Powerful, tough, inexpensive and stylish, the Corvette C4 is a heroic American alternative to the more obvious GTs.
(Editor's Note: This guide was written for a European audience. We like to keep tabs on what is happening on the other side of the pond, especially when it involves American iron.)
It’s long been known as America’s sports car, but the fourth-generation Chevrolet Corvette makes a compelling ally in Europe too. Think about it: those arresting looks, a rumbling V8, always more than 200bhp, and as C4 expert Tom Falconer (above)says: ‘It’s a real drivers’ car, with the shortest wheelbase and therefore the quickest steering of all ’Vettes.’
His personal favourite is the convertible: ‘You can put the top down without getting out, there’s a powerful heater, and the windscreen is long and deep – the perfect soft-top for British weather.’
If you’re looking for a comfortable GT with huge performance, distinctive style and the toughness to see it through a host of winters, the C4 could be perfect for you – and it won’t break the bank to buy or run.
Kent-based Claremont Corvette is Britain’s leading Corvette specialist, always carrying high-quality stock from all eras, such as the ZR1 you see here. The company was established by Tom Falconer in 1977, and moved from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to its current premises in 1986.
‘Values are in a trough now. But you couldn’t give away a 1976 ’Vette 20 years ago, and now I’ve got a waiting list. The same will be true of the C4,’ says Falconer.
Many cars have come from Japan, fleeing its draconian MoT-style tests, and most are in undesirable condition. ‘It’s diluted the market,’ says Falconer.
Happy hunting starts at £10,000 for a good coupe with low mileage, the best topping out at £15,000. The same range for ZR1s is £12,000 to £20,000, which is the price of the 18,500-mile car you see here. Low-mileage ZR1s are rare, however. ‘They were extremely popular as business cars,’ says Falconer.
Expect to pay a 10% premium for a convertible. Rare Callaway twin-turbos (just five in the UK) reflect ZR1 prices, but the very best go well beyond.
IN A NUTSHELL
‘It’s one of the most rust-resistant cars of the 20th century,’ says Falconer. ‘And the L98 engine doesn’t wear out. The fuel injection is very efficient so there’s no bore wash. You could get 400,000 miles out of a well-maintained example.’
That’s quite a statement of longevity, but it doesn’t mean that just any Corvette C4 will last indefinitely.
‘If a car has been left in long grass, the brake lines will rust. Replacing them is a good day’s work, say £700 all-in. And that’s a big bill because parts for this car are surprisingly cheap.’ An example? Claremont sells a full stainless steel exhaust system for the Corvette (which has a 5.7-litre V8 engine, don’t forget) for £495.
All suspension components are cast in aluminium alloy, the springs are glassfibre, and the car’s structural tub is a galvanised steel ‘uniframe’, to which are bonded high-quality external panels made from sheet moulding compound.
‘Individual panels can be repaired or replaced,’ says Falconer. ‘And we’ve never seen any rust in the uniframe.’
Nevertheless, there are several aspects worth checking out on any car you’re thinking of buying. ‘The biggest problem on cars built between 1992 and 1995 is the Opti-Spark ignition system. It’s fitted between the front wheels under the water pump – exactly where it’s most likely to get wet. If water gets in, it’ll cost £700 to replace.’
Oil can leak from the cylinder head and intake manifold of engines built between 1986 and 1991, but it will ‘only need repairing once’, says Falconer. ‘You need to check the oil service record on pre-1987 cars, which have friction followers.’ The oil should be changed every 5000 miles or annually.
The 16in tyres for pre-1987 cars are becoming scarce in the UK, and the translucent roof panels for cars built between 1984 and 1988 are extremely rare. ‘I just shipped one to Hawaii,’ says Falconer. They can be repaired in the USA, but that will easily cost £900 including shipping. The electronic dash display for pre-1990 cars must also be sourced from the USA, if broken.
Seats can wear, cured by a retrim in British leather for £750, but the plastic dashboard panels are extremely robust and not prone to cracking.
‘We can cure any looseness in the steering column for £250,’ says Falconer. ‘It’s quite a common problem and an MoT failure.
With almost 400,000 C4s built in 12 years, coupe or convertible body styles, and power outputs from mild to wild, you can choose from a huge variety – especially in the USA. They are rarer in the UK and, while it’s possible to convert one to right-hand drive, such cars are scarce.
‘It’s better to source a car in Britain than to import one,’ says Falconer. ‘150,000 miles is considered low in the USA and the British MoT test means that cars have to be kept in much better shape over here.’
Falconer believes that cars built since 1989 are of inherently higher quality, while post-1992 LT1s have the most powerful engines – apart from the ZR1, of course. All the parts are available to turn the cheapest C4 into a concours winner, but the best value will be found in a car that’s been well-maintained from new and driven sparingly. That big V8 can even prove to be economical on long journeys, thanks to high gearing and plentiful torque, and it’s got proven stamina. ‘We’ve sold a car that had covered 350,000 miles and is still on its original engine,’ says Falconer.
The C4 is tough, quick and gorgeous. Now is the time to buy.
1984 Corvette C4 launched for the 1984 model year with 205bhp L83 5.7-litre small-block V8. Four-speed manual or automatic, both with overdrive. Scissor-action bonnet support and skeletal interior door handles lasted only for this first year of production.
1985 Tuned Port Injection L98 engine appears, identified by badging on front wing rubbing strips. Still a 5.7-litre small-block but now with 230bhp. New interior door handles and telescopic bonnet strut.
1986 Convertible arrives, the first since 1975; new alloy cylinder heads for 235bhp, ABS and new wheel centres too.
1987 New camshaft with roller followers for 240bhp. Tuner Reeves Callaway launches a 178mph twin-turbo with 345bhp.
1988 Hugely popular 17in wheel option launched. 245bhp engine option with short axle ratio. More reliable motors for pop-up headlamps and more powerful starter motor fitted. Improved suspension and steering geometry.
1989 New ZF manual six-speed gearbox replaces old four-speed overdriver. It shifts directly from first to fourth after gentle starts to aid fuel economy. New seats. Optional adjustable damping.
1990 New 174mph ZR1 launched with 375bhp all-alloy four-cam, 32-valve V8 developed by Lotus, distinguished by convex tail panel and square tail-lamps. New interior (with airbag), dashboard and wheels for all. Power increased to 250bhp for L98.
1991 Revised bodywork includes ZR1-style tail (narrower on L98), new nose, gills aft of front wheels, body-coloured rubbing strip and new wheels.
1992 New LT1 designation for new 300bhp version of base V8. New ASR traction control fitted.
1993 405bhp for ZR1; machined and polished wheels for LT1, which gains 10lb ft thanks to a new camshaft.
1994 Restyled door trims, steering wheel and new seats, plus electronic control for the four-speed automatic transmission.
1995 Final year of production for the ZR1. New gill panels.
1996 Throttle-body injection makes 330bhp for manual-only LT4; new wheels for all before C4 range replaced by new C5 generation.
1990 Corvette ZR1 Engine:5727cc V8, DOHC per bank, 32-valve, sequential electronic fuel injection Power: 375bhp @ 5800rpm Torque: 370lb ft @ 4800rpm Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Suspension: Front: double wishbones, transverse glassfibre leaf spring, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: lower wishbones, transverse glassfibre leaf spring, telescopic dampers Brakes: Discs front and rear Weight: 1573kg Performance: 0-60mph 4.9sec; top speed 174mph