in the country. That is, she explained, many Corvette owners order their cars and take delivery of them at the museum.

Back in the factory, Hales led me along the body assembly line, where we stopped at just about each of the stations to watch the workers there do their jobs. One by one, they installed driver's seats, steering wheels, side panels, rear windows, and more. There was the constant sound of bolts being mechanically tightened, of hammering, and of the general manufacturing plant noise you'd find anywhere.

I was struck by how poised, yet relaxed, many of the workers were. I'd expected a lot of tense, serious-looking people. And to be sure, some carried that look. But many others were smiling, laughing, and even reading magazines between tasks.

It was very kind of the Corpus Christi (Texas) Corvette Club to get T-shirts made up for my Road Trip 2008 project. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

At one point, the body line stopped and suddenly everyone on that line was standing around, talking and waiting. It turned out that the body shop, which makes the frames, had some delays and had temporarily run out of bodies. So the line workers had nothing to do but wait until more arrived.

Presently, though, the line began moving again, and everyone went back to work.

Another thing that surprised me was the lack of robotics. I had visions of car production facilities where most of the work was done by hyper-efficient robots. But here, most of the work was being done by these auto workers, something I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by, given that these are Corvettes, and a high-end car demands personal attention.

Not long after the body marriage station, the line ends. And that's because the cars are done. If you stand in front of it, you see a long line of finished Corvettes. After seeing them in various stages of production, from bare frames, to partially built cars, it is striking to see these gleaming, perfect vehicles rolling off the line (see video below).

Afterward, the cars go into what's called the dynamic vehicle test, where automated systems run them through about 800 different diagnostics, looking to ensure that every single new Corvette is ready to be shipped to its owner.

If the car doesn't pass every one of the tests, it must go to a repair station off to the side where mechanics will try to fix whatever was wrong. Then it goes back for the diagnostics once again. It cannot leave the facility until it has passed.

To be perfectly honest, I've never been a huge Corvette guy. Ferraris are more my fantasy vehicle. But I'll tell you, after watching these cars get built, and after hearing their engines roar to life for the first time, I would gladly have taken a set of keys and hopped behind the wheel of one of these cars and driven off into the Kentucky heat for a Corvette summer.

 

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