The premise is simple. Select and purchase an early C5, refurbish and upgrade it to near-Z06 performance, and do it all for $35,000 or less. Before you think no way!, do the math. With 35 Large you can do one of two things: buy a mint '02 coupe or convertible and be happy with it in stock configuration, or find a perfectly nice '97 to '99 for around $20,000 and invest the remaining funds in upgrades and refurbishment.
The great thing about this project is that we plan to keep it genuinely affordable. You won't find any high-dollar engine builds or nosebleed prices for wild braking systems or overkill suspensions. Instead, we're doing this on a budget, to get as much bang for our buck as possible. We call it C5 on a Shoestring.
As with any project of this scope, it's necessary to work out an overall plan and budget in advance. A small amount of time invested in researching prices can yield big dividends. Track used-car pricing in the local papers and trader publications, as well as on the Internet. Remember that buying from eBay can be a crapshoot-you could get a great deal or a real lemon.
Once you've located a car, you'll be able to determine what it's going to need in terms of refurbishment. One rule of thumb is to remember that the more car you get for your money, the less you'll pay to bring it back to health. That allows more of your budget to go toward upgrades in performance, handling, and braking.
We talked with Jim Crist, of the Toy Store, in Largo, Florida, to get some insider's advice on buying an early C5 (although much of his counsel can be applied to older generations as well). The Toy Store is one of the largest Corvette dealers in Florida, and Jim has been selling Corvettes for decades.
"First, don't look for exactly what you want in options and accessories, because you may find a nicer example that is just missing on one or two of them," Jim advised. "Instead, start out by determining what you don't want and then proceed. Also, keep in mind that if the mileage is low for the year of your purchase, it will be less costly to bring [the car] back to decent shape mechanically and cheaper to change out to what you have in mind.
"For example, if you buy a '98 with 25,000 miles on it and then set it up to your liking, you will have a car [that's] every bit as nice as-or nicer than-an '01 with 40,000 miles on it that's available for the same price. Don't cheat yourself by buying a slightly newer example with more miles."
It's easy to grasp the logic. You'll get just as much enjoyment out of a slightly older car and have a lower-mileage example come resale time. And since there's nary a visible difference between a '97 and an '04 Corvette, save for the wheel changes, no one will know you're driving an earlier C5.
"Also, don't rely too heavily on the many pricing guides available," Jim said, "as they don't truly reflect the prices . . . you can find in the market. The guides work off of averages of lowest to highest pricing and then average that out. These listings don't always take into account the overall condition or owner history with Corvettes."
Jim also agreed with our premise of buying an older C5 and upgrading it. "The biggest advantage with a project such as this," Jim noted, "is that you can do it all in steps, as your monthly budget allows, and still enjoy the vehicle during [that time]. And when the project's completed, you'll have a fresh car, rather than a Z06 that's probably been beaten on pretty hard."
Armed with all this knowledge, it didn't take us long to put together a short list of candidates. We studied the local Corvette trader magazines, checked the classifieds in the newspapers, scouted dealer lots, and spent hours online. We finally found what we felt would be our best investment: a Torch Red '97 six-speed coupe with 60K miles, excellent paint, and a slightly worn interior. The engine was strong, the car felt solid, and the asking price of $18,500 made it a good buy. After a minimum of internal debate, we forked over the money, and the car was ours.
The '97 sports some previously installed modifications (free-flow airbox, modified MAF sensor, converter-back exhaust, and a few other minor items) that we plan to remove during the course of our buildup, but one aftermarket upgrade-the rolling stock-will be staying right where it is. Indeed, one big factor in choosing this car was that it was already equipped with a set of gorgeous-and pricey-HRE 540A three-piece aluminum wheels (17-inchers in front and 18-inchers in the rear) mounted on excellent Pirelli P-Zero tires in Z06-spec sizes. Along with the aesthetic benefit, this means we won't to have to invest in wheels or rubber when we upgrade the suspension.
Since our project involves modifications to the suspension, engine, and exhaust, we chose to gather real-time baseline performance numbers for comparison purposes. First, we rolled the Corvette onto the chassis dynamometer at Heffner Performance in Sarasota. Owner Jason Heffner is well versed in Corvettes, Vipers, and other exotics and knows his craft well. We ran several pulls on the Heffner dyno and recorded some surprising results. The horsepower peaked at 5,400 rpm, with a reading of 312.3 hp, and the highest torque recorded was 319.0 lb-ft. This was a little higher than we expected, even with the previously installed aftermarket add-ons. Then again, with over 60,000 miles on the odometer, the engine is fully broken in.
We'll compare our follow-up numbers to these after we've completed our engine and exhaust mods. Our targets will be 357.8 hp and 312.3 lb-ft of torque, numbers Jason recently recorded for a stock '02 Z06.
We chose to measure lateral g-forces and 0-to-60 and quarter-mile acceleration using Beltronic's Vector FX2 accelerometer. We recorded the sprint to 60 in 4.60 seconds (the last stock '97 we tested ran a 4.72) and the quarter in 13.2. According to Chevy, a '97 Vette would turn a 13.6 at 110.1 when new.
For our last test we measured lateral g's. Remarkably, we got a reading of 0.94 (a stock-tired '97 could pull 0.93 g, according to Chevy). That impressive figure is most likely due to the fact that our car is already sporting Z06-spec wheels and tires. It seems safe to assume, then, that we'll get the '97 up to the C5 Z06 handling benchmark with little difficulty.
We've already depleted close to $20,000 of our $35,000 budget, leaving us $15,000 for parts and labor. After assessing the condition of the Corvette, we've determined how we're going to allocate the remainder of our funds. Remember, we won't be installing a $10,000 audio system or dabbing on a $7,000 custom paint job. Rather, the "refurbishment" part of the project will be just that. For the most part, we'll be replacing OE parts with correct replacements. We're also going to add some significant upgrades and modifications, but we're going to do it in line with our budget.
As part of our C5's needs assessment, we've broken down the project into eight segments:
FLYWHEEL AND CLUTCH
If you can't get the car's power to the pavement, you'll never really know how well your horsepower mods are working.
Leaking tops and windows could damage our soon-to-be new interior, so we'll get our Vette watertight early on in the process.
Bigger rotors and better pads don't have to cost a bundle.
The clear top's peeling, the mirrors are loose, the headlamps are grumpy, and the paint is showing the usual signs of age.
Sixty thousand miles of leaking weather seals and poorly channeled rainwater have taken their toll.
New buns and bezels, upgraded upholstery, and some power-switch repairs are needed here.
Hitting our Z06 benchmark will require springs, shocks, bushings, and bars.
How much power can we can gain on the induction side without disassembling the engine? On the exhaust side, we'll perform a full headers-to-tips upgrade.
If we've calculated our costs properly, we'll be right at our final figure of $35,000 when we're done. Just to be sure, we'll keep a running tab of expenditures along the way. As part of our series' final article, we'll head back to the chassis dyno and hook up the accelerometer to determine whether we hit our performance targets. Stay tuned as our C5 on a Shoestring project gets fully underway.