When the 1984 Corvette was introduced in the spring of 1983, it set the automotive world on its ear. It wasn’t just a breath of fresh air, it was like taking a long, undiluted hit of pure oxygen. After 14 years of the long-in-tooth C3, the 1984 Corvette ushered in the budding decade of the eighties with many high-water engineering milestones.
This new Corvette debuted with a non-structural composite body, a drivable chassis, unidirectional tires, electronic instrumentation, and slinky, slippery styling that made everything else look old and dowdy. Though some might disagree, the C4 established the modern blueprint that led to all later iterations of front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Corvettes.
It was also a demon on a road course. In fact, it was so good and so fast, the Sports Car Club of America banned it in the late eighties. According to an article from our friends over at Hagerty, “Auto racing might be the only sport that penalizes a team for winning. When that happened to the C4 Corvette in the late 1980s, the incident started an intriguing new chapter in the marque’s racing history. The C4 Corvette thrust Chevy’s sports car into supercar handling territory, if not ultimate speed, when it debuted in 1984. With 0.9-g cornering, reliable Chevy small-block V-8 performance, and excellent brakes, the C4 quickly proved its mettle in SCCA Showroom Stock GT racing. The Vette utterly dominated the podium in the Playboy and then Escort Endurance Championship from 1985–87, relegating the Porsche 944 Turbo to a cameo role in the series.
“The Corvette beat Porsche 29–0 from 1985 to 1987, says John Powell, who ran a racing school at Canada’s Mosport track in Ontario, Canada, and campaigned ‘Vettes in that series. Corvette fans were happy, but the ‘Vette’s dominance threatened race participation by other brands, as well as fan attendance.
“And so, after the 1987 series, the SCCA booted the Corvettes. Powell says that when Corvette chief engineer Dave McLellan asked him for ideas, he proposed creating a new spec series along the lines of the Player’s Challenge that he’d produced in Canada for the Camaro and Firebird. Chevy leadership and marketing got onboard with his proposal and birthed the now-famous Corvette Challenge.”
The C4 also began what would become a Corvette tradition that eluded the poor old C3. While Chevrolet let the Shark flounder in the automotive equivalent of a tidepool, Corvette Chief Engineer Dave McLellan implemented constant improvement of the C4 through its twelve-year lifespan. Tuned Port Injection, ABS, Traction Control, adjustable suspension, and the multi-valve LT5, ZR1 “King of the Hill” model were just some of the highlights. As a finale in the early nineties, the C4 received a very deft cosmetic refresh and the LT1 V8 which was probably underrated at 300hp.
The LT5 ZR1 was wicked fast on the track and smashed speed records in 1990 as well. “A stock ZR-1 set seven international and world records at a test track in Fort Stockton, Texas on March 1, 1990, verified by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) for the group II, class 11 category:”
- 100 miles (160 km) at 175.600 mph (282.601 km/h)
- 500 miles (800 km) at 175.503 mph (282.445 km/h)
- 1,000 miles (1,600 km) at 174.428 mph (280.715 km/h)
- 5,000 km (3,100 mi) at 175.710 mph (282.778 km/h) (World Record)
- 5,000 miles (8,000 km) at 173.791 mph (279.690 km/h) (World Record)
- 12 Hours Endurance at 175.523 mph (282.477 km/h)
- 24 Hours Endurance at 175.885 mph (283.059 km/h) for 4,221.256 miles (6,793.453 km) (World Record)
In total, the C4 had an incredible twelve-year run and is undeniably a bright spot in the history of the marque. Fast-forward to today and the C4 is the misfit of the Corvette hobby.
Huh? How did this happen?
Well first off, Chevrolet made approximately 350,000 of them as it was a big seller over twelve friggin’ model years. To put it bluntly, there ain’t anything rare about a C4.
Secondly, the car is a bitch to get in and out of and that’s soured many folks on C4s. Lastly but most critical, the reason the C4 is at the bottom of Corvette desirability is because it missed the LS revolution. Had the C4 been the recipient of an LS update, as opposed to the reverse-flow LT1 in 1992, it would be a triple hot commodity, not only on the used car market, but with modders and rodders as well. Sadly, that was bestowed on the new for 1997 C5 and the rest is history.
Which brings us to this YouTube video we saw recently from the guys at Everyday Driver.
They drive three affordable used sports cars, a Porsche Boxster, a Nissan 370Z and a later-era C4 Coupe, each valued at $10k or under. As Corvette fans, we could care less about lumpy Nissans or dopey Porsches with fried-egg headlights and tiny, trouble prone motors. We want to know how the Corvette compares.
It turns out, they loved it! They wax euphorically about its poise, power and road worthiness. The most telling aspect of this comparison happens at 18:44 in the video. One of the talking heads says, “We never have spent much time in a C4…” I would wager to say the most vocal critics of the C4 haven’t spent much time in one, or know jack about it’s still impressive performance envelope or history of trophies and speed records.
As the owner of a 1995 roadster, I can tell you the car has many virtues. I bought my four-owner, 35k original mile car in Lincoln Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, in the summer of 2016. It was an accident-free car that had been properly maintained over its lifetime. I always say, but the best car you can right out of the gates, it will save you headaches down the road.
After four years of ownership, my C4 has revealed itself to be a multi-talented sports car. It has an ample reserve of power, a hell of a passing gear, and is a tremendous highway cruiser, easily inhaling ribbons of asphalt with nary a quibble. Also, I prefer Jerry Palmer’s styling to that of the C5 and C6. It has longer front and rear overhangs and has just a skosh of old-school styling mixed in with the air tunnel tuned shape.
I modded my car with 18-inch CCW SP500 wheels, Nitto NT555 G2 tires and Baer Eradispeed rotors. I also upgraded the interior with Mid America Motorworks seat covers. When the car was finished, I placed third in my class at the Plastic Fantastic Car Show in San Diego in 2018.
The car does have well-known C4 bugaboos, (OptiSpark, Fisher-Price interior, flexible chassis, shift lockout failure, and steering rag-joint waddle) but other than that, it has been incredibly stout and reliable. It’s probably the last true Corvette as well. What I mean by that, it’s an exotic, rough and tumble bruiser that revels in its uncompromising personality. The C5 became a “real car” with all the rough edges polished off and while a quantum leap forward, it brought the Corvette into the era of modern automotive refinement. An old-school Corvette is about many things, but polished edges ain’t one of them.
So to all the folks who hate C4s, please drive one before slagging them? Learn the incredible history of the car too. I think when we’re all driving autonomous pods, the C4 Corvette might come back into favor with a new set of fans, especially ones who are unaware of the current Debbie Downer narrative.
Until then, buy the best one you can, focus on well-maintained model of any year, and snap them up while they’re cheap.