Cheap for Good Reason
Reluctant to add this car to OTC, the potential of this aging platform tipped the scales.
A primary rule of thumb for OTC is to get the best car for the least investment. However, by "best car", that doesn't mean incredibly rare, or exotic, or complicated. When it comes to the 1984 through 1996 Corvette, it was indeed built in Kentucky, however despite Clarkson's allegations, there were more than two fat blokes involved.
First, I want to simply eliminate any C4 Corvette from consideration which was cursed by the Bowling Green Kentucky manufacturer, with Crossfire Fuel Injection. Crossfire Fuel injection as an idea was ill conceived, and never fully effective. It wasn't so much a fuel injection system as it was a couple of four barrel carbs with the guts ripped out and four fuel hoses dumping copious amounts of fuel into the extended intake runners. It was such a bad system that replacing it with a single four barrel carb would not only improve horsepower, but also improved economy.
The C4 for a few years were also victim of something called a Doug Nash 4+3 transmission, which worked to provide 7 forward gears sort of. In reality it was more like the Volvo electronic overdrive available on 4-speed manual 240s and 740s except the overdrive could be engaged in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. This proved to be more complicated than anyone wanted, and made driving the things more like performing a Masonic secret handshake, while rowing a canoe.
In the middle of the C4 production run, there was a slight styling update, which was polarizing among Corvette people. Mainly because people who bought the early C4 were livid that the later C4 looked a little more modern. And there was another styling update near the end of the production run. There were several high performance versions offered, however due to scarcity and collectability we're going to ignore the ZR-1, Grand Sport or other "limited production" cars as they are the only Corvette C4s to have gained value.
1990 Corvette ZR1A with the overly complex LT5 Mercruiser/Lotus/Chevy engine.
The Corvette C4 Grand Sport, festooned with many stripes, and black wheels
At this point, I could drone on about infinitesimal differences between different years, but I'm going to avoid all of that and just say that we're going to limit our OTC shopping list to 1994-1996 Corvette C4s with the LT1 engine, and 6-Speed Manual Transmission.
While this narrowed selection seems to limit choices, fear not, there are thousands to choose from but be warned there are almost as many faults, flaws and foibles with these plastic Chevys. Bad electrical system, a VATS security system made of bad ideas and tissue paper, seats that just look horrible, and typical late 90s GM switchgear which includes a turn signal stalk that is more complicated than a Ferrari 458 steering wheel, and more fragile than a wet kleenex.
But, here at OTC we are all about bang-for-the-buck, and fixing many of these issues will cost you comparatively little money. It's not like trying to "fix" a broken Maserati Biturbo, because it is effectively a mass produced General Motors product. Chances are, your local auto parts super store has the broken part on the shelf, and it'll only set you back $50.
One other consideration when dealing with Corvettes, you will no doubt hear from all corners, is "Numbers Matching". Yes, if you're going to buy a Corvette for its collectability, you want an "original numbers matching" car which means that the original engine, transmission, blah blah blah are all exactly as it rolled out of the factory. This is something that, for our purposes, we are going to completely ignore, because we're not concerned with our OTC car going up in value, only going up in performance level, for the least amount of money spent.
The average 1994-1996 C4, which has around 100K to 150K on the odometer, will cost you $5000 to $7000, depending on options and configuration. I recently found a 1994 "Triple Black" convertible C4 with the 6-Speed manual and LT1 engine for $4500, but it had repaired collision damage, and a salvage branded title. After looking at the car, the repair job was excellent, however, the same day, I found my 2001 CLK55 AMG for $3300 which was a better buy and a better performer as well as an infinitely more useable car.
Don't get me wrong, the late production C4 Corvettes are not poor performers, they are just not quite as "tuned" as a newer AMG. But with a little investment, and some inexpensive go-fast parts, a well sorted C4 will run circles around my mostly stock CLK55.
The LT1 engine (also found in the Camaro, Trans Am, Buick Roadmaster, Impala SS, and many trucks of the era) produced about 300 Horsepower at the crank, there are several inexpensive bolt-on items such as a larger throttle body, better exhaust, and some performance chips which will get that number conservatively closer to 350 horsepower, without taking the engine apart. However, the engine will need to be taken apart, lets face it, these cars are 20 years old. That's 20 years of crappy oil, bad fuel, and service intervals that would cause a Toyota Corolla to revolt. However, rebuilding an LT1 is cheap, and easy, and if you throw $2000 at some easily obtainable parts, your refreshed LT1 could easily break the 400 horsepower mark at the rear wheels. It is a simple machine with a tried and true formula to make real usable power. That is only if you want to keep the original LT1.
Lets say this is not the direction I would choose to go with a C4, because I want more performance than the venerable LT1 can provide, and I desperately want rid of that Optispark distributor and cam-driven water pump.
So, instead of spending any money on the current engine, other than the cost of taking it out and selling it to some kid with a Camaro, I'm going to save my money and do something that will cause the Corvette faithful to faint, after foaming at the mouth.
I'm going to spend about $6000 and purchase myself an LS3 6.2 liter 430 horsepower C6 Corvette motor, as well as a few bolt-on modifications to take that 430 horsepower to nearly 550 horsepower. I could spend about $19,000 and buy a supercharged 6.2 liter LS9 engine from a C7 Corvette, or Camaro, or Cadillac CTS-V, but that steps out of our OTC territory.
So, $5000 for a C4, $6000 for a better engine, $3000 for other upgrades and odds-n-ends, some elbow grease and a few weekends, and you would be in the possession of a very fast car that would shred tires at will, and out run all but the highest performance cars costing double or triple the money.
Now, would this make it a cool car? No. Would it make it more valuable? No. Would it make it, a good car to live with on a daily basis? No. Would it make it stop rattling or squeaking over every surface irregularity? Nothing will do that.
What it would make it is a C4 that would out perform 95% of the other C4s on the road, for less money than buying a C5, or C6 Corvette, and it may end up out performing most C5 or C6 Corvettes, because, most Corvette purists would never commit such heresy, even though it would make their Corvette a better performing car.
I usually conclude these articles with a list of things to be mindful of, when purchasing the car in question. However with regard to a C4, I'm only going to give you one good point to look for. There is no point in trying to find a C4 that is "perfect", it will be too expensive. I usually conclude these articles with a list of things to be mindful of, when purchasing the car in question. However with regard to a C4, I'm only going to give you one good point to look for and one bad point to be aware of. There is no point in trying to find a C4 that is "perfect", it will be too expensive if it is perfect. It will rattle, it will squeak and creak, it will probably wobble around on the test drive. Do whatever it takes to look at the entire frame/chassis under the car. If it has rust, walk away, this is the worst thing possible on a C4. As for the one good thing to look for, really inspect the body panels, I'm not talking about making sure the paint is shiny, look past the wax, and make certain the fiberglass has no stress cracks, and that all the body panels line up fairly well. None of them are perfect, but none of the panels should be sticking out past the adjoining panel.
Keep in mind that while Corvette parts are a little more expensive, compared to other Chevy parts, it is nothing like the price jump when considering parts for an AMG, or BMW M-Car. Plus, there are tons of good used replacement parts available for C4 Corvettes. Plus, if you don't want to do an engine swap, the LT1 can be made to perform pretty good and the C4 Corvette is nothing if not fun, and even in stock form it still performs better than your average $10,000 used Toyota Corolla.