Dodge Viper Farewell

Don Sherman

The proverb telling us that all good things must end contains no exclusionary clause for truly great automobiles. One that will soon pass from the production rolls is the Dodge Viper, a vibrant example of the all-American sports car if there ever was one.

During Chrysler's late-eighties heyday, a golden triumvirate existed that yielded many noteworthy accomplishments. Superstar Bob Lutz was the idea generator. Cross-country flights in corporate aircraft lubricated by too many liquid refreshments and excess cigar smoke served as his brainstorming forum. The French-born and Formula One case-hardened engineer Francois Castaing provided astute technical grounding, while the artistic Tom Gale consistently gave these high-altitude concepts thrilling shape and form.

The Viper's roots are the most obvious part of its character. That other renowned snake - the Shelby 427 Cobra - is such a pure example of uncompromised performance that 22 years passed between the last of the original serpents and the rise of a worthy successor.

Coincidentally, the Viper's slither through history begins exactly 22 years ago:

1988 Brilliant concept cars were an effective means to Chrysler's image-propping ends during one of their many brushes with extinction. After enjoying a thrilling weekend drive in his Autokraft continuation Cobra, Lutz directed Gale to create an update with Chrysler touches. The Corvette ZR1 was looming and Lutz wanted Chrysler to deflate that balloon by any means possible.

Months later, the media gathered at Chrysler's Highland Park, Michigan, design dome found a low, menacing form hidden under a drop cloth. When the cover was whisked away, jaws dropped and the room's pressure momentarily fell as every attendee inhaled in synch.

What Gale had created was a flame red phallus on wheels - long of hood, short of deck, low of profile. Like the production design the followed, there was room under the exaggerated front end for a large and powerful V-10 engine. Header pipes rippling like tensed muscles from the fender vents dumped hot exhaust to atmosphere just ahead of the wide rear tires. This was a pure roadster with no targa bar, roll up windows, or nod to weather protection. The assembled scribes were stirred by Chrysler's boldness but skeptical if this radical departure from behavioral norms could survive beyond the concept phase.

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