It began one day in February 1988 with a brief discussion between Chrysler President Robert A. Lutz and Tom Gale, chief of design.
"I was walking down the hall, Bob called me in the office -- and it was just a five-minute discussion," said Gale. "I can remember it like it was yesterday. He said,'I've been thinking more and more. We really ought to kick off doing a project like a reborn Cobra.' That was our intent right from the very beginning."
What Lutz had in mind was a sports car with a modern engine management system, new-think transmission, computer-aided suspension design, and world-class tires. The Viper would take advantage of the latest in modern technology. But it would not be a gadget-laden, high-tech wonder bristling with turbochargers, anti-lock brakes, four-wheel steering, adjustable shock-absorber damping, and all-wheel drive. Instead, the Viper would take a mechanically pure approach -- loads of power fed to simple rear drive. Brute force. As in the Shelby Cobra, there would exist an unfiltered communication between driver, car, and road.
However casual the pair's conversation may have been on the surface, several influences came together during those five minutes. One was centered around a concept vehicle designed by Chrysler's Pacifica design studio. The stylists had been exploring the packaging of a V-8 convertible sports car. Around 1985, the idea came together and a static concept vehicle called the Izod was produced.
Another influence was a late-'80s engine development program. Lutz was one of the executives overseeing the truck division at Chrysler during this time and he craved a new stump-puller gasoline engine that would boost Dodge's image with big-pickup buyers.
A man who would prove vital to Viper, Francois Castaing, was at that time head of Chrysler's Jeep and Truck Engineering division. He had come over in July 1987, after a career in European motorsports, where he helped turbocharge Formula 1 as technical director of Renault's Formula 1 effort.
"One of the first major projects we got going was to put a new big V-10, a big gas truck engine, on its way," Castaing recalled. "Jokingly, we said, 'That's the kind of engine that back in the '60s, Bizzarrini and DeTomaso would have bought to create the great sports car of back then. You know, very powerful, torquey, big gas American engine, put into a nice body.' And we kept saying, 'Well, maybe we should sell the engine to people like that.' Bob [Lutz] owns a Cobra, so Cobra was another car we talked about. One day -- and I don't remember how it happened -- but the idea of creating a concept car like the Cobra, using the big gas truck engine as a core, came up."
"It occurred to me," Lutz explained, "that Chrysler had all the bits and pieces in the parts bin. Whether it's the truck bin or the car bin, who cares? But we had all the pieces in the bin to do a show car that would pick up on the theme of the Cobra."
Using the brash Cobra as a touchstone brought to the forefront another irreplaceable influence: Carroll Shelby. Shelby had hooked up with Chrysler as a "performance consultant" in 1982, and by 1986, Shelby Automobiles Inc. was turning out hot, limited-edition Dodges. Shelby said that at the time Lutz approached him, he was in fact building a sports car of his own and trying to interest Chrysler in it. But along came Lutz and Castaing. Shelby recalled Lutz's proposal: "'Why don't we build a sports car, something like the old 427 Cobra, only let's build a 1990s version of it -- and what did I think of the idea?' We sat down about 30 minutes and conceptualized the car. He wanted to do what I'd been trying to get done around the company for nine years. In 30 minutes we had the concept . . . . And we ended up with the Viper, where it might have been years before we would have gotten management to agree to build what I was building."
Around that time Shelby was awaiting a heart transplant and therefore didn't have a direct hand in Viper's engineering or design. But the fathers of the Viper regard him as the "conscience" of the car, a voice that kept it true to the ethic of power and simplicity.