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.