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As GM struggles, Corvette plant shines

Industry analysts say the Corvette plant remains a bright spot for General Motors Corp. at a time when sagging sales have led the automaker to eliminate 30,000 U.S. hourly jobs by 2008 as part of a massive restructuring plan.
Richard Mayberry
Richard Mayberry gives a Corvette a close look on the final inspection line on at the General Motors Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Ky.Mark Humphrey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gene Taglialavore grinned like a kid on Christmas morning as he watched his wife settle into the driver’s seat of the couple’s new cranberry red Chevy Corvette.

The sleek sports car will be the New Orleans native’s 11th Corvette and will replace the one he lost to the floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina. Taglialavore bought his first one more than 40 years ago.

“It’s just something that gets in your blood: the speed and power, the handling,” said Taglialavore, 64, who picked up the car in May at the National Corvette Museum, across the street from the plant where the car was assembled in this western Kentucky city located 60 miles north of Nashville, Tenn.

“There’s nothing like a Corvette,” he said. “This thing will do almost anything you want. To own one of these things, you’re a little bit different from everybody else. Anybody can drive a 4-door sedan. It’s about standing out.”

The only factory in the world that builds the iconic sports car, General Motors’ Bowling Green plant rolled out its first Corvette in Kentucky 25 years ago on June 1, 1981.

Industry analysts say the plant remains a bright spot for General Motors Corp. at a time when sagging sales have led the automaker to eliminate 30,000 U.S. hourly jobs by 2008 as part of a massive restructuring plan.

About 35,000 Corvettes are assembled at the plant each year — a small fraction of the 9 million vehicles GM is expected to produce worldwide this year.

But the Corvette — which sells for around $50,000 — is not intended to make piles of money, but instead to create a brand identity and to lure customers into Chevy dealerships to buy other vehicles, said David Healy, an analyst with New York-based Burnham Securities Inc.

“It’s microscopic, but it does the job as a marketing tool for Chevy,” Healy said. “Indirectly it makes money because it gives cachet to Chevy, which otherwise might suffer from lack of charisma.

“It’s a performance mobile. It probably shouldn’t be street legal,” Healy said of the car that can reach speeds up to 180 mph. “It’s a showoff vehicle. It’s a chick mobile.”

GM has sold more than 1.4 million Corvettes since the first one was built June 30, 1953, in Flint, Mich. About 300 of the cars were assembled there before production was moved to St. Louis the next year.

Following the passage of more strict environmental regulations in the 1970s affecting the car’s production in St. Louis, GM then transferred its Corvette facilities to a building that had been a Chrysler air conditioning unit factory in Bowling Green.

Bob Heidbrink, a retired engineer who worked for GM for more than 40 years, including 15 at the Bowling Green plant, now gives tours of the facility to Corvette owners who pay an extra fee to watch their new car be built.

Heidbrink said GM was building 10 Corvettes an hour in St. Louis and increased that to 15 after the move to Bowling Green.

By the mid-1980s, however, there were too many Corvettes flooding the market, though it later experienced a jump in popularity in the 1990s when the fifth generation model debuted, Heidbrink said.

Now plant workers are putting in a lot of overtime because of the Corvette’s popularity, said the plant’s union president Eldon Renaud. The plant also produces 4,000 Cadillac XLRs per year.

Renaud said many GM workers at other locations try to get transferred to the plant — which employs about 1,200 workers — because of its increased job security and the city’s appealing quality of life.

“They (workers) know it’s not going anywhere,” Renaud said, adding that there are no layoffs planned at the plant.

“They transfer here because they like building something they have pride in,” he said. “A lot of people come from parts plants, and may build something like radiators. And it’s hard to have a great sense of putting yourself into a radiator.”

Paul Jones, 32, who’s worked in the paint shop at the plant four years, transferred from the Dayton, Ohio, Delphi plant, a major GM parts provider.

“You pretty much touch every car that goes through here,” Jones said. “There’s a sense of ownership with it. You get to spend more time with a vehicle. In Ohio, I only saw parts leave boxes.

“We enjoy seeing them (Corvettes) on the road. You can look at the VIN (vehicle identification) number and ask them the year, and you’ll know if you were there at the plant to build it. The people that own these cars are basically fanatics about them, and they enjoy talking to you about them.”

For an extra cost of about $500, new Corvette owners can pick up their “baby” at the National Corvette Museum’s designated “nursery” and get a personal guided tour of the assembly plant and hands-on training about the new car’s controls.

Like the Taglialavores, Joel and Joann Schotz opted for the VIP treatment and flew in from Phoenix, Ariz., to get their new Corvette at the museum.

Joel Schotz, 58, says he plans to use the car — his fourth Corvette since buying his first at age 23 — for autocross racing, though he and his wife will do some sightseeing first on the drive back to Arizona.

“It’s a real performance value,” Schotz said. “Today the quality of the car is very good. They’ve stayed true to their roots. It’s a car that will stop, turn, accelerate. Let’s face it, it’s not a Ferrari. But it will do what a Ferrari does for a lot less money.”

Gene Taglialavore and his wife also plan to roam the country’s highways in their new Corvette — particularly the famed Route 66, which he’s never driven.

“I’ve always wanted to take Route 66. Now I’ve got the opportunity and the time to do it,” he said. “It (Corvette) just floats around curves and sticks to the highway. You become one with the road. It’s not just a way to get to point A from point B.”