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.
Without a financial stake in the Corvette, my friend’s assessment was frank and not swayed by the excitement and nervousness a buyer typically feels. Bruce crawled inside and under the car, starting it and letting it idle long enough to ensure the cooling fans kicked on, and then he took it for a test drive. His unbiased inspection report delivered the bad with the good.
First the bad: The Corvette’s steering wheel jiggled on bumps and pulled down and to the left. That was a telltale sign of a worn tilt-steering knuckle. This common problem is usually caused by drivers who use the steering wheel to help hoist themselves out of the car. Other issues included airbag warning lights that wouldn’t go out, a low-coolant light that seemed to stay on longer than it should, a very worn leather shift knob, a couple of minor rock chips in the windshield and some paint chipped off the underside of the left-side headlamp housing. The rear fascia’s finish had faded a bit, too, when compared with the rest of the car, which was likely related to the original paint issue that killed the color in the first place.
Attributes in the Corvette’s favor included essentially brand-new tires and brakes with only a few hundred miles on them—including drilled and slotted brake rotors—and an almost-new clutch. The black leather upholstery, while showing some wear, was still in very good condition, with no splits or major cracks. There were no apparent issues with the dashboard, either. On the test drive, Bruce reported excellent performance from the 245-horsepower L98 Tuned Port Injection engine. The car started, drove and stopped as expected, with no vibrations, noises or unwelcome surprises. It had been fitted with an aftermarket short-throw shifter and aftermarket radio, but the seller would include the originals with the sale of the car.
Before proceeding with the purchase, however, I researched the issues Bruce reported. After crunching the numbers, the cost of repairing them seemed reasonable, especially since I could do some of the work myself. I was more swayed by the recent brakes, tires and clutch. All are expensive items on their own, which could add up to several thousand dollars if they needed attention after the purchase, potentially flipping the low price of entry for the C4 on its roof.
Before giving the green light, I performed a CarFax background check on the Corvette. Anyone purchasing a used Corvette should do the same, because even if it doesn’t reveal information contradictory to the seller’s story, it provides a confirmation of it, as well as some inexpensive peace of mind. In this case, the CarFax showed a lot of bouncing back and forth between Washington and Montana, but no reported accidents and mileage commensurate with the odometer’s reading.
Confident in my friend’s assessment and the car’s history, I called the owner to move ahead with the purchase. After a little negotiating we agreed on a price of $6,000. Then I took a leap of faith and mailed a payment to a seller more than 2,000 miles away that I’d never met. I paid via an official bank check; as soon as it cleared at the seller’s bank, he delivered the car and the signed-off title to Bruce’s home in suburban Seattle. In the end, it was an easy and straightforward transaction that went off without a hiccup. Then I made arrangements to fly out and pick up my Corvette.
The wisdom of the purchase would be put to the test in a nearly 2,400-mile road trip, including several mountain ranges, between Seattle and Detroit. While I was sure that I had bought the right Corvette, I admit the prospect of hitting the road solo in a used car with known problems had me slightly spooked. I fretted about notoriously failing fuel-pump relays, for example, although it was more of a problem for pre-1990 cars that had them mounted under the hood rather than inside the car. Nevertheless, I ordered a couple spares and tucked them in my suitcase.
With a full tank of fuel, I pointed the Corvette’s nose east and headed up into the Cascades Mountains—and a typical Pacific Northwest deluge. The car’s ride was reasonably quiet but very firm; I found I had to remove the wallet from my back pocket to get comfortable in the thinly padded sport seats. I kept a sharp eye on the gauges and didn’t turn on the radio, preferring to listen to the car for any errant sounds that could indicate trouble. As the miles piled on without incident, I maintained my vigilance.
After a lunch stop in the town of Moses Lake, Washington, I blew through the skinny pan handle of Idaho, making my first gas stop of the day in Montana. I’d gone nearly 400 miles and was starting to think the LCD gas gauge wasn’t working quite right because it hadn’t gone down as far as I thought it should. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite the mountainous route, the car got an impressive 28 mpg.Over the next couple of days, as the topography flattened out, the fuel economy only got better. On a couple of stretches, the Corvette topped 30 mpg. That’s downright impressive for a 22-year-old car with almost 120,000 miles on it.
In fact, the more miles I put on the car, the more it impressed me. I can’t say it was as comfortable as a C6, but it was an effortless cruiser. Despite the worn tilt mechanism knuckle, the steering felt direct and the brakes were confidence-inspiring. The car felt tight and well assembled, too, with nary a shudder, creak or groan from the body or chassis. In short, there was little to suggest the age or mileage of this Corvette.
The L98 engine deserves mention, too. It was smooth, tractable and never skipped a beat on the drive. And what it lacks in the high-rpm horsepower of today’s LS3, it more than makes up for in satisfying low-end torque. Considering it is basically the same engine that debuted in 1985, it deserves all the kudos it has received over the years and affirms the Tuned Port Injection’s place in the pantheon of Chevrolet’s best-executed ideas.
After three and a half days and 2,375 miles, I arrived home in the Detroit area. My average fuel mileage for the entire trip was just a hair under 29 mpg. The Corvette gave me zero problems along the way. Zero. I simply filled up with gas every 400 miles or so and drove. It didn’t use a drop of oil, either. And those fuel-pump relays I stuffed in my luggage? Never needed them.
In the several months since my road trip, I’ve taken the Corvette on a couple of longer drives and many excursions around town, including a few cruise nights. I’ve also done more research on the car and decoded the glove-box build sticker, which shows it was equipped with Z51 suspension—which certainly explains the stiff ride—and the G92 Performance Axle, which is a 3.07 gear.
The car continues to perform very well and no other issues have popped up to date, except for an annoying tendency for the cooling system to puke a little onto my garage floor after a long drive. Before leaving Seattle, Bruce and I gave the car a final inspection and discovered the coolant recovery/fill tank was overfilled; this may have been the previous owner’s reaction to the inconsistent low-coolant indicator. I’m going to have the coolant-level sensor checked, and will have to have the coolant level itself corrected, too.
I will also tackle the worn tilt-steering knuckle, but from everything I’ve seen about what it takes to repair, I’ll probably seek professional help. A replacement knuckle costs about $140, but the installation is quite involved and could take most of the day at a repair shop. Estimating six hours at $75 per puts the labor charge at $450. So, when it’s all said and done, fixing the steering column will likely cost around $600.
I’m looking forward to working on the cosmetic needs of the car just as soon as I can set aside a Saturday or Sunday that doesn’t have me scrambling to meet a story deadline or photography assignment. In addition to the shift knob, I’ll probably replace some weather stripping, and I’ve noticed the engine is missing the valve-cover emblem, too. I figure between the steering column fix and sundry repairs I’ll be putting about $1,200 in the car. At least I don’t have to worry about tires, brakes or the clutch. I’ll also have to have the airbag-warning-light issue diagnosed.
Frankly, my expectations for this Competition Yellow coupe weren’t high. For the money, I thought I’d bought a good-running car, but expected problems and was prepared to deal with them. So I’ve been delighted with a glitch-free ownership experience thus far. Not only is this Corvette just plain fun to drive, I get positive comments and thumbs-up whenever I go. For anyone looking for a low-cost entry into the Corvette world, it would be difficult to think of a greater value than a well-kept C4.
The qualifier in the previous sentence is “well-kept,” because that’s the key to having a positive experience. There are literally thousands of beat-up C4s selling for $4,000 to $5,500, or even more than what I paid, but those neglected and abused cars can be rolling money vacuums. For only a couple of thousand dollars more—or even up to $10,000—you can find terrific examples that have been cared for and will return years of driving satisfaction. That’s not to say those niggling C4 problems won’t rear up—you can bet they will—but you’ll start from a stronger and financially smarter position.
If that friend calls tomorrow to sell me his C5 Z06, I’m going to have to pass on it. I’ve got my Corvette now.