25 Years of the Dodge Viper: The Highs and Lows
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has confirmed it’s culling the Viper, and despite the recent ramblings of CEO Sergio Marchionne about a possible successor it looks like the 2017 model year will be the nameplate’s last.
Yes, the Viper has bowed out before. You’ll recall it skipped the 2011 and ’12 model years. But back then FCA was talking up a new model even before production of the existing car had ceased.
Couple the low sales of the current Viper (just 676 were sold in all of 2015) with the impending regulatory framework for emissions and it’s not hard to see why FCA made its decision. The car is still one of the fastest on sale, regardless of price, but the game has changed and this time it looks like the all-American supercar’s time is finally up.
Here’s a look back at some of the Viper’s highs and lows over its 25-year history.
End of a dismal era
The Viper was born at the close of an era of disappointment among American cars, which at Chrysler was epitomized by the K-Cars. The Viper was totally different. It was a smooth, sexy supercar designed to burn fuel and rubber.
An instant success
The car began life in 1988 by Chrysler’s Advanced Design Studios. Under noted product man Bob Lutz’s direction, designers Tom Gale and Roy Sjoberg brought the idea of a modern-day Cobra from paper to reality. The original concept proved a major hit at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show and just two years later none other than Carrol Shelby was pacing the Indianapolis 500 in a pre-production example. By early 1992 the first Vipers were landing in showrooms.
Powered by a truck engine
Of course the car wasn’t without its detractors. The Viper was powered by a V10 from Chrysler’s truck lineup, albeit modified by Lamborghini, which was owned by the American automaker at the time. The engine alone weighed more than 700 pounds but it produced an impressive — for the time — 400 horsepower. The car was an absolute brute in all aspects and proved to be difficult to drive at its limits.
Production car Nürburgring record
The improvements made with the second-generation Viper meant the car was now one of the fastest ever produced. This was confirmed in 2011 when the track-focused ACR model lapped Germany’s Nürburgring in 7:12.13, which is still a record time for a production car with rear-wheel drive.
A loyal following
Despite the harshness, especially compared to more refined rivals coming out of Germany and Japan, the Viper generated a loyal following. Many appreciated its prowess at the racetrack, plus the fact the Viper could demolish much more expensive competition. However, there is probably none more dedicated to the Viper than Wayne and D’Ann Rauh. Last year the couple from Texas added the 79th Viper to their collection.
Teetering on the edge
While the car may have a loyal following, that following is small. As previously mentioned, the Viper has bowed out of the market before. The last time, though, wasn’t entirely the car’s fault. In the preceding years, Germany’s Daimler had just split from Chrysler by selling the majority of the automaker to Cerberus. The private equity group didn’t have much luck and eventually Chrysler needed to be bailed out. In 2009 Fiat stepped in but the last thing on anyone’s mind was an expensive niche product like the Viper. It meant Viper production ended, albeit temporarily, after the 2010 model year.
Next-gen Viper appears as… a Mercedes?
Although it will never be confirmed, there are claims Mercedes-Benz benefited from some of the early work done on a next-generation Viper. How so? According to some, after Daimler’s split with Chrysler some of the early work on a new Viper was utilized by Mercedes for its SLS AMG supercar. The proportions of the car, the fact that a Viper body was used for early test mules, even the character of the car itself all seem to bear a lot of Viper influence.
No longer a Dodge
Eventually a new, third-generation Viper emerged. Arriving as a 2013 model, the debut took place at the 2012 New York Auto Show and excitement appeared to be at an all-time high. The only problem was that the car was no longer referred to as a Dodge Viper. Instead, it was labeled an SRT, an acronym for Street and Racing Technology, which FCA was hoping to turn into its own version of BMW M or Mercedes-AMG. The plan was to make the car seem more exclusive but it failed and just 591 examples were sold in the first full year on the market.
Return to 1992 pricing
Low demand meant cars were sitting on dealer lots. As a response, FCA dropped the SRT idea and slashed prices by up to $15,000. The starting price was dropped to a reasonable $84,995, which the automaker boasted was the same price you would have paid when the car was first launched, when adjusted for inflation. The move gave a much-needed boost to sales, though it never came close to the 2,000-unit annual tally FCA had said was a target at launch.
FCA crushes students’ Vipers
Around this time, FCA made the bizarre decision to start crushing 93 original Viper prototypes, including the car with VIN No. 4, that were gifted to a various schools’ automotive technology programs. The reason was that two of the 93-car fleet, none of which are allowed to be driven in public since they aren’t certified, were involved in accidents and since FCA officially owned the cars it apparently was stuck with large liability costs. We know of at least one of the rare cars that was saved from the crusher.
Faster than a hypercar
Some redemption came FCA’s way when the automaker in 2015 rolled out a new Viper ACR. Incredibly, it set lap records at 13 racetracks around the country, including some of the most popular such as Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta. The car even managed to beat the new crop of hypercars like the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder at some of the tracks despite being considerably down on power and price.
The Viper has always taken a brute force approach to power and performance. Its 8.4-liter V10 makes great power, but engines of half that size can put out comparable horsepower and torque these days, and they weigh much less. Given that formula, the Viper’s day was destined to end. That doesn’t mean the Viper won’t return in a different form, but there will never be a car like the first three generations of Viper again. So, if you cherish the raw, unbridled nature of the Viper, better get one while you still can.