Best Bet $10k Vettes

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by Bruce Caldwell  More from Author

$10,000 Can Buy A Lot Of Corvette

There was a time when ten thousand dollars bought a nice home. Times changed, and then 10K bought a nice luxury car. As recently as 1979 a new, base-model Corvette coupe listed for $10,220. Today, that same money barely buys an entry-level Hyundai Accent – and 2011 Corvette prices range from $50,000 to $112,000!

Given the steady march of time and prices you might think that $10,000 wouldn’t buy much of a Corvette, but you’d be wrong. The used Corvette market has a lot to offer at the ten thousand dollar price point. You won’t get the same thrill ride of a C6 Corvette, but you can get plenty of enjoyment, performance, and luxury. A 10K Corvette will peg the fun meter compared to the sleep-inducing numbness that sum delivers in a used economy car.

The key to a good 10K Corvette is to spend wisely. We recommend buying a mechanically sound car with as few cosmetic compromises as possible. That means you won’t find any C1 or C2 Corvettes. Nor will you find any big-block C3 or even any of the high performance early C3 small-blocks. You can get a very respectable 300 hp in the form of an LT1-powered C4 Corvette, though.

The arbitrary ten thousand dollar limit is just a nice round number. Prices are always negotiable, especially in today’s economy. Buying a Corvette (particularly convertibles) before summertime is a good strategy. The old maxim “when the top goes down, prices go up” is very applicable to Corvettes. Our advice on this dollar limit is twofold: either shop for a $12,000+ car and bargain it down to 10K, or buy a car for $8,000 to $9,000 and leave a decent cushion for repairs or upgrades.

We suggest leaving a thousand-dollar reserve fund for repairs, because no matter how nice any sub-ten thousand dollar Corvette may seem, there are bound to be issues. The problems might not crop up immediately, but they’ll happen soon enough. That’s just the nature of older used cars.

Normally, we advocate completely stock, numbers-matching Corvettes. They’re the least likely to have poorly executed modifications and they’re the easiest to resell, but not everyone likes totally stock Corvettes. The truth is, many people modify and personalize their Vettes. We think the 10K plateau is a safe place to buy a well-built, conservatively upgraded, modified Corvette. If you shop aggressively, you can get a lot of added value for little or no extra money.

The added value in modified Corvettes comes from the fact that customizing rarely (if ever) offers the type of returns gained from restoration work. For example, a seller can pour buckets of cash into an engine and not get much more at selling time than if the engine was simply rebuilt. Superchargers are exhilarating, but poor returns on investment. The same goes for an expensive custom paint job or high-end billet wheels. Avoid overly trendy or dated custom paint.

Modified Corvettes aren’t great short-term investments, but they can be tons of fun. A modified Vette should be bought with the intention of keeping it for an extended period and/or just driving all the value out of it. Selling a modified Corvette can take a little more creativity, but you may be able to swap a lesser engine/wheels/tires combo and still come out okay.

For our 10K best bets we’ve selected two general categories of used Corvettes: C4 and C3 models.


The abundant 1984-1996 C4 Corvettes represent a good mix of technology, luxury options, and decent performance at very attractive prices. The earliest examples can be had for around five thousand dollars, but we strongly recommend buying the newest model you can find/afford. Avoid the Cross-Fire-Injection ’84 models. Coupes offer more value for your money, but if a convertible is important nice examples of late-Eighties soft tops (the convertible returned in 1986) fall within our 10K budget.

A 1992 or newer C4 is our first choice, because it was the first year of the 300-hp/330 lb-ft LT1 engine. The previous L98 350 small-blocks are good engines, but the LT1 represents a significant power increase. A six-speed manual transmission was a no-cost option, but only about 25 percent of the ’92 and later Corvettes came with it. The manual transmission is worth a premium over the predominant four-speed automatic. The six-speed was also available on the ’89-’91 Corvettes.


The 1968-1982 C3 Corvettes aren’t as sophisticated as the C4 models. This could be either good or bad, depending on your view of technology. At the early end of the C3 spectrum you’ll find pretty rudimentary Corvettes with only minimal emissions equipment. The bad news is that a 10K ’68-’71 C3 is most likely to be an inoperable pile of parts. The newer the C3, the better the value will be.

1971-72 chrome bumper coupes with base equipment levels can be found near 10K, but they’ll probably need some work. The 1974-75 coupes are within our budget, and occasionally you can find high mileage or less-than-perfect convertibles, too. At 10K you should be able to have the pick of the litter of 1976-77 Corvettes. The 1978-79 models are an excellent choice. The ’78 Pace Car Editions are increasingly collectible, but it can be tough to find a decent one for 10K. A non-Pace Car will provide more Corvette for the money.

The 1980 restyle resulted in a very handsome Corvette. The 1980-81 models are preferred, because they don’t have the 1982 Cross-Fire system. Avoid the 1980 California cars, because they have 305 engines and automatic transmissions. The L82 engine option (available in 1980 and earlier C3 Corvettes) is the best engine choice.

Ten thousand dollars can buy a lot of Corvette if you do your homework, take your time, and shop wisely. Happy hunting!

There are many excellent deals on C4 Corvettes, including convertibles like this red ’89 roadster that had an asking price of $8,650/OBO at the 2010 Corvette & High Performance Meet in 2010. Besides being the highly desirable red with red leather color combo, the car was in excellent condition.

Here is another ’89 Corvette roadster with very low miles, but in need of some bodywork and paint. It had a rainy day price at a big fall swap meet of only $6,000. That price would leave a lot of money for refurbishments. Rainy, fall/winter weather is a good time to buy a Corvette convertible.

An added bonus of buying a Corvette convertible when it’s raining is than you can better evaluate the integrity of the top and weatherstripping. Test drive convertibles with the top up to better hear and isolate potential problem noises.

Corvette interiors weren’t always built with the best materials, so worn seats can be a problem. There are excellent upholstery kits available, but cars with worn interiors should be discounted to cover replacement costs. Convertibles with poor tops are particularly vulnerable to wear and water/moisture issues.

C4 coupes are great sub-$10,000 Corvettes. This red-over-black leather, sport seats 1990 coupe had its original paint and was in fine shape. The asking price in October 2010 was $9,500. The original window sticker showed a price of $36,144, which illustrates how far prices have fallen on C4 Corvettes.

The “Tuned Port Injection” emblem reminds people of the torquey small-block 350 residing under the hood.

Here is a TPI engine in a 1986 Corvette coupe. The forward hinged hood allows pretty good access, although the engine is set in quite a ways from the wide tires and wheelwells. The base engine was rated at 230 hp with cast iron cylinder heads. Convertibles had aluminum cylinder heads, which added five horsepower.

Corvette wheels can be quite expensive, as can high performance tires. The presence or absence of expensive rolling stock can affect your total investment. Don’t underestimate the value of a great set of wheels and tires. Conversely, don’t pay extra for wheels you don’t like.

Modified Corvettes can be relatively good deals at the $10,000 price point. The key is to stick with conservatively modified cars.

This is a 1991 TPI 350. It can’t be seen, but all ’91 and newer engines were equipped with a low oil sensor. The base engines were rated at 245 hp, but coupes with 3.07:1 or 3.33:1 axle ratios had less restrictive exhaust systems and 250 horsepower.

Prices for mid-Seventies C3 Corvettes (like this red ’77 coupe) are very reasonable, often falling way below $10,000. That means you should be able to find a premium example at or near 10K.

It’s not uncommon to find some aftermarket engine dress-up parts on older Corvettes like this ’77. When buying such a car, always ask if the seller retained the original parts. Even if you don’t care for the stock air cleaner and valve covers, the next owner might want them.

The older a C3 Corvette is, the more difficult it is to find a nice one under 10K. This is especially true of the chrome bumper cars, although coupes (like this ’73) can be found at or near our target price (especially with a little “flash the cash” negotiating). White isn’t an exciting color, but it’s a “safe” non-offensive one.

Our buyer’s guides don’t usually recommend modified Corvettes, because customizing can be quite subjective. That makes future resale more difficult. At the 10K price point, a tastefully modified Vette such as this slick ’81 can be an okay deal. The key is conservative upgrades. The fact that this car is all silver is a big plus compared to dated graphics.

A modified engine makes sense in a customized Corvette. The factory 190 hp 350 in ’81 Vettes is a pretty tame engine, so adding another 50-100 horses will really wake up one of these cars. The caveat is to not pay too much for a built engine. No matter how much the seller spent he can’t expect to recover more than a small percentage of that investment.

Modified Corvettes with radical paint jobs can be more of a negative than a plus, but something like the simple stripes on this ’79 coupe could be repainted rather easily or just left alone. The orange stripes on a white car invoke the classic ’69 Camaro Pace Car Edition theme, which works well on this Corvette.

This is a pretty extreme example of a modified C3 Corvette. The “wagon/panel” look works well and appears to be professionally executed. The color is good, the side pipes are okay, and the directional wheels aren’t terribly dated, but such a car has a limited pool of potential buyers. If you buy a car like this, plan on keeping it a long time.

A set of custom wheels can date a car. These solid aluminum (with rivets) Enkei wheels are a less expensive version of the once highly desirable Centerline wheels. They’re still very presentable, but the car would be more salable with factory rally wheels.

These chrome ’92-’96 Corvette wheels and Bridgestone tires were priced at $1,000 or best offer at a recent swap meet. This is an affordable way to update a C4 Corvette with lesser wheels and tires. The fact that the wheels are chromed is a big bonus.


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