How To Buy A Corvette

What To Look For Depends On What You’re Looking At

Andrew Bolig Aug 1, 2000 0 Comment(s)

Step By Step

Tongue-In-Cheek Department: Scattered throughout this article are tips on how notto buy a Corvette. With apologies to good dealers everywhere.

There are two types of people: those who at one time wanted a Corvette, and those who will. This issue is directed to those who are perusing through the Corvette marketplace, looking to find that just-right Corvette. The Corvette is a car like no other and, while that lends a certain distinction, it also raises some concerns inherent to this particular marque.

Never: Think, No salesman can fool me!

Reason: You’re already fooled into thinking you’re invincible, and pride comes before the fall.

The fact that there have been extensive changes to the Corvette over the 47 years GM has been producing it only increases the complexity. Drivetrain changes that range from carbureted inline-six cylinders to computer-controlled, fuel-injected V-8s present a broad range of considerations when you’re looking for a Corvette of your own. Whether you intend to keep the Corvette as an investment or to drive it will add a few more checkpoints to your before-you-buy list. We have assembled some key points dealing with each generation Corvette for you to consider before you sign on the dotted line.

Never: Start checking for Corvette bodywork with a magnet.

Reason: You would have a better chance getting a magnet to stick to Tupperware.

Straight-Axle (’53-’62)

Typically, anyone looking for a straight-axle Corvette is not intending to use the car as a daily driver (I said typically. We know one ’57 owner who’s proud to say he drives it like he stole it.) This brings the emphasis to considerations like correctness and completeness. Having the correct engine and transmission is important. If you’re going to be in the market for a straight-axle, do yourself a favor and read up on these cars. (There are some excellent books on the subject written by Noland Adams.) The money you spend on reading materials now can save you big bucks when you do decide to buy. Also, Mike Antonick’s Illustrated Buyer’s Guide is a must-read.

Never: Say things like “I need a car today!”

Reason: Today may be the only day you see your car running.

Straight-axle Corvettes can be found in just about any condition. This may be desirable for someone with the resources necessary to bring them to satisfactory condition, but the first-time straight-axle buyer may want to look for something more complete than a basket case to tackle as a first project. The extra money spent up front for a more complete car will be a good investment when it comes time to find restorable trim and other correct pieces. Some chrome pieces are not available anymore, and finding someone who can rechrome used parts is much easier than scouring the swap meets searching for that one piece of chrome to complete the project.

Never: Say things like “I have $7,000; show me what you have.”

Reason: $7,000 minus how much profit the dealer wants is what he’ll show you.

If the Corvette you’re interested in was originally equipped with some rare options, it would be better to have those optioned parts with the car, even if they need refurbishing. If, for example, it was originally a fuel-injected car, it would be much easier to recondition the proper unit from the car than to find a properly coded fuel-injection unit and have it reconditioned. The price of a reconditioned fuel-injection unit can easily run your budget up another $5,000 to $7,000.

Mid-Years (’63-’67)

The mid-year Corvettes are some of the most sought-after Corvettes on the market. They start with the ’63 split-window coupe and end with the ’67 427/435hp option. These cars are beautiful to look at, but they can be sitting on some very scary skeletons. You’ll want to study the brakes very closely. The ’65 through ’82 Corvettes use a similar brake caliper system. A properly working system will work like a champ, but trying to solve a troubled system is enough to make a grown man cry and can easily result in rebuilding the whole system. This alone can blow your budget right out of the water. Again, the correct engine can be a major concern, unless it will be a driver and you never intend to sell it, because chances are that anyone interested in buying this car will be looking for the original engine. Also, they have a metal frame around the passenger compartment, which can rust if water enters through faulty weatherstripping. Other areas to check for rust are the frame and the trailing arms.

Never: Decide on a car because of features like ashtrays and vanity mirrors.

Reason: Chances are you already have ashtrays and mirrors at home and you’re paying thousands of dollars for something you already have.

The frames under these cars can have severe rust while the body looks great. The fiberglass bodies are obviously not affected by the elements, which can be death to the metal frames. Look for rust at the point where the trailing arms enter into the frame, and at the body mounts. A quick inspection can save you a lot of work later.

Replacing a frame would basically require doing a frame-up restoration, and since you have to remove all of the parts anyway, why not refurbish them? This should be something that you decide to do before you buy, and not something you discover after the sale. A quick look will let you know.

Never: Kick the tires.

Reason: You have just shown that you aren’t observant enough to tell if there is air in the tires by looking at them.

Sharks (’68–’82)

The shark Corvettes can suffer the same rust woes as the mid-years, and possibly more. The reason for the increased need for rust awareness is that T-tops are notorious for leaking—and that water has to go somewhere. Typically, the underdash bracing and the door-hinge pillars take the brunt of the damage. One of the tools you want to carry with you is a white towel. It can serve as your own “rust detector” by just laying one on the floor of the car like a floor mat, and opening and closing the door a few times. If there’s any rust damage, it will appear as rust flakes on the towel, and you’ll know that the bracing underneath the dash has started to rust. You can bet that you’ll need to fix the rusted area and the defective area (seal, weatherstripping) that caused the problem in the first place.

Never: Say “I can spend this much a month.”

Reason: You’ve just given the dealer the lowest monthly payment he can accept.

Remember that a “small electrical problem” in a shark can be the seller’s way of saying, “I’m sick of trying to fix it.” The earlier sharks can be quite a handful if you have to do wiring under the dash. Also, just because the car has lights, it doesn’t mean they always work. Check all of the lights for several reasons. You’ll be checking the vacuum system that opens the headlights and the electrical system that operates them. Check to see which lights operate. Do the outside lights or the inside lights operate on low beam? There have been instances where the outside light on one side and the inside light on the other side operated on low beam! This is evidence that you’ll have wiring issues with this car. Checking for accident damage should be done before you consider any Corvette, and the sharks are no different. Measure the distance from the ground to the highest point in the wheel opening. If there’s more than an inch difference, you should figure out why. Is there frame damage, or are the body panels installed incorrectly? Find answers before you sign on the dotted line!

Never: Try the radio as soon as you get in the car.

Reason: “Trying the tunes” would be fine if you’re buying a radio station, but you want to hear how this car runs!

Late-Models (’84-’96)

The later sharks started the computer age, but it became a way of life with the late-models. This doesn’t mean that C4 Corvettes are any less desirable or should be avoided, it just means that there will be other conditions to consider. By all means, testdrive these cars in several conditions for the simple reason that if there’s a problem in any of the systems, an extensive drive would give the computer time to go into closed-loop operation. It would also give the computer time to set any trouble codes, evidenced by the Service Engine Soon light coming on.

Never: Sign anything without understanding it completely.

Reason: You may find that the $100 Scotchgard thrown into the deal free was actually moled into the price right next to the $700, three-month, exhaust-only warranty!

While it won’t be the first thing you check, a trial run of all of the electronic controls is recommended. Once again, don’t forget to check the lights to make sure they all operate properly. While checking all the electro-gadgetry, make sure that the alarm works correctly. If you’re not familiar with this Corvette’s alarm system, get the seller to show you how it operates. More than one happy new owner has been embarrassed when trying to get in his new Corvette by not having been properly introduced to its alarm system. During the testdrive, see if the steering seems tight. It’s typical for C4 Corvettes to experience a lazy rack-and-pinion steering. If there’s any trace of this malady now, you’ll need to replace the rack soon. Keep that in mind when you talk price.

Oil leaks can be quite expensive, so you’ll want to check under the hood for any surprises. Pay special attention to the front and rear intake gaskets. When everything seems to be in place, check the exterior fit and finish of the car. Look for any panels that don’t align properly with the other panels and, if there’s a problem, find out why.

C5 Corvettes (’97–present)

This is the only Corvette that will offer the choice of new or used. Since many will be purchased with a GM factory warranty, wear issues shouldn’t be a major factor. You’ll have to be wary of accident vehicles, though, if you decide to go with a used vehicle. Check for overspray or wrench marks to see if the car has ever been hit. If it’s a convertible, check the top to see if it’s been replaced recently. Some of the convertibles have window alignment problems, and if the top has been replaced because of this, determine whether the problem has been corrected. Have a Chevrolet dealer run the VIN on the car to check its warranty status. Don’t assume that the car is still under warranty. It may be voided because of something the previous owner has done.

Never: Say “I’ve been looking for a Corvette just like this!”

Reason: The seller has been looking for a buyer just like you!

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