Market Spotlight

The C4 Corvette deserves your attention

by Eddy Eckart
5 October 2022 4 min read
Image
A 1990 ZR-1 in its natural habitat. Photo by Chris Stark

Fresh off driving the new Z06, I’ve been reminiscing about how Corvettes, particularly the C4 (the fourth generation, built from 1984-96), were among the first cars to shape my budding automotive enthusiasm. My dad’s ’89 convertible formed the center of my elementary school car universe—little did we know that our spirited Saturday back road drives in Northern Virginia would lead to my amateur racing hobby and a career writing about cars. Decades later, the C4 Corvette still represents an engaging sports car entry point. They’re affordable, too, with plenty of variations choose from. 

Spring, 1992. Your author and his dad heading out for a weekend drive. Eddy Eckart

“Younger enthusiasts can easily afford a nice fourth-gen Corvette—they’re fun to drive and have good performance even by today’s standards,” said Harlan Charles, Product Marketing Manager for Corvette and Camaro, over breakfast ahead of the new Z06 drive. Charles owns a 1990 Corvette six-speed Z51 in white with a slate blue interior, and it’s been around the block a time or two—since new, he’s driven it through 49 states and most of Canada’s provinces. 

Why do C4 Corvettes remain so reasonably priced? A big part is because Chevy made so many—358,180 over the 12-model-year run—but that doesn’t tell the whole story. “When you build a boatload of cars, most of which have been cared for better than your average commuter over the years, you have a supply that generally meets the demand,” said Greg Ingold, Editor of the Hagerty Price Guide. “There are enough of them in good shape that if you’re in the market, and you don’t like the first couple you look at, there’s probably another six to choose from that meet your criteria at a similar price point.”

That wealth of quality cars to choose from has created what seems like a permanent buyer's market for the C4. Even with recent valuation increases, solid drivers with low-ish miles and no major needs can be had for well under $20,000. Of course, newer and more desirable models will fetch more than the median prices. For example, as of our most recent Price Guide update, 1995 ZR-1 (the last year of the famous "King of the Hill") is valued at $27,600 in #3 (Good) condition, well above the median #3 value of just $9600 for base C4s. Nonetheless, with values of other marques from the same era seemingly going off the deep end, a driver-quality, 405-hp '90s classic for under $30,000 presents a solid deal.

Having spent a day and a half with a 1990 ZR-1 recently, I can attest that Charles is right—C4s represent incredible sporting bang for your buck. The chassis is nimble, the controls well-weighted, and the LT5 engine eagerly winds out to 6500 rpm. That said, the base L98 and LT1 engines in the base cars don't disappoint, either—what they lack in rpm compared to the ZR-1 mill, they make up for in low-end torque and ease of maintenance. The '84-89 and '90-96 interiors each offer distinct period GM futurism, which has its own unique appeal.

Chris Stark

What should you look for if the C4's slick looks have caught your eye? While not an exhaustive list, here are a few things to think about: early cars had a reputation for riding a little rough, though they received incremental improvements over the years. And though that period GM futurism gives them a unique look, C4 interiors also came with period GM squeaks and rattles.

Selective Ride Control debuted in 1989 as an option on the base car, and was standard on all ZR-1s from 1990-95. These three-way adjustable Bilstein dampers offered a tangible difference in ride quality, allowing you to toggle between a softer touring setting or two degrees of added firmness when you needed it. If you wanted full-time performance handling, you ticked the box for the Z51 package. Although only available on the coupe and varying in its contents by year, Z51 typically provided stiffer shocks, springs, and sway bars along with additional cooling capability, performance tires, and steering tweaks. The ZF six-speed transmission, also introduced in 1989, improved the shifting experience markedly from the prior Doug Nash 4+3 unit. The LT1 engine fired up in 1992, cracking the 300-horsepower barrier in a base Vette for the first time in 20 years. Convertibles also reemerged after a ten-year hiatus in 1986. Looking for something a little hotter? Chevy's in-house ZR-1 (1990-1995) and Callaway's twin-turbo Corvettes exemplify the era's American entry into the supercar space.

Expect to pay a premium for certain options: the Z51 package is typically worth an additional $500, as is a glass targa roof on coupes. Hard tops for convertibles fetch an additional $1,000, and special editions, like the 1993 40th Anniversary cars or the 1996 Collector Edition are valued at an additional $3,000 ($7,500 for Anniversary ZR-1s). Automatic cars typically command 8-10% less than a similar manual-equipped 'Vette.

Despite its relative affordability and being a product of the '80s, interest in fourth-gen Vettes still skews surprisingly older. Looking at quotes across the last three years, 27% come from Gen X (who are 32% of the market as a whole), 12% comes from Millennials (who are 21% of the market), 7% comes from Gen Z (who are 7% of the market), and 46% comes from Boomers (who are 35% of the market). Time will tell if the popularity of all things '80s and '90s will begin to draw younger interest to the C4, but we've been wondering that for a while now. Till then, there are plenty out there for the taking.

What would I choose? I'd look for a red '89 just like my dad's, but mine would be a coupe with the six-speed and Selective Ride Control. The L98's 245 hp is plenty, and I like the look of the pre-1991 facelift cars. Whatever model or trim strikes your fancy, the C4 Corvette will give you of-its-era character in a platform that's still fun today.

Comments

  • hyperv6 says:

    Here is the reality.

    #1 there are still a lot of C4 models on the market cheap.

    #2 the C5 can be had for just a little more and was just a better car as is the C6 over the C5.

    #3 the ZR1 is not going crazy as one it is expensive and difficult for the ZR1 only parts. Also the C5 is as fast for much less. The early ZR is like a 928 Porsche and just not worth the expense due to cheaper options that are better cars.

    The C4 was a big jump over the C3 but it still lacked power, the transmission was a mess and it had a ton of 80’s plastic. The C5 addressed these areas and just a better go to as long as supplies of low mile microfiber wiped models are still cheap.

  • Tim Gantt says:

    Thanks for the great info. I pass a small car lot daily and he usually keeps one or two C4 and turn them quickly. Thanks for your article now why. Also I had a 66 427 for about 15 years.

    Tim Gantt

  • Camarojoe says:

    C4 was a clean sheet for the very old C3. For those that were not around in 84 is was exponential , even with the huge step over sills, bad cross fire and absurdly abusive z51 and suspension. But I live in today’s world and will wait for the 08-10 Z06 get a bit more affordable. To me that is the peak of value and performance.

  • Larry D says:

    C4 Corvettes are EXPENSIVE to repair and that is if you can find someone who knows how to do it. And I know this is purely subjective but I’ve owned Corvettes since 1971 and I just never have warmed up to the styling of the C4 at all. I had a salesman friend at the local Chevy store. I told him I’d love to see the all-new C4 when they got their first one in. So he called one day and said the first one was there if I cared to see it. I drove over and they had it in the wash bay cleaning it up. It was white with Graphite interior.
    And I can’t describe how disappointed I was with the looks of that car. I lost a lot of interest in Corvettes during that period of time.

  • Russ Boyett says:

    I looked for quite a while before I bought my 1992 convertible with a 6 speed. It’s a fairly rare color (Quaser Blue) and is well equipped including the FX3 suspension. It has 46K and is in very good condition. I paid 14K for it last January and feel like I got a good deal. Two years ago that would have been a high price but C4 values have been on the rise and nice ones with the 6 speed are bringing more on a regular basis. Before I bought it I drove a C5 6 speed and though it was an entertaining drive it just didn’t feel as involved as the C4. Granted there are things about the C5 that are superior but overall the C4 just feels more of sports car in my mind. The one caveat I will put out there is that it will help if you are considering a C4 that you are able to work on it yourself. All but the last year are pre OBD 2 so not a lot of shops have the ability/desire to work on them. There is a lot of support from the forums with a wealth of knowledge so don’t be put off if you have some mechanical skill and are willing to get your hands greasy occasionally. They really are a lot of fun and I believe values on them is just starting to gain momentum. I can remember a time not that long ago when early C3’s could be bought for 4 figures and look where they are now.

  • Joe Troise says:

    I think the general disinterest in the C4 Corvette is rational on the part of buyers. After all, buyers set the price of things, and so the low price of the C4 is their “vote”—-no thanks, we’ll take a C5 and get a lot more car for just a little more money. The C4 is very expensive to repair, can be troublesome, and the interior ages in dog years. Entry/exit is a pain, which is why all the steering post bushings are trashed (and here again, not cheap to fix that!). On top of all this, like all cheap “classic” cars, they fall into the wrong hands. So many C4s have been badly modded, trashed, abused, neglected, smoked in or left in the rain, that if they were puppies someone would be calling the Humane Society to get them away from abusive owners.

  • Arthur Brunwasser says:

    I have an 84, my second one. I just love the clean futuristic lines.

  • The Real Jake says:

    I currently own a 95 C4 Pace Car. I’ve owned two other C4’s, both Quasar Blue. My 90 model is still my favorite because, with its tan interior and tan top, it was striking in that Quasar Blue. The second Quasar Blue was a 92 and had a white interior. When you combine that girlie look along with the Opti Spark, I didn’t keep it long. I’ve owned a C5, a C6 and a C7. Many here brag on the upgrade of the C5 or the C4, but I disagree. I nicknamed my C5, “Pull Key, Wait 10 Seconds” because that was the display I saw most often. Within the first 2 years, the column lock malfunctioned, the battery leaked onto my wiring harness, the fuel pump failed and had an assortment of problems. The C5 also looks fat. It looks like someone took a C4 and blew it up like a balloon. I still don’t like the look. Never had a minutes trouble with either my C6 or C7, great cars. But I chose to go back to my C4 roots.

  • Nathan says:

    A cheap C4 Corvette is an expensive Corvette…Or rather the maintenance and parts on restoring such is the equivalent if not more that that of a Porsche 911/928 / Nissan 300zx Twin Turbo / Toyota Supra. This is from personal experience of owning all of them. The problem being is that the reproduction parts for the Corvette are rubbish / ill fitting. Im a car restorer and restored 22 Corvettes of various years. The pre 90 C4s restoration parts are becoming scarce. New Old Stock parts expensive. That said after 30 years I still own and maintain a 1998 Corvette L98. Its a fun nostalgic car that I will always have affection for. (I sold the 95 2jz Supra for its garage space)

  • hyperv6 says:

    As for looks that is pure subjective. Some love some hate there is no right or wrong.

    As for repair they all have some things that are expensive but most are not bad if you are a bit handy with a wrench.

    C3 have major issues with dear ends when the main spring breaks taking out the rear housing plate. Other have their issues too.

    The main thing is the later cars are not much more and better cars. Since 84 they have gotten better and better till the present.

  • Tom Brollini says:

    Agree with a lot of the comments. Have had a number of Vettes, 65, 69, 87, 96, 00. Needless to say the 65, 9 were great fun & you could work on them. The 87 with the 4+3 was a pain & a ehh car at it’s best. The 96 Collector Edition convertible is much better, but if you think you can get it repaired or replace it with new parts – dream on! I have been trying to get someone to fix the little cheapo plastic switch that controls the air condition/heat for over 2yrs, & I mean “Corvette” shops! They say, way to much time to tear everything out of the dash, remove seats, etc, etc. Have a guy now in FL, where we now live, that says, he’ll fix it, if I’ll pay for it! Well, it’s Fl, & it’s stuck on “heat”, so he’s getting it on the 17th! That said, I like to drive it better than my wife’s 00.

    Like someone else said, I have been waiting for the C6 GS or ZRs to come down – for a long time – may not live long enough for that to happen. Still some of the 90s C4s are worth having.

  • Albert says:

    there has been no mention of the 92 c4 built by Lingenfelter-ther were only 6 built with high performance and a 383 cu in motor

    • Eddy Eckart says:

      Good point, Albert! Although Callaway was available directly from dealerships, Lingenfelter was another force to be reckoned with as a tuner.

  • Paul D says:

    On owning a C4, I find them a lot of fun to drive, they are really good auto crossers, and we will never live long enough to see another clam shell hood, a feature I love for esthetic and service reasons. However, they are tough to get in and out of, seats and steering columns take a beating and the OptiSpark distributors are problematic and expensive to replace. But I love the last of the C4 gen, especially the 95/96 models with the LT 4 engine and manual trans. And while it’s true you can buy a C5 for some little more money, you really can’t compare them. They are different cars.

  • Bob S says:

    I bought my 91 ZR1 2 years ago & have enjoyed it like no other car. I just can’t get enough of that LT5 winding up to 7,000 RPM it has to be experienced.
    Plenty of parts available if you know where to look. Joining ZR1 Net Registry ties you into a network of ZR1 enthusiasts and lots of support for the car. Personally the performance for the buck is exceptional & I can work on the car with mostly basic tools & a scan tool. I like the way the car handles & I haven’t had the squeak’s & pops some complain about. I’ve had to replace normal ware items which are readily available. The engine if properly maintained is almost bulletproof.
    Plenty of smiles to the mile.

  • gvance13 says:

    I have a ‘96 convertible collectors addition, one of the few that came from the factory with a removable hard top. With less than 50K miles on it. One beautiful car and I prefer it to the C5. I have had few problems with the car, primarily the air conditioning heating module that controls the different vents, which I repaired myself.
    This is a great car, while I wish it would increase in value, it’s not the first Vette to see its value stay stuck in the as noted “ Affordable Zone”, like my 1973 corvette they can cost more to restore than they are worth.
    One way to think of it is there is a lot of cheap parts out there driving around should you need a donor car. Drive them and enjoy them, isn’t that what it’s all about?

  • Dave N Noble says:

    I own a 40th anniversary ZR-1 with 39k miles. How many years might I need to keep it before it might bring 50k in price

  • Tom says:

    My two cents, fwiw as a past C3 & C4 owner. ’72LT-1 A/C coupe 10 yrs. & ’90 ZR-1 #2233 10 yrs. There are parts issues but the aftermarket will catch up eventually if gasoline stays long enough. When I was fixing my ’72 in ’78 the parts were scarce. Same in ’05 thru ’15 with the Z. Availability got better over time with the C4. If enough survive parts will get easier still. Now you need a FSMM no matter what gen vette you have. You need tools and a place to work and willingness to learn. Join the forums. Buy a snap-on OBDI scanner, I had an MT2500 from ebay. Look for a Vertronix Tech 2A on ebay for your C4 as it’s the GM tool, call Bosch as they bought them and can help you out with software & repairs.
    If you own or buy a ZR-1 join the registry. We have ppl who make parts, and tuners that have to knowledge that you need to solve most small & major issues. We have ppl who will give you all the help you need as there is a genuine sense of “Brotherhood”, we call ourselves “Brothers of the Beast”. I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve driven to help other BOB’s fix their cars. We just do it. Get a Z and you’ll see what this “permagrin” condition is all about that we speak of. Oh, the C4 is the last of the analog cars, I think? Throttle, brakes, steering, manual transmission, no 4 channel anti-lock or ASR till 93. The C5- C7 lost various aspects of the aforementioned along the way, and the C8 is a fully digital car. I’ll say one more thing about old vettes. The best my LT-1 and ZR-1 ever ran is when I drove them more than they sat. Drive ’em if you have ’em! You ZR-1 owner’s ? Drive them. Go look at our 100k mile list. I sold mine at 66+k and she was better than when I got her at 7400 miles.

  • LoudV8 says:

    I owned a 96 LT4 Collector edition coupe. Sold it, missed it and picked up another 96 Collector LT4 convertible the second time. Both nice cars but now out of my system and I moved on. I preferred the last year C4 with the LT4 and manual which meant 330 hp. No hate on the other year C4’s but to each his/her own.

  • Roy M. says:

    Only ever had two C4 Corvettes, a white on red 91 ZR-1 and our current Admiral Blue on black 94 ZR-1. Both cars I imported to Norway myself.

    The Admiral is modded with 400 rwhp and has both 4,10 gears and lightweight flywheel which makes it feel even quicker. Add the Watson headers and Corsa exhaust and the driving experience we get is like something else.

    “Permagrin” really is a thing 😁

    For me, owning a sorted (by Haibeck) and modified late model Z in my favourite color is about as good as it gets. Gets lots of attention everywhere we go, both due to the popping color but also the wicked sound. Just love it!

    If you buy a well maintained and regularly driven ZR-1 there is no need to worry about “hard to get parts” or “rarity that makes it too expensive”. What IS hard is finding a more thrilling car for the money.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    I’ll take the ZR1. Possibly the best looking Corvette engine ever.

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