1989 was a turning point year for the Detroit Auto Show. It was the year that it officially became the North American International Auto Show. It was also the show that marked the debut of an instant automotive icon, the Dodge Viper.
This summer production of the current generation Viper will cease at Chrysler’s Conner Ave. plant in Detroit. Whether it will ever resume is anything but certain. In November 2009 new Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchione announced that an all-new Viper would probably debut in 2012, but we’ll just have to wait and see if it actually becomes a reality.
As the Viper slithers off into what may be its final cool-down lap, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, MI has launched a retrospective celebrating the first decade of the Viper’s existence and particularly its racing successes. The exhibit features eight special vipers covering the period from 1989 to 2000 under the banner of “Born to Race.” We paid a visit to the museum to check out the cars and talk with curator Brandt Rosenbusch.
The Viper was conceived in early 1988 both as a modern take on the classic sports car and also as a showcase for a new V10 engine that Chrysler was developing for its next generation full-size pickup trucks. At that time Carroll Shelby was still hooked up with Chrysler producing hot versions of the Omni, Charger and Daytona and in many respects the new concept was a modern take on the 1960s-era Shelby Cobra.
Shelby had been pulled in to work with Chrysler design boss Tom Gale, chief engineer Francois Castaing and some ex-fighter pilot named Lutz. While the Cobra may have provided inspiration in terms of being a minimalist roadster with a big honking engine, the Viper turned into something wholly unique from a design perspective. After Lutz approved an initial clay model a full metal and fiberglass concept was built for the show. However since no V10s were actually available yet, the builders ended up welding two extra cylinders onto an existing 360 cubic inch V8 to install into the concept.
At its conception there was never any intent to produce the Viper. After all, at that time every Chrysler vehicle in production aside from the trucks and full-size vans was derived from the lowly K-car. New front-wheel drive platforms were under development but there was nothing suitable for sharing parts with the Viper.
Then the public saw the Viper at Cobo Hall and the response was instant and overwhelming. Within weeks after the show a development team had been pulled together and by that summer the first development mule was running. That first rough, white prototype showed up in spy photos in magazines like Autoweek later that year. Because the V10s still weren’t available, that first mule was powered by a 360 V8 and Rosenbusch tells us that the car is still in the Chrysler collection. Typically such development mules and prototypes are crushed when their development life is completed. However, the Viper holds such a special place in Chrysler history that prototype #1 and several other development cars have been retained and are warehoused somewhere in the Detroit area.
At the time of the Viper’s debut, Chrysler still owned Lamborghini and the engineers there were recruited to help develop an aluminum block version of the cast-iron V10 truck engine. The V10 like all Chrysler V8s up to that point was a push-rod, overhead-valve design and some thought it was unsuitable for a car like the Viper. However, 1989-90 was another of Chrysler’s fallow periods and the sales prospects for the sports car were uncertain so a completely new design for the Viper engine was ruled out. By early 1990 the first aluminum V10s were ready for installation in the prototypes.
Because the decision was made to stick with the minimalist approach for the production Viper, the development process moved along extraordinarily quickly. Perhaps a bit too quickly as it later turned out but we digress.
In early-1991 Chrysler announced that it would be supplying the recently introduced Dodge Stealth as the pace car for that year’s Indianapolis 500. The Stealth was a re-badged and re-skinned version of the Mitsubishi 3000 GT produced in Japan. Needless to say Indy fans and UAW members were not overly thrilled by the prospect of a Japanese-built sports coupe pacing the 500. Within weeks Chrysler reversed course and opted to use a pre-production Viper instead with Carroll Shelby himself leading the drivers to the green flag. The pace car on display, which was one of two supplied by Chrysler was originally intended for crash testing before being redirected to Indy. The Viper was only the second non-production car ever to pace the 500, the other being the 1940 Chrysler Newport.
By the end of 1991 the first production Vipers were rolling out of the Mack Ave plant in Detroit where Chrysler had initially set up a special line to hand build the sports cars. Chrysler began deliveries of those first cars to customers in January 1992, just three years after the concept had first appeared in public. The first generation cars retained the side exhaust pipes which looked really cool but generated a fair number of burned legs. Unfortunately with each bank of five cylinders from the odd-firing 90 degree V10 only feeding on side pipe, the Viper didn’t have the most delicious auditory output. Contemporary reviewers often complained that the Viper sounded more like a UPS truck than a sports car.
Regardless of what it sounded like though, it was one fast snake, proving to be one of the quickest cars in the world at the time. And the torque it had, Oy! In 2010 400 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque is actually pretty mainstream with Mustangs, Camaros and Challengers hitting at least those power levels. But in 1992 that was still a lot. An early comparison test in a British car magazine pitted the Viper against a contemporary Ferrari 348 with the testers doing a rolling start at 10 mph and accelerating to 140 mph. The Ferrari got an early jump but the Dodge soon caught up and left the Italian in the dust. While the Ferrari used all five ratios in its gearbox, the Viper did 10-140 mph in fourth gear!
That emphasis on minimalism was perhaps a bit much for early customers and reviewers. Like the Cobra, the first generation Vipers had removable side curtains along with a flimsy emergency-only top that had a tendency to blow off above about 60 mph and no exterior door handles. Reports of leaks and disappearing tops were not uncommon in those first days. A removable hard roof panel soon appeared for inclement weather and before long Vipers were appearing at SCCA events around the country.
Seemingly as soon as the first Vipers had hit the road Team Viper was already at work on updates. While the roadster was incredibly cool looking, if the Viper was ever going to break into big-league racing it would need a fixed roof and much better aerodynamics. The designers soon drew up a coupe that was clearly inspired by the Cobra Daytona coupes of 1964. The double bubble roof would provide adequate clearance for helmets and the sloping rear glass and integrated spoiler would work with the air flow to help keep the rear end planted. The fixed roof also meant the side curtains would have to go and exterior door releases were added.
While the engineers were making changes the exhaust pipes were extended so that they now exited under the rear bumper which improved the sound quality somewhat. However, the pipes still ran through the sills rather than down the center tunnel so the original heat issue remained. The revamped Viper RT/10 roadster and GTS coupe both debuted as 1996 models with power levels from the V10 now up to 450. The GTS coupe returned to Indy in May 1996 to serve as the pace car for the 500 just as the IRL/CART split was beginning. To date the Viper GTS has been the last non-General Motors car to do pace duty at the Brickyard.
With the coupe now in production, Chrysler set out to demonstrate that the Viper was indeed a true all-around performance machine rather just a crude muscle roadster. The automaker went to Reynard Motorsports in the UK and Oreca Racing in France to begin work on a full-blown GT race car. The official Viper GTS-R remained remarkably true to the production model’s shape retaining the basic dimensions in accordance with GT rules. A high rear wing, front and side splitters and rear diffuser were added for more down-force along with the full roll-cage and other necessary safety equipment. Reynard built the tube-frame chassis and many of the parts while Oreca assembled the cars and ran the European based factory team.
The white #97 pilot engineering car raced twice at Daytona and Sebring in 1996 and qualified but did not race at Le Mans that June. That first year the Vipers ran in GT1 against the Porsches, Mercedes and McLarens. However, as the Germans began to up the ante in GT1 with the likes of the 911 GT1 and CLK-GTR, Chrysler opted to switch the Vipers over to GT2 which remained closer to the production vehicles. From 1997 to 2001 Oreca campaigned Vipers for Chrysler in Europe and in North America taking numerous race victories and championships.
After winning its first FIA GT2 championship in 1997, the red, white and blue #53 Oreca Viper would go onto win its class at Le Mans in 1998, the first of three in a row for the V10 machines. The German Zakspeed team also claimed overall victories in the 24 Hours of Nurburgring in 1999, 2001 and 2002.
In order to remain qualified for GT2 competition as well as to commemorate that first 1997 championship, Chrysler built 100 road-going Viper GT2 models for 1998. The Viper GT2 was based on the GTS but added a high rear wing, front splitter and dive planes and side splitters similar to those found on the race car. All of the GT2s were finished in the traditional American racing colors of white with blue stripes and a black and blue leather interior.
The GTS-R remained one of the most successful cars in GT2 well into the next decade. In 2000, Oreca claimed an overall victory at the 24 hours of Daytona with the red and white #91 which is on display exactly as it drove off the high banks. In addition to the works cars that Oreca fielded for Chrysler, the French team also built and maintained all of the customer cars. According to Rosenbusch, 57 of the GTS-Rs were built and many of them remained in competition in national GT championships until 2007.
The same month that Oreca took the victory at Daytona, Chrysler brought the Viper full circle when it rolled out a brand new concept at the Detroit Auto Show. The 2000 GTS-R concept was three inches lower than the contemporary coupe and previewed the styling direction for what would eventually become the 2003 production Viper. The concept later evolved into the new Viper Competition Coupe which is still offered to customers as a turn-key factory built race car for GT3 competition. Just as with the original GTS-R, the new competition coupes are built in France by Oreca but since 2001 there has been no factory backed race team. Nonetheless private teams have had considerable success with the Vipers, both in Europe and North America.
The Viper “Born to Race” exhibit will be showcased at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum until August 29. (http://wpchryslermuseum.org/homepage.do) The Museum itself is located adjacent to the Chrysler headquarters and technical center in Auburn Hills, MI north of Detroit just off I-75. In addition to the Vipers now on display the museum rotates about 75 vehicles from its 350 vehicle collection. Among the current exhibits are the Tomahawk Viper powered motorcycle concept and a 1960s era turbine car. If you’re a car fan and happen to be in the Detroit area, the museum is well worth a visit and it’s open every day except Monday.