Snake Bite! The Dodge Viper Story
The Dodge Viper: Terrifying, Yet Irresistible
This weeks installment of Crown Classics takes us to the car that bit everyone. Pure all out adrenaline from the minute the marketing campaign hit the trail back in 1993. I've had the honor of driving every single incarnation of the Viper from day one to the last one to roll off the assembly line. It is pure, all out tires smoking fun in every gear.
White knuckles, burning rubber, and top speeds of 180 miles per hour all complimented by the roar of a V10 8.0 liter power plant. For 25 years, the Dodge Viper has been representing the USA as one of the most unique supercars in the world. The year 2017 was the final year for this beloved icon. So as we wave goodbye, let’s take a look back upon the lifespan of Dodge’s V10 champion.
A Legend Is Born
The 1980s were not exactly Dodge’s claim to fame. While GM and Ford continued to produce icons like the Corvette and Fox body cars, Dodge was in an uphill battle to return to profitability after a recent bailout. Their cars were bland and economical, lacking in just about everything but comfort.
By the year 1988, Executive Vice President Bob Lutz said he had enough. Lutz put the Chrysler Lead of Design, Tom Gale, to the task of designing a high-powered two door sports car that was crude and to the point. With Gale’s track record of being involved with the design of some of the coolest cars in history, he was undoubtedly the man for the job.
A team was assembled to put together a car that was quite different from anything else at the time. They delivered–with an open roof roadster-esque design, featuring a manual transmission, and no exterior door handles or safety features. It was powered by a V10 engine with an aluminum block designed by Lamborghini. When Dodge showcased this car at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, the world seemed to stop and a legend—the Viper—was born.
Imitation with Innovation
The first generation of Vipers was clearly inspired by the Shelby Cobra—the looks, the name, and the project itself was even endorsed by Carrol Shelby. Perhaps the most astounding part of the car was the fact that it was powered by a 400hp 8.0 liter V10. For the year 1992, that was pretty radical—especially coming from Dodge. It was exactly what they needed as a company to step back into the game as a performance competitor once again.
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.
Throughout the first and second generations, little would change aside from a roof being added and comfort features being introduced. Some even consider the model years running from 1992 to 2002 as one single generation, with a little bit of fine tuning being done in 1996.
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.
While the Viper certainly made an impression, it didn’t exactly have a place on the street. Its track capabilities were taken advantage of around the same time the roof was added, which is when the ACR and GTS-R were introduced. Despite the level of difficulty that was associated with driving one of these beasts at high speed, the Viper busted onto the scene as a serious contender setting track records all over the world.
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.
Bigger and Badder
In 2003, the Viper would undergo a true redesign for the first time. It was shaped into a bigger, more aggressive looking platform. It was lighter and more powerful and prepared to continue on its reign of glory. Unfortunately, there was trouble ahead.
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.
Dodge’s sales were once again beginning to plummet, and after a change in parent companies, the Viper would go on hold for the year 2007. Luckily, when it did return after just a year break, it came back with a vengeance. It received another facelift and 100 more horsepower. This Viper was big, bad, and (sadly) short lived. After the great recession, Dodge was again in financial trouble and the Viper plant in Detroit had been put on idle—naturally the Viper went with it.
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 Bites Back
This, of course, wasn’t the death of the legendary monster. The Viper would be reintroduced for its final run starting in 2013. Ralph Gilles, SRT CEO, stated at the New York Auto Show that “the history of Viper runs deep. The private equity guys tried to snuff it out, but it’s like the weed that keeps growing back.”
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 theMercedes-Benz AMG and BMW M divisions.
Of course, this wasn’t your daddy’s Viper. It came back with an all new look and even more poison in its bite. And the Viper ACR’s design allowed it to produce 1100 pounds of downforce at speed. When American professional sports car and stock car racing driver, Andy Lally, test drove the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR for a car review for Jalopnik, he said he was instantly impressed.
The End of an Era
With its final breath, the Viper did exactly what it did best—pummel the competition. For the final four years of its life it continued to break and set track records all over the world. However, the fateful day came on August 16, 2017 when the final Viper rolled off the assembly line and the 25 year run had come to an end.
With news of the Viper’s life coming to an end, Bob Lutz, now known as the father of the model, made an interesting statement. In an interview with Road and Track he told the publication:
“The Viper ran out of good reasons to live: The original premise was ‘more power and speed than anyone else’. But the Viper was, in recent years, trumped by the Corvette ZR1 and Z06 and even in its own family by the Hellcat.”
Though this statement holds water, the truth is the sales just weren’t there to back it. Dodge even tried to lower the retail cost to keep it alive and failed. But the Viper has died on us twice already, and each time been resurrected more extreme than before. So for us wishful thinkers, we’ll watch the supercar ride off into the sunset, reflect upon its lifespan, and think that maybe this isn’t actually goodbye—just farewell for now.
The Dodge Viper ended production after a 25-year run. A little sad, right? Before you start the water works, remember that the Chevy Camaro went out of production in 2002 with no plans for revival, yet Chevy brought the pony car back in 2010. The same could happen to the Viper.
We recently had a chance to be a fly on the wall as the people responsible for the V-10 sports car looked back on the Viper’s history. Their war stories gave us new respect for the blood, sweat, and tears that went into keeping the project alive. Here’s a sample of the more interesting facts we learned: