When Fiat Chrysler confirmed in February that 2017 was to be the final year for the Dodge Viper, the automotive world lost a little piece of its soul. But after years of declining business — 2003 was the highpoint with 2,103 Vipers sold compared to 630 in 2016 — the news surprised no one. To recognize its run, we tracked down Herb Helbig, 66, an original Team Viper staple who ultimately became known throughout the Viper community as the car’s Grailkeeper, a nickname not lost with his 2008 retirement.
How did it all begin?
HH: I saw the Viper at the 1989 Detroit show. I’d been with the company for 17 years, and historically we didn’t take risks like that. But the management team had the right horsepower, Bob Lutz was the president, and this was his baby. I interviewed for the job and became the fourth engineer on the team in the spring of 1989.
Did its success surprise you?
HH: We bust our asses, we get the car in production in three years. And it turns out the car is an absolute friggin’ smash hit, and we can’t make enough of them.
Is that when you emerged as the Grailkeeper?
HH: The four guys and Carroll Shelby who started the car, they wanted a Cobra for the ’90s: big horsepower, bare bones, big tires, in your face, out of my way, I’m-gonna-run-ya-into-the-ground kind of car. About 1995, there were ideas about automatic transmissions, cruise control, cupholders.
And you said …
HH: I was so caught up in it. My wife said get it together or she was gonna leave me. I said: “We’re not doing any of that shit. We’re not having a f——- automatic transmission. Forget traction control. I don’t want ABS brakes.” A lot of customers found out I kept all this bullshit at bay and started calling me the Grailkeeper.
How difficult was it to accomplish?
HH: An automatic meant redoing the entire frame. That made it easy for me to say no because the business case backed me up. ABS, I finally decided — because the car was so popular amongst so many people, including those who had no driving skills—it was really probably safer to have. I held off the cupholders.
And now production will cease in August …
HH: And that’ll be the end of it. Although, knowing the guys on the team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still trying to figure out a way to resurrect, rebirth, something. I told them, “Look, if you want to really hit a home run, take the Fiat 124, figure out a way to jam a Hemi in it, stick in the Viper six-speed and rear axle, and you would have a f—— land rocket. And it would be Son of Viper, so you could get a bazillion miles of PR for that. I don’t know if they’re doing that. They consider me a crackpot already, pretty much.
This all must feel quite strange.
HH: I think it sucks, but I believe management’s philosophy is: If it isn’t going to make money, I don’t want it. They refuse to look at the soft-side value of a product that is so outrageous. It shows that the company is vibrant, alive, not afraid to take risks. So it’s bittersweet for me. We certainly have nothing to hang our head about. I mean, the car created a legend in the first two years it was in production.
What is the Viper’s legacy?
HH: It was the singular, most purpose-built American sports car. Its performance was the best value on the planet. Even at $100,000, Viper had performance that $500,000 cars didn’t have.
Where can people find you these days?
HH: I spend a lot of time with the Viper clubs, speaking at the get-togethers. So I’m still in touch with a lot of the Viper nation. I live in Lake Orion, Michigan, with my wife, Deb. I’ve got a 2009 Viper special-edition coupe that I took on the Hot Rod Power Tour. I did the same with my Plymouth Prowler after I made it look like a Bonneville Roadster. I work around the house. We’ve got a place in Key Largo, Florida, and then Deb has a family home in Maine. We have a grand old time, and it’s nice to be remembered by guys like you.
You were always good with the media.
HH: I have fond memories of doing the PR stuff, but it was a little nerve-racking because we let journalists drive the cars on racetracks. All my white hair came early because of those events.
Speaking of tracks, are you racing?
HH: No, but I’m doing something else. Chrysler recently closed the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Michigan. I’m very unhappy about it, and I wrote [Fiat Chrysler CEO] Sergio Marchionne and told him that. I’ve been working with the historical society, the guys who maintain all the cars in the museum, and restoring the early Viper mules so we can take them to various get-togethers and Chrysler affairs. I’ve been doing that pro bono work for a couple of years now. It’s kind of fun.
In retrospect, would you change anything about your time on Team Viper?
HH: If my life ended tonight, I would have zero regrets. Zero regrets. Because I’ve lived the life people only dream about.