If you attended the North American International Auto Show in 1989, you could be forgiven for doubting your eyes. That year, the team at Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studios showed off a concept sports car meant to be an updated version of the Cobra. The prototype was short and squat, cherry red and featured a front end that looked like Mr. Magoo squinting into a dark room. Under the broad landing-deck hood was a cast iron, 360 cubic inch V8 engine yanked off a truck. This was the first iteration of the Dodge Viper, and it was such a hit that advance orders were flowing in before the show’s end. Chrysler chairman Lee Iaccoca immediately approved a production run, and a team of 89 engineers and designers went to work within six weeks.
The Need for Speed
Team Viper, as it came to be called, worked with a speed worthy of the overpowered monster they had been charged with developing. By the end of 1989, they had a working test mule, known as VM02, with a body deliberately designed to look like a Boxster to throw off corporate spies. The vehicle used another truck engine, this time a cast iron V10, though the engineers at Lamborghini — then a Dodge subsidiary — were developing an aluminum version 150 pounds lighter.
As originally conceived, the Viper was almost a throwaway project. The updated Cobra concept was to rapidly churn out a mechanically simple kit car Dodge loyalists could buy cheaply and tweak into a personalized street machine. The intention was to replace it with something better in 1997. Instead, the all-volunteer Viper team quickly filled up with excited engineers and enthusiasts who transformed the prototype into a top-of-the-line sports car rivaling the Corvette.
The Rough Rider
The new design hit the market in 1992 as the SR1, which had a decidedly unfinished feel to it. The first-generation Vipers had the new V10 Lamborghini engine and a tubular-steel, 3,200-pound chassis that bounced like a race car frame even on smooth roads. The SR1 models were all convertibles with canvas tops and soft vinyl zippered windows, similar to the Jeep Wrangler. The dashboard had a snowflake icon, although air conditioning wasn’t even an optional feature as yet. Dodge also left out the airbags to keep the weight down.
The 1992-96 run of Vipers definitely felt like kit cars — there were no exterior door handles, and the AM/FM radio cost extra. A 400 HP engine and power-to-weight ratio that made the driver’s eyeballs go squish during the 4.2 seconds it took to go from 0 to 60 mph more than made up for it. The long body and optional performance suspension kept the Viper stable during 1g lateral turns that would hurl passengers against the doors like astronauts in a centrifuge. Without frivolities like traction control or antilock brakes, the SR1s demanded more attention from the driver than a romantic relationship.
These little quirks gradually got ironed out as Team Viper incorporated feedback from drivers — the ones who survived, at least. Gen-2 Vipers had their exhaust ported out the rear rather than the sides, adding 15 hp from back pressure. The switch to an aluminum frame shed 60 pounds of curb weight, and luxury items such as air conditioning and air bags became standard.
The 2003 redesign upped the engine displacement to 500 cubic inches and 510 HP. In 2008, this was increased by another 100 cubic inches and better heads were added for a 611 HP throughput. Dodge skipped the 2011 model year, opting instead for an overhaul to add stability control and a more forgiving feel to the 2012 run. They also upped the power to 640 HP, which increased the top speed to 208 mph.
All Good Things. . .
By 2015, the Viper’s little oddities were ironed out and it had developed into an almost comfortable power hog. It also cost more than a two-bedroom house, and sales were sluggish. New safety regulations were calling for side-impact airbags, which would have required a significant redesign of the Viper’s minimalist upper frame. In October 2015, Chrysler announced the Viper would be discontinued in 2017, followed by the close of the Conner Assembly Plant.