Home » The C4 Corvette ZR-1 Is The Last Affordable ’90s Supercar

The C4 Corvette ZR-1 Is The Last Affordable ’90s Supercar

Gavel Gazing Corvette Zr1
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Remember when you could buy an Acura NSX for $30,000, or a Ferrari 512TR for $50,000, or a 964 Porsche Turbo for $40,000? Sadly, those days are long gone, but one seriously fast car from the turn of the ’90s may still be within your grasp. The giant-slaying C4 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 is still fast by modern standards, and the current market has early examples priced more reasonably than you might expect. It’s the last ’90s supercar you might be able to afford, so let’s take a closer look at the only front-engined overhead-cam Corvette.

The C4 Corvette ZR-1 is an exercise in how to make an astonishingly quick coupe fly under the radar. To the untrained eye, it looks like any other C4 Corvette parked out front of Hooters. Maybe that’s why the market hasn’t quite picked up on it yet. However, it took the might of Lotus, Chevrolet, and Mercury Marine to build the greatest factory Corvette of the ’90s, a slice of Americana that made Maranello and Stuttgart nervous.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Now, there is a bit of an elephant in the room here. Some might argue the Corvette ZR-1 isn’t quite a supercar, instead falling into the 911 Turbo trap of being an ultra-performance variant of a sports car. After all, it’s substantially similar to the regular Corvette of the time, especially so when the standard car adopted the ZR-1’s trick rear end. However, the original ZR-1 can still post some serious numbers, even if it does look rather ordinary.

What Are We Looking At?

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 Bringatrailer 2

Until the arrival of the C8 Z06, the C4 ZR-1 was the first and only Corvette ever to be offered with an overhead-cam engine, a 5.7-liter V8 GM never used in any other car. This marvelous Lotus-developed, Mercury Marine-assembled LT5 V8 made 375 horsepower at launch, and while that doesn’t sound like much now, it was on par with what you’d get from a Ferrari Testarossa in 1990, the year the C4 ZR-1 launched. It’s also good for zero-to-60 mph in 4.5 seconds during Car And Driver instrumented testing, and it provides enough grunt to kiss 180 mph. Oh, and did I mention you have to insert a special key to access full power? Yep, that’s supercar-y.

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1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 Interior

Then there’s the handling. The C4 ZR-1 may have featured similar suspension to what was available on any C4 Z51 with the FX3 suspension package (only a thicker rear anti-roll bar was added to the ZR-1), but good bones are said to make for a great experience. As Car And Driver wrote:

The car takes mountain turns—hard mountain turns—with a neutrality that would do credit to the Swiss banking industry. The clutch action and the shifter throw make power application pleasurably smooth, and the amount of power available, as we’ve noted, simply exceeds the expectations of sane persons.

We’re talking about a car that was incredibly quick and agile back in 1990, and is still quick and agile today. Standing a 34-year test of time has to count for something, right? While we’re on more subjective supercar details, a price tag of around $50,000 in 1990 money ensured that the ZR-1 was rarified air.

1991 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 Profile

Oh, and what’s a supercar without some records? The C4 Corvette ZR-1 set several FIA group II, class 10 world records including the 5,000-kilometer, 5,000-mile, and 24-hour endurance records. Beyond semantics, the evidence certainly suggests that the C4 Corvette ZR-1 was one of America’s supercars for the ’90s, capable of hanging with the later original Dodge Viper without nearly as many livability sacrifices.

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How Much Are We Talking?

1991 Chevrolet Corvette Zr-1

When I say these things are affordable, I’m not joking. If you can afford a new Chevrolet Malibu, you can probably afford a C4 ZR-1. This 1991 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 with just 22,000 miles on the clock sold for $23,250 on Bring A Trailer last week. Yeah, that’s not a typo. You can still buy a seriously fast slice of pop-up headlight nirvana for less than the base price of a new Chevrolet Malibu. Granted, if you live in America and bought this thing, you’d have to repatriate it from Canada, but if you wanted one located in America, you’re still spoiled for choice.

1990 Chevrolet Corvette Zr-1 Bringatrailer 1

Go back one more week, and this 1990 Corvette ZR-1, also in red, sold on Bring A Trailer for $24,000. With just 39,000 miles on the clock, the paint looks great, the re-trimmed black interior seems nice, and the Toyo Proxes R888R tires just look the business.

1991 Chevrolet Corvette Zr-1 Black 1

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Alright, so maybe red isn’t your jam. How about black? This 1991 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 sold last week on Cars & Bids for $20,750. Sure, it may have 67,200 miles on the clock, but still, $20,750 for a 180-mph quad-cam legend. It might just be the best blend of performance, history, and value on the market.

What Goes Wrong?

C4 Corvette ZR-1 Engine

Normally, classic supercars meld pleasure with pain. Think Ferrari cam belt changes, Porsche 930 engine re-sealing, and the fragility of the Renault transaxles installed in Lotus Esprits. However, the C4 Corvette ZR-1 is unique because it’s relatively unproblematic. After all, it’s still a V8 Chevrolet.

The most common issue? Fuel injectors getting gummed up. The ZR-1 uses 16 fuel injectors, AC Delco part numbers 2173407 for the primaries and 2173406 for the secondaries. The primaries are $62.50 each, the secondaries are around $87 each, so a full set will run you around $1,196 at the time of writing. Not cheap, but not outrageously expensive either. However, it is an issue best addressed as soon as it pops up, as prolonged running with a bad mixture can cause other engine problems. Speaking of fuel, the ZR-1 runs two fuel pumps, and with the age of these cars, one fuel pump can pack up, causing rough running. A replacement is less than $6o.

C4 Corvette Zr 1 Underbody

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Other common problems include oil and coolant leaks. Oil pan gasket leaks may be solved by simply re-torquing the oil pan bolts, but leaky oil cooler lines will require replacement. You can pick up a set from Corvette Central for $332.85, and this braided design should be a vast improvement over the stock parts. As for cooling system leaks, parts are pretty cheap, and DIY is relatively easy.

Aside from that handful of common issues, all the other problems you may encounter with a C4 ZR-1 are problems you may encounter with any C4 Corvette. The weatherstripping may wear, the plastic interior doesn’t hold up the best, you may encounter a handful of minor electrical annoyances, but there aren’t any common deal-breakers. We’re talking wagyu performance on a USDA Prime budget, a ’90s supercar you can actually afford to own.

Should You Buy A Corvette ZR-1?

Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 Rear

Normally, wading into the pool of aged performance cars is cause for trepidation, but the C4 Corvette ZR-1 is a ’90s supercar worth spending your hard-earned cash on. They’re not terribly expensive to buy, not comically costly to run, and dole out a great deal of smiles. So what if they look similar to more mainstream Corvettes? With a monster under your right foot and a sweet, sweet chassis, you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.

The Corvette is the American dream not just because it’s a sports car, and not just because it’s made in America, but because it’s an American sports car with a decent track record for reliability. The King of the Hill is no exception, and it’s a legendary bargain worth picking up before everyone else catches on.

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(Photo credits: Bring A Trailer, Cars & Bids)

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TXJeepGuy
TXJeepGuy
1 month ago

Kinda want a teal one

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
1 month ago

So, C5 or C4 ZR1?

Greensoul
Greensoul
1 month ago

1 more for the road, is a bargain ZR-1 in the same class as a ‘bargain’ Mercedes, Jaguar, or BMW? Inquiring minds want to know

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 month ago
Reply to  Greensoul

The main difference is that after a $5k repair bill, you still only have a Chevy.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 month ago
Reply to  Greensoul

For the Zr1 parts are plentiful and reasonably priced and pretty easy to find. So, not in the same class in that way at all.

Greensoul
Greensoul
1 month ago

Other than a nicely for the times styled dashboard, they were overpriced crap then and overpriced crap now. Had a rich buddy that was gifted a 86 cross fire injected shifter limited (1 then shift to 4 How F-ed up is that for a stick) upon graduation. what a POS. He made fun of my 86 CRX despite the fact it got him home many times when his Vette crapped out. He’d joke, you have a poor people 2 seater, when I would remind him I just saved him from a walk from his rich people 2 seater breaking down and yet again! The reason this generation of vettes is so low mile is this, it’s hard to gain road miles when your car is up on a lift. This gen of vette was kinda ugly and soulless too boot. Worst gen ever.

TXJeepGuy
TXJeepGuy
1 month ago
Reply to  Greensoul

The crossfire was garbage. The later LT1 and LT5 cars are not in the same league.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
1 month ago

I’ve looked at listings for ZR1s and thought about it. I grew up with C4s, although I actually preferred older Vettes (still do, but those are even more unrealistic unless I want some slushbox, wheezing 1977 L48 car).

I always, I guess incorrectly, assumed the LT5 had some unobtanium parts that made them a gamble for us regular Joes with a budget.

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago

They’ve been a bargain for quite a while and, considering the price climb on crap like B-bodies and non-GN G-bodies (I mean, I love those things, but WTF with these prices) in comparison to the more slow rising prices for ZR1s, they’re maybe even more so now. I always liked them, but they’re just not “me”. The Callaway twin turbos, though…I saw one on the street for the first time only about 3 years ago and was amazed at how much more exotic it looked than the C4-with-a-body-kit that I thought it would be from photos. When I checked on those (because, of course, I had to), the prices were similar to the ZR1s, but probably a nightmare to own and the ZR1 is likely the better actual car to own and drive.

Allen Lloyd
Allen Lloyd
1 month ago
Reply to  Cerberus

Rode in a Callaway once it was very impressive. My dad had a base C4 so I had logged tons of miles in it.

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago
Reply to  Allen Lloyd

That’s awesome! Seems like they’d be a blast.

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago

Also why would you list a car on an online auction site and not put the wheels on correctly?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

The USA had no supermarket in the 90s. This is a supercar like a Yugo is a Holy Grail. Rare because unwanted isn’t the same as rare because wanted too much.

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago

The problem with these, and it’s why I decided on a regular LT1 C4 over a ZR-1 when I bought mine (and specifically sought out a Z07 to get the same level of handling), is still that barrier to entry. There’s generally nothing in ZR-1s that’s truly scary to get (except rear bodywork and related things) vs a regular C4 and generally just has a minor surcharge, and that engine is truly wonderful. It has power everywhere and just pulls and pulls and pulls all the way up to its redline and sounds phenomenal at all times.

But the end result of it in the C4 is a car that’s basically as fast as a later C5 with the consequence of being a fair whack heavier while also having all of the C4 downsides; and while I at the time didn’t want a C5 at all because I loathe the C5’s Silverado interior I also didn’t want to spend C5 money on a C4. Now that ZR-1s are starting to go up in price past where even early C6s are I feel they are even more untenable.

Last edited 1 month ago by Logan King
My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 month ago
Reply to  Logan King

I think there is just something special about that ZR1 motor. In stock form it’s great. But it has so much more potential too. Lingenfelter tuned them up to 530 HP at the crank without forced induction. And even those motors hold up.

I would also take a Z06 C5 though most of the ones I see are beat on pretty hard or a garage queen.

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
1 month ago
Reply to  Logan King

Im with you. I had a 99 rfc c5 6 speed. Great fun for a 28 year old degenerate american male. But I don’t miss it.

I’d rather get a c6 with that kinda money.

But I never driven a c4. I kinda think the interior looks cooler then a c5 in a goofy night rider sort of way.

I don’t miss my c5 interior. Silverado is a great way to describe it. It was better then my zx2… which isn’t saying much…. but it shoulda been a whole lot more betta

I’d like to try a c4 just to confirm my suspicions. With different wheels maybe I could be in love with it.

Last edited 1 month ago by Taxi maniac
Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago
Reply to  Taxi maniac

C4s drive pretty different from C5s. Not all of that is to the better (the chassis definitely has more perceptible flex even with the roof on and the rear suspension geometry makes it more skiddish than a C5/C6) but some of it is definitely for the better. Steering feel is much better albeit a touch too heavy, body roll and brake dive is much less perceptible even though it’s probably not much different, etc. Some of that is due to ergonomics, I think (controls more easily fall to hand, you feel much more “at one” with the car due to the more snug cockpit and much better seats) but a lot of it is probably just because it’s a car with similarly sized tires on narrower tracks and a much shorter wheelbase.

It feels like a faster, better handling car even though the C5 by every objective measured superlative is superior, and I’d honestly say that the C4 feels more like a bigger, heavier (and flexier and rattly-er) BRZ/FRS than it does like the thing that came before the C5.

Last edited 1 month ago by Logan King
Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago

I have always had a soft spot for the C4 Corvette, especially in ZR-1 or LT4 Grand Sport guise. I’ve never understood why the market has slept on the ZR-1 when it has shown so much love to the Viper, except for perhaps that every Viper is a Viper, and not every Corvette is a ZR-1. Personally, as much as I love the Viper, I’d rather own a ZR-1.

Vic Vinegar
Vic Vinegar
1 month ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

Loved the LT4 Grand Sport. I think they’ll never be cheap though.

Taxi maniac
Taxi maniac
1 month ago
Reply to  Squirrelmaster

I’d rather have a mint viper then a zr1 any day.

Viper is what you drooled over in magazines in the 90s. And its still so much sexier then a c4. The viper was the regular guy swinging for the fences and somehow hitting a walk off home run against Mariano Rivera.

Yea the viper was ridiculous and incredibly compromised, but that’s what you get with super cars.

I’d rather drive a zr1 then a viper as a daily driver…. but I’m not gonna do that with either car.

If Joe dirt grew up in the 90s he’s grabbing a viper when he hits the lottery not a c4. Joe dirt is my hero

Last edited 1 month ago by Taxi maniac
Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago
Reply to  Taxi maniac

You’re not necessarily wrong with any of that, but the Viper is also one of those “Don’t meet your hero” cars, where people finally get to sit/ride in the car and realize that the car doesn’t meet up with their imagination for various reasons. The ZR-1 is sort of the opposite, where people have lesser expectations of it, which it typically surpasses, and I am the type who appreciates things that exceed expectations.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago

I agree the ZR1 is a hidden gem, but I am a bit skeptical that any non-trashed 512TR ever changed hands for $50K.

Those things were $100K+ even back when I was reading DuPont Registry in the early 00s.

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

I don’t know about $50k for a 512TR, but I remember half-decent earlier ones were around $50-75k for a while, though that was bottom of depreciation. At the time, they weren’t that rare, but expensive to maintain with issues that come from them not being worth much (poor maintenance individually leading to bad reputation for the model plus badly sorted ones by budgeters making them seem like bad drivers). I also think a bit of it had to do with what was considered a “cheesy” ’80s association that’s now cool (though that isn’t that recent). Anyway, I’m sure you’re aware of the traditional used exotic market.

V10omous
V10omous
1 month ago
Reply to  Cerberus

Yeah, the 80s Testarossa has always been much cheaper than the early 90s 512TR and I could see the market for those bottoming at $50K though not for very long.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago
Reply to  V10omous

512BB has entered the conversation.

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
1 month ago

You can usually get injectors rebuilt to new spec for 1/4-1/3 of new price. It’s the way to go.

Millermatic
Millermatic
1 month ago
Reply to  Noahwayout

It seems like most of those “rebuilding” services are for flow testing and ultrasonic cleaning. Which can be a great service… but it’s not “rebuilding” them.

Noahwayout
Noahwayout
1 month ago
Reply to  Millermatic

Usually a couple o-rings, filter basket, and a spacer is common. You can certainly do this at home but the flow-testing is the important part since that’s were you ID the injectors that can’t be rebuilt. ~$25 a piece is a good value for this service.

Last edited 1 month ago by Noahwayout
Maymar
Maymar
1 month ago

I could see the argument made for either the Viper or Lotus Esprit as reasonably affordable 90’s supercars still (enough sub-$40k results on BaT, at least from a quick search).

Millermatic
Millermatic
1 month ago
Reply to  Maymar

I’ll take the Lotus over the ZR-1 or Viper. Heck… I’ll take the Lotus (a Series 3 or later) over the ZR-1 _and_ Viper.

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago
Reply to  Maymar

S4 and V8 Esprits have largely been pushing 60 grand for the past few years as a rough floor. That’s not horrendously expensive (I considered getting one myself a few years ago before getting a 996 instead) but they are also a car that is somewhat inherently a bit of a basket case.

Millermatic
Millermatic
1 month ago
Reply to  Logan King

Sigh. I know they are basket cases. But they are such achingly beautiful basket cases.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 month ago

The amount of support for these things is really amazing. You can find and replace or fix anything on these.

Aftermarket is everywhere and there are so many active and helpful clubs and websites its nuts.

Even the specialized crap. Adjustable dampers go bad? Guess what Billstein will rebuild them for you (if you want to pay).
There are people that will rebuild the amplifiers on each of the speakers or pretty much any part of the BOSE GOLD stereo system. If you care to keep the original.
Or, when the clutch slave cylinder goes you can just run to your local autozone, they probably have one in stock (seriously).

Some things are harder (like the inflatable lumbar bladders in the adjustable seats) but it’s few and far between.

Logan King
Logan King
1 month ago

And even then, you can find usually something that will work. The lumbar bladders in my seats were toast when I got them (because I added the earlier sport seats that looked like the fighter jet seats to my ’94), so I went to a junkyard and yanked lumbar bladders out of a couple of first generation X5s and they fit like a glove in the exact same spot.

Cerberus
Cerberus
1 month ago

I put lumbar bladders in my GR86 using blood pressure cuffs between the seat springs and foam. They work well.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 month ago

Jokes about Corvette owners aside, I would buy one if I wanted or could afford another toy.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
1 month ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

My experience is that the old timers have all moved on to c5 or newer. Most C4s I come across are enthusiasts or someone driving a beater/survivor. So I think you largely avoid the stigma anyway.

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