Why I Sold My Chevy Corvette
The ultimate longterm review of one man's beloved C5 'Vette ends in a fond farewell.
“You said you’d never sell it.”
“But you said you’d keep it forever”
“I saw that video, the one where you got the new wheels. You said you’d have to be living in a cardboard box before you sold your Corvette.”
What you see here is the internet’s reaction (or at least a few of my Instagram followers’ reactions) to a short videos clip I posted in which I have, after 19 years and 25 days, sold my 1998 Corvette, the car I said I would never sell. It’s a funny thing about the internet: your audience is also your fact checker, and the people who are the most into what you do are the same people who will race each other to be the first to call you out when you do something counter to what you’ve said you’d do in the past. But I’m no politician, which means I’m allowed to change my position on cars over time, especially if the circumstances surrounding the debate change too.
When the C5 Corvette dropped in 1997, the atmosphere surrounding it was, of course, very similar to what we saw again with the C7 in 2014. “No Excuses” was thrown around a lot. “World Beating,” was printed in every magazine. After twelve years of the ancient C4 body style, the world had moved on, and the arrival of the C5 seemed perfectly timed to take a big ol’ American dump right on the hood of the E36 M3, which cost nearly $10,000 more than a C5, and the Japanese super sports cars like the Supra, NSX, 300ZX, and 3000GT, all of which had suffered from sticker creep.
The C5 was light out the door, with a curb weight just under 3,200 lbs. It was spacious, as Corvettes had always been designed for American drivers, and it had a trunk big enough to handle double the amount of golf bags as it could carry passengers. It was a clean-sheet design that I literally had not seen from a Corvette in my lifetime. It looked sleek, it looked modern. The analog gauges were handsome, and the curves were sweeping and muscular.
Most important, however, was the 345-horsepower, 5.7L V8 engine—the mighty LS1. The LS1, as we know now, is the foundation on one of the greatest engine ranges produced in the history of the automobile. LS engines powered everything from sports cars like the Corvette, GTO, and Camaro, to trucks like the Silverado, Sierra, and Escalade, and luxury cars like the Cadillac CTS-V. As a racing engine, the LS has proven durable and powerful, while boasting a compact, lightweight architecture—meaning that an LS is almost always is the answer when going for an engine swap.
And though its odd-firing order makes a trademark sound today, back in 1998 the LS1 engine had a guttural, yet exotic tone to it, especially when fitted with its refined factory exhaust system. LS engines are old hat these days, 20 years after debuting with the C5, but to go back to that dealership, Kerbeck Corvette in Paramus, New Jersey, it sounded, looked, and felt new and advanced.
I bought my car on my eighteenth birthday, less than 12 hours after gaining access to my Bar Mitzvah savings account. Chevrolet didn’t offer many options on the Corvette at first—mainly you chose between Manual and Automatic, manual or multi-contour power Sport Seats, painted or glass targa roof, and the optional six-disc trunk-mounted CD changer. I bought the car right off the showroom floor, because at eighteen years old, I thought that’s how life worked: Torch Red, Sport Seats, Manual, Painted Roof, Single-Disc BOSE CD Player. $42,000. Cash.
Not getting the CD changer would come to bite me a in the ass later, since you can turn the CD changer input into a functional iPhone connection for about 5 bucks, whereas with the single CD, you can’t do shit. For nineteen years I listened to the same collection of 50-or-so CD’s, never moving past high school behind the wheel of that car. I never changed the radio because I never wanted to pull out the console—like Ikea furniture, I thought, a GM interior will only piece together correctly once. I would later learn that I was wrong—it didn’t even go together right the first time.
But tight panel gaps and a solid door thunk cost a lot more money than horsepower does, and I can fit more fingers between the door and dashboard of my perfect C5’s interior than I could fit inside my first girlfriend. The 993-era 911 feels like it’s milled from solid steel; the Corvette feels like it’s made of Capsela blocks. That’s why the best 911 is always an old 911, and the best Corvette is always the newest one you can afford.
The first seven years of my C5’s life were somewhat charmed. It was never a first car; never a daily driver. It stayed behind in my parents’ garage when I went off to college and remained there while I lived, and worked, in Manhattan. It stayed stock, down to the ugly, blocky stock wheels and garbage first-generation Goodyear runflat tires, and served weekend cruiser duty, with a monthly detail and an annual service, regardless of how few miles it had traveled – generally about a thousand a year. Truth be told, I was a huge pussy as a young driver, and always babied my cars much more than the car ever required. Nevertheless, the Corvette proved to be a comfortable, reasonably practical, very fast and reliable companion for many memorable northeastern road trips, a Pocono track day or two, and the occasional trip to Englishtown for some bracket drag racing. I mastered the art of heel/toe driving in it after watching Senna’s NSX video and learning what real footwork was.
Sometime in 2006, the C5 got old. It was still minty fresh, with maybe 15,000 miles on it, but after one summer of (relatively) heavy road tripping, and a year of working at Gotham Dream Cars driving brand new exotics including the (then) new C6 Z06, my Corvette felt slow, soft, and out of touch with what I needed to be impressed with a car. Many alcohol-infused debates later, and I decided to modify the car, rather than sell it and get something else. And it worked like a charm! I did the whole thing at once – some intake, headwork, bolt-on parts and a full header-back exhaust with a tune punched up the power and the soundtrack to right around 400 at the rear wheels. I did the Pfadt Coilover Suspension with the big swaybars and the 4-point roll bar. Sparco Seats, harnesses, and a new steering wheel went in; I hated the stock units by then, and a Hurst shifter for tighter throws. And then a new set of custom-made wheels on Goodyear Eagle F1 Assymetric tires which did look cool, but didn’t end so well later.
The modifications worked, and my eight-year old C5 felt new again. The newfound power and stance, the new snugness of the Sparco seats, the improved ride quality, handling; the flatter cornering. And the sound of that LS engine uncorked from the long-tube headers back – I once appeared at a car show where there was an “exhaust-off” and from 10 feet back, someone with a decibel meter measured 132 dB at the Vette’s 6500 RPM redline. It was still an older car, but it was my first foray into the world of properly tuned sports cars, which sat on a different level, mentally, from the modified late-model Mustangs we’d had as kids. The Corvette got fun again, I started putting miles on it more regularly, and it moved with me to California in June of 2009. In the first ten years, I’d had only two mechanical issues in 20,000 miles, both of which I could say were my own fault.
I once disconnected the exhaust entirely, after the header. This was before I modified it at all, and my friend Larry and I were going to Wildwood for Muscle Car Weekend. I drove the car with fully open headers for about three weeks, thinking it sounded cool. In hindsight, I must have looked like a fucking moron. Today’s me would definitely be making fun of a kid driving a new-looking Corvette with stock wheels and open headers. The heat from the exhaust dumping right next to the transmission melted a couple of sensors, and required some replacement. After that, I put the exhaust back on and came to my senses.
Then, there was the always-prevalent dead-battery issue. You see, the C5 needs to be driven every few days, or it needs to be on a tender; especially the early cars. These cars had a lot of “passive” tech like primitive keyless-entry systems, which would parasitically drain the battery over a period of days, especially if you kept the car keys within range of the car’s sensors; like on a hook inside the garage door. The car would always sense the key, and therefore always be “awake,” and lunch the battery. But before I got a tender, I installed a quick-disconnect switch and would shut off the battery when I wasn’t using the car. That drove the electrical system completely batshit, and created all kinds of electrical issues with the gauges and on-board computer. Eventually I figured out what a battery tender was, and removed the cutoff switch entirely. I never had an electrical problem or dead battery again.
I’d have thought California would be the kind of place the Corvette would shine – driving with the targa roof removed (it conveniently stores in the trunk) was a favorite pastime of mine, and California sunshine could have made that a regular occurrence. And while California’s canyon roads are indeed perfect for letting the C5’s engine sing its operatic song, it was never as practical, or as comfortable as I wanted it to be.
I had a cute little beach cottage, perfect in nearly every way, with a dutch door and a hot tub in the back. Everything about it said “this is California living.” Especially the driveway, which was the typical So Cal no-drainage system driveway; angles that would impress MC Escher led to a garage door eight feet below the road surface. I literally had to build ramps out of plywood every time I wanted to get the car out of the garage. It was so low that hearing the plastic front air dam scrape became a musical accompaniment to any drive.
To get around the issue of having to move heavy wood boards in and out with a bad back, a friend of mine allowed me to use his warehouse for free, a level of enabling the likes of which, I’ll probably never see again. The Corvette went to live over there, officially turning me into “offsite storage” guy. The C5 became a point-A to point-A car; and in its defense, it was a good one. Until I got Michelin Pilot Super Sport Tires, and the wheels started cracking, sidelining the C5 for over a year while I played two thousand dollars worth of UPS volleyball with a manufacturer in New York; every bit of it, in hindsight, wasted. Eventually I smartened up and had HRE make me a set of their FlowForm wheels, which were light and strong, and solved that issue. In the meantime, I used that free space efficiently; amassing a collection far outside what should be expected from someone at my income level. I owned seven cars in early 2016, five of them stored beautifully, in a place for which I did not have to pay. I made a video with the Corvette, showing off my new wheels and taking a blast through the canyons, in which I declared that I would never sell the car. But it’s easy to say some shit like that when you’re in fantasy car storage land. It can sit there and go on its twice-annual road trip somewhere nice, and it doesn’t really matter that, fundamentally, it’s a sub-$20,000, used Corvette. When storage is free, (or you’re rich as fuck like Jay Leno), sentimentality is a more-than-appropriate reason to declare you’ll never sell something.
But back in March, my enabling friend sold his building, scattering my cars about Los Angeles like an elephant farting on a dandelion. Without storage, sentimentality is a tough pill to swallow when you’re doing math and writing checks. The kind folks at the (newly renovated!) Petersen Automotive Museum allowed me to store the Corvette and Delorean for a few months in their “vault” underneath the parking garage; BBI took my Mustang, but only because it was broken. I sold my Skyline, then my Delorean, and still felt like I had cars all over the place.
LA, as I’ve said over and over, is a shit city in which to keep cars in all different places. My next goal, career-wise, is to solve that issue for not only myself, but other people like me, but that’s taking a long fucking time; way longer than I ever thought possible.
A cool, fun, fast car can become a headache alarmingly fast, especially when something like my Fox Body Mustang comes along; the sum total of the car I wanted when I was a kid (theoretically) doing the thing I like to do now, not to mention the fine buffet of cars in the press fleet rotation.
The Corvette is the car I actually did have as a kid, not the car I always wanted but never had. Ironic, of course, since anyone with half a brain would tell you that a 1998 Corvette is certainly a better performance platform than a 1988 Mustang, but once a car isn’t the newest, fastest thing anymore, its relative performance takes a proper back seat to the driving experience and the emotional connection to the machine, something I feel stronger today towards my Mustang than I do towards the Corvette; reliability be damned. Factor in the job of driving the newest, fastest things every single week, and in the last few months, I’ve found myself at a crossroads – do a build on the Corvette to make it more interesting again? Or sell the car and move on?
I learned a lesson very young that I take with me to this day, and it even appears in my columns here at The Drive—you can always make a car go faster, but you can’t fundamentally change what it is. And although the idea of an 800-HP standing mile monster, or a project drift car, or a full-on track build does sound appealing, and like a waste of money in line with my previous decisions, fundamentally, I think I need more from a car today than a C5 Corvette can offer – like build quality, bank-vault solidity, and precision. And so when I got a fair offer on it from someone who sees it as something new and exciting; something she can take to the track, I accepted the offer, and sold the car. And yesterday, I watched as it drove away, through a New Mexico snowstorm, on its way to track days at Mid Ohio and the pages of Road & Track.
It never left me stranded; it never broke down; in 32,000 miles and nearly two decades, it never suffered a single mechanical failure of any kind. There are certain parts, especially for 97’s and 98’s, which are extraordinarily priced – in some cases cost prohibitive to fix at all. (Tire pressure sensors, for instance, are $400 per corner. For a ’99, they’re $25). And in twenty years, it retained nearly half its value at resale, despite being at “minimum cool” in the collector car cycle right about now. I’ve kept it, and I’ve loved it, but for the last year, driving it feels like more of a duty, more like work than the escape it should be.
And rather than sadness, I feel relief. I had a long time with that car, and we had lots of adventures together. We saw some great roads, had some great laughs, and it even got me laid exactly one time, by a girl who, despite the embossed CORVETTE logo on the airbag in front of her face, said, “I can’t believe I’m out with someone who drives a Ferrari.”
And within 24 hours of the Corvette’s departure from my garage and my life, its valued parking space is replaced by something even redder – my wonderful girlfriend Hanna’s Volvo V60 making itself comfortable in the garage as she is now a resident of what is now our home together. The timing may be coincidental, but the occasion marks the end of my youth; I’m sure of it. My young adulthood can be encircled by the ownership of one Torch Red Corvette. What car will define adult Matt in the future? Only time will tell, but first, we’re gonna need a bigger warehouse.