When you were a kid, I bet you had heavily faded, crumpled posters of the Lamborghini Countach, McLaren F1 & Ferrari F50 on your bedroom wall. And why the hell not?! They were the cars of the decade; achingly cool, absurdly quick and with faces more intimidating than your French teacher. But I’m also putting money on the presence of another, less explicable motor car blue-tacked firmly to your wallpaper; the Dodge Viper.
In 1988, If you wanted a sports car, and I mean a real, thorough-bred, shift-your-internal-organs-around quick car, you bought either a Porsche 911 or a Ferrari 288 GTO. Everything else was either a supercar, a-la Ferrari F40, Lamborghini Countach or Porsche 959, or you bought a Ford Mustang GT; there was nothing in-between.
Bob Lutz, then head of Global Product Development at Chrysler, realised this himself thanks to a little help from his beloved Shelby Cobra. He was frustrated that there hadn’t been a modern interpretation of the wonderful Cobra, either in original or Carroll Shelby’s brilliantly re-worked form, so he returned to the office and immediately asked Chrysler’s Chief Designer, Tom Gale, to start working on a concept.
Need for Speed
Lutz’s specification for the Viper was very simple: he wanted a modern day Shelby Cobra. And when he gathered together a secret team of designers and engineers, fully aware that the Chrysler leadership wouldn’t be on board without months of economic and marketing validation – if at all – he set them an even clearer guideline: “more power and speed than anyone else.”
At the time, the Chrysler group had nothing like a sports car in their stable; they were too busy selling Dodge Omnis, Plymouth Horizons and Jeeps. But there was a saving grace. Lamborghini, who had been purchased by Chrysler the year before, had extensive experience building supercars and engines. And they’d already been tasked with reworking the Chrysler V8 engine architecture into a suitable V10 for an upcoming RAM pickup. It was soon shoe-horned into the concept, which debuted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in 1989. It was named the “Copperhead” – after a distinctive pit viper found in the east of the United States – and as you can imagine, it went down rather well.
The signal was given to get the car into production. ASAP.
Roy Sjoberg, the appointed Chief Engineer of “Team Viper” carefully selected 85 engineers for the task, and by March 1989 they were up and running. Lamborghini cast an aluminium engine block prototype in May and by the end of the year, the first concept body was available. The prototype began testing in anger soon afterwards, using a V8 whilst the V10 went through its final developments; the larger engine was available barely two months later.
Official approval from Chrysler’s chairman arrived in May 1990, and a year later, Carroll Shelby piloted a pre-production car as the pace vehicle in the Indianapolis 500 race. Lutz had wanted Shelby to be involved throughout the development process, lending his incredible knowledge to the team tasked with building, in effect, a Shelby Cobra replacement, but he was unable to due to poor health.
Back to Basics
Lutz’s vision of a back to basics sports car had guided the team throughout the Viper’s development and they had taken every opportunity to save both weight and cost. When the first cars were shipped out in January, 1992, they had a cloth roof, no air conditioning and the doors had neither external door handles nor key cylinders. Airbags were deemed excessive, so they weren’t included, and the windows were a curious vinyl that was part of the canvas roof and opened with a zip, much like the Jeep Wrangler. Anything to save weight.
As you can imagine, all these measures raised the performance expectations of the press, prospective customers and car fans alike. The V10, thankfully, delivered 400hp and 465 lb⋅ft (630 N⋅m) of torque, which was more than enough to justify its 323kg (711 lb) mass, almost a quarter of the vehicle’s 1,490 kg (3,284 lb) total weight. And it propelled the Viper from 0-60mph (0–97 km/h) in 4.2 seconds, 0–100 mph (0–161 km/h) in 9.2 seconds, and on to a top speed of 165 mph (266 km/h), although various figures around 180mph are also quoted. Excrement off the proverbial garden tool.
Yet these figures only partially explain why it came to be a key feature of so many bedroom wall displays for anyone raised in the 1990s. After all, it was a Dodge.
Dodge’s 1992 lineup, for example, was a breathtaking mix of the underwhelming Monaco, the angry-looking Colt, the absolutely pointless Dodge Shadow and the effortlessly boxy Dynasty and Spirit models. If it hadn’t been for the slightly dynamic offerings of the Daytona and Stealth, Dodge would probably have disappeared within a few years. Instead, they produced one of the decade’s great, if oft forgotten, sports cars.
When compared with any other car of the time, in any category, the Dodge Viper was unique. The airflow gap at the back of the fender, the integrated foglamps, the super sleek tail-lamps and the side-exhausts are all technically important, but still achingly cool. The rear roll-hoop is an important piece of structure, but it also seems to enhance the rear haunches, and even the instrument panel, whilst only a single plastic-moulding for cost reasons, suits the car well and provides the driver with everything they’d need. Function and form combined.
The first generation, or Viper SR I, finished production in 1995 and was replaced with the SR II. The second generation of the Viper was certainly evolution rather than revolution; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The side-mounted exhausts were moved to a more conventional rear-mounting, to reduce back pressure and allow a power hike to 415hp, a removal hardtop was added to the options list and 27kg (60 lb) was removed thanks to the use of aluminium components in the suspension. But it was the Viper GTS that arrived later in the year that drew the most attention.
The Viper GTS was effectively a Coupe version of the Roadster, but it was so much more than that. The “double bubble” roof was an ode to the legendary Shelby Daytona, and in total, more than 90% of the car was brand new. It also received a power and torque hike to 450hp and 490 lb⋅ft (664 N⋅m) respectively, although probably just to counteract the additional weight thanks to the inclusion of airbags, air conditioning, power windows and power door locks as standard.
Nevertheless, it looked superb, was still as untameable as a wild dragon and sounded like the gates of hell being wrenched open. And by the time the last one rolled off the line in 2002, it had outsold the Roadster by two to one, total sales for the Viper SR II reaching 10,422, compared with just 6,709 for the SR I. Whether due to the addition of the GTS, the additional comforts or the expanded exterior and interior trim packs, we’ll never know, but the SR II was the highest selling Viper of all the generations. Yet during its six year lifecycle, its total sales reached roughly one third of the Chevrolet Corvettes sold in 2014 alone…!
And it was the Viper SR II, or more specifically, the Viper SR II GTS, that enabled the Viper to build a small but valuable racing heritage.
Considering the influence of the Shelby Cobra on the Viper, it’s a little surprising that it took so long for it to enter motorsport, but the RT/10 Roadster didn’t really sit well with drivers. The GTS, and its “double bubble” roof, however, did.
The same year as the GTS first rolled off the production line, Chrysler, in collaboration with two separate race teams, built the Chrysler Viper GTS-R (or the Dodge Viper GTS-R in American competitions) and entered it into several GT competitions. Over two years, it collected quite a few class wins, but the class victory in the Le Mans 24 hours race of 1998 is a particular highlight for the Oreca team. Viper Team Oreca also won the FIA GT Championship in ‘97 and ‘98, before winning the overall GT championship in 1999, a huge achievement for a team with a budget of roughly $5 million, compared with the much larger budgets of works’ teams such as AMG Mercedes.
The third variant, the ZB I, arrived in 2003, influenced heavily by Daimler thanks to the takeover of the Chrysler group in 1998. It was a complete redesign in order to bring it up to date with the more modern executions from the likes of Spyker, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Noble, but it arguably lost some of the charm of the original Viper. The ZB II followed in 2008 but production lasted only two and a bit years before halting completely in 2010. Despite power hikes, lighter engines, electrical and transmission upgrades and continual exterior and interior updates, the Viper seemed out of place in a world of ever-increasing complexity.
And even a curious revival in 2013, under the stewardship of then FCA CEO and all-round automotive legend Sergio Marchionne, wasn’t enough to revive the iconic status of the original, despite a handsome appearance and impressive figures. In fact, such was its technical performance, that Motor Trend took the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR to Laguna Seca and raced it against the 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the Porsche 911 GT3 RS; it trounced them both. In fact, only the 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder is a quicker production car around Laguna Seca, and that’s about eight times the price. Bob Lutz must be proud.
One Last Bite
It’s safe to say that the Dodge Viper, when it debuted in 1991, was the right car at the right time. Sports cars and supercars were becoming increasingly complicated, electronic and driver-assisted, so the Viper ignored all of that and headed in the exact opposite direction. And it did it brilliantly.
Whilst companies like Ariel and Morgan continue to produce impressively simple, high performance driver cars that are aggressively focussed on maintaining an analogue driver experience, they sometimes feel like too much of a compromise when compared to the simplicity of the Viper. But that doesn’t matter; customers don’t buy them for any reason other than a thrill seek. And anyone buying a sports car nowadays, especially one priced at $90,000 and upwards, expect airbags, air conditioning and a roof. There’s no getting away from it.
So whilst FCA and Dodge have vowed to return with another Viper in 2021 – which may be 2022 thanks to a certain virus – I’d bet an awful lot of money on it looking like a Viper; but it won’t feel like one. And perhaps nothing ever will again. What a shame.