There comes a point when an older car transcends looking dated and starts looking more classically attractive. Not necessarily vintage, mind you, but appreciated for its original design elements and performance. The C4 Corvette is entering that phase in its history. It was ubiquitous in the '80s and '90s, but it was soon overshadowed by the C5, which represented tremendous leaps in performance, ergonomics, and build quality. The C6 simply amplified those traits, leaving the C4 as the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the Corvette family.

That's a shame, because despite some undeniable shortcomings, the C4 is a wonderfully competent car, both on the street and at the track. And while it may never measure up dynamically to the C5 and C6, the fourth-generation Vette more than holds its own--just ask any of the countless road racers who continue to employ them effectively. But to compensate for a body structure that was less than rock solid, the suspension was dialed in with very high spring rates and stiff shocks. That gave the C4 admirable cornering capabilities, but anything other than perfectly smooth pavement could make the ride teeth-shatteringly uncomfortable, especially if the car was equipped with the Z51 suspension. Chevrolet softened the ride throughout the C4's lifespan, but the early models are as unyielding as week-old pizza crust.

Sure, those wide sills don't allow for easy or graceful entry/egress (ladies, these aren't cars for short skirts), and some of the electrical and mechanical gremlins that have plagued the C4 for a couple of decades now are beyond frustrating. Also, there's just no beating the performance capability of the LS engines that have defined the C5/C6 cars. Still, at a time when even the lowliest of anemic, mid- and late-'70s C3s are commanding more than better-performing C4s, we've got to say that when it comes to bang for the buck, you just can't beat a good fourth-gen Corvette.

Good is definitely the operative word here, because there are scores of lousy, run-for-your-life beaters on the market that look great in an online ad--or even at a glance when viewed in person--but represent tremendous wastes of money. And frankly, there are better Corvettes than others, with some C4 buyers caught up in a web of seemingly endless repairs, while others enjoy a relatively easy ownership experience. But make no mistake: Owning a C4 takes a commitment to maintenance and an expectation that some things will go wrong. This story may not influence your inclination towards purchasing a C4, but it should help if you've been looking for one--or if you've been burned in the past.

The basics

In very general terms--and we're talking about basic C4s here, not rare or specialty models like Callaways, ZR1s, or even Grand Sports and Indy Pace Car replicas--pre-LT1 C4s (1984-1991) range in price from about $4,500 for cars with a tire or two in the grave to the low- to mid-$20,000s for show-worthy examples with less than 10,000 original miles. And while that may seem like a wide spread, the majority of "driver" cars--those with about 45,000-70,000 miles--are in the $9,500-$10,500 range these days.

The '92-'96 LT1 cars are holding slightly higher prices, but only within about $2,500 of L98 and Cross-Fire models. We did a quick search of Autotrader.com and found 860 examples of '84-'91 cars for sale, but a surprising 887 LT1 cars listed on the day of our research. Logic says attrition has simply taken more of the early C4s out of the game, but the bottom line is that there are just as many or more LT1 cars to choose from, which will suppress their values.

Whether you want an L98- or an LT1-powered car, you should have no trouble spending $10,000 or less on an excellent example with some "road seasoning." Of course, when examining any C4, all the basics of used-car searches apply, so keep in mind the following:

Photos lie At least, they deceive. The tiny photos on a Craigslist ad, or even the larger images you might find on an eBay listing or Autotrader ad, simply won't provide the detail you need to make a truly informed decision. Viewing the car in person is a must. And if you look for a car out of your immediate area, pick an area where a trusted friend or relative can inspect it for you.

Ask specific questions Asking whether the car runs well may get you a simple "yes" reply, but that doesn't cover the fact that it leaks oil. So, ask specific questions about any leaks, needs for mechanical work, life of the tires, brakes, and more. Many sellers spout off every little problem without prompting, and most will answer honestly when asked. Don't forget to ask about an accident and/or body-repair history.

Be wary of modifications If you're a regular reader, you know that modifications are as common among Corvettes as Bow Tie logos, but buying someone else's project can be problematic if you don't know everything about the parts and tuning. When it comes to body modifications, well, we all know that some products and painters are better than others. And unless you plan to be buried in your used C4, you'll probably sell it one day, at which time any deviations from stock can negatively affect its value.

Get a Carfax or AutoCheck report It's cheap insurance, plain and simple. You'll get the registration history of the vehicle, along with any accident or flood reports, mileage discrepancies, or other questionable items in the car's past. Regardless of whether the history comes back clean as a whistle or shows an accident the seller didn't tell you about, it's worth every penny.

C4 specifics

There are a number of quirks and common problems to check for when inspecting a C4 in person. And while discovering one, two, or more of them shouldn't necessarily dissuade you from purchasing the car (frankly, they're all likely to have an issue or two), they should paint an overall picture of its condition and whether it's the right vehicle for your money.

One of the most important considerations, however, isn't a Corvette-specific problem, but rather the treadwear of the tires. They're expensive to replace, and many owners put off doing so on a car they know they're going to sell. So, you really want to find a car with good tires, because otherwise you're looking at a minimum $600 investment for even bargain replacements, while a set of Goodyear Eagle F1s might run $1,300 or more.

The same goes for the clutch and brakes. If either of those items needs replacement, you're looking at a hefty service tab for a car with a comparatively low market value. Don't get yourself upside down on your investment with normal maintenance work. Find a car whose seller has already done the upkeep.

If you're satisfied with those items, turn your attention to:

The Engine

Although generally bulletproof, the old-school small-block has a few Corvette-specific quirks to check for. Worn valve guides are more of an issue on L98 cars, manifesting themselves as a puff of blue smoke during a cold start, while a failed intake-manifold gasket may show up in the form of an oil leak. For LT1 cars, a common problem area is the OptiSpark ignition system. Moisture (often from the water pump above it) is typically the culprit, resulting in rough engine idling, misfires, or even a no-start condition. Ask whether the OptiSpark unit has been replaced. It's an instance where you hope the answer is yes, because the replacements were generally better than the originals. (Note: Failures were most common on '92 and '93 models, whose OptiSpark units lacked the vented design used on the '94-'96 cars.) A failed fuel-pump relay may also be the reason any C4 doesn't start, although it's a more common problem on pre-1990 cars that had the relay mounted under the hood. Many experienced owners carry a spare in the car.

The Cooling System

Start the car and let it warm up long enough for the thermostat to open and the cooling fans to kick on. Ask the seller whether the car has a history of overheating. The electric fan relay is notorious for failing, but it's a pretty easy replacement. Also ask whether the car leaks coolant, another common problem. Note that the "LOW COOLANT" light on the dashboard is prone to illuminating even when the system is full, usually due to a faulty sensor. If the light remains on, check the level in the overflow tank. If it's good, it's probably a sensor problem.

Wheel Bearings

Ask the seller when they were last serviced. They're in a sealed hub and are known for wearing out earlier than they should. If they haven't been replaced in the last few years, they'll at least need to be inspected, and probably replaced, for good measure.

Rear Axle

It can leak, particularly on earlier C4s, so ask the seller about it and whether the seals have been replaced.

Carpets and Seat Upholstery

These are known for wear, especially on the driver side, where hoisting oneself out of the car can cause friction along the leading edge of the bulkhead carpet and outboard seat bolster. Replacements are plentiful, but they cost a few bucks, especially leather seat covers.

Electrics

C4s are notorious for electrical gremlins, so push every button and switch to make sure everything functions properly. Don't assume the power windows or locks work, either, because there's a decent chance they won't. And don't forget the headlight switch. Make sure the lights open and close without a problem.

Dashboard

The electroluminescent instrument panels used in the C4 have had issues with erratic gauge readouts--particularly a tachometer that reads too high--and reduced display intensity. That goes for both the original, fully digital IP and the 1990-up mixed analog/digital design. A few companies offer very effective rebuild services for both designs, but removing one of these units is a pain.

Airbag Warning Light

A failure here will cause the lamp to stay illuminated, glowing bright red as "INFL REST"; the safety-belt warning lamp will usually light up, too. A bad sensor somewhere is usually the cause, but you'll need a code reader to track it down.

Tilt Steering Column

There's a good chance the knuckle on it is worn out, usually as a result of drivers using the steering wheel as leverage when pulling themselves out of the seat. Tug the wheel down toward the 7 o'clock position. If it rattles or feels loose, or if the wheel jiggles in your hands over bumps during a testdrive, the knuckle is worn and needs to be replaced. It ain't the easiest of repairs, either.

Headliner

On coupe models--even those with low miles--there's a good chance the fabric on the headliner is bubbling in places or drooping.

On the exterior, check for obvious signs of body damage, such as panel misalignment and mismatched paint, as well as details such as the finish on the aluminum wheels. If it's peeling, it will cost you a few hundred bucks to have the rims refinished. (Aftermarket wheels are another, slightly more expensive option.) Also, the weatherstripping and dew wipes are common wear items that look unsightly and could allow water to get into the car.

Deal or no deal: a tale of two C4s

Last summer, we stumbled on a Polo Green '93 automatic coupe at the Mecum auction at Bloomington Gold. At a glance--the way most prospective buyers would have seen it in online photos--the car looked clean and straight. But the closer we looked at it, the more it scared us. It was clear the car had led a hard life, and had probably been in at least a minor accident. From just a five-minute walk-around, we discovered:

Worn tires that needed replacement, mounted on scratched wheels with peeling clearcoat

A front fascia with an ill-fitting license-plate filler and cloudy turn-signal lenses that didn't fit correctly within their housings, evidence of some quick-and-dirty masking work during a re-spray

An interior with missing and/or poorly fitting trim pieces and obvious replacement parts with colors that didn't quite match

Mismatched door panels--including an all-tan passenger door panel and a black-and-tan driver's door--with door-pull sections that weren't attached to either

Missing exterior emblems, broken cargo-shade mounts (and a missing shade), goofy red coolant hoses held in place with Home Depot worm clamps, and more

The car was a disaster and would undoubtedly have proved a money pit for the buyer. Surprisingly, it was bid to $5,500 on the auction block in front of knowledgeable enthusiasts. Even more surprisingly, it didn't meet the reserve, and the seller drove it away as a no-sale. He should have taken the money and run, before the high bidder realized what a pile he'd just purchased.

We'll contrast that scary '93 with a more reasonable and honest '90 coupe that recently sold in Tacoma, Washington, for only $6,000. It was a rare six-speed manual car in Competition Yellow (one of only 278 yellow cars built that year) and equipped with the Z51 suspension and G92 performance axle ratio (3.07:1). The seller had owned it for several years and drove it regularly. He'd done the maintenance, although the car had its share of C4 maladies, including the worn tilt-steering knuckle, an airbag warning light that refused to go out, and an intermittent issue with the low-coolant warning lamp.

At about 115,000, mileage on the yellow coupe wasn't exactly low, but it wasn't crazy-high, either. The weatherstripping and dew wipes were worn, but the tires only had a few hundred miles on them, and both the brakes--complete with drilled and slotted rotors--and the clutch were recent. All in all, it was about as desirable as low-priced, driver-quality C4s get.

It's clear that despite there being only a $500 difference between the no-sale price of the '93 and the sold price of the '90, the cars were worlds apart in terms of quality and return on investment. Hell, just the cost of putting tires on the '93 more than wipes out the difference between the two--and that's before any of the other big problems are addressed.

Clearly C4s are inexpensive, but there's a difference between buying a car cheaply and buying a cheap car. You won't have to spend much to get a very nice C4, so take your time and find the best one you can afford. Spending a couple thousand dollars more up front will definitely pay dividends in the long run. And never, ever buy one of these cars without a thorough inspection.

A C4 could be the bargain of the decade--as long as you do your homework.

C4 ZR-1 How Low Will the Market Go?

To a certain generation of enthusiasts--specifically, those in their early-to-mid 40s--the C4 ZR-1 still generates goose bumps like few other cars. They came of driving age at a time when automotive performance was still recovering from its smog-choked nadir a few years earlier. Then, in 1986, rumors began to circulate about a "king of the hill" Corvette armed with unique styling and supercar speed.

In the fall of 1989, the ZR-1 was unleashed as a '90 model. The car was an immediate success, but it was a bright star that burned out quickly. Its performance stats were unprecedented, but a year after its launch, all Corvettes received nearly identical bodywork, a move that made the $31,683 ZR-1 package seem like a really, really expensive engine option. Sales dropped precipitously.

With time, newer Corvette models eclipsed the ZR-1's performance, if not in horsepower, then in overall competence on a road course. And today's 638hp ZR1 offers more than half again the underhood grunt. Prices have since bottomed out on the C4 models, with low-mileage originals going for the high teens to low-$20,000 range.

Once those Generation Xers save a few bucks, they're going snap up those cars, especially the '90 models with their distinctive, first-year appearance. That may still be a few years down the road, but for them, the car is an icon, just like a '67 big-block roadster. You might just want to buy one now, while they're still cheap.

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