There’s a certain order of things in the car industry. Some brands and badges just sit higher up on the totem pole of price than others. A Lincoln more expensive than a Ford, a Lexus more expensive than a Toyota, a 5-Series more expensive than a 3-Series, etc. Convention also dictates that a Corvette is supposed to be pricier than a Camaro. That’s certainly the case when shopping for new cars in 2022, and it was the case in 2012, 2002, 1992 and way on back. If Chevrolet’s pony car is the working man’s whip, America’s sports car is what the owner of the company he works for drives. If the Camaro is attainable, the Corvette is aspirational. Ok, you get the idea. Duh, so what?
Well, when going over our quarterly updates to the Hagerty Price Guide recently, we realized the status quo has been upset for a certain Chevy performance pair, specifically from those mustachioed muscle years of the 1980s. Not only is a Camaro IROC-Z (1985-90) worth more than the equivalent base C4 Corvette (1984-96), it’s worth a lot more. More than twice as much, actually, and this reversal of things predates both the recent boom in interest for all things ‘80s cars and ‘80s revival events like Radwood.
We have a major market anomaly on our hands, then. Sort of like booking a guided African safari for cheaper than a trip to the local zoo, or eating at a restaurant whose steak is cheaper than the burger. To try and understand this contradiction, we found a pair of these star-spangled mullet-mobiles— Sajeev Mehta’s 1985 Corvette and Kay Yasoni’s 1988 Camaro IROC-Z —for a back-to-back drive on a (finally) cool fall morning in Houston, TX.
We wanted to find out if, perhaps, modern car collectors are on to something that wasn’t obvious to General Motors product planners in the 1980s. That wouldn’t be unheard of. Some of the hottest cars on the market were, at one point, thought to be attainable or lesser. A Mini Cooper from the 1960s can easily be worth as much or more than some contemporary Rolls-Royces; a Mazda MX-5 Miata can easily bring more money than contemporary Cadillacs and Lincolns—and that kind of makes sense. This sort of thing happens all the time in other markets. Vincent Van Gogh died a failure. Now his works are priceless.
OK, 1980s Chevys are some distance from one of the founding fathers of modern art. Yet they were, in their own way, significant breaks with the past. Debuting in 1982 and 1984, respectively, the third-gen Camaro and the fourth-gen Corvette were the right cars at the right time for General Motors. Both of their predecessors were long-in-the-tooth and near-caricatures of their former selves by the early ‘80s. Thanks to computer-aided design, fuel injection and more sophisticated suspension, the General finally pulled these American sports cars out of the malaise era. “We needed to get the Corvette back to the performance level of 1970,” said Dave McLellan, the Corvette’s chief engineer during the C4 years. They mostly pulled it off, with Car and Driver calling the first all-new Corvette in 20 years “a true-born, world-class sports car loaded with technical sophistication.” The Camaro, meanwhile, was another breath of fresh air that brought a completely new look to Chevy’s pony car as well, leading Motor Trend to award it Car of the Year honors for 1982.
The Z28 was the speediest Camaro upon the third gen’s debut in 1982, but from 1985-90 top dog in the lineup was the IROC-Z Sport Equipment package, often shortened by funny-haired gearheads everywhere to simply “IROC.” The $659 option took its name from the International Race of Champions, a race series pitting the stars of NASCAR, Indy, and sports car racing against each other in identical Chevy Camaros.
The actual IROC race cars weren’t much more than Camaro-shaped shells on top of a NASCAR tube chassis. But, like any good car company, Chevrolet was never one to miss a marketing opportunity and slapped IROC decals and a body kit on its latest flagship Camaro. Uprated suspension, bigger sway bars, upgraded wheels and tires, fog lights, and a choice of V-8 engines came with the stickers. For the second half of the 1980s, the IROC was the Camaro to have, with the most power, and of course the most flash.
It initially came with a 305 V8 in one of two outputs and with either a 5-speed manual or TH700-R4 automatic, but 1987 brought a 350 L98 engine with Tuned Port Injection, 225 horsepower, and 330 lb-ft of torque. This was essentially the same engine as its two-seat stablemate, the Corvette, but in the IROC it only came with two pedals. No rowing your own gears allowed. Even so, it was the largest, hottest engine fitted to the third gen. For 1988, Chevrolet slimmed down the Camaro lineup by dropping the LT and Z28 models, leaving only the base coupe and the IROC-Z. Although a taller final drive was paired with the 350 engine, its output kept rising, up to 245 horses for 1990. The International Race of Champions series began using Dodge Daytonas in the ‘90 season, so Chevy dropped the IROC-Z package in 1991, reinstating the Z28 as the range-topper.
Owner Kay Yasoni’s IROC is a bone-stock, Bright Red ‘88 model with the desirable L98 350 and T-tops, and it has gotten the kind of restoration work normally seen on older, more valuable pony cars. Maybe it’s the color or maybe it’s because I haven’t seen such a clean third gen Camaro in 20 years, but this car looks fantastic, even next to the Corvette that was supposed to be the premium offering. Its ‘80s angles have aged well.
The inside is straightforward ‘80s GM (plastic, lots of plastic) with gray cloth seats and right angles everywhere with square vents, stereo, and switchgear. The only things round other than the leather-wrapped steering wheel are the simple gauges—speedo on the left, tach on the right, and auxiliary readouts in the middle. It’s more restrained than one might expect for a decal-laden performance car named after a race series, but it is functional.
The IROC is easy to get into and easy to drive. There may not be the urgency or angry noise we’re used to from modern muscle, but the torquey L98 thrusts you forward with exciting oomph. Cornering is sharper, flatter, and more planted than we expected, thanks in part to tires much more modern than the original Goodyear Gatorbacks that came on the IROC.
Easy-to-remove glass T-tops offer a clear view of the sky above, and aside from a hint of red fenders and hood vents there’s a panoramic view of the road ahead as well. I may have forgotten my Whitesnake cassette, but it turns out I didn’t need it—driving this IROC turns back the clock plenty. As a performance car, the IROC both then and now leaves something to be desired. As a Time Machine, though, it’s hard to beat. It’s a fun car that people fall in love with it because it brings back memories and feels very of-its-era.
The Corvette is similarly oh-so-’80s, but for different reasons. When Chevy’s fourth generation plastic fantastic launched for 1984, it was arguably the Corvette’s biggest leap forward in technology and design, at least until today’s mid-engine C8. Whereas the C3 was merely a major update of the 1963-67 C2, the C4 was fresh from stem to stern.
The crisp body produced 24 percent less drag than the C3, the rear hatch offered more space for luggage, and the clamshell hood offered more room to service the engine. A “uniframe” chassis combined a traditional rail frame with separate frames for the windshield and B-pillar integrated into it. A removable targa roof bolted in between the A- and B-pillars. Front A-arms and spindles were computer-designed and for the first time and made from forged aluminum, while the compact multilink rear suspension sported a transverse fiberglass leaf spring. An all-digital instrument cluster gave off Tron vibes in a time when most cars had only recently gotten an itty-bitty digital clock.
Motor Trend called the ’84 Corvette the “World’s Best Handling Production Car,” and a TV commercial bragged that it was “so remarkably well-designed that it’s destined to become another classic.” Despite that, initial reviews complained of the new Vette’s jarring ride as well as incessant creaking and rattling from the plasticky cabin. GM improved the ’85 Corvette’s ride with softer spring rates, while the 350 cubic-inch, 230hp L98 engine debuted under the hood. The workhorse L98 would power the base Corvette until it was replaced by the 300-hp LT1 in 1992. Transmissions were still either automatic or, from 1984-88, a “4+3” manual built by Doug Nash that was essentially a traditional 4-speed with overdrive on the top three gears.
And even though the IROC has a racy name, the Corvette wouldn’t be America’s sports car without some motorsports history of its own to back up those crossed flags on the hood. In SCCA Showroom Stock GT racing, C4s swept the Playboy and then Escort Endurance Championship from 1985-87, and there was nothing the Porsche 944 Turbos could do to stop them. So dominant were the Corvettes that they were booted into the single-marque Corvette Challenge series.
Mehta’s car hails from the C4’s sophomore year of 1985. An 11,000-mile creampuff, it’s finished in oh-so-eighties two-tone bronze over the rare cloth seats (only available until 1993). It also has the relatively scarce 4+3 manual, fitted to only a little over a quarter of the Corvettes that rolled out of Bowling Green in ’85.
The enormous door sills make getting in and out of a C4 a challenge for anyone, least of all for the 50-somethings who typically buy Corvettes. They say you shouldn’t wear a skirt when driving one of these cars, but it’s awkward no matter what you’re wearing.
If the Camaro’s interior is a cabin, the C4’s is a cockpit. A slightly cramped one that nestles you in between the aforementioned sill and an equally tall transmission tunnel, the green and orange glow of that arcade-game instrument cluster greeting you from behind the two-spoke steering wheel.
If squeaks and rattles were standard factory equipment on the C4, as the old joke goes, they left them out when building this one. It was no noisier than the Camaro. We didn’t take the roof off, though, which in a C4 allows the body to flex and creak through corners and over bumps.
Even with the roof on, a C4 lumbers and rolls through corners more than one might expect, feeling planted but certainly not light on its feet. Step on the go-pedal, though, and the car livens up, feeling as though its 230-horse, 330 lb-ft torque ratings are delivering more than what the digital speedometer is reading (a hybrid-analog-digital dash arrived in 1990; dim or failing gauges are common on the earlier cars). These two bow ties weigh within a hundred pounds of each other and share the L98 engine, but the Corvette feels considerably quicker.
When the ’80s kitsch falls away, you’re left with a more purposeful sports car than the contemporary Camaro. It’s lower, quicker, more exciting. It’s a more entertaining experience behind the wheel whether you’re driving it or sitting in traffic. Even the interior’s gimmicks and eccentricities lend a sense of occasion missing in the IROC’s sea of plastic. Of course, this is as it should be. The Corvette was then, as now, GM’s performance flagship and cost more than even a loaded IROC when new (an IROC could get to $20K with options, but the ’85 Corvette started at $24K).
So, what gives? Why has the condition #2 value for Kay’s car surged 225 percent over the last 10 years while Sajeev’s has puttered along at 35 percent? Why are low-mile IROCs storming through Bring a Trailer for prices over $40,000 and even $60,000 while base C4s in similar condition are lucky to sell in the 20s?
There isn't one big answer, but there may be a few smaller ones. One is the rarity of good-condition IROCs. Chevrolet sold third-gen Camaros by the lot, but IROCs were expensive. Kay's red coupe is one of 24,050 IROC-Zs sold in 1988, but only about half of that number came the big engine. Also, many IROCs lived hard, well-used lives, and as they aged they were frequently left to the elements. Meanwhile, Sajeev's C4 is one of nearly 40,000 Corvettes sold for '85, and if the typical IROC buyer was out looking for a stop light drag, the Corvette owner was a middle-aged family man who only drove it on the weekends. As such, the C4 survival rate is higher, the typical mileage lower.
There's also the fact that while the IROC-Z is top dog among third-gen Camaros, an early C4 has to look at the taillights of Callaways, ZR-1s, Grand Sports and even later base cars. Mehta's bronze beauty is a very nice car, but it's no "King of the Hill" ZR-1 (although even ZR-1s remain relatively affordable).
There's also a question of demographics. Now, as then, the Camaro remains a car for younger folks despite its high price. Nearly half of Hagerty insurance quotes for C4s come from Baby Boomers, even though Boomers make up just 35 percent of the market as a whole. Even though the C4 is the cheapest way into the white-sneaker-sophistication that is Corvette ownership, younger enthusiasts have mostly shied away. Meanwhile, Gen Xers apparently go gaga for third-gen Camaros. Although Gen Xers make up 32 percent of the market as a whole, they own about half of the IROCs insured with Hagerty. IROC values started to soar in 2014, about when this generation of enthusiasts entered their high-earning, mid-life fun-car buying years. That's probably not a coincidence.
Last but not least, there are impossible-to quantify matters of perspective. Even with the old jokes about mullet-wearing owners, these Camaros really play to nostalgia—a powerful force in any collector market. For those of a certain age, the IROC was the attainable car they dreamed of—the car the coolest kid in your high school might have driven. The C4 Corvette, rightly or wrongly may be remembered as something your buddy's dad drove, probably while wearing New Balances and high socks. Even the C4's technological advancements might work against it in the minds of collectors. It hails from an era when General Motors squandered a fortune on technical solutions, from paint-shop robots that wound up spraying each other to plastic-bodied compact cars that couldn't match the refinement of contemporary Hondas. It's also sort of stuck in a middle ground where it's too new and electronic to really be considered a "classic" in the sense of a C3, but at the same time it lives in the shadow of the much faster (and today not much pricier) C5.
I still don't get it, though. The massive gulf in value between these cars that used to share showroom space is just too big to make sense, and if one is undervalued, maybe the other is overvalued. Either way, it's yet another case of why the car hobby is not always a rational one.