The Folly Of Youth: Slip-Slidin’ Corvette or Greasy-Kid’s-Stuff 300ZX?

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Happy Monday everyone! Hope you all had a good weekend. Time for more cheap-car foolishness, but this week we’re going to make a little change: instead of the weekly roundup on Friday, which is getting to feel a little bit like reruns, we’ll have five matchups, but Friday will be something a little special. So here are the results from last week‘s roundup, which might be the last one for a while:

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And it’s the VW Quantum by a nose. You’d think that AMC’s giant schnoz would put it in front, but the Quantum’s long front overhang from that Audi five-cylinder was too much for it.

Now then: Raise your hand if you ruined a good car when you were young by doing something stupid to it.

I’m betting there are a lot of hands up out there, and mine is certainly one of them. I did more than my fair share of dumb kid tricks to cars, both in the form of idiotic driving and pointless modifications. Sometimes such dumb-kid damage can be mitigated, sometimes it can’t, and sometimes it’s just not worth trying.

Today, we’re going to look at two cars that have suffered at the hands of young owners in two different ways: One was mightily abused, and the other was taken apart to “modify” and then abandoned. Let’s see which one is more worth saving.

1991 Chevrolet Corvette – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 5.7 liter V8, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Philadelphia, PA

Odometer reading: 141,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yes, but transmission is on the way out

I’m showing my age a little, but until the C8 debuted, I still thought of the C4 Corvette as the “new Corvette,” and everything that came after as just refreshes of it. I think the reason is that I was 11 years old when the C4 debuted, and it was such a radical departure from the previous generation in both styling and ethos. None of the generational changes that came after it felt quite as revolutionary, at least until they moved the engine behind the seats.

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I was an enormous fan of this era of Corvette when it arrived on the scene, and it’s still the generation I’d be most inclined to buy, if I ever decided I needed a Corvette. These are the “cheap” Corvettes now, but rarely do you see one quite as cheap as this. But there’s a reason for that, and it goes beyond the trahsed leather seats and worn-out weatherstripping.

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No sentence that begins with “after last night’s burnouts” ends with any sort of good news. It seems the seller of this ‘Vette (or someone in possession of its keys) had a bit too much fun lighting up those big rear tires and cooked the 700R4 (or 4L60, if you prefer the newer nomenclature) automatic. The seller says it won’t go into “4th or 5th” gear, but I presume they mean 4th (overdrive) gear and lockup. Presumably this would mean you could put the transmission in “D” instead of “OD” and at least get it home. But further burnout attempts are not advised.

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Apart from the transmission issues, if you want a cheap scruffy ‘Vette, it looks like this might be a good candidate. It’s from GM’s tiny-button era of interior design, which at night looks like it might have been inspired by George Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech. But if it all (or mostly) still works, then it might be worth junkyard-diving for a new Turbo Hydra-Matic to slap in there.

1985 Nissan 300ZX – $1,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter V6, 4 speed automatic, RWD

Location: Aberdeen, WA

Odometer reading: 180,000 miles

Runs/drives? Starts, but not drivable as it sits

It’s a tale as old as time: Boy meets car, boy ruins car, boy loses interest in car. This hapless Z was apparently left behind when its young owner left for college, and now his folks want it gone. But naturally, Junior wants to save the wheels and the steering wheel for his next victim, so they aren’t included. The stock parts, fortunately, are.

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Luckily, from the sound of it, Junior didn’t get too far in his destructive rampage, so all that’s necessary (allegedly) to put this car back to rights is some reassembly. With a little luck, everything is all still there and useable.

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This particular Z31-chassis 300ZX seems an unlikely candidate for the young tyke’s drifting dreams anyway; with its naturally-aspirated VG30E engine and Jatco automatic, it’s better suited to a cool cruiser than a tire-smoking monster. But 49-year-old eyes see cars differently than 18-year-old eyes (and require more corrective lenses to see them at all), so where I see a nice example of a classic Japanese GT, perfect for popping the T-tops out and cruising the twisty roads around wine country on a sunny day, this car’s former steward envisioned it being a bit faster. And more furious.

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In any event, even if you have to change out the wheels before you tow it home and undo the indignities, when you’re done you’d have a really nice car. I always liked the shape of these angular 300ZXs, and the engine and transmission are rock-solid reliable if you just leave them alone and keep up the maintenance. Maybe this car was saved just in the nick of time.

Neither of these cars is likely to be worth a fortune, though both are old enough to be considered classics now. Base-model automatic sports cars just aren’t as desirable as manual or higher-spec versions. But that makes them cheap to buy. I think either of these cars is worth consideration as a cheap weekend cruiser with a little work. Which one would you rather put the effort into?



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57 Responses

  1. IF the ‘vette isn’t rusty it’s the winner. Probably just needs fluid.

    But that’s a big IF. The pictures only show parts that can’t rust. A little rust in the wrong spots is the difference between “sweet deal!” and “I just spent $1500 on a thrashed $200 SBC that needs a rebuild”

  2. I once had a 92 Vette Convertible and loved it, and have always wanted a Z so this is quite the choice for me. I suppose the Z gets the vote just to expand my virtual horizons. Also, the seats in the Vette – that sure didn’t happen from last night’s burnout

  3. Tough call but I went with the Vette as the boneyards a littered with transmissions or you can go manual swap.

    Seats are fixable.

    For $1500 it is worth 2-3 grand to try and fix it.

    1. Doing a straight what you would think easy route of using a GM trans costs 2-3 times the cost of this car. For some reason GM manuals trans are thousands of dollars, even for older garbage ones that will bolt to a small block. The cheapest way is using a Colorado 5 speed with a bell housing swap. Even that will run close to $1500 or more all in.

    2. I’d say worth 2-3 grand to fix it. But not to try to fix it. I don’t like any vette from 1970 forward as they seem to share more than Vette with chevette. Really don’t like this particular model, and let’s top it off with hate this particular abuse one of the worst design ones with an automatic.

  4. The Nissan is the far better value just for the body shell. This is worth about 5x the asking price around here, once you get it all sorted, even without upgrading the engine and transmission. That’s the one I’d take first. 30 days in the garage (plus any delayed parts shipping time) would get you $3000-5000 in profit, easy.

    I would also take the Corvette! Although it needs more money right now, it’s also very underpriced. Invest $3500 or so into parts and upgrades, make a 3 season driver’s car, and then sell it at any time for every penny you have into it, probably more. It doesn’t take much money at all to bring Corvettes far worse than this back to life, and then the possibilities from that point are endless!

    How is this selling for only $1500? This doesn’t even have severe accident damage. Remove the interior and make it an awesome track car? Absolutely! A Safari Vette candidate for $1500? Shut up and take my money!

    Today’s only correct vote is “Both”

  5. Totally the Vette! Replacing that transmission isn’t too hard or expensive. As for the seats, I’d try for a good set of boneyard chairs from a wrecked Vette of the same generation (I wouldn’t care about the color.)
    I would guess you could buy this for $1,500, drop another two grand in it, and you’d have a decent $6,000 Corvette.

    1. $650 to rebuild the 4l60, assuming you can drop it yourself. New seat covers are readily available and a DIY job. And the trans might not even need a rebuild. Could be something simple.

      That’s a lot of car for $1500. Want.

      1. You’re right, a valve body rebuild or some new servos might solve the problem.
        But if you know the car’s been abused, it might be better to just swap it out. Since this isn’t a particularly powerful Corvette, even a trans out of a pickup would work.

      1. Agree with this for the 80s C4 variant but the 1988 models saw new powertrains that weren’t half bad. As far as performance goes they weren’t slouches for the 90s. 0-60 was 5.7 seconds and 1/4 mile was 14.1s. That’s not half bad by 2010 standards let alone 1991. Miserable by 2022 tho.

  6. The Vette. I had a ’91 Corvette and it’s a great year – mid-cycle design refresh for the C4, but it still has the L98 engine, which (IMHO) was so much better than the LT-1. Yes, it was slower, but it had plenty of torque and wasn’t over-engineered to death. Mine had a 6-speed, but if you’re wrenching, the automatic is a much cheaper rebuild/replacement.
    Still, beware the Corvette tax.

    1. I also had a ’91 6-speed, and a ’94 T/A LT1 6-speed.

      And I agree the 87-91 L98 is the better engine. It’s all about TORQUE. That older engine makes 345 ft/lb compared to the 300 ft/lb of the newer LT1.

      1. Looking at the specs:
        The 94 LT1 had 300hp (5000 RPM) and 340 tq (3600)
        The 91 L98 had 245 hp (4400 RPM) and 350 tq (3200)
        the torque is more similar than you may remember. Having owned Camaros with both engines, I will agree the L98 felt torquier, probably because it delivered at a lower RPM. The knock against the L98 was always that it ran out of breath so soon, but for street use it was a lot of fun, plus you didn’t have to deal with the LT1’s quirky ignition and model-specific parts.

        1. Totally agree with the replies! A few years after I got rid of my ’91 Corvette, I got a ’94 Trans Am with an LT-1. It definitely delivered its torque differently, but it was also a constant source of frustration trying to track down all the problem codes it was throwing up from it’s OBD-1 system. And yeah, I stopped short of ever trying to replace the OptiSpark. It’s also the only car I’ve ever had throw a rod with zero warning. I’ve heard the L98 is very popular among autocrossers because of it’s torque delivery. I also enjoyed the 6-speed mated to the L98 because of it’s old school longer throws. I’ve heard the clutch is a super complicated job, though.

  7. JFC, what the hell happened to the seats in that Corvette? It looks like a starving opossum got in and started eating them.

    Get the 300ZX if you eventually want a running car. The Corvette is at the part out stage of its life. You could make a pretty penny selling those parts, but I’ll take the base model Z that still has some potential.

  8. I’ve got a friend with one of those Z’s. Heard enough horror stories from him about his current issues, he might just have a lemon though.

    Still, I’ll take the ‘vette. Can always take the suspension and engine and slap them under something a good 20 years older than it is and have something that handles. better than it should

  9. With significant knowledge in both, this one is a hard call.

    The C4 is an automatic and trashed. So forget stock. You can get a Tremec on the cheap and a bellhousing to bolt it straight up. But you’ll still need a whole new interior, even without having to deal with 1990’s GM kwalitee. Half the switches don’t work and the ones that do only do so intermittently. This is not a car to buy to fix or restore – it’s a car to trash further.
    And as that goes, I mean really, you could do worse. It’s a late C4, so it’s got a pretty good suspension out of the box. I have no problem believing the sole problem is the slushbox; all that front end damage is from using it to hold the car while doing burnouts. So the brakes are probably trash too. But it could be a solid foundation. I’d be VERY concerned about the underbody though. C4’s are steel construction uniframe, and extremely prone to rot. Any visible rot or peel on the rails and it’s scrap.

    The Z31’s an interesting one, because it actually hasn’t been excessively molested. The steering wheel is not a big deal – these didn’t have airbags. Junior failed to molest the car in any significant way, just your typical ricer idiocy (badly painted valve cover, crap chrome coil, shitty wheels, shitty exhaust,) but somehow accidentally managed to install a decent suspension (Powertrix just slaps their sticker on a quality OE part – I believe KW or Megan.) It can easily be set up for actually handling decently. Stereo harness is probably hacked to shit because he was gonna install dual 12’s to make the car go faster, but that’s small potatoes.
    However, the Z31’s vacuum system is hell. And this is coming from someone who can fix Chrysler Turbo IV’s properly. Expect to have to replace every single rubber line. And obviously the garbage coil’s gotta go. But getting it running like new shouldn’t be expensive. Unless the transmission has problems. Parts are hard to find, documentation is harder, and it’s all expensive as hell.

    I guess I’m just in a track rat mindset lately though. The C4 fits that perfectly. The interior’s trash anyways (and probably reeks of Marlboro Reds and spilled forties.) The slushbox is smoked, so it’s new transmission time anyways. If you want a slushbox, easy to find for under a grand. Manual, you can swap nearly anything you want on the cheap (except a Doug Nash.)

    1. I have a C4 with the doug nash and looked into swapping to a normal manual trans. Cheapest route I could find was a colorado trans with a bellhousing swap kit for ~$1500. Anything that bolted straight to a small block was stupid money.

    2. Nailed it. That C4 is going to be more fixable but also probably require more overall. That Z, while super neat, I remember is a beat down under the hood. My brother actually picked one up dirt cheap as a project at one point but because it had been even slightly messed with by a previous owner it only took a few weekends of beating our heads over it for him to decide to just sell it on.

      1. Exactly. The Z31 requires far less money. You’re talking a couple feet of wiring, maybe a connector or two, $30 coil, tune up kit, and a couple dozen feet of vacuum, coolant, and fuel hose. Real cheap stuff. Maybe a timing kit for good measure. (These are belt drive, but SOHC heads, so not too bad.) Probably some gaskets.

        But it’s only cheap if your time is free. And this thing is going to eat time like nobody’s business, especially if you’re not a Z31 expert that knows the vacuum routing from memory. This hose is too long, now it won’t idle right. This hose is leaking, now it misfires under load. This hose is too short, now the timing won’t advance. Thankfully Junior didn’t fuck with any of that, but the missing A/C belt, new hoses, new coil, spray paint on the wires, and new fan clutch tells me this one already isn’t running right.

  10. My vote goes to the Corvette. My guess is that it needs new transmission fluid and a filter since it still drives and still shifts through gears 1-3.

    And I would take an automatic Corvette any day over an automatic 300zx

  11. Corvettes might be a bit unrefined and cheap-feeling, but they are at least relatively cheap to buy and decently simple to repair. An old high-tech Japanese GT from a brand that was notorious for putting as many computers and gimmicks in their cars as they could get away with(nearly all of which have probably gone wrong on this car) sound like a bitter pill to swallow. If it was a manual and/or turbo, I might be more tempted to take the plunge, but seeing how this is far from the high points of the Z-car line(automatic, an engine that does not cash the checks the body is advertising, suspension tuning and interior design that make it into a fat, lazy GT rather than a sports car, etc), a Corvette is definitely the safer bet.

  12. I haven’t really liked the looks of Zs since they stopped being called Datsuns. But to be fair, though I’ve never loved Vettes, this was the era I found the ugliest. But what the hell, they’re shitboxes, and I might as well pick the one I dislike the least. In this case, I’ll go with the devil I know, even if I only know it slightly better. I’ll take the Chevy. It’s a year older than the Caprice drivetrain I swapped into an ’87 XJ6 a few years back and probably isn’t all that comparable, but at least I know I already have all the tools I’ll need.

  13. Buy them both and Frankenstein it. End up with a V8 (manual hopefully) monster Z. The old Vette interior and controls and dash and wiring and …. no. That initially anemic 6 with a slush box and half the horses done ran away by now? not that either. But some smash up between the two? Now that’s the business. Then hoon away, replacing whatever isn’t good enough and everything that breaks. It keeps you busy that way.

  14. I like both cars, but I’d want to do the Corvette with a modern E-Rod set up, but with a built PowerGlide. Yeah, I said it. It’s an amazing shift at about 90mph when you get into it.
    Now get off my lawn!

  15. I’m a big Japanese car guy and do like Z31s a lot but I went Corvette. I already have one 30 year old Nissan to deal with and I don’t really want another from the same era. But I’ve never had a “real” American car and the C4 is a trans rebuild away from having a seemingly decent Corvette for not a lot of money

  16. OK, if the paint is savable, the Vette wins for me. I had a 85 300ZX, and loved it (even the same interior colour as this car), but that engine needs a stick to get the most out of it. They had 160hp (IIRC). Also, Chevy parts are generally cheap, though I am aware of the Corvette tax. Also, the right front wheel on the Z is a bit out of position, which is concerning.

    At any rate, both of these will have a ton of little issues on top of the bigger ones. At least the Vette has a V8 to makes them all fade away.

  17. The Z is definitely the cooler of the two. Love that silhouette. Granted, I’ve never much cared for Vettes younger than I am. This is compounded by once having a jerk boss who owned two of this vintage, one black and one white, that he left parked in the spots closest to the front door of the shop, so further guilt by association.

  18. “I’m showing my age a little, but until the C8 debuted, I still thought of the C4 Corvette as the “new Corvette,””

    This is exactly how I feel. It was the new Corvette when I was a kid, so that’s how I still feel about it. And I do have a soft-spot for the C4, but I voted 300ZX – the stock parts being available is a big plus – because c’mon, look at that. It looks pretty decent, especially in contrast with that banged up ‘Vette (which I don’t have much of a use for anyway, since I don’t plan to become a cocaine dealer in 1987).

  19. It would have to be the Nissan for me. My brother had a C4 Corvette when I was in high school and even then I thought the bone-crushing ride was too stiff. The C5 is the sweet spot for Corvettes.

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