Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Past and Future of the Dodge Viper

The Past and Future of the Dodge Viper

With our new long-term mid-engine C8 2020 Chevrolet Corvette set to arrive in the coming months, I got to thinking about what the future could've been for the Viper if it hadn't been discontinued at the end of 2017. So I did what any car enthusiast with newfound time on his hands would do—hopped on the phone with MotorTrend Car and SUV of the Year judges Tom Gale and Chris Theodore.
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Gale and Theodore are among the godfathers of the original Viper program. Theodore was the director of Jeep/Truck engine engineering when the Viper program kicked off in the late '80s (and is now the author of The Last Shelby Cobra, My Times with Carroll Shelby). Gale was the VP of design; his pen is the one responsible for its menacing mug, classic proportions, and clean lines. Both men are too modest to admit it, but it's a fair bet that without them and the teams they worked with, there'd be no Viper as we know it today.

Naturally in talking about a future for the Viper, we got to talking about the past. Here are the tellings of the Dodge Viper origins, its subsequent generations, and its future, according to two of the men instrumental in its creation.

When the very first 1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 went on sale to the public in January of 1992, it outwardly couldn't have been a simpler car. The front-engine, rear-drive roadster had an 8.0-liter V-10 producing 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque, a six-speed manual transmission, two doors, a windshield, and not much else. But getting from concept to production was anything but easy.

 We covered the origins of the Viper concept extensively back in this MotorTrend Classic piece, but the Viper story only really just began after its 1989 Detroit auto show debut.

First there was the matter of sourcing that V-10 engine, chosen, according to both Gale and Theodore, for multiple reasons. Theodore points out that "there's no good technical reason for a V-10," but one was available in-house—an iron-block 8.0-liter unit destined for Ram heavy-duty pickup trucks.

 Chrysler at the time also had the know-how to convert the heavy truck engine into a lightweight, aluminum-block mill by virtue of owning Lamborghini. Then-Chrysler president Bob Lutz also really wanted a V-10 engine in the Viper, as did Gale.

"We really want a V-10 car because we want something that had a heroic proportion. We wanted something that was unique—different. I just wouldn't want something that was in the image of what somebody else did, because you're going to come into that market and you're just going to look like everybody else, so why bother?" he said.

Not everyone was onboard with the V-10 idea, though—namely Carroll Shelby, who was brought onboard in an advisory capacity to give legitimacy to the idea that the Viper was the Shelby Cobra of the '90s. "Carroll wanted this ultralight car," said Theodore. "I think he didn't recognize how hard it was with all the safety regulations that had come in to play and everything else, to build an ultralight car."

"So to keep him happy, I built a V-8 model," said Gale. "It looks exactly like a Viper except it's about 90 percent the size of the V-10 car. But it was designed around a V-8 package, so it was narrower, a little bit shorter, and it had a conventional windshield instead of a windshield that flowed into the mirrors, like the concept car had."

"It didn't quite look right, honestly, at 9/10ths, because it got narrowed up and lost the toughness of the original one," said Theodore.
With Shelby placated by the one-off V-8 Viper and Lutz insistent on the V-10, the Viper team forged ahead.

The end result was well-received. "Brutally fast," we wrote of the inaugural Viper RT/10 in our February 1992 issue, where it bested a Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1. "The Viper is a standout performance bargain and far surpasses the ZR-1 in thrills per mile."

With the Viper RT/10 quickly winning over the hearts and minds of journos and enthusiasts, despite (or perhaps because of) its rawness, Gale and his team took the initiative and got to work on building a coupe version of the Viper. "We wanted something that had a lasting and kind of classic feel to it," he said. Inspired by the Shelby Daytona Coupe and Ferrari GTO, what would become the Dodge Viper GTS debuted at the 1993 Los Angeles Auto Show.

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By the time it went on sale in 1996, the Dodge Viper GTS ended up being more than just a bubble-topped Viper RT/10. Considered the second generation of the Viper, or SR II (think of the SR I and SR II Vipers like 991 and 991.2 Porsche 911s), the Viper GTS and the RT/10 got more of pretty much everything—more power, better performance, more safety features, and yes, more amenities. Those came in in the form of power windows for both the new coupe and the RT/10.

 Relocating the heavy (but Cobra-throwback), Nomex-wrapped side-exit exhaust pipes to the rear, Dodge was able to lose weight and find horsepower. The Viper RT/10 saw horsepower increase to 415 and torque to 488 lb-ft, while Dodge found even more power for the Viper GTS, which made 450 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque. Both versions of the Viper benefited from a stiffer chassis and more liberal usage of aluminum in the car's suspension.

"Bigger-and badder-than life. Few legends truly live up to their press. The Dodge Viper GTS, on the other hand, exceeds the hyperbole that engulfs it," we wrote in May of 1997. "This, the 'civilized' version of the famous Viper RT/10 roadster, has modern conveniences such as actual door handles, roll-up windows, and an everyday driving demeanor just within the bounds of conventionality. But dip deeply into the brimming reservoir of torque under the GTS's giant hood, and 'civility' will be the last thing on your mind."

Proving that it could live up to the legend of its press, the Viper GTS-R race car would go on to win its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998, 1999, and 2000, with friend of MotorTrend Justin Bell among the drivers behind the wheel in '98.

The successful Le Mans campaign—not to mention championships in the FIA's GT Series and the American Le Mans series, and wins at the 24-hour races at Daytona, Nürburgring, and Spa—spurred the creation of the fist Viper ACR. Short for "American Club Racer," the Viper ACR was designed for owners who wanted to capture the essence of the Viper GTS-R race car in street-legal, track-ready form. The ACR got a minor power boost to 460 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque and, more important, an adjustable competition suspension, 18-inch BBS wheels shod with stickier rubber, a five-point harness, and a weight-savings regimen, among other things.

Around this time, Dodge also built 100 Viper GT2s as street cars (which, confusingly were badged "Viper GTS-R" like the race car), in white with blue stripes, and complete with dive planes and a massive rear spoiler as a homologation special for its FIA efforts.

By the time the Viper was winning at Le Mans and the ACRs were hitting the streets, Gale, who was getting ready to retire from Chrysler, and his team set to work on designing the next-generation car.

Although a transition to a mid-mounted powertrain was briefly considered by Theodore and his team, what would become the third-generation (ZB I) Viper in 2003 stuck with the SR's front-engine, rear-drive platform.  First debuting at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, the Viper GTS-R concept was a preview of things to come.

"We put just all the love in that car," said Gale. Clearly inspired by the Viper race cars, the GTS-R concept featured a low, chopped roof, aero-friendly Coke bottle curves, and new angular fascia signaling the things to come. "That car, just from all the little bits, the hair pins on the center-lock wheels, the little adjustable trunk splitter pieces... just all that was so tastefully done. That car was a precursor of what we were going to do with the next-generation car," said Gale.

"We wanted to get a more refined car with a real convertible top and windows that went up and down," Theodore said of the redesign. Despite missing the spoilers, dive planes, and roof of the concept, the roadster-only 2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 faithfully captured the essence of both the concept and the original Viper RT/10. It was stretched slightly, stiffened, and given a power upgrade. The Viper's trusty V-10 grew to 8.3 liters and a commensurate output boost to match, now making 500 hp and 525 lb-ft of torque, still routed through a six-speed manual transmission to wider rear rubber .

Soon before the ZB I Viper went on sale, both Gale and Theodore would depart what was then DaimlerChrysler. Gale would retire as the executive VP of product development and design, while Theodore left as senior VP of platform engineering. He would go on to Ford to make the perennial dream of a mid-engine American supercar come true with the 2005 Ford GT.

Although Gale and Theodore departed what had become Team Viper, the car soldiered on in good hands without them.

The Viper SRT-10 Coupe, which featured the old Viper GTS' now-signature double-bubble roof, rejoined the lineup in 2006. Like the SR II Vipers, the new Viper Coupe got a unique taillight and decklid treatment, too, the latter helping make it more aerodynamic than the convertible. DaimlerChrysler would end up building the 2006 Viper through the end of 2007, skipping that model year.

Those who waited for the 2008 Viper SRT-10 coupe and convertible were rewarded with a new, freer-breathing 8.4-liter V-10 (thanks to some consulting work done by McLaren and Riccardo). The new V-10 made 600 hp and 560 lb-ft of twist and was mated to a new six-speed manual gearbox and a beefed-up rear axle with a new limited-slip differential. Minor cosmetic and color changes rounded out the new package.

The new Viper's production cycle would be short-lived, ending in 2010, largely due to the Great Recession. Even so, it went out with a bang in the form of the Viper SRT-10 ACR. This street-legal but track-focused Viper variant (not to be confused with the track-only ACR-X), featured an adjustable suspension at all four corners, an upgraded stabilizer bar up front, competition-spec tires, and, most important, front and rear spoilers and carbon fiber dive planes, which combined to give the Viper ACR a reported 1,000 pounds of downforce at 150 mph.

When the SRT (née Dodge) Viper came back in 2013, then-SRT chief and legendary designer Ralph Gilles told us, "We had the privilege to design the Viper—not the right." According to the man who penned the original, Gilles more than did the Viper justice.

 "I thought it really came back and celebrated the original car in the way the surface was handled. In a way, it was an old trick that Bill Mitchell at GM used to do years ago—they'd come out with the original car, the next year there'd be a change-up, and then they'd come back around to what the car started [as], and it's a great way to have image consistency. Whether it was deliberate or not, really hats off to the guys that created the last car," said Gale.

Riding on a heavily revised version of the original Viper's platform (both Theodore and Gale readily point to certain hardpoints on the VX-generation Viper that Gilles and his team had to design around), the new SRT Viper aimed to be a better track weapon, a better daily driver, and a more luxurious grand tourer. Power came courtesy of an 8.4-liter V-10 with 640 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, mated to—you guessed it—a six-speed manual.

Following the car's launch, we put the new SRT Viper GTS up against a Chevy Corvette ZR1 (as tradition dictates we do), and the Corvette came out the victor. Gilles and SRT responded with the Viper TA just nine weeks later. Short for "Time Attack," the Viper TA featured lighter wheels, better brakes, stickier rubber, revised suspension tuning, and carbon-fiber aerodynamic enhancements. The resulting car was able to improve on the Viper GTS' Laguna Seca lap time by more than 2 seconds, lapping the track in 1:33.62, which was at the time a Laguna production car lap record.

The TA wasn't the crowning achievement of the VX Viper, though. That'd be the Dodge Viper ACR (the Viper returned to the Dodge brand in 2015). The final Viper ACR was among the ultimate street-legal track cars. While its V-10 only gained five extra horsepower, the biggest changes were to its chassis, which was made stiffer; suspension geometry, now adjustable; and brakes, now with more bite. The Viper ACR also got stickier rubber, adjustable shock damping (separately for jounce and rebound), and an reconfigurable aero package good for more than 1,700 pounds of downforce at speed.

Sales for the fifth-generation Viper were never particularly great to begin with, and that fact, coupled with tightening safety restrictions spelled the end of the Viper in 2017. After a slew of five limited edition models, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' Connor Assembly Plant in Detroit shuttered the Viper line for good.

So what's next for the Viper? While some at FCA no doubt want to see the Viper return to the fold, we're currently not aware of any plans to bring it back. However, if it were to come back, both Gale and Theodore have some ideas for what form it should take.

"I'll be a heretic. I am bored with mid-engine supercars now. They're all just differently styled doorstops. I don't think the world needs another one," said Theodore, who, it must be pointed out again, is the father of the 2005 Ford GT. Dodge could build an electric Viper, Theodore starts, but "everybody's building their own electric supercar, too, so how do you distinguish yourself?"
Theodore, instead, suggests going barebones—back to what made the Viper such a success when it launched in 1992. "I would do a front-engine, rear-drive car, and I'd try this time to go ultralight because there's only one thing these electric supercars can't do—they're not light and not tossable.

 I would like to see it proportioned down, same long-nose, short-deck, minimalist kind of car," he said. "I'd do an aluminum block version of [the Challenger Hellcat Redeye's] Hemi V-8. I'd probably get rid of the [heavy] supercharger, twin-turbocharge it, maybe augment it with the electric drive technology that they already have, and go rear-wheel drive. I'd probably have those turbos dumping out the gills between the front-wheels and door openings. That'd be my last-hurrah Viper."

"We didn't practice this, but I'm just totally on the same page," said Gale. "If you were going to have the assignment today, and you were going to build a concept that was going to become whatever the next generation is, you've got to do something that's going to be at least remarkable to somebody and not just in the same image of what everybody else is doing. I couldn't agree with Chris .

"My personal preference would be to try to figure out a way to keep something that has the proportion of the original cars, [and in the vein of] the Ferrari 812 Superfast. When you look at that, it's got a heroic proportion. I just think there's an opportunity to do something that's got a beautiful and loving surface. The bottom line is that whatever you do in this category has to be remarkable in its packaging, and in the way it looks," said Gale.

"It can't really look like somebody else's suit that you've put on; it's got to look right. When people see it, they've got to say, 'Oh, wow. That's a Viper. '"

The Dodge Viper might be gone, and despite no known plans for a return, I wouldn't count it out yet. Weirder things have happened—the Corvette's mid-engined now, and the Ford GT has been brought back from the dead not once, but twice. The Dodge Viper is one of America's most legendary sports cars, and legends never die.