How the Dodge Viper Works

The Viper is more than just a burly, limited-production, "back-to-basics" high-performance sports car. See more Dodge Viper pictures.
Vince Manocchi

The Viper is a parade all by itself. It rolls by like a break in the routine, a celebrity glimpsed in the flesh, a brassy "Stars and Stripes Forever." Folks nudge and point. Whooping kids pedal their bikes like mad, trying to keep up. Heads turn and trace the car's passage into the distance. In its wake a void is created, the street no longer a stage.

The spectacle lasts longer from behind the wheel.

Dodge Viper Image Gallery

A turn of the key ignites eight liters of aluminum V-10. Exhaust pipes bark just below your elbow. Engage the clutch. Prod the accelerator. At just 1200 rpm there are 400 pounds/feet of torque at your command. It pours forth like water over Niagara Falls.

Hit it!

Reverberations from the side pipes send roosting birds heavenward. The massive hood quivers, the steering wheel comes to life. Wind tattoos your scalp. Dig deeper into the throttle. Aim down the straight. Get on the brakes. Bend the Viper into a turn. Feel the tires bite. Accelerate out of the corner. Your eyes are barely three feet above the pavement rushing by. A vortex of dust and leaves swirls from the tail. Shift! Accelerate! Do it again.

The show car's cockpit was all-business. Access to the pedals would be improved for production.
Chrysler LLC

Cars like this are rare. And cars like this from an American automaker are almost unheard of. But Chrysler has one in the Viper. And it's no accident.

From its inception, Viper's mission was to resurrect the excitement of the very boldest of sports cars, the fabled AC Shelby Cobra 427. It is, in fact, Cobra-like in conception -- a pure two seater with rear-wheel drive and big-cube power -- and in detail -- side curtains instead of roll-up windows, and no exterior door handles.

At the same time it is amassing the lore that is essential to making cars like the Cobra larger than life.

To learn more about the Dodge Viper and other sports cars, see:

Dodge Viper Concept

Izod, a 1985 design exercise, provided some conceptual groundwork when Chrysler laid out the original Viper styling themes in early 1988.
Izod, a 1985 design exercise, provided some conceptual groundwork when Chrysler laid out the original Viper styling themes in early 1988.
Chrysler LLC

The Viper saga began in early 1988, as some of Chrysler Corporation's top decision makers, who also happen to be car guys, turned to the notion of building a new car with the spirit of the original 1965-1967 Cobra.

Chrysler's design staff jumped at the assignment. Their sketches became a concept car -- one that dazzled auto show audiences. People wrote letters asking Chrysler, "Build it, please!" Some actually sent deposit checks. Suddenly, a car company barely registering a heartbeat had a high-profile hit on its hands.

Within Chrysler's ranks an elite commando unit of car engineers and designers was formed. Equipment was "borrowed," space "procured." This group produced a running prototype in just 11 months.

Lee Iacocca himself is said to have authorized production of the Viper after an awesome test blast down a suburban Detroit street.

And when Chrysler stumbled into a public-relations briar patch by announcing that the Japanese-built Dodge Stealth would pace the 1991 Indianapolis 500, it was Viper that raced to the rescue. Another prototype was hurriedly produced and pressed into pace-car service. At the wheel was the man behind the legend, Carroll Shelby, who just months before had undergone a heart transplant. Shelby was the father of the Cobra, and a driving force in the development of the Viper.

No car sold in the U.S. has more body panels formed by resin transfer molding (RTM), a time-saving method of creating high-quality composites.
Alex Gabbard

When the first half-dozen of the 200 1992 production models rolled into Southern California showrooms in May, they caused a sensation. Ecstatic Dodge dealers accepted orders at triple the $50,000 list price. Others said their Viper was not for sale at any price -- it was too valuable a drawing card.

Dodge Viper Production

Cats-eye headlamps lead to libidinous haunches that burst with impossibly aggressive tires.
Cats-eye headlamps lead to libidinous haunches that burst with impossibly aggressive tires.
Alex Gabbard

Still, the Viper has critics. It's been labeled irresponsible -- a poor use of both natural resources and Chrysler's resources. Some say a company in Chrysler's financial condition ought to have introduced a mass-market subcompact. It's been branded an extravagance born of outsized egos -- a low-volume mega-buck plaything.

For its part, Chrysler says Viper helped them fine tune the "team" concept used to develop the new LH family of sedans, cars widely regarded as vital to the company's very survival as an automaker. In addition, project Viper pioneered fresh ways of dealing with suppliers -- techniques that will help lower costs on the line of Chrysler subcompacts due in the mid-1990s.

As well, Chrysler points out that the Viper itself is a testbed for new body-panel modeling processes, a new fuel-injection system, and a new transmission. The car also introduces a Chrysler-patented single-piece windshield frame and is the first U.S.-built car to employ urethane foam interior trim that's actually a structural component.

Still, Viper's essence isn't to be found in a board room, or technical specification, or even 0-60 mph times. Much about this car has to do with desire and sheer sensation.

Indeed, it has otherwise straight-laced Chrysler officials making dreamy analogies; one said it recaptures the perfection of young love.

Dodge teased auto writers in June 1990 with the first V-10 Viper prototype.
Jerry Heasley

A more down-to-earth view of Viper might be that it marks the return of automotive enthusiasts to Chrysler's helm -- men and women with an appreciation of engineering and performance. Moreover, it shows that an American automaker can respond quickly to market desires with a car that invigorates the soul and obliterates the routine.

To learn more about the Dodge Viper and other sports cars, see: