Admittedly, Rochester NY isn’t the best city in the world to have a sports car. Between the changeable weather, road conditions, and short season- If you’re going to have something to enjoy for the summer, you might not want to spend a lot of money on it. Because let’s be real, if you really like it, it’s going to spend most of its time in the garage.
This brings up an interesting market observation. In our travels to various clients, contacts, and events we have been noticing something very positive: there are a hell of a lot of Chevrolet Corvettes roaming the 585. This makes us happy, because old Corvettes have a habit of ending up on Surfwrench.com with various problems, and when they do, they often get fixed without breaking the bank like an exotic sports car would.
So, to see what all the hubbub was about, we went out and test drove some of the cheapest 3rd-6th generation used Corvettes we could find. The results we’re as varied as the styling of this classic piece of American culture and ranged from absolutely terrible to utterly sublime. However, what they do represent is a clear evolution from “basically a barge” to “serious performance machine”. So basically, here’s 4 shorter, less flowery used car reviews.
1980 305 C3, $6000:
Typically, when a classified ad says “California Car” anywhere in the description that is a good thing. California isn’t typically known for their brutal winters and prolific use of salt to keep the roads passable. However, If you see this in reference to a 1980 Corvette — run, because it will probably be faster than the car.
The C3 isn’t really known for being a barn burner in its own right. Most of them came with the very capable 350 ci V8, but because of OPEC, they were turned down a bit. They are long, heavy, and need every ounce of power to get out of their own way. Because of California emissions standards in 1980, this particular Corvette had a 305 ci V8, which is a little bit like trying to jump start a nuclear power plant with a Yugo. The 305 barely coughs out 180 HP, which for a vehicle marketed as a sports car, is just not enough. The 350 of the same year was also completely strangled to 190 hp, so it didn’t feel completely left out. These engines are easy to crank up the HP on, but it took a lot of work to make it make that little power.
This one was in pretty rough shape. The interior was completely shot and the transmission was utterly annihilated. The paint was cracked and some of the fiberglass work from a previous collision wasn’t exactly straight. At 119k miles, it had been a driver for quite some time. The Surfwrench Used Car Check estimated repair for the transmission, total interior redo, and smog control removal was more than the price of the car itself. By a lot. Overall, skip the C3 unless you value quirky 70’s looks over performance, ride, handling, power, and self esteem.
This is the absolute dark ages for the Corvette. The C3 could get walked by a lot of things, and that makes it look bad.
1988 C4 Convertible, $5500:
The first thing that you notice when going from the 3rd Generation Corvette to the 4th is just how much better it is as a sports car. The suspension is better, the engine is better, the cabin is a bit more comfortable, and it looks better. The 70’s flared wheel arches are dropped for a cleaner, shorter, stouter look. It’s a bit like going from Salvatore Dali to Michael Chiklis.
Apparently in the 80’s, this car was super dangerous. Yuppies killed themselves by the truckload with the amped up power and shorter wheelbase. So automatically, I like this one! It’s easy to see how someone could go horribly wrong with it. The short wheelbase and 300 hp on tap made it proper fun to drive. Even with the 4 speed automatic, the power was just there with this car.
This particular one was black with a black convertible top. The creme interior was still in great shape, and the top had been redone in the last 5 years. This guy really didn’t want to sell his summer daily, but you could tell he had his eye on something a little bit hotter. The C4 has reached this weird crossroads, where people are buying them and driving them, instead of buying them and hoping that they appreciate in value. This is good though, because they are cheap enough to drive, and run that people are actually enjoying them (the main reason I didn’t even try to test drive a C1 or C2)
This car is an absolute riot for the money. The Used Car Check came back with minor problems that wouldn’t have affected the daily drivability of this car at all. The C4 is a pretty rock solid platform, that’s why we’re seeing so many of them still being driven.
In 1988, there were a lot of pretty fast cars in the segment and price range, but not a lot of them are still up and running as daily drivers today.
1998 C5, $9500:
The fifth generation of Corvette is actually where the whole platform starts to turn the corner (literally and figuratively). The leaf springs are still there, but they are lighter, lower, and the whole thing rides much more comfortably. In addition to a nicer ride, it was also a lot faster than previous iterations. It goes 0-60 just as fast as a Ferrari 355: 4.5 seconds. It also gets 25 MPG with an automatic transmission, which is comparable to my 5 Series.
This one came in the worst color known to man: grey. The body lines are not striking enough to work with such a bland color, but with that being said, it is a solid looking car. The interior with this one also needs work, most likely from spending time in the tropical heat of Florida. Other than that, this car was in really good shape. It could have used brakes, but the engine and transmission hadn’t missed a beat despite running for 145k miles.
The only noticeable downside with this car is that it does have a very strong whiff of old man. It’s not old or cheap enough to be driven by someone who just wants something stupidly fun in a punk rock sort of way. But it’s also not new or badass enough to really get a lot of looks.
However, if you’re just in it to autocross the piss out of it, this is the one that you want!
2005 C6 Targa, $18,000:
If I were to make the perfect American sports car here are some of the things that would be on it:
- Screaming, 400+hp V8
- 6 speed manual
- Rear Wheel Drive
Coincidentally, that is exactly what was going on with this particular C6. Unlike all of the previous models, I actually remember when this generation was unveiled. I personally thought that it was one of the best looking cars GM has ever produced.
This particular example was in fantastic shape. Unfortunately, the bloke who test drove it after I did bought it. This is a good thing though, because it was an incredible car. The power and noise was absolutely intoxicating, and its double wishbone at the front end made it so that it could actually corner like something from Europe. The C6 is an epic car. The Z06 model is still an unbelievably fast car. There really isn’t that much more to it than that.
The Used Car Check yielded only minor repairs to the interior and paint. Personally, you’d be having way too much fun to care.
Evolution in the Right Direction
So what has this short trip through the Corvettes taught us. Well, for one, it’s taught us the resilience of American nameplates. If GM were a European company, and had created something as bad as the C3 with less than 200 HP, they probably would have killed off the nameplate and started over.
Secondly, it’s taught us that planned obsolescence has some unintended consequences. GM coined the term in the 60’s, but with it created a lucrative secondary market for their vehicles. With certain makes, models, and trims only available for short periods of time, it creates a much higher secondary value for cars with some of these traits. The ZR1 C4 models are still well into the $20k range, or you can get a black, drop top base model for $5,500 and drive every sunny day.
Thirdly, with exception of the C3, all of these performance sports cars were still mechanically sound. This begs the question, is this from good maintenance, good engineering, good build quality or some combination of the three? These were cars that were designed to have the snot beaten out of them, and from where we were sitting, they really hadn’t been.
Admittedly, this review was a lot of fun. It is thoroughly interesting seeing the progress of engineering through time in a highly competitive segment of the automotive market. I foresee similar ones to this in the future.