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.
1989 The walls creaked, the roof moved when the Viper rolled onto a Cobo Hall stage with guttural undertones to make its public debut at January’s North American (Detroit) Auto Show. A low targa bar had sprouted on the deck but Tom Gale’s suitably aggressive sculpture was for the most part intact.
The response from show goers was overwhelming. Some posted deposit checks even though there were no production plans. That spurred Lutz to quickly breathe vitality into Chrysler’s cobbled up concept.
Hundreds of engineers descended upon a meeting established to recruit a handful of chassis, powertrain, and manufacturing experts needed to move the Viper to production. Lutz gave the team a $50-million budget and a three-year gestation period. The first of two engineering mules was running by year’s end with temporary V-8 power.
1990 Lamborghini, then owned by Chrysler, assisted the design and manufacture of the first aluminum V-10 engines. Viper team boss Roy Sjoberg gave Chrysler boss Lee Iacocca a drive in the second (V-10 powered) engineering mule. Project approval and a go for production were issued the moment Lido stepped out of the cockpit.
1991 Living legend Carroll Shelby paced the Indy 500 behind the wheel of a Viper prototype. In the fall, scribes were offered their first test drives in pre-production models.
1992 Production began at a spruced up corner of Chrysler’s decrepit New Mack Assembly plant in Detroit. The Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster was a classic sports roadster with no traction or stability controls, air bags, air conditioning, or convertible roof. Weather protection was provided by a collapsible toupee top and side curtains. Only 200 examples were built and sold during the introductory year.
1994 Air conditioning was added to the options list.
1995 Viper manufacturing operations were moved to Chrysler’s Conner Avenue Assembly plant.
1996 After a stunning GTS coupe was added to the lineup, the Viper again paced the Indy 500, this time with ‘Maximum Bob’ Lutz at the wheel. All 1996 Vipers benefited from more power, reduced weight, a 25-percent stiffer structure, better brakes, and improved suspension systems. Still lacking ABS, the Viper’s Achilles heel was long stopping distances. The troublesome side exhaust pipes and outlets were revised to a rear-outlet design for the GTS.
1997 Dual airbags, which appeared the year before in the GTS, became standard roadster equipment. European exports began. Viper Team Oreca earned the first of many racing championships in the FIA’s GT2 class.
1999 An upgraded Cognac Connolly leather interior package became available. The American Club Racing (ACR) model had extra power, less weight, stiffer suspension, stickier tires, and special aerodynamic equipment.
2001 ABS finally became standard in all Vipers.
2002 To close out the first generation, 360 final edition Vipers painted red with white stripes were built.
2003 A thorough redesign gave the Viper roadster – now called SRT-10 – fresh bodywork, a larger and more potent engine, and various chassis improvements.
2006 A new coupe arrived with 510 horsepower.
2007 Busy tooling up a third-generation design, the Viper team extended 2006 production and skipped the 2007 model year.
2008 Raising the V-10’s displacement to 8.4-liters, adding variable valve timing on the exhaust side, and comprehensive induction and exhaust refinements boosted output to a nice round 600 horsepower. Transmission, differential, and tire improvements yielded significant acceleration benefits. The new Michelin Pilot Sport 2 radials were a boon to handling. Eliminating the crossover pipes helped reduce cockpit heat.
2009 Late in the year, Dodge boss Ralph Gillies announced the Viper’s impending demise. While there were hints a replacement might arrive someday, the chances of the name, V-10 engine, or original character surviving are miniscule. A few worthy suitors offered to buy Viper manufacturing rights but Chrysler’s new owner Fiat spurned those overtures.
2010 Dodge dealers began accepting deposits for 510 Final Edition Vipers. The roadster is priced at $91,185, the coupe costs $750 more, while the ACR model runs $106,485 (destination charges included). The intended split is 20 coupes, 18 roadsters, 12 ACRs. The last of approximately 27,000 Vipers will roll off the assembly line in July.
VIPER’S MAJOR COMPETITION ACHIEVEMENTS
- Four FIA GT2 championships
- Ten FIA GT championships
- Overall victory at Daytona, Nurburgring, and Spa 24 hour races
- Three LeMans GT2 class wins
- One LeMans GTS class win