A tour of GM's Bowling Green Assembly Plant

click the above image to view our tour of the Bowling Green Assembly Plant

Across the street from the National Corvette Museum is the Bowling Green Assembly Plant. Located in the green wilds of central-southern Kentucky, it proudly proclaims itself "Home of the Corvette and XLR." Fifty thousand tourists tread the green painted walkway of the factory tour every year to see how that American icon, the Corvette, is made. It is the only place in the world where Corvettes and XLRs are created. Follow the jump to read about the plant and see the pics from our recent factory tour.

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The Corvette plant took up residence in Bowling Green from St. Louis in 1981, replacing a factory that previously made Chrysler air-conditioning units. Previous to that, Corvettes had been made in St. Louis from the second year of their existence, 1954. The Bowling Green factory, updated again in 1996 for C5 production, covers 250 acres, has 1,200 workers, and makes up to 170 Corvettes and 16 XLRs every day on a single shift that goes from 6:12 AM until 2:42 PM.

The plant doesn't manufacture any of the parts for either car -- as its title implies, it only assembles the parts. Each car is also produced to order, either for a dealer or a customer. Base Corvette rails are placed at the beginning of the line and welded by robots at the plant. The Z06 rails, being aluminum and in need of a different welding process, are put together at the Dana plant and then sent to Bowling Green. The only difference between the Corvette and XLR rail assemblies are a few sets of pins, in pairs, that are connecting points for the XLR roof.

Each assembly station on the line has an "address" posted on a sign. A lightboard called an Andon board keeps track of how production is going for the various assembly stations, with goal and actual numbers produced. If a station falls behind, it is quickly apparent on the board. Roaming managers oversee progress at the stations, and if a station needs assistance, it can remove the address sign or ring the bell, and help will be on the way.

Incredibly, we were allowed to go into the paint room, which isn't usually part of the tour. To go in, you need to be "crater tested," in which your person is tested to see if things like your hair or your deodorant will adversely react with the paint. After that, you put on your hairnet and overalls and step into a sealed room that has walls lined with blowholes. There, blasts of air make sure that no dust or other particles remain on your shiny blue protective suit. Inside the paint shop, a complete set of Corvette body panels mounted on armatures wind their way through the painting cells. Outside, a man randomly tests the thickness of the paint, which requires a special machine since the body panels aren't made of metal. The panels then go through the finesse area, where they're checked for perfection, and any that aren't perfect are pulled off to be fixed. A team attempts to repair any blemishes, and if they can be fixed, the parts are remounted on the armatures. If not, they go away.

While the bodies are busy being prettified, the engines, which were delivered assembled from another plant, are mated to the rest of the powertrain and the suspension. When the finished body panels mounted on their frames come around, they slowly descend onto the completed "bottom" of the car, sitting on a "towveyer," and the marriage is consummated. After that, the final details are attended to, the wheels and wings are affixed, and the car touches the ground for the first time. A final check in a lightroom verifies everything is in order, and voila: you have a Corvette (or Cadillac XLR).

If you want to be involved in the process, you can go watch your car being made. Or, once you have bought your car, you can tell the factory exactly what you think about it via the Owner Feedback Program, which has been so successful it will be expanded to other GM brands.

Bowling Green Assembly Plant Facts:

  • The plant is over one million square feet under roof, or the equivalent of 22 football fields.
  • The Bowling Green plant assembles more than 35,000 Chevrolet Corvettes and 4,000 Cadillac XLRs per year.
  • Production each day ranges from 150 - 170 Corvettes and approximately 16 XLRs.
  • There are 387 suppliers from which the plant receives 1,376 parts.
  • Seventy-seven percent of the car is made in the USA and Canada.
  • From start to finish, each Corvette spends approximately 36 hours winding seven miles of conveyor systems in the plant.
  • In the paint department, body panels spend ten hours winding two miles on a conveyor system.
  • Body panels receive three coats of paint: primer, color and clear coat.
  • Corvette and XLR body panels are composite fiberglass, except for the front and rear bumpers, which are urethane.
  • The Cadillac XLR is built on a separate line from the Corvette. They share the same frame and both use fiberglass body panels.

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