The Ticket to Dirt Cheap V8 Glory? Meet Our $6500 C5 Corvette Project
Earlier this year I made the tough decision to sell my 2016 Ford Mustang GT. Upgraded with some choice Steeda suspension and chassis parts, a couple bolt-on power upgrades and some great wheels and excellent Nitto NT555 G2 tires, my S550 was one of the best of the many cars I’ve owned.
So why sell? It simply wasn’t getting driven much, and now with two young kids in the family there’d be even less opportunity to enjoy it as a daily driver. So with used car values at an all-time high, I decided to part with the Mustang with my plan being to replace it with a four-door hot hatchback (ideally a Toyota GR Corolla) whenever they start hitting dealer lots.
But in the meantime, selling the Mustang left a hole in my car fleet. A hole in the shape of a fun car with rear-drive, a V8 engine and a manual transmission. This car wouldn’t be a daily driver, but a weekend backroad cruiser and potentially a track day toy.
Finding Bang for the Buck
Most importantly, this car would also have to be substantially less expensive than the Mustang I’d just sold. Something I buy with cash and tinker with when I want to. There was one obvious choice here: a Chevrolet Corvette. Particularly the C5 model.
Even though values aren’t as low as they once were, a used C5 Corvette remains the best bang for the buck in the game, with the almighty LS engine under the hood, a lightweight chassis, great handling and a vast aftermarket.
While I wasn’t aggressively hunting one down, I kept my eyes open for manual-transmission C5s that popped up for sale in my area. Depending on the specific model and condition, today's C5 prices can range anywhere from $8,000 for a higher mileage late ‘90s example to around $30,000 for a mint Z06.
Needless to say, I’d be looking toward the lower end of this market where low-priced C5s are much rarer than pristine ones. But surprisingly, it didn’t take long before I stumbled across what seemed like the ideal project Vette.
We Have a Winner
Posted for sale on Facebook Marketplace and located just a few miles from my house was a 1999 Corvette with 170,000 miles on it, manual transmission, a few engine upgrades and an aggressively low $7,000 asking price.
It seemed too good to be true at first, but I got in touch with the owner and he explained some of the reasons why the car was priced so cheap.
First there was the mileage, which is a lot higher than your typical garage queen Vette. This one had also been off the road for five years. The air conditioning didn’t work, the stereo didn’t work, it leaked power steering fluid and the interior needed some TLC— along with plenty of other minor issues.
On the positive side, the top end of the original LS1 engine had been gone through a few thousand miles ago. It had the common “heads, cam and intake” combo that famously wakes up an LS motor, and before he stopped driving it the car put down over 400 horsepower to the rear wheels.
What’s an FRC?
I should also note that this wasn’t just any C5 Corvette, but the rare fixed roof coupe model. The “FRC” Corvette was the third of the three C5 body styles to debut after the targa hatchback and the convertible. The FRC was basically a convertible with a permanently affixed and structurally integrated hard top—kind of a Corvette version of the "notchback" Fox Body Mustang.
Initially planned to be a stripped-down, more affordable Corvette, GM instead made the FRC an “enthusiast option” as it was both lighter and stiffer than the targa. All FRC Corvettes came with the upgraded Z51 suspension package and automatic transmission buyers would have to look elsewhere as you could only get one with the six-speed manual transmission.
The FRC Corvette was only offered for the 1999 and 2000 model years, with about 6,000 sold in total. In terms of profile, the car is almost identical to the C5 Z06, which used the same lighter, stiffer body style when it debuted for 2001 and made the FRC redundant.
While I wasn’t specifically looking for an FRC, it was a very nice bonus. Compared to the targa models, the added stiffness is noticeable even during normal driving, and for a project that may be seeing some track time in the future it was perfect.
Sealing the Deal
The following day, I went to see the car in person. As with so many projects, life had basically gotten in the way so the seller finally decided to part with the Corvette rather than let it continue collecting dust in his garage.
Fortunately he took the car around the block every now and then just to keep things in running order, and a short test drive reminded me just how fun a C5 Corvette can be.
Yes there were plenty of things the car needed—some of them right away—but the seller completely transparent about everything. All of the basics were stout, the engine was healthy and needless to say, with 400+whp it pulled very strong.
The exterior was also in good shape with the expected blemishes from a 23 year old car but nothing out of the ordinary. The interior needed a good cleaning, and some of the trim pieces had been removed, but again it was nothing unexpected.
We agreed on a $6,500 selling price. I was stoked. One trip to the bank later, I was driving home in what was amazingly was the first Corvette I’d ever owned. Yep, out of the dozens and dozens of cars I’ve owned in this was the first Vette, and fittingly it happened to be Fourth of July Weekend.
The Project Begins
As much as I wanted to spend Independence Day cruising around endlessly in my new Corvette, that wasn’t in the cards. The aforementioned power steering leak would need to be addressed right away.
Simply navigating the car into my drive way left a massive trail of power steering fluid, so the fun would be on hold until that could be fixed.
Fixing the car turned out to be a pretty large job. The parts were cheap but removing and installing the new high pressure line wasn’t easy, and we also ended up replacing the pump and pulley as well.
New Wheels and Tires
The tires would also need to be addressed right away. The car actually came with two sets of wheels: the original “wagon wheel” five-spokes and a set of the factory optional Speedline magnesium wheels that the previous owner had bought separately.
Neither set of wheels had great tires, and after sitting for most of five years there was significant cracking and other wear. Naturally this would also be great opportunity to upgrade.
Nitto NT05: Far Better Than "Just a Replacement Tire"
Initially I considered a set of aftermarket wheels, but in the end I decided to build a combination from the magnesium wheels and a set of brand new Nitto NT05 max performance tires. And I think it was the right choice.
I’ll save all the details and impressions for the second project car update, but you can already see just how much the NT05s and new wheels changed the look of the car—with an equally big improvement in performance and feel.
With the repairs only recently finished and new tires fitted just a week ago, my seat time has been limited, but I’m already in love with this car.
Yes, it only has two seats and isn’t nearly as refined as my S550 Mustang, but when it comes to raw V8 fun and performance potential, the C5 Vette more than delivers. For the price I paid I’m over the moon right now, and I can’t recommend the platform enough.
There’s a lot more to come from this adventure. I’ll be back shortly to get into some more details about the new tire and wheel setup and touch on the C5’s unique suspension design, but right now the kids aren’t home, the weather is nice and there’s a Corvette in the garage begging to be taken out.
To be continued...
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