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How To Buy a Used Corvette

Q&A with About.com's Guide to Corvettes on the Right Steps To Take


How To Buy a Used Corvette

The 1984 Corvette was the ugly duckling of Corvette's 57-year history (and it stayed ugly). It is the least desirable of Corvettes for a variety of reasons.

Photo © GM

Q. Are there certain Corvette eras that would you steer people away from? Does Corvette have bad years?

A: 1984. In fact the 1983 Corvettes were so bad that GM decided not to sell them. They only made something like 35 Corvettes that year and none of them ever saw the light of day. But the 1984s were the first year of a whole redesign, and the first year of a whole new factory, so they're renowned for problems. Plus, those Corvettes in the 1980s had a fully electronic digital dashboard, and when the last one of those fails, there won't be any more.

This is not really to say that people should never buy those cars, though - it depends what they want to do with them. I might buy a 1984 Corvette if I was planning to cut it up and make a custom or a race car.

Q. What test-drive advice do you have before buying a used Corvette? What should a buyer look for?

A: They should look for indications about how this particular Corvette has been treated. Has it been kept clean inside and out? Does it drive and steer like a new or well-kept used car? Corvettes are generally very well treated - they are expensive, so they don't get left out in the weather very much. They are sports cars, so their owners tend to have something else as a daily driver, so a Corvette should have comparatively low mileage.

You might ask the owner to take you for a ride before you drive the car - watch and notice if he or she like to burn off the tires or hammer the clutch and shifter. You can bet if they do it to show off for you, they've been doing it every time they drive the car!

One more thing - Corvette owners should keep meticulous maintenance and repair records. If there's no paper, that's not a great sign. It doesn't necessarily mean bad things, but most Corvettes have good service records.

Q. Who should and should not buy a used Corvette that needs extensive work? Are Corvettes, with their fiberglass bodies, just too difficult for anybody but a professional to restore?

A: Well, that depends on the definition of "extensive." I am great at mechanical stuff, but hopeless with body and paint. So my ideal project car would have a blown engine and sagging suspension, but perfect paint and interior! Buyers need to take stock of their skills or their bank accounts. It's generally much more expensive to fix up a cheap Corvette that needs work than it is to buy one that's already restored. Working with fiberglass is a specialized skill, and most amateurs just cannot do it. But, the same is true of steel cars. Body working of any kind is a precision art, and it takes years of practice to do it right. Even most restorers who do a lot of work themselves hire out the body and paint work to professionals.

So, to answer your question clearly, I'd say that a buyer needs to have an honest appraisal of his or her skills, budget, and especially his or her schedule. It always costs more and takes longer than you expect. If you have any doubts, ask your spouse - that's a sure way to avoid getting stars in your eyes!

Q. A CarFax report can't tell you if a used Corvette has been used for racing. Are there tell-tale signs that a Corvette has been driven hard? What can a prospective buyer look for?

A: This is something you should ask the mechanic to check on your pre-purchase inspection. As a long-time racer, my defense is that my race cars are generally treated more kindly than most street cars! But the pre-purchase inspection will include a basic check of engine health, scanning the engine codes (for cars since 1996), and an evaluation of parts like the clutch, brakes, and tires. The pre-purchase inspection should also tell you if the engine has been replaced -modern engines have their own serial numbers, and those often match the VIN number for the car.

On the test drive, be alert for clunks, squeaks, rattles, and other indicators that the car has been hammered. And again, ask the owner to take you for a ride and watch how they handle the car.

Q. Looking at recent used Corvettes, does it make sense to buy a certified pre-owned Corvette?

A. Yes - if you're looking at a late model used 'Vette, I'd say you should look for a certified used Corvette, with a warranty if at all possible. A newer used Corvette is a big investment - mostly over $35,000. And it's a technologically complex vehicle, so you want to be as sure as possible that it's been serviced, inspected, and guaranteed. [Editor's note: Certified pre-owned in the question refers specifically to Corvettes sold by Chevrolet dealers only.]

Q. A lot of used Corvettes get garaged during colder months. How does that affect their valuation? For example, a 1990 Corvette is 20 years old but it may only have 75,000 miles on the odometer. What's more important: age or miles?

A. Time has its own impact, but I think mileage is more important. And more important than either of those is how the car has been treated. If it's been in a climate-controlled dry garage and started regularly through the winters, with fresh (or stabilized) fuel, and all the right maintenance done to it, time alone or high mileage is not a big deal. UV from direct sunlight does more to age a car than time or even mileage. And not all mileage is created equal - bumpy roads versus smooth roads, short-hop city driving versus cruising at speed on open freeways, for example.

I have a 1990 Mazda Miata with 402,000 miles on the clock - it runs perfectly and is in great shape from bumper to bumper. I bought it from a guy in Sacramento who drove most of those miles on a long commute on fast roads. He did the maintenance and kept the car garaged at night. So this Miata was tired but fundamentally sound when I got it. A new coat of paint, new convertible top, and refreshed suspension was all it needed. Every car has its own story, and so I'd say you have to figure out what that story is and evaluate the car accordingly.

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