With all of the mechanical issues finally sorted on my cheap 1995 Dodge Viper, I can finally start enjoying it. I’m sure a lot of people around my age had Dodge Viper posters or scale models growing up, dreaming of owning a Viper one day, but often, these famous poster cars, especially the older ones, are disappointing to own in reality. I’m happy to report that’s not the case with the Viper, which has a lot of things I love about it. But there are a few flaws — and given the Viper’s reputation, some of these could be fatal flaws.
The first thing I love about my early Viper is the ease of repairs and maintenance. There’s no engine-out belt service every three years like some Italian exotics, as the nose can be removed completely with just a few bolts. The engine itself doesn’t even have a timing belt, since inside the 400-horsepower V10 are good old-fashioned American pushrods. This made tearing apart the engine to replace the head gaskets ridiculously easy, and along with a few other odds and ends, the total bill for this job was less than $2,000.
Once the car was back together, we found the cause of the overheating, which likely caused the head gasket failure. The auxiliary fans weren’t coming on, which isn’t an issue when the Viper was in motion, but without the fans sending fresh air through the radiator at a stop light, the temperatures rise very quickly. Thankfully, the electrical system on these cars is also ridiculously simple, so it only took my mechanic a few minutes to figure out the coolant temperature sensor wasn’t signaling the fans to do their job. A wimpy cooling system is one of the main complaints of these early Vipers, causing many owners to upgrade the parts — especially if they’re doing some track driving.
Of course, the Viper was built for high performance driving, but it will probably be remembered for its insane styling. Personally, I think the earliest iterations, with the 3-spoke wheels and side-pipe exhaust system, are by far the best looking of the entire Viper run. It’s so rare that a concept car actually becomes a reality, and isn’t radically changed from its original design, but we really got lucky with the Viper. There really isn’t a bad angle of this car to gaze upon, but there are some weird things that make it hard to believe this early Viper was actually a full production car.
When you look closely, there’s exposed wiring and computers in places, really poor finishes and a lot of generic Chrysler parts, especially in the interior. Even stranger is the total lack of security. There are no door locks, or even door handles, which is why you have to reach inside to the interior door latch to open these early cars. The hood itself opens completely from the outside, so anybody could walk up to a first- or second-generation Viper and open the hood if they wanted to — and on these very early cars, there’s nothing stopping them from sitting inside.
Then there’s the ridiculous roof they gave us for these, known in Viper circles as the toupee, as it looks just as silly and ill fitting as a cheap hairpiece, but even worse are the windows. They look to be the exact same design as an old Jeep Wrangler with half doors, complete with the sliding mounts and zippers. For a tall person like me, the roof itself feels like a toupee, as I’m about to bust through the canvas — and the windows make visibility nearly impossible.
Obviously, the Viper was meant to be driven without this silly roof, which you can take apart and fold into the trunk, along with the windows, but I’ve found that with the roof off, the wind buffeting and noise are really bad for a car that’s designed to go topless. Since I don’t like wearing hats, which would be the logical solution to this issue, I instead ended up spending $3,000, way more than the cost of sorting out the mechanicals, for an aftermarket hard top. There were multiple styles, but I opted for the "double bubble" design for extra headroom — since I currently look like big bird when I drive this car around without the top.
The top also came with plexiglass side windows, with a little slider that lets you get to the door handle, but it also comes with a lock and key. So now I can actually secure my Viper, see out of it with the roof on and actually drive this car comfortably. For those wondering what it feels like to drive, the best way I can describe it is like a bigger, way more powerful Mazda Miata that wants to kill you. Everybody begs for a crazy powerful Miata, but the actual result is way more than most people can handle — including me.
With the total lack of electronic nannies, like ABS and traction control, to keep me from getting into trouble, I have to be very careful driving this car, especially during the winter with cold, hard summer tires, but that’s part of the fun. This is a car that modern government safety mandates would never allow to be built in large numbers — and even if this Viper was brought back into production in this original form, Chrysler would get sued out of existence. They would have to install an infotainment screen just so drivers can read and agree to a liability waiver before the engine is allowed to start.
The final thing I love about my Viper is the cost of entry, as it’s fairly easy to find one of these for under $30,000. This seems way undervalued for automotive icon that’s also ridiculously fun to drive, so I’m betting this car will also be a pretty good investment. Since it’s not that expensive to insure and maintain, I might actually make money if I hang on to this car for a few years, which would be a nice change of pace for me. If I don’t end up crashing it, like so many have, this might be my smartest purchase yet.
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