It used to be that finding a low-mileage collector Corvette meant a trip the local convenience store to purchase a newspaper or Auto Trader, followed by a series of phone calls and, ultimately, a day trip to perform an on-site inspection. Now, thanks to the Internet, it is possible to quickly browse on-line ads for vintage cars located around the country.
That sounds like progress, and for the most part, it is. But as with every technological advance, there are drawbacks to consider. While it might be tempting, buying a car based on a single fuzzy picture and a quick write-up is a sure path to buyer's remorse. Now more than ever, it's important to know exactly what to look for in a prospective buy. In this article, we will cover the telltale signs of a true, original Corvette and get some purchasing advice from experts in the field.
Our sample car was advertised as a '79 L82 Corvette with 13,000 original miles, a Black exterior, and an Oyster leather interior. It was equipped with what was described as the original 350ci, 225hp motor, and automatic transmission. We wanted to find out if the car was as "original" as the ad claimed.
We began by contacting Steve Davis, President of Barrett-Jackson Auctions, for some Corvette-buying pointers. "The best advice for anyone looking to buy an original Corvette is to ascertain if any original paperwork exists," Davis told us. "Original paperwork is extremely important, as it can establish how the car was ordered new, where the car was originally sold, and how the car was originally equipped. These are absolutely critical components to determining the provenance and value of a vintage Corvette."
Unfortunately for us, no original documentation was available for our subject '79. And because the car was more than 10 years old, its title bore the increasingly common "exempt" mileage reading rather than a verifiable number.
Next, we put a call into "Corvette Mike" Vietro, in Anaheim, California. Vietro, who has long been a leader in collector-Corvette sales, offered these tips for estimating mileage: "Look for the telltale signs: brake-pedal wear, seat bolsters. I like to check the radio knob and see if it's still somewhat stiff. Remember, the cars are only original once. We know the way they were. The [factory] craftsmanship was poor but consistent. If it looks too good, it has probably been changed."
Although most high-mileage cars will show a certain number of heat-related interior cracks, collector vehicles-even the regularly driven ones-are likely to have been kept out of the elements. A better sign that a car may have more mileage than claimed can be found on the center console. Because it's often used as an armrest, the console of a high-mileage car will usually show scratches and wear.
Aside from an Alpine stereo and amplifier that had been added at some point during its life, our '79's interior appeared to be in excellent, factory-correct shape. Even the stock C3 seats-whose side bolsters have been known to collapse in as few as 35,000 miles-showed virtually no wear. Based on the experts' advice, it was becoming obvious that our '79 was the real deal: an original car with original miles.
Now that the car's interior had passed our visual inspection, it was time to have a look at the exterior. It was easy to tell that the finish was original, with no obvious signs of paint work. For more assistance on this front, we put in a call to car collector Jeff Souter.
"When looking at original paint, always open the doors and hood and feel the edges, making sure there is not a ridge that would indicate a tape line from paint work," Souter advised. "On older Corvettes, people don't always pull the mirrors off when repainting them, and the mirror gaskets will often have overspray on them. With older Vettes, the paint jobs are nowhere near what they are with new cars today. They were painted by hand, so it is possible to get one from the factory with flaws in it."
Further inspection revealed that the "Unleaded Fuel" sticker was still located next to the fuel door, offering additional confirmation that the car had been well preserved. Another encouraging sign was the pristine condition of the '79's rear spoiler, an item notorious for warping over time. And although the Vette's original tires had long since been replaced, this was an understandable modification on a 28-year-old car. (Unfortunately, the OEM Goodyear Eagles GTs were out of production at the time of the switch, necessitating the use of a newer model.)
C3 Corvettes are infamous for squeaks and rattles, a condition exacerbated by frequent removal of the T-top roof panels. Naturally, a low-mileage Corvette should have lower wind noise and fewer rattles than a high-mileage one. A well-kept (read: garaged) car should also have good weatherstripping throughout.
With the interior and exterior having passed muster, it was time to determine whether the car qualified as "numbers matching." To earn this title, a vehicle must retain the engine with which it was originally equipped. For help in making this determination, we once again turned to Jeff Souter.
"On the car itself, there is a code in the VIN," Souter said. "On an L82 car, the fifth digit will be a 4. If it is an 8, then the car was built with an L48.
"From there, you need to look under the hood. The motor number is listed on the passenger side of the engine block. There is a pad in front of the cylinder heads. On that pad is a suffix code that shows what motor is in the car, followed by the last digits of the VIN, which will match the car."
Our '79's code read "ZBB," which confirmed that the car held an L82 engine and was built as an automatic. (We used the latest edition of Mike Antonick's superb Corvette Black Book as a code reference.) The remaining numbers matched our VIN. Because it is easy for unscrupulous sellers to use re-stamped motor numbers, it is advisable to follow up this inspection by checking the engine's casting number. The casting number is located at the rear left side of the block, on top of the bellhousing flange.
While this particular Corvette made it through all of our experts' originality tests, it's a safe bet that many of the Vettes currently being advertised as original would not fare as well. The important thing is to decide what level of deviation from stock you're willing to except, then search a car that fits your own personal criteria. With a little patience and the right information, you can make your dream Corvette purchase a reality.
Our Experts on the Future of Corvette Collecting
"The Corvette is America's sports car and will always be in demand. It is a blue-chip collectible with a large buyer's pool always willing to pay a good price for the right car. Overall, I would describe the Corvette market and the hobby as very healthy and attracting more and more new people. Baby boomers are reaching the point where they are now empty nesters and have the disposable income to buy the Corvette of their dreams."-Steve Davis, President, Barrett-Jackson Auction Co.
"I'm seeing more interest in the hobby now than ever before. The prices have finally settled down, so now maybe I can depend on the price of the next car I buy."-"Corvette Mike" Vietro
"I think the '63-'67 Corvettes will always remain strong. The '68-'72s haven't peaked yet, but their day is coming. If you are looking for a good investment and a car that is going to bring more and more money, consider a '73-'82 Corvette. The years after that, I would look at collecting low-mileage ZR-1s."-Jeff Souter