The Dodge Viper’s road to reality is one of the most intriguing stories to come out of Detroit since the creation of the Corvette. Born of the desire by Chrysler’s then-President Bob Lutz and Chief of Design Tom Gale, the Viper concept was cobbled together by a dedicated cadre of car guys. There were no focus groups involved and no bean counters or advertising men telling them what the public would or wouldn’t buy. Their vision was to recreate a modern-day, Cobra-inspired sports coupe devoid of high-tech gadgetry, turbocharged engines and the dreaded automatic transmission.
Borrowing the 8.0-liter V10 engine developed by Lamborghini for the RAM pickup, the Viper’s aluminum block and head design pumped out 400 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. Under Gale, Chrysler’s Highland Park advanced design studio was tasked with designing the Viper’s exterior, while famed racing legend and Chrysler Performance Consultant Carroll Shelby was brought in to help with the concept. Unfortunately, due to health issues at the time, Shelby was unable to play a direct role in the Viper’s development, but the fact that the car bore more than a passing resemblance to an overgrown Shelby 427 Cobra was a clear hat tip to the man.
The Viper concept car made its first public appearance at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and the public went wild. Reports of people sending down payment checks to Chrysler were confirmed to be true, as were later accounts of certain celebrities trying to bribe their way onto the waiting list only to be told to take a hike by Lutz himself. CEO/Chairman Lee Iacocca knew what he had on his hands, and in 1990 he gave the green light to produce a limited number of Vipers.
The World Feels the Viper’s Bite
In the spring of 1992, the first Dodge Viper RT/10 roadsters rolled into a select set of showrooms. Although the car stickered for around $52,000 (including the $1,700 gas-guzzler tax), some dealers were marking the cars as high as $100,000, and wealthy enthusiasts were pushing the bidding even higher. The Viper’s price was pretty amazing, especially considering that the car had no exterior door handles, side windows or fixed roof. The Viper did come with a flimsy canvas roof panel and zip-in plastic windows, but these were designed more for storing the car, not to be used during high-speed runs. The Viper may have been low on frills, but its ability to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds and its 165-mph top speed more than made up for it.
In 1994, options such as air conditioning and a fixed hardtop roof panel gave buyers a bit more comfort. The first major upgrades for the Viper came in 1996, and they included the introduction of the stunning GTS coupe. Offered in Shelby Blue with white stripes, the GTS included exterior door handles and roll-up glass windows. These new features gave the Viper a bit more legitimacy with those cross-shopping Corvettes, Porsches and other exotic makes. In a nod to owners who complained of leg burns after brushing up against the side exhaust pipes, the Viper’s exhaust was rerouted to the rear. Other changes included a bump in power (415 hp for the R/T and 450 hp for the GTS) and the introduction of airbags on the GTS only.
In 1997, power windows and a 450-hp engine made their way to the RT/10. The 1999 model gained 18-inch wheels and power mirrors but also a track-inspired American Club Racing package that bumped output to 460 hp and featured a revised suspension with KONI shocks.
The end of the first-generation car came in 2002 with the production of a set of red-over-white Final Edition models. Production was limited to 360 cars. By this time, the Viper’s 0-to-60 time was down to a flat 4 seconds, and its top speed was up to 185 mph. Although the Viper could clearly outrun any domestic rival of the day, its crude interior, harsh ride and lofty price turned off all but die-hard track enthusiasts. Seeing that their experiment needed more refinement, recently renamed DaimlerChrysler set out to create a more civilized Viper.
Smoothing Out the Viper’s Rough Scales
The second-generation Viper debuted in 2003 and sported less bulbous styling, improved interior ergonomics and a new 8.3-liter V10 pumping out 500 hp and 525 lb-ft of torque. The car’s 0-to-60 time dropped to 3.8 seconds, and its top speed approached 190 mph. The RT/10 roadster and the GTS coupe were replaced by a single SRT10 convertible model.
While the Viper was more refined, many lamented its somewhat Corvette-derived styling, while others pointed out that the car’s driving experience still leaned toward the crude side. Worse yet, better-engineered cars such as the Mustang Cobra R and the Corvette Z06 were catching up to the original Viper’s power output and performance figures.
In 2006, the coupe rejoined the line, offering a bit more protection from the elements and a slight increase in power to 510 hp. In 2007, Daimler sold Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management, and Viper production was temporarily halted.
In 2008, the Viper underwent a major overhaul, gaining a larger 8.4-liter V10 good for an astounding 600 hp. A new 6-speed transmission and limited-slip differential helped improve performance, as did significant changes to the suspension, exhaust routing and electronic engine-management components.
Sadly, the economic collapse of 2008 spelled the end for cars like the Viper, and in 2009, Dodge CEO Ralph Gilles announced that 2010 would mark the final year for Viper production. A number of special-edition trims were to follow, culminating with just 50 Final Edition models. At one point, Cerberus tried to sell off the Viper brand, but thankfully, FIAT ended up acquiring Chrysler and quickly put a stop to it.
The Viper Makes a Brief Comeback
Like the mythical phoenix that rises from the ashes, the Viper got a second lease on life when Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne announced the car would return for 2013. The new Viper retained its own unique chassis, powered by an 8.4-liter V10 rated at 640 hp. It could go from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 3.5 seconds. The interior was a vast improvement over the original car, featuring comfortable and color-matched seating, modern electronics and a much more sophisticated suspension. The Dodge name would be dropped in favor of the SRT badge, a sign that Chrysler’s in-house tuning and development division was attempting to emulate the success of the Mercedes-Benz AMG and BMW M divisions.
Unfortunately, by the time the new Viper arrived, the market had moved on from what it was when the first model debuted. Consumers found that for less money they could have equal or better performance from a Chevrolet Corvette, a Ford Shelby GT500 or even a Nissan GT-R. With the curtain falling once again, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has announced that a number of special-edition cars are slated for the Viper’s final model run in 2017. However, given the Viper’s history and the Italians’ love for the car, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Viper name revived once again in the not-too-distant future.