Few could have suspected what an impact the Dodge Viper would have on an unsuspecting world in 1992. Ray Hutton was there.
TALES FROM THE VIPER PIT
January 1992, 10 o’clock in the evening of the preview day for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and I was working on my report in a room in the downtown Westin Hotel when the phone rang. It was Tom Kowaleski, product PR chief at Chrysler Corporation. ‘Ray, Bob Lutz promised you a drive in the Viper. Can you be at the Chelsea Proving Ground at 7.30 tomorrow morning?’ Looking out at the falling snow, and knowing that Chelsea was 60 miles away, I hesitated only momentarily. ‘Yes, of course. I’ll be there.’
THE VIPER HAS FOUR-WHEEL STEERING - IT IS OPERATED WITH YOUR RIGHT FOOT' – Bob Lutz
Which is how I came to have my first drive in a Dodge Viper RT/10, at up to 140mph, sometimes sideways, in the dark, on ice. Ris was not as hazardous as it sounds, as it was within the open spaces of the empty test facility. I didn’t learn much in the hour before daybreak when Chelsea opened for business but did confirm that the production model had all the outrageous spirit of the Viper concept that the world had seen for the first time exactly three years before. Chrysler had built a successor to the Cobra 427. Love it or hate it, you couldn’t ignore it.
There is no doubt that the Viper was inspired by the Cobra. Bob Lutz, president of Chrysler, owned an AC Mark IV. He and design vice-president Tom Gale, a hot-rod enthusiast, had come up with a series of exciting concept cars to sharpen Chryslers image and disguise the fact that it had a dull and ageing product range. For the 1989 Detroit Show, their main attraction, or distraction, would be a wild two-seater sports car with a huge engine: a modern-day hot-rod.
Re Viper was kept under wraps until the show preview - it was easier to keep a secret in those pre-social media days - and caused a sensation when it was presented. It was bigger, lower and more menacing than any roadster that had gone before, and the one-upmanship was capped by a monstrous 8.0-litre V10, the prototype for a Dodge heavy-duty pick-up engine.
Re presentation was accompanied by the usual line: ‘If enough people show enough interest, we will consider building it.’ And letters flooded in, some with cheques attached. Lutz had a tentative plan for the Viper but resources were scarce at Chrysler and he needed this public vote of confidence. Re cheques were returned but he set up a task force to investigate how to turn the concept car into production reality.
Team Viper was a group of 30 volunteers from various parts of the company - engineering, design, manufacturing, purchasing - and initially they worked in an old Farmer Jack’s warehouse in the outskirts of Detroit. It wasn’t long until, by some intra-company stealth, the team managed to ‘inherit’ a design studio at Jeep/Truck Engineering, formerly the American Motors building in Plymouth Road, West Detroit.
This became a ‘skunk works’ (actually it was known as the Viper Pit) that could operate autonomously, away from big company bureaucracy. Re team had to come up with a new way of doing things if they were to produce the Viper within three years and be able to sell it profitably at a target price of $50,000.
Team Viper chief engineer Roy Sjoberg, a materials specialist and veteran of Chryslers Liberty programme (one of a number of back-to-basics studies the company had through the years), reflected: ‘At that stage we were working only with an idea.’ Re show car had a rudimentary chassis, a ‘borrowed’ engine, and steel bodywork hand-fashioned by Metalcrafters, the company that specialised in one-off prototypes.
Sjoberg soon expanded the team to 85 and became a specialist in procuring under-utilised facilities within the corporation. Tools, computers, even dynamometers, found their way to the Viper Pit, where the team worked together, sharing each problem as it came along. This way of working with a cross-functional team was seen as so successful that Chrysler later re-organised its whole engineering staff into ‘platform groups’.
By August 1989, Team Viper had produced a chassis ‘mule’, a multi-tubular backbone strengthened in the centre section by welded steel panels. Racing-style double-wishbone suspension with concentric springs and dampers was adopted front and rear, with a mix of proprietary parts - for example, the steering column was from the Jeep Cherokee and the upper front wishbones from a Dodge truck. A second prototype was fitted with a V8 engine for running trials but the intention was to proceed with the mighty V10.
Lutz mentioned in conversation that summer that he had involved Lamborghini, a recently acquired Chrysler subsidiary. Re idea was not, as some speculated, to use a Lamborghini engine but to tap into the Italian company’s expertise with aluminium castings to make a lightweight cylinder block and heads for the Dodge V10; the engine would otherwise conform to the unsophisticated Detroit norm of two valves per cylinder, operated by pushrods.
Meanwhile, the bodywork was redesigned to be produced in plastic composite materials. Although it closely resembled the concept car, the production prototype was slightly different in every dimension and angle. Re body panels, made in glassfibre by RTM (Resin Transfer Moulding), were riveted and bonded to the spaceframe chassis. Preserving the exposed side-exit exhaust pipes that were such a feature of the show-car presented some difficulties when it came to including silencers and high-temperature catalytic converters, which were squeezed into aluminium sill panels packed with Nomex insulation.
By May 1990, Team Viper had arrived at the definitive car. It was decision time. Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, with whom Lutz did not enjoy a good relationship, was invited to review Team Viper’s work. Sjoberg took him for a thundering ride down Detroit’s Oakland Avenue. ‘What are you waiting for?’ said the chairman. ‘Let’s get this thing built!’
The target launch date was January 1992 and the budget was set at $50 million - chicken-feed by motor industry standards. Once again. Team Viper had to take an unorthodox approach. Suppliers were not asked to tender for Viper business but invited to share the risk; they bore the expense of development and would, in turn, get the production contract. Some industry stalwarts walked away but Fabco, a Canadian company, agreed to supply the chassis, Rockwell produced the body panels, and Borg Warner came up with a new six-speed manual gearbox. A factory space at the New Mack Avenue Process Center, part of an old Chrysler stamping plant in Detroit, was made available to set up a hand-build production line.
From the outset it was expected that the Viper would match or exceed the performance of the Cobra 427 - 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds, 0-100mph in 10 seconds, top speed 160mph. that would need 400bhp and 450lb ft torque, which the aluminium-block engine (50kg lighter than the original) easily achieved.
The Viper showed its paces rather earlier than expected when in May 1991, just 12 months after the go-ahead for production, a prototype was selected as the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. It was not supposed to be there but the American racing establishment (and the automotive industry unions) objected to the Japanese origins of Chryslers original nomination, the Dodge Stealth. As a neat link with its heritage, Carroll Shelby, the man behind the Cobra, by then working with Chrysler, was invited to drive the Viper ahead of the snarling field of Indy racers.
Substituting for the Mitsubishi-based four-wheel-drive Stealth pointed out the Viper’s unique and separate position in the Chrysler range. Although old-fashioned in concept - Lutz described it as ‘yestertech’ - it was something completely new for the company, developed fast, and made in a different way to any of its other cars. But there were few mod-cons - the fabric hood looked, and was, an afterthought; there were crude plastic sidescreens instead of wind-up windows; no air- conditioning; no door locks or handles - and there were none of the devices and safety systems that were becoming universal, such as air-bags and anti-lock braking. Lutz joked: The Viper has four-wheel steering - it is operated with your right foot.’
At the New Mack Avenue plant, a group of skilled mechanics - 15 to start with, eventually growing to 70 - worked on an assembly line with cars moving between 22 stations on a car-wash chain conveyor system. It took a day for a car to go through the build process, the pilot production cars were completed just before Christmas 1991: the Viper had arrived on time and not far over budget ($70 million, still modest compared with any other new model programme).
The Viper bellowing round the aisles of the Cobo Hall, Bob Lutz at the wheel (naturally), was a high spot of the Detroit Show preview. Having discussed the project with him every few months since the concept car appeared, I was anxious to know when people outside Chrysler might be allowed to drive the car. Hence my early-morning encounter at the Chelsea Proving Ground.
A few months later I had a proper drive, on the road and the proving ground, after a visit to the New Mack Avenue plant. Seeing the Viper without its body panels, it was just a huge engine with four fat wheels and a fuel tank strapped on the back; one of the ‘craftpersons’ described it as ‘the world’s fastest go-kart’. Certainly, on a dry road, those massive Michelins (the widest tyres on any road car at the time) provided prodigious grip and allowed sensationally fast progress through long, fast - and wide - corners, the cockpit reminded me not so much of a kart as a 1950s sports-racer.
The car’s appeal was undeniable; it turned heads and raised smiles wherever it rumbled, the US domestic price of $55,000 (£30,000 at the prevailing exchange rate) compared favourably with the Chevrolet Corvette, its obvious competitor. At the time, the American car enthusiasts’ ‘buff books’ - Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend and The Automobile - were obsessed by skid-pan lateral g numbers, and were full of praise, the business plan showed a profit if they could make 3000 cars a year, that had seemed optimistic but by this point it looked as if it could be realistic. In fact, the Viper sold 3083 in 1994, its best year.
Production was slow at first - three cars per day. The first batch of 200 quickly found buyers and the Viper sold at a premium for a time. By the end of 1992, 285 cars had been sold and Chrysler s management had changed: Lee Iacocca had retired and his place as chief executive had been taken by Bob Eaton. Lutz, alongside as chief operating officer and in charge of product, was at the height of his powers. Chrysler was on a roll with some exciting new products and the Viper fitted in as its performance king. Emboldened by the upswing, a dozen of the company’s senior executives, including several on the board of directors - Lutz, Eaton and Gale among them - ordered a Viper for their own use.
Lutz and Eaton were keen to position the rejuvenated Chrysler on the world stage, so it was inevitable that some Vipers would be released for export. Eager to make the right impression, Chrysler arranged the European press preview in May 1993 in Monaco, with drives on the autoroute and in the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes. It was a blast on the motorway - albeit with a magnetic attraction to the gendarmerie - but not well suited to the busy, narrow and uneven French by-roads. Also, in comparison with the Ferraris and Porsches parked around Monte Carlo, the spartan-looking pale grey plastic interior and its instruments and switchgear appeared decidedly downmarket.
These cars were titled ‘Viper by Chrysler’ as, at that time, the Dodge brand was not sold in Europe. Re UK price, left-hand drive only, was a hefty £55,000.
As often happens with low-volume cars, the second version was a major improvement on the original. Re 1996 Viper, which - in the American way - appeared in 1995, had many of the rough edges smoothed and was a much better drive, as I discovered in four days and 1100 miles in amongst the California Mille - the Italian classic rally transplanted to Northern California.
I say ‘amongst’ because the Mille is strictly for pre-1960 road racers and Chrysler had invited a dozen journalists to participate with Vipers that were to be made available to any of the ‘real’ competitors if they fancied a change from their classic car for a section of the route. Re result was those of us with the Viper keys swapped cars for an hour or so with the owners of some priceless historic machinery. Rat most came away impressed by the Viper’s performance was pleasing for Chrysler (and might have sold some cars) but the truth was that these were the fastest cars in the whole event - and all the speeding tickets could be blamed on the visiting journalists!
Re 1996 model, designated SR-II, was the car that the Viper should have been at the beginning. It had the side- exit exhausts relocated to the rear, and two central tail-pipes; power was increased to 415bhp; some suspension pieces were in aluminium rather than steel, saving 27kg; the interior was re-done in black and there were improvements to the fit and finish, inside and out.
On the American open road, the car was a delight. Re original’s instability under braking had been cured and the quick steering made it fun to power out of hairpins, wagging its tail. On the other hand, it felt clumsy through the streets of San Francisco and the long gearing (60mph in sixth: 1200rpm) and heavy clutch made it difficult to avoid shunt in the driveline. But cruising through cities was never what the Viper was about.
Chrysler also introduced the Viper GTS Coupe in the 1996 model year - a facsimile of the Cobra Daytona Coupe with a ‘double bubble’ roof, which was to go on to win the FIA GT2 Endurance Championship and become more popular than the roadster. Re GTS had power windows, door locks, air conditioning and two air bags. Re savage was in danger of becoming civilised.
Bob Lutz had said at the outset: ‘If this car ever gets traction control and ABS, it will have lost its way.’ It held out until 2001, when anti-lock brakes became standard. Production continued (though with a hiatus between 2010 and 2013) through some 32,000 cars and five series until 2017. Re world had changed in the 25 years since he had introduced the Viper by saying: ‘Some people just won’t get it, but that’s OK. Re Viper is not a car for everyone. It is an intense driving experience. Period.’
Below: The 1996 model year brought with it more than just these new colour schemes. Revised suspension, new interior trim, more power and exhaust outlets banished to the rear transformed the Viper.
Clockwise from below: The first production Viper, back in 1992; ’1996 car shares roadspace with a Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa on the California Mille; Chrysler bosses Eaton (on left) and Lutz, pictured in 1993; build processes at the New Mack Avenue plant; the original production interior, grey as an ’80s slip-on shoe.
Clockwise from above right: Viper’s engine was a monstrous 8.0-litre V10, shared with a Dodge pick-up; parent company Chrysler found space within the New Mack Avenue production facility to hand-build the Viper; big grins on track with the first production car in 1992.
Above, left to right: Dodge first teased the public with the idea of a modern-day Cobra with this show-car, displayed at the 1989 Detroit Motor Show; Ray Hutton tested the production version exactly three years later.