This article about the inside story of how the Dodge Viper came to be first appeared in the Spring 2010 Edition of Motor Trend Classic.
Even though he was Chrysler‘s president, Bob Lutz still regularly drove the 1985 Autokraft Mk IV Cobra he had acquired near the end of his tenure at the Ford Motor Company. After a weekend run in the car on some of southeastern Michigan’s more interesting roads, he wondered: “Wouldn’t it be kind of cool if we had our own Cobra?”
It was a stretch. In 1988, Chrysler was still the K-car company; virtually everything it made was based off the simple but rapidly aging front-drive hardware that had spawned the Plymouth Reliant and Dodge Aries early in the decade. The fleet of K-car variants “sold passably well, but not without the self-defeating lubricant of rebates,” Bob Lutz writes in “Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company,” published in 1998 after he left the automaker.
But Chrysler was changing. The Portofino sedan concept shown at Frankfurt the previous September previewed design chief Tom Gale’s radically proportioned “cab-forward” 1993 Chrysler Concorde/LHS/New Yorker, Dodge Intrepid, and Eagle Vision sedans. And Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca had orchestrated the purchase of American Motors Corporation, landing Chrysler the legendary Jeep franchise as well as struggling Italian supercar maker Lamborghini.
So a Chrysler sports car was not necessarily a pipe dream.
Inspired by his weekend drive, Lutz visited Gale’s office one cold February day in 1988 to discuss the idea of doing a modern Ford Cobra. The polar opposite of another K-car derivative or even the cab-forward Portofino, it would aim for Chevrolet’s Corvette and its coming 400-horsepower, twin-cam ZR1. It also would be an “affordable” everyman’s alternative to Ferrari.
“Bob was a big fan of the Cobra,” Gale recalls. And when Gale later showed Lutz some half-scale clays and drawings of what a Chrysler version might look like, “Bob was kind of blown away.” They targeted the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit that next January, to unveil a concept car based on the idea.
As Gale’s team worked on the car, Lutz was always enthusiastic about the way the design was progressing, save for one thing. “He never liked the front end,” Gale says. “I think Bob would have been far more literal to the Cobra.” Lutz remembers it differently. “Initially, I had visions of the car being closer to a Cobra, and when I first saw it, I was shocked that it wasn’t. It very quickly grew on me, so it’s not correct to say, ‘never liked.’ Better would be ‘initially disliked.’”
What about an engine? Chrysler’s finances didn’t allow a budget for anything extravagant. Chrysler was working on a new iron-block V-10 that eventually would power the 1994 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty. That truck also would get a new, five-speed manual, so the sports car would have access to a gearbox able to handle torque. “We took a couple 318s and welded them together to do a V-10,” Gale recalls. Actually, they were fuel-injected, 360-cubic-inch versions of the ancient 318. Roush Engineering grafted two cylinders onto the 300-horsepower 360 to make a 450-cubic-inch, iron-block V-10.
Boyd Coddington’s hot-rod operation built the chassis and suspension to Chrysler’s spec. Metalcrafters, the California firm responsible for most of Chrysler’s concepts for the past two decades, built the concept with a (mostly) steel body. The name of the car virtually suggested itself — Viper. What else could you call the spiritual successor to the Cobra?
The Viper concept is a bare-bones sports car, all engine in that long nose, and attitude, and quite different from the comparatively upright production version. Gale’s team built the huge sideview mirrors into the sides of the windshield header; they look like ears drawn for a new Disney character. The windshield kind of pops out from above the front cowl to create a “floating” windscreen look, resembling the kinds of sunglasses you might have seen a celebrity wearing on the cover of People magazine in the late ’80s.
It has two hood pins, and the wheel openings are subtly squared off, as if to accommodate something larger than the fat 17-inch wheels considered plenty big at the time. Four tiny, square headlamp projectors hide under each of the two smoked headlamp covers, and the front and rear turn-signal lenses look like they came from whatever was in the parts bin that day. The very deep draft at the front of the doors accommodated exposed exhaust headers that, alas, didn’t make production. They end in a sidepipe that did make it.
There are no creature comforts, unless you count the stereo head unit that looks like something from Crazy Eddie’s. There are no side windows, no exterior door handles, no top, no air conditioning. The tall, spindly gearshift looks like it’s straight out of the HD Ram. The rear brakes are inboard, just off the rear differential. The cooling system would be too small for an Omni. All it had to do was keep the cobbled together V-10 cool enough to move the car on and off the press conference podium at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. It didn’t matter. Viper was all sizzle and sex.
“When we unveiled the car in January 1989 at the Detroit auto show, it blew the roof off,” Lutz writes in “Guts.” “Nothing remotely like it had ever been displayed by an American or foreign volume producer.” Television coverage was incessant; and the bright-red Viper wound up on the cover of virtually every automotive publication in the country (if not the world). Without breaking 5 mph, Gale’s design convinced the press, showgoers, and enthusiasts reading about the car that the Viper would be as quick, and as fast, as it looks. Enthusiasts wrote letters and even sent deposits.
After the show, Chrysler began work in earnest on shaping a production program. Lutz set down three rules for proposed production, recalls Herb Helbig, who joined the Viper development team as one of the first engineers in March or April:
- A $50 million budget.
- 36 months to get it to production, in time for the ’92 Detroit show.
- Be ethical, moral, and don’t get Lutz in trouble.
Chrysler had managed to keep the Viper concept under tight wraps, Helbig recounts. “I was in my garage working on one of my hot rods, and I had my radio on. One of the oldies stations, probably, was broadcasting from the Detroit show, as it was called at the time, and they were asking people what their favorites were, and a lot of them said ‘Dodge Viper.’ I worked for Chrysler, and I hadn’t heard of it. So I went over to look at it, and I said, ‘Omigod, they’re never going to build it, but I want to be part of it.’”
A development supervisor in the transmission department, Helbig heard about what was supposed to be a secret, invite-only meeting to attract volunteers for the Viper program at the styling dome in the old Highland Park headquarters. Lutz, Gale, engineering vice-president Francois Castaing, Cobra creator Carroll Shelby (then a Chrysler board member and consultant), and newly minted Viper chief engineer Roy Sjoberg, who had worked for Zora Arkus-Duntov on the Corvette, were there. They had invited 50 or 60 engineers, Helbig says. Three hundred showed up.
Helbig asked for a chance to interview, and Sjoberg granted him time late one weekday. “So I talked to Roy, and we talked about all kinds of stuff. I looked down at my watch, and it was now 7:30 in the evening. I had been there three hours. I asked if I had the job. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, you were on the team in the first half hour. I just wanted to hear what was in your head.’”
“To get on the team, you had to give up your day job,” Sjoberg says. If the Viper program didn’t get the green light, Helbig would have to find another engineering position within the company and apply for it. Typical of product programs based on concepts, management wouldn’t approve the Viper until halfway through the 36-month schedule. “I’m a pretty conservative guy,” says Helbig. “This was the riskiest thing I had ever done. The car was so captivating, it had so much personality and character about it, and I thought it was worth the risk. When I told my wife, she said, ‘There’s no point talking you out of this one.’”
Pete Gladysz, another key chassis/powertrain engineer on the Viper Team, calls VM-01, the first mule and the white car pictured in these pages, a splash off the show car. “VM-01 looks very close to the show car in a lot of aspects that don’t match up with the production car.” VM-01 featured production-intent chassis and suspension characteristics. Engineers estimated its iron-block V-8 weighed about the same as an aluminum-block V-10, so the front suspension could be correctly calibrated and the front-rear balance would be about right.
Without any exposed pipes, the eggshell-white VM-01 looks much more subdued than the concept, though it has just about the same nose and tail. There’s no radio at all. The five-speed gearbox, chosen to handle only the V-8’s torque, has a much shorter shaft. With its low, wide stance and thick-blade Boyd Coddington wheels, the mule looks very much like the car Carroll Shelby tried to build on his own a decade later, the V-8-powered Shelby Series 1.
There were a lot of things that “almost needed to be invented” at Chrysler, Gladysz says. The company had virtually no experience with plastic bodies. It didn’t have a lot of independent rear suspension experience. An ex-Team Shelby guy nicknamed Bondo fabricated VM-01’s fiberglass body. “He could put together anything from fiberglass,” Gladysz says of Bondo.
Chrysler guys must like cold weather. They’re not averse to running around topless and windowless in Michigan’s harsh winters. At about six one December morning in 1989, Gladysz rolled out VM-01 at the company’s Highland Park headquarters. Lutz drove it around the back lot. “He said, ‘You know what? You’ve got it.’”
Did Chrysler ever consider a V-8 for the Viper? One story goes that VM-01 was built with a V-8 to keep Shelby appeased and at arm’s length. Though he had little direct involvement with the project, Shelby’s known to favor eight-cylinders.
“I honestly don’t remember either direction.” Helbig says. “Shelby wanted it to be quick, nimble, a good track car, as light as possible, as powerful as possible. He wanted a driver’s car more than a road car.”
Engineers did visit Keith Black’s shop in California to look at a possible street version of his aluminum-block 426 Hemi V-8 for the car. But the Keith Black Hemi, which retained the same basic architecture of the iconic Chrysler version designed back in 1963, was deemed too wide at the top for the long, lean, and narrow two-seater.
“We knew we needed to create something unique,” chassis engineer Gladysz explains. (Chrysler engineers were split among chassis and body engineers, with the chassis guys also handling powertrain.) “And we knew one of those things was a V-10. There was a lot of nibbling on a V-8. Certainly, from an emissions point of view, the V-8 would be the easier choice.”
Enter Lamborghini. Initially there had been little communication between Chrysler and Lamborghini, but upper management at Highland Park wanted to get involved, both to help out, and to gain some experience from the Italians. So it was determined Chrysler engineers would be sent to Italy on rotating six-month to one-year assignments. Dick Winkle was the first: “My task was to get the ball rolling, but to also do what I could to learn how Lamborghini did things — specifically how they designed and developed an engine, and bring what I learned back to Chrysler.”
Winkle was also given the assignment of getting a Chrysler-based V-10 engine-control system working on a new Lamborghini V-10 that was in the development phase. “The Lamborghini control system at that time was very costly to them, while a Chrysler SBEC [single board engine controller] was less than 10 percent of what they were paying!”
Winkle was based in Modena, where Lamborghini Engineering was located under the direction of former Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri. The Modena facility was dedicated primarily to Formula 1 engine development, so Winkle spent time running back and forth between Modena and the Sant’Agata facility where the road cars were built and engineered. “It took a while to gain acceptance,” Winkle recalls, “but eventually I got to know some great people, and I’d like to think I was able to help them with a number of things on the F1 engine, including intake manifold design, piston design, bore distortion, testing, and calibrations.”
Winkle returned to Highland Park in April 1989 and was assigned to Viper, partly because of his work on the V-10 controller and the V-10 base engine at Lamborghini. “I was probably member number nine or 10 of the original Viper Team under Roy Sjorberg,” says Winkle. “Chrysler was already working on the truck V-10 engine by then, but it was early in its design and development, and we knew the Viper engine had to be aluminum for weight considerations. Of course, it also had to have much higher performance potential as well.”
With the need to build mule cars for chassis and suspensions work — and to get program approval — Winkle did the engines for the two Viper mules, VM-01 and VM-02. “The 5.9-liter VM-01 V-8 made approximately 300 horsepower while the iron V-10 was a real struggle and made 360 horsepower with extensive modifications,” he remembers. “VM-02 used the same control system I helped develop for Lamborghini. The results were very good considering the time to do the work and the hardware level.”
Meanwhile, Lamborghini and Forghieri were asked to critique the aluminum V-10 design intended for the Viper and help Chrysler quickly source prototype parts through their suppliers in Italy. “We felt the Lamborghini supply base was much more experienced with fast turnaround and large aluminum castings than what we could find in the Chrysler supply base,” says Winkle. “As a result, the designs were modified by Lamborghini to improve manufacturability and performance — some good ideas and some not so good — that still influence the engine today. The first three V-10 long-block assemblies were cast, machined, and assembled at Lamborghini Modena, and I was assigned to be on site for that work and report any issues that came up to the rest of the team and then to get them worked out. I stayed in Italy for about four weeks during that process, and at the end shipped back three V-10 engines — the only Viper engines ever built in Italy — ready for final dress and testing back at Highland Park.”
Once at Highland Park, the first engine was installed into Winkle’s dyno cell for testing and development work. “As I recall, that engine made about 340 horsepower out of the box, but had several major issues that had to be worked out. The other two engines went into the first Viper prototype cars for testing and development.”
About halfway through the 36-month project, Roy Sjoberg, the ex-Duntov engineer-in-charge, changed the management structure. He rebuilt Team Viper into the first platform group: Gladysz says Chrysler’s first, because the Viper came to market about a year ahead of the LH platform. Sjoberg was also a big fan of Kelly Johnson, who with Ben Rich established Lockheed Martin’s much-copied Skunk Works during World War II.
“We took Kelly Johnson’s book and used a lot of the principles as operating guidelines.” Sjoberg and Co. were such fans that when the chief of purchasing asked him to come up with the two letters needed to precede “27” in the codename — “27” is for convertible — Sjoberg picked “SR.” SR-27, the codename for the original Viper, pays homage to Lockheed Martin’s Blackbird, the SR-71.
“The guys on the team always felt the car was going to go into production,” Helbig says. “The senior people would always tell you it was an uncertainty.” But finally, in fall 1990, the Dodge Viper became a real program. On a cold, bright day, Sjoberg took Iacocca for a ride in VM-02, the red-painted, iron-block V-10-powered mule that was later crushed. Then Iacocca drove VM-02 on public roads near the Walter P. Chrysler building in Highland Park, Helbig recounts. “When they got back, Iacocca got out of the car, turned to Bob Lutz and asked, ‘What are you waiting for?’”
Team Viper felt ecstatic, Helbig says, and suddenly very pressured. Such projects always come with pitfalls. Lutz’s “Guts” tells of an unnamed German gearbox manufacturer who caused problems rather late in the program. Helbig names names. “I was the transmission engineer. It was a nightmare. The Getrag group I worked with were ex-Chrysler guys. I had a great relationship with the Getrag team. We built some really cool stuff.”
But neither Chrysler nor the American Getrag engineers could convince German management how abusive American drivers could be with 6000-rpm clutch drops, speed-shifting — the types of things Germans don’t do to their cars. “We found a significant flaw in the tail housing,” recalls Helbig. And to fix it, Getrag wanted twice the price and a couple million dollars in R&D up front.
Chrysler didn’t have wiggle room in the $50 million budget, and Getrag’s German management wouldn’t budge. So Chrysler contacted Borg-Warner.
“They built a Viper-specific housing around a new six-speed gearbox they were developing for the Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird,” Helbig says. “They did it in just a couple months. It was some time in 1991.”
Another drama involved tires. Chrysler had had a long-term relationship with Goodyear, which had supplied the Eagle GTs for the concept and VM-01 and VM-02. For the production car, Chrysler wanted 275/35 front and 335/35 rear tires and was working with Goodyear and Michelin. Helbig went on several trips to Goodyear’s and Michelin’s U.S. test facilities, and Road Atlanta. “It finally came down to the Halloween Shoot Out.”
Goodyear and Michelin met at a track where Chrysler drivers from novices to development drivers (the most skilled) would test each and decide which was best. “Goodyear had sets of tires on a pallet. Michelin brought each tire in a plastic bag with Halloween stickers on them. They called them something like Mutant Ninja Halloween tires. The Michelins won, ‘hands down.’” But Chrysler purchasing told the engineers they had to use Goodyears. Lutz and Castaing attended a senior management R&D meeting just before Christmas, in Arizona, where they drove VM-01. Helbig and another engineer took turns riding with Lutz. Finally, Lutz asked Helbig: “What kinds of tires have we been driving on?” Helbig told him they were Michelins. “Lutz called Thomas Stallkamp, head of purchasing at the time, and said we have to use the Michelins,” Helbig recalls. “‘Okay, we can do that,’ Stallkamp replied. It showed the trust that the senior guys like Lutz and Castaing had in the team. That’s a major reason the car was done successfully in the time frame we had.”
Team Viper finished in 33 months, three months sooner than scheduled, and on budget, $50 million for parts and components, plus another $35 million in engineering research and development. When the 1993 Dodge Viper hit showroom floors in late 1992, it looked remarkably close to the ’89 NAIAS concept, with no electronic stability controls, no ABS, and no top, but 400 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque from its aluminum 8.0-liter V-10. It was a pioneer in Chrysler’s platform team development and had schooled its maker in the use of fiberglass, IRS, and big-block aluminum engines.
By then Chrysler was already working on a hardtop version, clearly patterned after the Shelby Daytona built for Ford in the ’60s. The blue GTS on these pages is in fact the handmade prototype and is built on 1992 Viper roadster running gear. Look closely and you’ll see there are no seams on the A-pillars. The GTS went on sale in 1996. If Chrysler gave up on any racing glory when it sold Lamborghini, it was revived with this car, in which Team Oreca won the GT2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998, 1999, and 2000.
The Viper was a brilliant investment, brought to market for the same cost as Chrysler’s initial cash infusion into Lamborghini. “Lamborghini was not one of Iacocca’s better investments,” says Lutz. “Though to be fair, the investment in Maserati was far worse. Iacocca just loved Italian brands, but didn’t know what to do with them.” But without Lamborghini, the Viper may have been a very different car: “The V-10 engine designs were all the concrete value we got out of the financially disastrous Lambo investment,” admits Lutz.
There are dozens of examples of sports cars and other “halos” that have transformed their automakers and the way they design and produce cars. In Team Viper, Chrysler managed to gather the company’s most avid enthusiasts to create the kind of development program they always dreamed of doing. And build the sort of car enthusiasts everywhere always dreamed of driving.
Top left: Viper Concept’s V-10 started as two 360-cubic-inch Chrysler V-8s welded together by Roush Engineering.
Top right: Mostly steel bodywork was fabricated by California-based Metalcrafters.
Center: Concept could be driven, but only short distances, as the tiny radiator could not handle the V-10’s heat load.
Bottom left: Show car interior was way more colorful and glamorous than those of the production Vipers.
Bottom right: Gray dash with simple white-face instruments made it through to the production version.
Proof of Concept
Top left: VM-01 body is fiberglass, hand-fabricated by a former Team Shelby craftsman; wheels are by Boyd Coddington.
Top right: VM-01’s 5.9-liter V-8 made 300 horsepower. Was a V-8 ever seriously considered for the production Viper? “From an emissions point of view, the V-8 would’ve been the easier choice,” recalls Gladysz.
Center: Both VM-01 and VM-02, which was powered by a 360-horse iron-block V-10, were driven extensively. Lee Iacocca drove the red-painted VM-02 in fall 1990.
Bottom left: Five-speed manual transmission was adequate for the V-8’s torque.
Bottom right: Spartan interior is strictly business, right down to the racing harnesses.
The Real Deal
Top left: 8.0-liter aluminum V-10 delivered 400 horsepower at 4000 rpm and 450 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. “It’s like having your right foot wired directly up to God’s own adrenaline pump.”
Top right: “In a world where, as a rule, beautiful show cars mutate into bland parodies of themselves by the time they reach production,” Karr wrote, “the Viper has made it to showrooms with its venom intact.”
Center: Performance matched the hype: Motor Trend’s August ’92 test numbers included a 4.7-second 0-to-60-mph time and a 13.1-second quarter mile.
Bottom left: “You need sunscreen (for obvious reasons), earplugs (buffeting in the cabin is substantial at speed), and a few cheap baseball caps (they blow off every time you hit the redline in third),” Karr wrote.
Bottom right: Plastic dash looked, felt cheap. With just 200 Vipers delivered in the first year, few owners complained.
Expanding the Franchise
Top left: Quick way to tell the concept from the production version is the A-pillars. They’re thinner and have no seams.
Top right: Production GTS would make its debut in 1996 with 450-horse version of the 8.0-liter V-10. Torque would go to 490 pound-feet at 3700 rpm.
Center: Production Viper GTS would weigh just 68 pounds more than a Porsche 911 Turbo. In testing for the May 1997 issue of Motor Trend the GTS would run 0-to-60 in 4.0 seconds and the quarter mile in 12.2.
Bottom left: GTS concept lacked exterior door handles. With windows up, the only way in was through the rear hatch.
Bottom right: RT/10 dash and non-airbag steering wheel also ID this car as the original GTS concept.
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