For the last couple of years, I’d been passively nagging an acquaintance about his low-mileage, unmodified C5 Z06. I’d see him at car events and remind him to call me whenever he felt like selling it. In the meantime, I spent more hours than I’d like to admit—especially to my wife—searching Craigslist, eBay and Autotrader for used Corvettes. It soon became apparent that good deals on C5s and early C6s could be found, but C4s were even better values. In fact, C4 prices were so low that I shifted the focus of my car-searching attention to that generation.
With all due respect to the legions of happy C4 owners, I hadn’t really considered buying one before. To a guy in his early 40s, they seemed so ’80s; I’d ditched my Members Only jacket 25 years ago. But the more I kept looking, the more the model’s rakish proportions grew on me. Make that re-grew on me. It was sort of like hearing that old “Breakfast Club” theme song by Simple Minds. I was sick to death of it back when it was on the radio every 20 minutes, but now it rekindles fond memories, and, as it turns out, it’s really a pretty good song. It’s the same thing with C4 Corvettes.
Despite a number of common maladies and compromised ergonomics—not the least of which are those mile-wide sills to clamber over—the fourth gen’s small-block powertrains are robust and the car offers excellent roadholding capabilities. Indeed, countless C4s still thrive in SCCA and NASA track competition.
But a good deal is not necessarily a smart buy, and I wasn’t about to jump blindly into an ownership experience that might turn into an exercise in checking-account depletion. C4 Corvettes are unique animals, and I began to do my homework on the problems that plague these cars. Some of them, such as “washed out” LCD gauge-cluster displays and electrical gremlins, are fairly well-known, while others, including worn tilt-steering knuckles, required deeper, more specific dives into the C4 ownership realm to uncover. Generally speaking, the later the model year, the better in terms of reliability, performance and desirability.
Eventually, as my online searching continued, I stumbled upon a standout candidate. It was a Competition Yellow 1990 coupe with the ZF six-speed manual transmission and a black leather interior. I knew yellow was a rare color for the year. According to my Corvette Black Book, only 278 out of the 23,6046 ’90 Corvettes left Bowling Green painted that hue—or about 1 percent of the build. This was not due to demand but rather a fading issue that caused Chevy to put an early stop to the color’s use. The car’s rarity definitely piqued my interest, as did its low $6,500 asking price.
However, the sparsely worded Craigslist ad from the private seller offered few details, which can be a warning sign. There was another problem: The car was in Tacoma, Washington, and I live in the Detroit area. I’ve purchased more than 50 cars so far in my life and experience has taught me to never, ever buy an older car sight unseen. If you look beyond your immediate area, limit your search to areas where you know someone who can perform an inspection. You simply can’t trust the tiny photos in an online listing. They deceive, even if that’s not the seller’s intent, because you simply cannot see all the necessary details, be it honest scratches in the paint or poorly executed accident repairs. I’d only been searching the Seattle-area Craigslist because I have a car-knowledgeable friend out there, Bruce Caldwell, who could inspect a candidate vehicle, and that’s exactly what I called on him to do with the yellow ’90.
I spoke to the seller prior to sending Bruce out to view the Corvette, and his answers were sufficient to warrant the inspection. I asked how long he’d owned the car (about four years), the mileage (roughly 117,000), whether there was an accident history (not that he knew of) and whether the car had any immediate mechanical needs (it didn’t). I also asked about the status of the brakes, tires and clutch; the owner reported they were all in excellent condition. I was up front about my long-distance situation and told him Bruce would make arrangements to inspect the car.