Why I'm Searching For An Ugly Duckling Corvette

The search for a decent restorable 'Vette begins.

Swap Meet C4
You're more likely to find a low-cost 'Vette at a local swap meet than at a fancy sports car auction. Photo by Jeff Zurschmeide

There are certain articles of faith in the world of Corvette enthusiasts. The first is that Corvettes are better than any other car on the road, and that's not open to dispute. Only slightly less absolute is the notion that a mid-80s Corvette is undesirable and will never be worth much money.

The current rage in the market for classic sports cars is to spend absurd sums on the most desirable cars, while substantially similar models are considered far less "collectible." This is why there's a glut of counterfeit performance models circulating and sometimes even making it to the premier auctions before being unmasked. Most often, the seller is completely innocent, having purchased the car under false pretenses himself. Unfortunately, it is the "last buyer" who takes the hit in value.

That's just one of the reasons that, when it comes to cars (and especially Corvettes) I'm a contrarian investor. The most important reason is that I'm a cheapskate who can't afford $250,000 for a 1967 L88 Convertible, but I also believe that there's just as much fun to be had in a Corvette that "no one" wants. Since I don't expect to fund my retirement on the appreciation of my car collection, I think that puts me in a better position to find a bargain Corvette and enjoy it.

That principle is the guiding light on my odyssey to find, purchase, restore, and enjoy my own 'Vette. That process will be documented here in detail, including costs and challenges along the way.

The car I choose will not be older than 1974, and not newer than 1996. It will cost less than $5,000 to purchase, and when I'm done it may not be worth much more than that. But my Corvette will run strong, pass a smog test, and be fun to drive. It may even win a show award or two.

At this point, the candidates for the Ugly Duckling are:

  • 1973-1982 C3 Coupe - these top contenders sport wonderfully swoopy third-generation Corvette “Stingray” styling, but were hobbled with an anemic series of 350 cubic inch engines, producing only 180-200 horsepower. Most of them were also delivered with the same automatic transmission delivered in a 1/2-ton pickup truck of the same model year. Yet, this generation of Corvettes is still carbureted and easy to upgrade. A little creativity with one of these could deliver a phenomenal custom ‘Vette.
  • 1984-1988 C4 Coupe - After taking a production break in 1983, Chevy brought out the C4 body. While this generation was smoothed over for a more modern look, the basic coupe failed to catch on. Now they're just considered to be "old cars" but not yet funky and collectible. The interiors of this generation come in for special criticism, but where others see decay, there's also the possibility of low-cost restoration and upgrade.
  • 1989-1996 C4 Coupe - As the 1990s progressed, the desirability of the C4 improved, to the point where a 1996 'Vette is barely affordable as a low-cost, high sweat equity project. These cars rise in value and desirability over the years for good reasons. As Detroit figured out how to manage fuel injection and began the long climb out of their quality deficit, the market responds. Perhaps a later model is really the best choice?

If you were going to pick one of these, which one would it be? 

Updated by Sarah Shelton