If you think today’s Chevrolet Corvette makes a statement with its styling, imagine flipping your calendar back to 1983 when the 1984 Corvette debuted. Sure, it carried over the fiberglass bodywork that had become a Corvette standby, but that was where similarities to its predecessor ended.
The wedgy Corvette was something to behold when it was new. Nearly 40 years on, the C4 ‘Vette, as it’s called to enthusiasts, is ready to have its heyday once again. Certain versions — especially those after the 1992 engine update — are fantastic sports cars with timeless performance belying their age.
If you want one, you’d better act fast. It can’t be too long before the world realizes a reasonable outlay of cash buys 250-plus horsepower, a 6-speed manual transmission, sharp handling, and remarkable reliability.
A Look Back at the Fourth-Generation Corvette
The Corvette skipped its 30th birthday and arrived instead for the 1984 model year. It retained the pop-up headlights of its predecessor, but that was about where the similarities ended. The new, wedgy styling gave the car a distinctive silhouette outside. Big updates inside included a modern dash with digital instrumentation.
The new ‘Vette made the old model feel like an antique from day one, though the two shared a 205-horsepower V8 with a complex, problem-prone Cross-Fire fuel injection system. In the early 1980s, automakers struggled to squeeze power out of big engines while keeping their emissions low. One way Chevy got around this was with a so-called “four-plus-three” manual gearbox that could automatically activate an overdrive gear to save fuel.
Even with those gas-saving measures, the Corvette boasted impressive handling. Single-direction Goodyear tires increased grip, and the car’s standard power steering was tuned for heft and precision, not the overboosted feel typical of Detroit’s cars back in 1984.
The Corvette was a winner on the track, especially in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) Showroom Stock Series competition. The C4 ‘Vette was so impressive that the SCCA eventually banned it from the class.
Though it may be tempting to look for a first-year C4 ‘Vette, like this tan one with just 8,000 miles from a dealer in Florida, the 1985 model brought 25 more horsepower from a bigger engine and used a much more reliable fuel-injection system Chevy called “Tuned Port Injection.” Additionally, Chevy softened the car’s ride quality a bit to make it a more comfortable cruiser. The C4 cemented the Corvette’s status as a grand touring car comfortable enough for long distances. Its big glass hatch revealed surprising cargo utility, and fuel economy was impressive for the power output, thanks in part to the way Chevy geared its flagship from the start.
Chevy kept the ball rolling into 1986 when the Corvette convertible returned to the lineup for the first time since 1975. By the mid-1970s, automakers were concerned the federal government would ban convertibles over safety concerns, so every American brand pulled the plug on nearly all droptops. This ban didn’t happen, of course, and the convertible has been a staple of the Corvette lineup ever since.
Convertibles look great, and you can find some in bold color combinations. Here’s a black 1988 with red leather and a nifty (if not terribly useful) luggage rack at a dealer in Nashville.
The Corvette saw fewer updates into the late 1980s, though a new Z-52 package with Bilstein shocks, wider wheels, and revised rear-end and steering gear brought with it even better handling.
General Motors has long used the Corvette as its tech flagship. In 1984, it offered a Bose audio system (one of the first branded setups), and, for 1987, a tire pressure warning system was newly available.
The Real Performance Era
As the 1980s wound to a close, Chevy started dropping hints it had something massive on the way. The innocuously named ZR-1 looked mostly like a standard model and shared an engine but couldn’t have been more different once under power.
A 5.7-liter V8 designed by Lotus (and built by Mercury Marine, of all firms) lurked under the ZR-1’s long hood. The new engine boasted four valves per cylinder and a staggering 375-hp rating, good for a 4.5-second 0-60 mph sprint.
It was the fastest production car in the world at the time, and its performance stats still hold up more than 30 years on. Making the most of that power was a 6-speed manual gearbox, plus big (for the time) 17-inch wheels wrapped in special Goodyear tires.
For 1991, Chevy massaged the car’s exterior styling, particularly at the rear where the automaker borrowed bits debuted the year prior. Paired with an interior updated a year prior, these later ‘Vettes still feel modern enough today.
The ferocious ZR-1 can be wickedly expensive if you want a preserved one, but those with reasonable mileage and common enough as well. Here’s a black-over-tan one at a dealer just south of Boston.
It’s 1992 where the Corvette really entered the modern performance era. A new LT-1 engine with 300 hp became standard fare for all versions, and it’s best appreciated with the standard 6-speed manual gearbox. Chevrolet built its millionth Corvette in 1992, an impressive run in less than 40 years for what is generally a second or third car for most original owners. The LT-1 was a pretty solid millionth gift to itself.
Around 20,000 were built for 1992, with another 22,000 for a largely identical 1993 model year. A 40th Anniversary edition showed up for 1993 with slick burgundy paint, though dealers ordered nearly a third of production with the option, so it’s not exactly “rare.” They are definitely desirable, though. Here’s a nice manual gearbox one from a private party in Tennessee.
The next year brought an updated interior with a cleaner center console and a standard passenger-side airbag. The LT-1 V8 saw fuel economy tweaks for better fuel economy and smoother power delivery. The ZR-1 lasted through 1995, primarily since Chevy knew that a new model would appear for 1997. Even though this basic design was now a dozen model years old, it was still stylish — and popular.
Out With a Bang
For its final model year, the C4 ‘Vette saw a huge, desirable underhood change: A newly optional small-block V8 called LT-4 rated at 330 hp, optional computer-controlled dampers, and a pair of special editions. A silver model called simply Collector Edition marked the end of the C4, while the blue and white Grand Sport came standard with the LT-4.
The Grand Sport is the one to have — so much so that Chevy most recently copied the package for 2017. Just 1,000 are said to have been built, though they show up for sale often. Here’s one with 24,000 miles — enough to enjoy the power without worry.
For far less, you can find an LT4-powered car that offers serious performance without breaking the bank. Here’s a Collector Edition with 101,000 miles that looks like it’s ready to be driven daily or across the country. Even though its design looked dated by the mid-1990s, the C4 is still an eye-catching coupe. See Chevrolet Corvette models for sale