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​​​​​​​Why it's the right time to buy a C4 Chevy Corvette — and which one to get

Scott Oldham

C4 Corvettes are cool again. And it's time to buy. After 20-plus years of getting very little respect, the

Corvette's fourth generation is beginning to have resurgence in both popularity and value. The turnaround has begun, but it's still easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

So easy, in fact, even our very knowledgeable friend Dan Neil, the Wall Street Journal's longtime car critic, and one of the best in the business, missed it. Awhile back, Dan took a timeout from winning Pulitzer Prizes to create a list called: "12 Affordable Classic Cars — A dozen cars all less than 30 years old and gettable for south of $30,000 that could one day be collectibles." And it's a good list, aside from the outright omission of the 1990-1995 Corvette ZR-1.

That's right, the Corvette dubbed "The King of the Hill" by Car and Driver, and the only Corvette to ever be powered by a double overhead cam V8, is not on Dan's list. Dan, and we mean this as a friend, drop the cabernet and step away from the pinot noir.

In 1990, six years into the Corvette's fourth generation,

Chevy introduced the ZR-1, an option package which essentially doubled the price of a standard Corvette Coupe and transformed the Corvette from a high-performance

sports car to an exotic-car killer. Today, it not only remains one of the quickest and fastest Corvettes of all time, it's also one of the most affordable. And its status as a future collectable is all but guaranteed.

Now's the time to buy.

Chevy has actually used the ZR-1 name on three Corvettes over the past 46 years. The first was a little-known race-ready option package (RPO ZR-1) available in 1970-1972 with the LT-1 small-block. But these cars didn't actually wear ZR-1 badging, and only 53 were built in its three year run. They are highly collectable today and cost well into six figures.

Of course, Chevy also sold 638 hp supercharged ZR1s, now with no dash, from 2009 to 2013. And we all know a C7 based ZR1 is in development.

When new in the 1990s, the ZR-1 option added about $30,000 to the cost of a standard 250 hp Corvette, which cost about $30,000. For that money, you got a very different Corvette that didn't look very different, which has always been one of the knocks — and, some think, one of the reasons why these cars have remained so affordable. Ironically, they do wear different body panels. Many inches wider than a standard Corvette, the ZR-1 used wider doors and rear fenders to cover the wider 17x11-inch wheels and massive P315/35ZR17 Goodyears.

But the additional width was subtle, as was the car's singular ZR-1 badge, glued to its rear bumper just below its rightmost taillight. Corvette connoisseurs will also mention that the model's wider rear end used squarish taillights, which were distinct from the round units on the standard C4. However, to further the lack of distinction between the two models, the standard Corvette went to the squarish lights in 1991.

None of that really mattered 26 years ago. What mattered was under the hood, and it was a monster in its day. The LT5, a 5.7-liter all-aluminum, double overhead cam, 32-valve V8, was designed with the help of

Lotus engineering (owned by

GM at the time) and assembled by

Mercury Marine in Stillwater, Okla. It was rated at 375 horsepower at 6,000 rpm — only 5 hp shy of the flat 12 in a 1990

Ferrari Testarossa. It would have placed as the third-most-powerful car on Dan Neil's questionable list. And by far the quickest.

ZR-1s ran the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds at over 110 mph. 0-60 mph was in the low- to mid-4-second range, and the top speed was over 180 mph. These are strong numbers today. In 1990, they would have made your head explode.

Every ZR-1 was a coupe (with a removable targa-style roof panel) and used a ZF six-speed manual. And every ZR-1, unlike its V10 crosstown rival the

Dodge Viper, had air conditioning, power windows and all the other comfort amenities folks expected in a Corvette. It really was one of the first everyday supercars. And it had the stones to leave a V6-powered

Acura NSX for dead.

Chevy tweaked and rubbed on the ZR-1 over the next few years with face-lifted body panels, different wheels and some more power. The LT5's rating jumped to 405 hp in 1993. Chevy even added a badge on the front fenders to sex things up. But the one to buy is the original. The first year.

The ZR-1's MSRP in 1990 was $58,995 making it the absolute most expensive Corvette up to that time. Chevy's

dealers cashed in for even more, with big markups and many recorded sales of over $100,000. Everyone wanted a ZR-1. More than 3,000 were sold the first year. However, by the end of the decade the C5, with its LS power, was reinventing and reinvigorating the Corvette's image, and the ZR-1s have been

depreciating ever since. That is until a couple of years ago.

According to Hagerty's Valuation Tool, prices bottomed about five years ago and have been inching up since. But these cars are still very affordable, they offer incredible performance for the dollar, and they are sure to appreciate as have other special cars from this era such as Porsche


Buick's GNX and Ferrari Testarossas. According to Hagerty's online tool, the average market value of a concours condition 1990 ZR-1 is $46,800. Cars in #2 condition average $33,100. And now here's the get. Cars in #3 condition are averaging sale prices of just $23,000. Examples built from 1991-1995 sell for a bit less.

It's time to go on this, Dan Neil's insight aside. It's time to buy. These numbers could double in the next five to 10 years.


But what if your budget just isn't there for a ZR-1? No problem. A standard C4 Corvette is not only one of the most affordable Corvettes on the collector car market, their popularity and values, much like the ZR-1, are already on the rise.

First to market in 1984, the Corvette's fourth generation was an incredible blend of speed, sex and technology. Remember, the C3 dated all the way back to 1968, and its chassis dated back to 1963. The C4, with its all-new structure and aluminum suspension, massive 16-inch 50-series Goodyear Gatorback tires and digital instrumentation, was a massive step forward. Chevy had created nothing short of the new King of the Street. And sales exploded to over 51,000 units.

And then in 1985 things really got good. Chevy updated the suspension tuning and the 5.7-liter V8. The 205 hp L83 engine, which dated back to 1982, was replaced with the

230 hp L98. Gone was the cross-fire throttle body fuel injection, replaced by the Tuned Port Injection system which it shared with the

Camaro and

Firebird. Now the Corvette, like Arby's, had the meats. Top speed was over 150 mph and Chevy spent plenty on advertising telling the world.

On the street, these cars were very fast for their day. Only Buick's turbocharged Grand National and modified 5.0-liter

Ford Mustangs could keep up. By 1987, power was up to 240 hp and quarter-mile times down in the 13.9s, with either the five-speed manual or the optional and very popular four-speed automatic.

In 1990 Chevy dug in and gave the C4 a sizable redo. New styling with smoother lines and softer edges came along with an all new but less likable interior with

air bags and a plasticy feel. Then in 1992 the L98 was replaced with the second-generation small-block called the LT1. Unlike the LS engine family that came later, the LT1 wasn't loved much for its odd Optispark ignition system and other quickly dated technologies.

For the Porsche folks in the room, think of the later C4s as the 996s of the bunch. They're fast and fun, but their overall appeal falls short of what came before or after.

The standard C4 sweet spot is 1985-1989. Stay away from 1990 and later models. To maximize the vehicles' retro charm and increase the investment potential, stick with the early cars. Convertibles joined the lineup in 1986 and of course bring a premium. But these cars are not just cheap, they're dirt cheap. Prices range from essentially free for a beater to around $10,000 for a never driven, still new, low mileage example with the original air in its Gatorbacks.

Buy the best one you can afford. It's real speed for a four digit price. And its appeal and retro cool will increase with every passing day. Take another look at one. These are beautiful cars. And prices are sure to rise as Gen Xers decide to buy what they wanted when they were 15.

Somehow for our friend Dan Neil, that's a Saab 900 convertible. Really, guy?

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