Buying a C4 Corvette

Deals abound on Corvette’s first Techno-crat

Chris McDonald - August 19, 2011 09:00 AM


The RPO codes are found in the service label inside the rear cubby. This is the next best thing to having the original build sheet for the car. With these three-digit codes in hand, deciphering the exact equipment on board is a snap.


The paint job on this ’86 at a local dealer looked fabulous until we walked around behind. The bumper suffered a minor collision and had cracked the paint surface. Repairing this damage and getting new paint to match can be a bit tricky. We passed on this one.


Door panel trim delaminating is common. There is very little that can be done to cure this, short of total door panel replacement.


These are called “Arm Pinchers.” The window moldings dry out and crack over time, allowing excessive moisture into the door cavity and leave an unpleasant sensation on the back of your arm when resting it on the door with the windows down. This is a common wear issue, and easily fixable with a new set.


The four digit code in this photo is the manufacture date of the tire. This tire was made in the 18th week of 2004. The tread on the car looked like new, but these tires are over six years old.


Here is a close up of the aged tire. You can see the tread is awesome. However, the tire is beginning to dry up and lose its flexibility. The cracks forming between the tread blocks are a warning of danger down the road.


The paint job on this car was in great shape. But the faded emblems add age to the look of the car. A new set of emblems and this car won’t show its age as much.


The one-piece removable top was a breakthrough leap in body technology for Corvette in 1984. Top-popped, sun shining, mufflers rumbling, and tunes on the radio – nothing beats cruising in the Corvette.


We still geek out on the digital gauge cluster found in the ’85-’89 models.


The C4 used a standard roll type mechanical odometer tucked away in the upper right hand corner of the digital dash cluster. Because they are mechanical devices, a crafty mechanic can remove and roll back the displayed mileage with relative ease. When replacing the cluster with a salvage part, the original miles will be lost.


We rumbled our car home on seven cylinders or less. After getting it home and up in the air it didn’t take long to diagnose a plugged catalytic converter. For 104K miles, the rest of the car was strong enough we could overlook this speed bump on the way to getting everything in ship shape.


There is something about these Cross-Fire Injection motors. They look right out of Star Wars and, in their day, they took the automotive world by storm. Photo: Terry Davis


An LT5? Yep, cars with the highest performing engine in all the C4s are out there. This 1990 ZR-1 was picked up for a cool $8,500 needing some serious cosmetic TLC. Photo: Jeff Debuhr

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The fourth generation Corvette took the automotive world by storm and changed the way Corvettes were viewed and loved by enthusiasts worldwide. Now stretching more than two decades since the first clamshell hood rolled off the line, the available pickings on the resale market range in virtually every condition and price possible.

The C4 was the latest and greatest offering from the General at about the same time I was coming of driving age. This was the age of the Atari 2600, MTV, Vans checkerboard shoes, Madonna, Def Leppard, and Thriller. The C4 design drew the line in the sand between the past and the future. From the sleek purpose built aerodynamic body, to the “totally tubular” digital dash — it became THE standard by which all other sports cars were measured. Those that brought one home fresh from the showroom remember that feeling well. For the rest of us, we could only dream.

Fast forward 25 years and thanks to time, depreciation and a little good fortune along the way, there are few enthusiasts out there that can’t scrape up enough beans to put a C4 Corvette in their garage. In fact, the time may never be better to get behind the wheel of the cross flags. We set out to find a screaming deal on an early C4 and learned a few things along the way. In the end, we maximized our dollars and landed a prime example that can still put tingles up your spine when the tuned port fuel injection V-8 roars to life.


Getting Started

We are in an information age that can make shopping for a car easier, and yet more complicated than ever. It seems there are new websites, services and publications popping up every day that put sellers in touch with buyers. eBay has done wonders for connecting buyers and sellers and makes short work of limiting your search quickly and efficiently. Other sites — such as Vette Finders, Autotrader and more — make the process quick and simple to browse listings across the country. Craigslist helps put local people together offering free ads and dealers have learned to utilize the web to share their inventory and receive hits through search engines leading seekers to find what they are after.

Since there is no shortage of fourth generation Corvettes waiting to find new owners, we found all of these sources offered amazing opportunity to connect us with the car of our dreams. In the end, however, we were able to make our deal through Craigslist in a nearby town.


Know what you want

The C4 came with a variety of different options and build possibilities that open an entire plethora of opportunities to find one that fits your style. Options you may find include auto climate control; power passenger/driver and/or sport seats; manual or auto transmission; transparent, solid, or convertible top; Z51 or soft ride suspension; 2.73 to 3.45 axle ratios; and much more. These options affect the value, performance, and driving characteristics of the cars.

The good news is this information is easily gathered by decoding the RPO/service codes found in the rear cubby of most early C4s. In fact, we found that long distance sellers were more than willing to gather and forward this information that helped us to sharpen the pencil on the small details from afar. As long as you have an Internet connection, there are dozens of sites that provide RPO decoding for free. In our case, we were after a manual shift car and preferred the Z51 option.

With vehicles more than two decades old on their second, third or fourth owner, many sellers are not even aware of exactly what they have either. It is also possible to find parts have been swapped or changed over two decades, so it is crucial to verify these options on physical inspection when possible.


Beware of Scams

It is sad, but there are those out there who prey upon our hopes and dreams, and know that it is hard to pass up an incredible deal. They use the Internet to steal photos and descriptions of actual cars tagged with a too good to be true price. While looking for a killer deal on a C4, we bumped into an ad for a 2001 pewter convertible reported to have only 34,000 miles for an amazing $12,900 offer. The ad looked legitimate and the pictures were spectacular.

Now, we have all heard of stories about the couple divorcing and the wife selling the prized Corvette for a dollar, or other such tales. These urban legends loom large in our minds, so it is hard not to bite when the bait appears. We contacted the seller of this gorgeous C5 convertible. No phone number – just e-mail. From the first response, we knew it was a scam when the seller wasn’t able to spell Corvette correctly and explained the car was in a different location than the seller but a quick electronic funds transfer would seal the deal so we could move on with business.

Successive e-mails from the “seller” came in under different e-mail addresses, names and stories! The sad part is, some people fall victim to this kind of scam and there is virtually nothing the authorities can do to retrieve the money once it has disappeared overseas.


Kicking the Tires

It’s all too easy to fall in love at first sight. Bright paint, shiny wheels and a thunderous exhaust might cinch the sale, but looking closer and using some good rational thought isn’t a bad idea. Here are some things to keep in mind. Give or take a few dollars, it costs just as much to repaint a 1987 Corvette as it does a 2007. With quality re-paint jobs costing $3,000 or more for either car, this is a huge factor in a car that the asking price starts out at $4,000!

In fact, in the same thought process, it costs nearly as much to replace the interior in a 1986 as it does a 1969 or 1966, which is expensive in either case. If the car runs well and looks good but the inside is completely gone – slow down and look up some of the prices in your favorite catalog as you might get sticker shock at what the true cost of the $6,000 car becomes once you get it home and start fixing it up.

You have to pick your battles when looking at a 25-year-old car. If it runs great with a price you can afford with room to spare, but it needs major cosmetic repair, then based on your skill level this may be the car for you. On the other hand, cars will mechanically deteriorate when sitting. There are plenty of low-mile C4s on the market with great paint, trim and interior that will need a complete overhaul due to the lack of use. You get caught up in the cosmetics and miss the brick wall right in front of you.

We won’t beat the horse to death about the obvious things – leaks, strange overspray, mismatched parts, poor prior repairs, hacked electrical or emissions … and the list goes on and on. We’ll assume if you are looking at a used car you are using some degree of common sense. Getting an independent mechanic to review the car is never a bad idea if you aren’t capable of doing your own repairs.

Speaking of kicking the tires, look at them very carefully. A new set of shoes for a C4 could run over $1,000. While tires don’t have an expiration date, they do have a born-on build date that helps you determine the age. All tires since 2000 have a four-digit code that lists the week and year they were made. This will follow the DOT stamp and may only have the date code on one side of the tire. It is worth looking at. Low mile, hardly used cars might have tons of tread left on the tires, but may be an accident waiting to happen if they are aged. While there is officially no expiration date, tires more than six years old put the driver in serious risk of a tire failure. Don’t be fooled by tons of tread as you may be looking at a new set of rubber right away anyway.


It is what it is

We wanted a fun driver that would stand up to some spirited driving, cruise on the highway, and provide long summer afternoons of pleasure cruising the boulevard or waxing the paint. We didn’t want a project or something that had such low miles or rare options that it would be a Corvette crime to put into service. Plus, we had limited funds to spend.

Considering the cost of repainting and re-upholstering, not to mention the time, we focused our efforts on cosmetically pleasing machines, leaving the mechanicals as the area we were willing to risk. Whether cross-fire, tuned port or LT1, all of these fourth-gens get their motivation from the tried and true small block that changed very little in overall concept since 1955. We were comfortable with that because there is virtually nothing that hasn’t been explored to repair, tune, and modify these machines.

While a tuned port mill is frankly, weak, compared to today’s LS mills, we learned in our older age that at 65 mph, side-by-side a 1986 Corvette is going just as fast as a 2010 ZR1. Anything over that might put a blue light in the rear view mirror. For those after the pure passion of acceleration with something to prove, an early C4 just might not be for you.


Making the Deal

Ultimately what a buyer is willing to pay the seller is what that particular car is worth. Each car will merit its own special price. On the early C4 sales, throw out the book. The prices are so far and wide that it seems to confuse the matter. The average book value of a 1986 Corvette like the one we settled on was up to $10,000. However, after some wheeling and dealing, we shook on an agreed sale of $5,000 and promptly drove it on home on all seven of the eight cylinders.

What else can you buy for $5,000 these days that is capable of reaching 150 mph, 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds, pops the top, roars like a lion, handles like it is on rails, and gains you automatic entry in the Corvette club? Considering this machine went for over $25,000 new and would be more than $40,000 if it were a brand new one, this is a steal!

For us, it is 1986 all over again. After a couple of weekends in the garage changing fluids, fixing minor issues and getting all eight slugs to pull their weight, it was ready for some summer fun. Wearing a pair of vintage Vans, Ray Ban sunglasses, an ear flap ball cap, and with Van Halen pumping over the Bose screeching through the cassette player, we’re off on a new adventure to show just how cool these fourth-gen ’Vettes still are!