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Buying Late-Model Corvettes - C5 C6 Buyers' Guide

Everything You Need To Know To Buy Your Next C5/C6

Tom Benford Nov 2, 2009
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Buying a used C5 or C6, like buying any used car, can be a daunting proposition. But because of the Corvette's high profile and reputation as a premiere performance vehicle, some extra caution and due diligence is in order when shopping for one. In researching this article, I consulted Ron DeSmedt, the owner of Contemporary Corvette in Bristol, PA (, to elicit his views and advice on what to look for and what to stay away from when shopping for a C5 or a C6. In addition to running one of the largest Corvette boneyards in the country, Ron has been in the business of buying and selling Corvettes for more than a decade and is one of the earliest pioneer sellers on eBay Motors, so he knows whereof he speaks. He was kind and generous enough to share his wealth of knowledge with us here.

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Determining If The Car Has Been Front Hit
When Corvettes are involved in accidents, more often than not the collision damage occurs to the front of the car.

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From 1997 through 2004 GM put the VIN number on the front right side framerail, and from 1997 through 2002 it was also on the front bar as well. So to determine if the car has been hit in the front, the most critical thing to look for is the VIN number on the front right side framerail (and front bar, if applicable). This VIN number has to coincide exactly with the VIN number appearing on the dash plate. Now, if the car was front hit-even a little bit-it would distort the VIN number. Even if the repair facility straightened out the framerail and cleaned it all up, the distortion to the VIN number would still be apparent. And if the front bar or the side framerail had been replaced, the VIN number will not be on it; hence, if the number is distorted or missing, this is proof-positive that the car has been hit in the front.

Replaced Panels
C5s and C6s are, in effect, unibody constructed, because the body is bonded to the framerails. It's not like the earlier generations of Corvettes where the body could be unbolted and lifted right off the frame-these latter-generation Corvettes are mated and bonded to the frames on the assembly line with a special epoxy that can't be reproduced by aftermarket adhesive makers in the exact same color as that used by GM. Hence, any collision repairs are fairly easy to detect by the discerning eye by checking the bonding lines where the epoxy adhesive shows. An easy place to check for this is on the bonding lines of the inner fenders in the engine bay.

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Car History Checking
Checking out the prospective purchase with CarFax ( good, but not infallible. According to DeSmedt, if a previous owner had an accident and didn't report it (to keep insurance premiums down), then there would be no record of the collision for Carfax to report. He says that another good reporting service is AutoCheck ( Very often things will show up on AutoCheck that don't on CarFax. One of the auctions he regularly buys at in Mannheim, PA, only honors AutoCheck reports and disregards CarFax reports. He advises that if you're very suspicious of a prospective vehicle or if you really want to be cautious before making a purchase that you get reports from both agencies.

The factory door sticker should still be on the driver's side outer door jamb; if it's not, the door has most probably been replaced. And, of course, the VIN number on the sticker should match the VIN of the car as well-if the numbers don't match, it's a replacement door. But this sticker is only affixed to the driver's side door-there isn't any on the passenger door. But don't let the fact that a door has been replaced put you off buying the car-it shouldn't. The presence of the correct door sticker is just a way of knowing that the door hasn't been replaced- and if it isn't there, it's a way of gauging the "honest disclosure" of the seller.

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There really aren't any indicators with regards to VIN numbers when it comes to the rear of the car, but, as stated earlier, most of the time the collisions occur to the front of the vehicle anyway.

Optional Equipment
The next thing to look for when C5/C6 shopping is the optional equipment the potential car is equipped with. You can get anything from a base coupe, which is pretty much a bare-bones Corvette to one that is loaded with all the goodies. The more options, the higher the asking price will be. But not all options are desirable, and some are more desirable than others. Things like dual-zone climate control, head-up display, all the power options with memory, power passenger seat and so forth all add to the creature comforts, desirability and, consequently, the price of the car. The memory option is particularly desirable and popular, since it remembers things like your preferred seat position, favorite radio stations, left and right mirror settings and more. Having a good assortment of options is an important consideration even if you're not going to keep the car for a long time, as they add to the resale value (again). For the most part, most prospective C5/C6 purchasers like "buttons"-all the optional goodies that add to driver/passenger comfort, information and pleasure while in the Corvette. But don't be too quick to judge things at first blush-ask a lot of questions and look a bit deeper. For example, if the stereo has a cassette player in it rather than a CD player in the dash, don't be put off-99 percent of the time there will be a 12-CD changer in the trunk, thus giving you the best of both worlds. Likewise, don't be too overjoyed if the car is equipped with selective ride control-this is a seldom-used option by most drivers and a very expensive one to repair if/when it fails (which it most likely will, eventually).

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Caveats: C5 Problem Areas
Although the GM engineering team did a truly miraculous job of designing the C5, there were a few bugs that didn't show up until the generation had been around for a couple of years; this is to be expected with any new design, even though extensive testing may have been done during development. On the early (1995-1999) C5s, there were a few items in particular that are prone to failure. The oil pressure sending unit is notorious for giving up the ghost, and it will cost you about $300 to have the local Chevy dealer replace it or about $40 and the better part of a morning or afternoon to do it yourself. The steering column lock is another problematic component on these C5s as well, and it will set you back $250-$400 to have your dealership fix the problem, or about $50-$65 for a column-lock bypass unit that you can install yourself in about an hour or less. Power door lock modules and power window modules have also been known to fail, and their cures can cost about $270 each to implement. C5 seat tracks start to get play in them and replacing them can be several hundred dollars, although you can do a repair for considerably less money but it takes time and effort if you want to save the bucks. Headlight gears and motors, serpentine belt tensioners and idler pulleys are all subject to wear and subsequent failure over time, so these are also items to check when making a purchase. And tire pressure sensors have non-replaceable batteries in them that will eventually die; when this happens, you'll have to replace the sensors and, at about $125 each, this can run into some money as well. Other things to check for wear include the tie-rod ends, anti-sway bar, radiator hoses and the oil pan to make sure there are no leaks or seepage.

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Determining The Going Price
DeSmedt advises that value listings like the Kelly Blue Book are a bit tricky because they aren't reality-based; he strongly suggests that you take a look on eBay Motors to get a handle on what Corvettes similar to what you're looking for are fetching. "If you look at the listings for fifty cars on eBay and ten of them sell for, let's say, $7,200, then that's the going price and that's what they're worth-around $7,200; the other 40 cars didn't sell because they were over-valued in the auctions. The important thing to look for is what the cars actually sell for, not what the sellers are hoping to get for them or what they opening bid is on eBay. The easiest way to find out the going price is to do a search of completed items. This will show you the finished listings for the last thirty days; the ones that are green sold and the ones that are red didn't sell, either because their reserves (if any) or minimum bids weren't met. This is a really good barometer, because it gives you a look at Corvette values across the entire country, not just one area or locale. What you want to determine is that what you're paying for the vehicle is what it is really worth. And, more importantly, if you decide that you don't want to keep it for some reason, that you'll be able to get your money back out of it two or three months down the road. With that thought in mind, you don't necessarily want to buy it with the thought of making any money on it, but you certainly don't want to lose any money if you decide to sell it shortly thereafter."

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DeSmedt puts a lot of emphasis on the possibility of selling the Corvette again after you purchase it because, as he puts it, "Everybody wants a Corvette but nobody needs a Corvette. It's like a boat. There doesn't seem to be any in-between with it comes to these cars. Either you'll own a Corvette for the rest of your life or you'll buy one, keep it for the summer, sell it and never buy another one. It's that kind of beast-either you'll like it or you won't-there's no in-between. So, for that reason, you want to make sure that you don't overpay when you make the purchase so that you can recoup your money (or at least most of it), if you decide to sell it at the end of the summer.

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Features That Affect Price
Transmissions-it seems that almost everybody wants a stick shift in a Corvette, and DeSmedt's experience bears this out. "When it comes to Corvettes, the general consensus is that it should be red, yellow, or black, and stick with leather. Well, with the C5s and C6s you don't have to worry about the leather - they all come with it. There's no doubt that a stick shift brings more money because it's more desirable." I asked him about C6s with the paddle-shift trans, and he said that a traditional six-speed stick is still much more desirable than the paddle-shift trans. "Face it, if you're going to buy a Corvette and you want to enjoy driving it-I mean really enjoy driving it-then you've got to get one with a stick shift. No two ways about it." He stated that in the past when he sold 'front-line' Corvettes, the ratio was about six stick-shift cars to every one automatic transmission car. (Editor's Note: While I have driven and enjoyed Project C5X as a six-speed for over two years now, I have just bought another 2000 Corvette with an automatic and I have to say I am enjoying it immensely not having to shift the car every day in traffic. My wife is also getting to drive the car since it is an automatic and that is a big plus as well. So in my case, that position doesn't hold true.)

Color choice is a preference, to be sure. However, there are colors that are more desirable than others when it comes to Corvettes. DeSmedt confides that white is the absolute worst color when it comes to selling a Corvette, while red, black and yellow are the top color preferences. Other 'non-mainstream' colors-pewter, green, blue-may or may not have a great effect on the selling price. Ron elaborated by saying, "Any of the reds are fine; the darker blues sell better than the lighter blues; the darker green does better than the lighter green. So, the inference here is that most people prefer the darker colors over the lighter ones. The exception seems to be yellow-Millennium Yellow, to be specific. This color commands a sizeable premium over other colors-for some reason, it's extremely popular. Yellow Corvettes always bring more money both at the wholesale level and at the retail level." According to Ron, certain colors appeal to different age groups. Pewter, for example, seems to be a preference among conservative, middle-aged purchasers. Silver, on the other hand, appeals to younger buyers.

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Body style - Convertibles are always more popular than coupes and, consequently, command more money-usually three to five thousand dollars more than the equivalent coupe, according to DeSmedt. "The fixed-roof coupe - or 'Billy-Bob' as it was called - before it became the Z06 - you couldn't give these cars away - they're notoriously difficult to sell. But it's still a great car, and you can get them very cheaply. So if you want to get a C5 at a bargain-basement price, consider buying a fixed-roof coupe.

Conversely, Z06s sell without any problem at all, especially the 2002-2004 Z06s. However, the 2001 Z06 was only 375 hp, which makes it less desirable in some buyers' perceptions. The next year the horsepower was increased to 405hp. Now, while there's only a 30hp difference, this can account for several thousands of dollars more in the selling price because of the increased desirability of the higher horsepower rating. In reality, however, very few people, if any, would ever even notice the difference in power under normal use. But if you really want to get a lot of bang for your buck, the 2001 Z06 is a great buy because of the devaluation stigma it carries due to the lower horsepower rating. Cosmetically and equipment-wise, the 2001 is identical to the later models, with the exception of those thirty horses and the fender badges, which you can swap out easily enough if you want to."

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The vast majority of C5s and C6s are coupes, which makes them plentiful. Supply and demand always has an effect on the market, so when there are plenty of something-like Corvette coupes-to choose from, that helps to make it a buyers' market.

Mileage Matters
Thanks to superb design and excellent engineering, the C5 and C6 engines have longevity that was beyond the wildest imaginings back in the days of carburetors. Today's engines are subject to much less internal wear thanks to being made from better materials, synthetic lubricants, fuel injection, computer engine management and more. Because of this, mileage is of less concern with C5s and C6s than it was with earlier Corvette editions, so it should be a major determining factor when shopping for one. It's not at all uncommon to find C5s with 150K miles on the clock that are still running perfectly and not burning any oil. That, coupled with the fact that Corvettes are cars that most people take care of - change the oil regularly, do scheduled maintenance, drive the car sensibly - all relegate mileage to being a minor consideration as a purchasing factor. The best strategy is to have a competent mechanic check out the car if you're interested in a Corvette with high mileage. OK, so what would be the point where mileage could be considered high, I asked Ron? "Triple digits (100,000 or more) miles would be a good barometer. But, once again, if the car has been maintained properly, there should still be plenty of trouble-free life left in an engine with this kind of mileage. And bear in mind that the higher the mileage, the better the asking price will usually be. So, in most cases, if you're looking at a higher-mileage C5 or C6, you're going to get a whole lot of car for a whole lot less money, all factors considered."

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Back in the old days of mechanical odometers, unscrupulous used car dealers (and private owners, too, for that matter) would run the odometer backwards using an electric drill to decrease the mileage shown on the speedo. Since the C5 and C6 odometers are electronic/digital, it would take some pretty sophisticated programming and specialized knowledge to change the odometer reading, which makes this a lot more trouble than it's worth. But the mileage could also be miss-reported by swapping out the gauge cluster with a lower-mileage one taken from a wreck or a salvage car. But, again, swapping out the cluster involves taking the entire dash apart which is a lot of work, so this isn't too much of a concern. For that reason, the mileage shown on the odometer is probably the actual mileage of the vehicle in most instances. You can check out the car with CarFax, AutoCheck and looking at its service records to help confirm that the mileage is legitimate if you're really concerned about it, too. And if there are no service records for the car, that in itself is reason enough to be suspicious. Most Corvette owners are "car people" and they care for and take pride in their rides; as such, they usually maintain their vehicles and keep records of any maintenance and service, which is why it's suspicious if no such documentation is available.

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Multiple Owners
Corvettes, probably more than just about any other marque, are more likely to have a history of multiple owners. There are several reasons for this, according to DeSmedt. He cites a typical scenario. "This fellow always wanted a Corvette; he finally saves up enough money and buys one, then decides he doesn't like it, so he sells it. Another variation of this scenario is that his wife has a baby and it can't fit three people, so he sells the car. And lately, another scenario we're seeing more often is that he can't afford to keep it due to a job loss, so he sells it. It's consistent with what I said earlier about nobody actually needing a Corvette. What are the first things that go when you need money? Your Harley, your Corvette, and your boat, right? Because of this, a Corvette is a car that is bought and sold many times over its lifetime. This is even more prevalent with the newer models, especially in the current economic situation. Here's another typical scenario: a guy goes to Reedman's (a large Corvette dealer in PA), buys a new one and he's straddled with $1,200 a month payments. After a year of this he decides that this is ridiculous, so he sells the car or trades it in. The next person buys the car used and he has payments of $800 a month. After a year he decides to get out from under this debt, so he sells the car, too. And this goes on and so forth so a Corvette, more than any other car, is very likely to have multiple owners in a relatively short period of time. So don't let that discourage you from buying it, thinking that it's a problem car. It's more likely that it's a disposable car. The older generations of Corvettes (C4 and earlier) were more likely to be problematic. In truth, I haven't seen where C5s or C6s are problem cars, so the multiple ownership issue is due to economics more than anything else."

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Buying At Repo/Seizure Auctions Or From A Dealer
Ron says that in his experience there are no deals to be had at these auctions because everyone goes there with the same thought in mind: to get a really great Corvette at a super good price. But then they bid against each other and drive the price up, so that when it's all said and done you didn't wind up with a good deal after all. And there are a lot of downsides of buying at these auctions. If you purchase from an individual, you get to drive the car and ask questions; you don't get to drive it at these auctions. If you buy from a private seller, you have some recourse if there are problems with the car that weren't disclosed; when you buy at an auction it's sold as-is, where-is-you have no recourse whatsoever. If the transmission falls out as you're driving it off the auction lot, it's your tough luck- you own it, you're stuck with it.

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Buying a Corvette from a dealer isn't a bad thing, although he's in business to make a profit. There is a slight advantage in that he may offer a warranty on the car. If this is your first Corvette, a warranty is a good thing because repairs can be expensive if something breaks. Just remember that the dealer's profit is built into the price you're paying for the car.

C5 and C6 tires are expensive, so you'll want to check the condition of the tires carefully when considering a Corvette for purchase. Do not be put off if the car is equipped with non-run-flat tires, however; this can be a good thing. If you've been reading my C5/C6 Solutions column or checked out my Quest For Quite tire feature in CF, then you know that many C5/C6 owners opt for standard tires rather than run-flats when it's time to replace their rubber. The 'inflatable' tires give a better ride, more traction and are quieter than run-flats; and in most instances, they have a longer useful life than run-flats, in addition to being less expensive to replace. So the fact that the Corvette isn't wearing run-flats should not deter you from considering it as a potential purchase.

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So, in parting, the best advice I can offer you when shopping for a C5/C6 is to do your homework, use common sense, don't let your emotions overrule your better judgment, and decide what features/options would constitute your dream Corvette. Then rate these features and options in their order of importance to you, so that you'll know what and where to make your compromises. And, as always, caveat emptor-let the buyer beware.

Difficulty Index - 1 Wrench
Anyone’s Project: no tools required1 Wrench
Beginner: basic tools2 Wrenches
Experienced: special tools3 Wrenches
Accomplished: special tools and outside help4 Wrenches
Professionals Only: send this work out5 Wrenches



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