Things to Know Before Buying a Used Corvette

Questions and Answers on the Right Steps To Take

The 2008 Corvette 427 Special Edition Z06, a limited-production model that honors the big-block Stingray models of the mid-1960s. The 427 designation refers to the cubic-inch displacement for the highest-performance engines offered in 1966 and '67 Ð. Photo by Alan Poizner for General Motors

Jeff Zurschmeide,'s Guide to Corvettes, (now former but his info is still spot on) has been an automotive journalist for more than a decade. His writing history includes a stint working for Corvette Market magazine, and his lifelong passion for classic sports cars makes him a natural Corvette fan. He seemed like the best person to approach when this question was pondered, "What things should I know before I buy a used Corvette?"

Q. Why does the Corvette continue to be such a magnetic used car? What makes it continuously appealing 57 years since it was introduced?

A: That's easy - with the old cars, which is to say before 1984, it's all about muscle and classic looks. The newer cars have muscle, fantastic handling, and very sporty looks, too. Corvette is a two-seat sports car, and there's always a market for that kind of car. There are a lot of people who don't care for Corvettes, but plenty of people are nuts about them.

Q. Almost any consumer needs a professional inspection before buying any used car, Corvettes included, but what are some inspection tips you can offer a person buying a used Corvette? What are some things that might be an instant deal breaker?

A: As you know, you should always have a used car inspected by a competent professional mechanic with some prior knowledge of the specific kind of car. I have a good friend who runs a repair shop, but all their business is modern Japanese and European cars - he won't even work on my 1977 Corvette because it has a carburetor! So you need to find the right mechanic who understands Corvettes and the specific year you're considering.

Deal breakers would include any kind of branded title - such as "Salvage" or "Reconstructed" - that's just because those cars will always be very hard to resell and aren't usually worth what sellers are asking.

Really, the other deal breakers vary from person to person. I don't mind mechanical problems, because I like to fix things and I have the tools and garage space to do it. But for most people, they want to buy a used Corvette to drive it, and so they should have a mechanic check it out like any other used car. That's especially true because of the comparatively higher prices that Corvettes command and the possibility that the car has been driven very hard.

Q. How can you tell between a faithfully restored with original equipment Corvette vs. a Corvette that uses non-Corvette parts?

A: That can be a tough call. First thing - faithfully restored Corvettes are going to be expensive. I saw a 1977 Corvette advertised in perfect condition for $29,995. I bought my 1977 'Vette for $4,000. Corvette Market lists the going rate for a top-quality 1977 Corvette at $18,000. So a lot of the value in these cars is psychological.

If you're looking for a top quality restored 'Vette, you want to ask if the car has been certified. The two certifications you're looking for are NCRS - which is the National Corvette Restorer's Society, and Bloomington Gold. These certifications mean that people who really know have inspected the car and found it to be correct in every detail.

Buyers should never, ever, rely on a seller's promise that the car is correct and properly restored. The world is full of "perfect" cars that turn out to have been pieced together from sections, or just outright fabricated. Another personal example - my 1977 Corvette has the high-output "L-82" badges on the hood, and the seller thought it was a real L-82, but the VIN [vehicle identification number] says this car was built with the base engine - so someone stuck those badges on the car to look cool.

One resource you can use is NCRS - there are chapters of the society all over the United States, and they can look at the car (usually for a price) and let you know if it's as advertised.

Q. Are certain era Corvettes better values than others?

A: Absolutely, but it depends on how you want to play the value game. If you're just talking potential for value appreciation, there are lots of resources devoted to predicting that. Corvette Market magazine is all about "what's it worth today, and what will it be worth tomorrow."

Here's the thing - Corvettes have already had big run-ups in value. To buy into a Corvette that has a lot of appreciation potential, you're going to need to spend a lot of money up front. The "barn find" original 1957 convertibles just don't exist any more, if they ever did. So, if you want to be one of these happy sellers at an auto auction talking about how they made a $50,000 profit, well, you're going to have to invest a lot of money to get a car with that kind of potential. To directly answer your question, Corvettes from 1953-1972 have the most upside potential.

But let's talk about other measures of value - like "what do you love?" What I mean by that is, you can buy a comparatively inexpensive Corvette, but if you don't love it, why bother? I intentionally bought one of the least expensive models of Corvette ever made, and I did that for a couple of reasons.

First, I wanted to spend as little as possible up front - and I'm willing to put in the sweat equity to compensate for a low purchase price. And I also wanted to prove that you can make a nice Corvette out of one of these less desirable models. But I really had to have the swoopy bodywork of the 1968-1982 third-generation Corvette - I love that, but I don't love the looks of the 1980s Corvettes, which are also affordable. So for me, I had to buy a car I was going to love, and that's a very personal decision.

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.