What to Know Before Buying a Used Corvette

How it has been treated is more telling than its age or mileage

The 2008 Corvette 427 Special Edition Z06, a limited-production model that honors the big-block Stingray models of the mid-1960s.

Alan Poizner for General Motors

Jeff Zurschmeide has been an automotive journalist for more than a decade. His resume includes a stint working for Corvette Market magazine, and his lifelong passion for classic sports cars makes him a natural Corvette fan. He's a good person to answer the question: "What should I know before I buy a used Corvette?"

Question: Why has the Corvette been continuously appealing since it was introduced in 1953?

Answer: With old cars, which is to say before 1984, it's all about muscle and classic looks. The Corvette is a two-seat sports car, and there's always a market for that kind of car. Plenty of people are nuts about them.

Q: Any consumer needs a professional inspection before buying a used car. What are some things that might be an instant deal-breaker for someone looking at a used Corvette?

A: You need to find the right mechanic for the inspection, someone who understands Corvettes and the specific year you're considering. Deal breakers would include any kind of branded title, such as "Salvage" or "Reconstructed." Those cars will always be very hard to resell and aren't usually worth what sellers are asking. You should have a mechanic check it out like any other used car, especially because of the comparatively higher prices Corvettes command and the possibility that the car has been driven very hard.

Q: How can you distinguish between a faithfully restored Corvette with original equipment vs. a Corvette that has non-Corvette parts?

A: That can be a tough call. First, faithfully restored Corvettes are going to be expensive. 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 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. There are chapters of the NCRS 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 Corvettes of a certain era 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 appreciation, lots of resources are devoted to predicting that. Corvette Market magazine is all about "what's it worth today, and what will it be worth tomorrow."

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, 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?" You can buy a comparatively inexpensive Corvette, but if you don't love it, why bother? Buying a car you're going to love is a very personal decision.

Q: Did the 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 to say that people should never buy those cars, though. It depends on what they want to do with them—for instance, if you're planning to cut it up and make a custom or a race car.

Q: What should a buyer look for during a test drive?

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 drive, so a Corvette should have comparatively low mileage.

You might ask the owner to take you for a ride before you drive the car. See if he or she likes 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.

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 shouldn't buy a used Corvette that needs extensive work? Are the fiberglass bodies just too difficult for anybody but a professional to restore?

A: That depends on the definition of "extensive." 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 work 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. Remember: It always costs more and takes longer than you expect.

Q: Are there telltale signs that a Corvette has been driven hard?

A: This is something you should ask the mechanic to check on your pre-purchase inspection. 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.

Q: Does it make sense to buy a certified pre-owned Corvette?

A: Yes, if you're looking at a certified pre-owned, late model used 'Vette, 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.

Q: A lot of used Corvettes get garaged during colder months. How does that affect their value? What's more important, age or miles?

A: Time has its own impact, but mileage is more important. 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 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. Every car has its own story, and so you have to figure out what that story is and evaluate the car accordingly.