It was clear from the beginning that the Dodge Viper was an acquired taste for a small-but-passionate group of customers with the wealth to invest in a throwback to America’s muscle car past. For all intents, this was Chrysler’s anti-Corvette, anti-Porsche, and anti- every other two-seater. The amazing thing is that Chrysler stood faithfully by its behaviorally challenged sports car, nurturing it through five design generations—each bringing notable improvements—and a quarter-century of production, albeit with a few lapses.
The Viper was born in 1988 during an impromptu hallway meeting at Chrysler’s Highland Park, Mich., headquarters. After product boss Bob Lutz, chief engineer Francois Castaing, and design head Tom Gale collaboratively shaped the intentionally wild persona, a small group of journalists were given a look at the first clay model: a long-hood, short-deck roadster with no side windows or Targa hoop. Black header pipes poked menacingly out of racy fender slots. The basic concept was a straightforward update of Carroll Shelby’s legendary Cobra sports car, and every effort was made to avoid over-engineering the Viper’s core elements, aimed at delivering outrageous appearance and performance.
Lutz’s inspiration was rooted in a new V-10 engine under development for use in Dodge pickup trucks. Experimental engines were created by brazing together portions of the company’s small-block V-8s. While the 90-degree V-angle resulted in uneven firing intervals, the noise and vibration issues were deemed manageable. Some at Chrysler felt the syncopated exhaust pulses were perfectly consistent with Viper’s raw persona.
Extra effort was invested in creating a barely-running car for presentation at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. When Bob Lutz drove the metal-bodied prototype on stage, the shock and awe left every jaded journalist dumbstruck. By this juncture, the pure two-seat roadster had evolved into a classic Targa with a roll-over hoop providing shoulder belt anchors of sufficient height.
Even though Chrysler head Lee Iacocca had not approved the Viper for production, Castaing appointed Roy Sjoberg as the project’s chief engineer. Sjoberg promptly established a skunk works consisting of 85 or so hand raisers willing to work long hours for modest pay on the company’s most tantalizing engineering project. Lamborghini, then owned by Chrysler, converted the cast-iron V-10 to an appreciably lighter aluminum-block 8.0-liter design for exclusive use in the Viper.
Lutz convinced Iacocca to greenlight his pet project in 1990. Journalists were summoned to the company’s Chelsea proving grounds for brief hands-on driving stints in pre-production prototypes. At this juncture, weather protection was still a vague notion with plug-in vinyl side windows and a collapsible toupee-like roof panel under consideration.
After the United Auto Workers and other America-firsters strenuously objected to an announcement that the imported Dodge Stealth would pace the 1991 Indy 500, the Viper was hastily nominated as a substitute. Carroll Shelby, the only post-heart-transplant pace car pilot in history, handled driving duties without issue.
As usual, Chrysler was under severe financial stress when the Viper entered production, so suppliers were asked to provide preferential treatment during the development, tooling, and manufacturing of the parts they supplied. From the start, the effort was more akin to a British cottage industry than Detroit’s status quo. Return on the initial $50-million investment was rarely mentioned throughout Viper’s near-30-year life. Its role demonstrating that passion for fun-to-drive cars was alive at Chrysler far outweighed any profit motive.
A few months before production of the $50,000 (not including delivery and various taxes) Dodge Viper RT/10 began in early 1992, journalists were invited to California for test drives. There were numerous off-track excursions at the Willow Spring race course rented for the occasion but, thankfully, no serious incidents. During afternoon journeys south to Los Angeles, California’s watchful highway patrol officers were out in force. While several Vipers were stopped, the officers seemed more interested in a close-up inspection of this radical addition to America’s sports car fleet than they were in issuing citations. Jay Leno hosted the evening dinner at his palatial garage located near the Burbank airport.
While the initial test results failed to match Chrysler’s performance forecasts, the first Viper’s 4.6-second 0-60 time (as tested by Car and Driver) was a touch quicker than the Corvette ZR-1’s acceleration, which was then the reigning American champion. Curb weight in the Viper overshot the 3,000-pound target by 450 pounds, as you’d expect with a 700-pound engine under the hood. Cockpit ergonomics were never really worked out. The thick windshield frame, Targa bar, and rear buttresses wrecked outward visibility, the center console was casket-sized, and the huge engine forced the driver’s legs far to the left. Wide wheel wells left little space for the driver and passenger’s feet. Luggage room was virtually non-existent.
The five-cylinder exhaust beat heard by each occupant was often compared to an angry UPS truck. Muffling the beast and cleansing its exhaust were two of those concerns where over-engineering was never considered. The exposed side pipes were hazardous to bare legs and small animals. Door sills became hot enough to cook food, as demonstrated in a few car magazine reviews.
The combination of a stout steel-tube frame with independent control arm suspension at both ends of the car worked nicely with ample grip provided by 17-inch Michelin radials. While the understeer at the adhesion limit was gentle, Vipers did require driving skill and steady hands at the wheel. Ride motions were nicely controlled and the only surprises came when mid-corner bumps were severe enough to unsettle the fat tires.
The second generation arrived in 1996 with a GTS coupe added to the RT/10 roadster offering, a bit more power, slightly less weight, and the first creature comforts. Air conditioning, power windows and door locks, and a relocated muffler made life better for Viper owners. Anti-lock brakes, added in 2001, delivered major gains in street and track stopping performance.
The third-generation roadster bowed in 2003 with a fresh exterior design, 500 horsepower from a larger 8.3-liter engine, and a significantly stiffer and lighter chassis. The revamped hardtop—now called SRT-10 Coupe—followed three years later with 510 hp combined with the updated chassis.
A new 8.4-liter V-10 for the fourth-generation 2008 models used an ingenious cam-in-cam arrangement to provide variable valve timing, higher rpm, and 600 hp, just in time to face Chevy’s 638-horsepower Corvette ZR-1. A revised exhaust system diminished the heat radiated to the cockpit and improved Viper’s hoarse growl. Top speed cleared 200 mph for the first time, and 0-60 mph sprints were now well below 4.0-seconds. When Chrysler decided to drop the Viper after the 2010 model year, three special editions were offered to the faithful.
Strenuous objection to the Viper’s retirement prompted a change of plans amidst Chrysler’s bankruptcy. New FCA boss Sergio Marchionne pledged the car would return after a one-year lapse. The hope that Ferrari might contribute engineering or at least thinking toward this rejuvenation proved false, but a new model did appear as the fifth-generation 2013 SRT Viper with 640 hp, a full complement of advanced chassis controls, a mix of carbon fiber and aluminum in its bodywork, and stunning electronic cockpit displays. Only a coupe body style was offered, with base and spiffed-up GTS trim levels available.
SRT’s attempt to move Viper upmarket with stickers topping $100,000 failed miserably. The new coupes sold poorly and prices had to be cut by $15,000. Cars stacked up in inventory, and production ceased for a few months. For 2015, the SRT name was dropped (along with the end of SRT as a standalone brand) and Dodge Viper badges returned. The combination of dwindling sales and the investment needed to meet future safety requirements prompted Chrysler to finally pull the plug. Five special 2017 editions were announced to close out the final model year.
The last Viper will roll off the Conner Avenue assembly line at some unspecified day in August. This 52-year-old factory, where Champion spark plugs, Plymouth Prowlers, V-10 engines, and Vipers were built, will be shuttered, leaving FCA’s Jefferson Avenue Jeep plant as the only remaining assembly plant within Detroit’s city limits. The 87-member Viper workforce will be offered employment in other FCA facilities, per their labor agreements. Through June of this year, a total of 30,800 Vipers were built and sold, roughly equivalent to the number of Corvettes delivered each year.
In spite of the modest production figures, this outspoken two-seater’s legacy runs deep. No other car during the Viper’s lifetime came close to its extroverted styling and brash commitment to its core concept, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a car like this again. The most politically incorrect sports car ever produced will be missed, especially by its set of small-but-rabid followers.