Used Corvettes for less than the price of similar year Chevy pickups sounds like nonsense, but in many cases that’s a true statement. Granted, prices for the last of the ’73-’87 Chevy Silverado pickups have been rising, but prices for early C4 Corvettes (1984 and up) have dropped so far as to often be worth more as parts cars than as fully functioning cars. If you’ve always wanted a Corvette, but didn’t think you could afford one, now is the time to check out the incredible bargains on early C4 Vettes.
C4 Corvettes span the years 1984 through 1996. The era can be divided into early and late subsets using two criteria. For this article we chose the 1992 introduction of the LT-1 engine as the differentiation point, but the mild restyling in 1991 could also be used. 1991 Corvettes have the new nose, parking lamps, and front fender scoop treatments, but they’re still powered by the L-98 TPI (tuned port injection) small-block V-8.
The drastically restyled and redesigned 1984 fourth generation Corvettes were introduced in March 1983. There were no ’83 Corvettes, although it would have been nice to commemorate the Corvette’s 30th anniversary. The new C4 met all the new federal safety and emissions requirements. The extended model year resulted in 51,547 1984 Corvette sales.
Things were still pretty dismal in the horsepower department circa 1984, but outstanding handling was a highlight of the new Corvette. The 350-ci small-block produced 205 horsepower. The Cross-Fire Injection was held over from 1982. It wasn’t very well received, which partially accounts for the super low prices on ’84 Corvettes.
The engine situation improved in 1985 when the Bosch-built Tuned Port Injection (TPI) was introduced. The new L98 engine boosted horsepower to 230 with 330 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy improved significantly with the TPI L98 engine. The TPI is reason enough to shop for 1985 and newer C4 Corvettes. TPI horsepower peaked at 250 for the ’90/’91 models.
Four-speed automatic transmissions were offered throughout the ’84-’91 C4 era. From 1984 through 1988, a four-speed manual transmission was offered. It had overdrive in the top three gears and was known as the Doug Nash “4+3” transmission. Neither the automatic or manual transmissions are strong points. Transmissions should be checked thoroughly prior to purchase.
The best transmission news came in 1989 when the new ZF six-speed manual was offered as a no cost option. The downside to this transmission is the annoying skip-shift feature that goes from first to fourth under light acceleration. There are kits to eliminate the skip-shift function.
Convertibles returned to the Corvette lineup in 1986. They were warmly welcomed back after the supposed “last Corvette convertibles” of 1975. Selecting it as the Indy 500 Pace Car highlighted the Corvette convertible’s return. C4 convertibles are excellent values as they offer the least expensive means of enjoying top-down Corvette fun. C4 coupes have removable roof panels, so they provide a nice compromise between fresh air and keeping out the elements.
C4 Corvettes aren’t currently very collectible, although there are a few special models with reasonable potential. The fact that these cars aren’t being aggressively collected makes now a good time to pick up an excellent example at a fair price.
The 1990-1995 ZR-1 Corvettes are quite collectible and the first two years (also by far the highest production years) fall within the scope of this article. A guide to these engineering marvels appeared in a previous issue, so we won’t be covering them here, except to say that they’re very attractively priced and probably won’t go much lower (at least not the good examples).
The Corvette convertible returned to the lineup in 1986 and was chosen to pace the Indy 500 race. All ’86 convertibles were designated pace car replicas regardless of color and came with optional use pace car decals. The official Indy Pace Car was Code 35 Yellow, so most collectors consider the 732 yellow convertibles as the Pace Car Editions.
Very limited production Callaway Twin Turbo Corvettes first appeared in 1987 under the $20,000 RPO B2K Callaway installed option and continued to be offered through 1991. Slightly over 500 Callaway Corvettes were built.
1988 was the 35th anniversary of the Corvette and a run of white coupes was built to commemorate the occasion. The 2,050 coupes had black roof bows and white leather interiors (seats and steering wheels) plus special badges and accent trim items. The added cost was almost $5,000.
In 1990, there were 80 turquoise or yellow Corvette convertibles designated as Indy Festival cars. These cars had special graphics, but weren’t pace cars.
Early C4 Corvette best deals can be found at the top, middle, and bottom of the price spectrum. At the very top are the first two years of the ZR-1. 1990 and 1991 are (by a huge margin) the most readily available ZR-1s. At prices ranging from the mid-teens to low-twenties these engineering marvels are excellent deals.
Placing ZR-1s in their own special class of Corvettes puts 1989-1991 six-speed models with very low mileage at the top of the early C4 price scale. Cars with less than 50,000 miles can be found in the mid-to-lower teens, which is a lot of Corvette (especially in convertible form) for the money. These premium examples are excellent values, because you can’t make a lesser car this nice for the price difference. C4 Corvettes don’t currently warrant full-on restorations, so pristine, low mileage originals are the best deals.
The mid-point best deals are the nice, but not perfect 1985-1988 coupes and convertibles. These well preserved, mostly stock or mildly modified Vettes likely have over 100,000 miles on them. They’re cars that have been well used and enjoyed, but not hammered. They may have had some freshening (new upholstery, a repaint, etc.) and some tasteful bolt-on upgrades. Nice examples of these Vettes can be found in the $5,000 to $10,000 range. They’re great weekend fun cars or even affordable daily drivers.
The bargain basement best deals are the under five-grand C4 Corvettes. The key here is to find a coupe (convertibles at this price will most likely be thrashed) that’s mechanically sound. The ability to get in and go is critical. Expect cosmetic flaws, faded paint, worn interiors, and maybe non-original wheels. A few electronic glitches are acceptable as long as they don’t greatly impact drivability.
The goal should be to spend as little extra money as possible. These Corvettes are the perfect way to have fun without worrying about scratches, rattles, bad weather, or where you park. The caveat is not to turn one of these bargain Vettes into a money pit. If anything major breaks it’s probably best to part with the car or even part it out. Prices for major components can easily exceed the car’s purchase price.
C4 Vettes aren’t the stars of the Corvette universe, but they are real Corvettes at really, really reasonable prices. 1984-1991 C4 Corvettes are the epitome of affordable, four-wheel fun.
The Corvette convertible returned in 1986 after being on hiatus since 1975. All 7,315 1986 convertibles came with Indy 500 decals and were considered Pace Car Replicas, but the 732 yellow cars are most closely associated with the actual pace car.
Convertible production jumped to 10,625 units in 1987. That was the highest volume for any C4 convertible, which makes this year the easiest to find. Tastefully modified examples like this red roadster belonging to Patty Keener are a great way to enjoy open air Corvette fun on a budget.
Another C4 with collector potential is the 1988 35th Anniversary Package (RPO Z01), which was only available on coupes. All of the 2,050 coupes were white with black roof bows and white leather upholstery.
The 1984 Corvette represented a radical departure from the Coke bottle styling of the C3 Vettes. An early introduction resulted in an extended model run, which helped account for sales of 51,547 coupes. This straight ’84 had 115,000 miles on it and an asking price of $5,795 in February 2011.
A C4 with “Cross-Fire Injection” on the front fender trim between the scoops and the hood edge can only be a 1984 model. Cross-Fire Injection was only available in 1984 C4 Vettes (it was previously used on 1982 C3s).
The 1984 Cross-Fire Injection engines are almost hidden underneath a futuristic air cleaner. This dirty engine is typical of what can be expected in low-dollar ’84 Corvettes. Outside of its uniqueness there’s no compelling reason to seek a cross-fire injected motor.
This 1985 Corvette was spotted at the February 2011 Corvette and High Performance Swap Meet in Puyallup, Washington, with a giveaway price of $2,700 O.B.O. It was a good running/driving car that came with a new radiator and a new leather seat cover kit. This car shows how incredibly reasonable early C4 Corvettes are.
The Cross-Fire Injection system was replaced by the Tuned Port Injection (TPI) system in 1985. This is a 1985 version of the system that was used through 1991. This engine wasn’t detailed, but what do you expect in a $2,700 Corvette?
Here’s what a C4 L-98 350 small-block looks like cleaned, detailed, and treated to a fair amount of chrome parts. This engine is in a 1988 35th Anniversary Edition Corvette.
Here’s another screaming C4 deal spotted at the Corvette and High Performance Meet in February 2011. The asking price was $3,500 or best offer. The body was straight and the chrome wheels were an attractive bonus.
Corvettes that drive into a big show or swap meet are more attractive than ones on trailers, because you know they’re drivable. This ’89 convertible has obviously suffered some body damage as witnessed by the non-matching front bumper cover. The asking price was marked down from $6,000 to $5,000.
A good set of tires is an important consideration when buying an inexpensive C4. A new set of tires can be a big chunk of the car’s purchase price. These mud-caked tires indicate that this convertible wasn’t stored under ideal conditions. Another tire on the car had mud half way up the wheel.
The condition of a convertible top is very important. Besides the replacement cost an ill-fitting, moss-covered, worn-out top can mean interior moisture problems and even frame rust.
The $5,000 ’89 convertible had lots of body damage that might not show in online photos. The overall paint was in poor condition and there were several areas where the fiberglass was cracked like under the mirrors. Flaws like this highlight the importance of a personal inspection.
There are a lot of electronic/electrical components in C4 Corvettes including the retractable headlight motors. All these components (especially the digital dashboards and Bose stereos) need to be carefully inspected.
Early C4 Vettes are often worth more apart than as drivable transportation. This ’87 350-ci TPI engine was rated at 240 horsepower. This complete unit had a price tag of $1,800.
This ’84-’89 Dana 44 rearend, suspension, and brakes setup was spotted at the Corvette and High Performance swap meet with an asking price of $1,350. It doesn’t take very many key components to add up to $5,000.
Pristine, super low mileage C4 convertibles are getting harder to find. This Turquoise Metallic 1990 convertible had a mere 30,000 miles on it and an asking price of $14,000. The key thing to remember about outstanding cars is you couldn’t make a rough 5K Vette this nice for the price differential.
This is a 1991 convertible with the restyled nose and front fender scoops. This look remained through the end of the C4 era in 1996.
This is a 1991 leather interior. The numerous, deep side bolsters keep driver and passenger firmly planted during aggressive cornering, but the seats are snug for large people. Sport seat replacement parts can be difficult to find.