In today’s SUV and pickup-obsessed, safety-focused, semi-autonomous automotive world, there’s no longer room for a crude throwback like the Dodge Viper. Things were different in 1988, when Bob Lutz – then employed as president of Chrysler – rationalized that a spiritual successor to Shelby’s Cobra might be good for the automaker’s image, and the Viper was born. On April 6, a private collection of eight Gen I – Gen III Vipers, including roadsters, a coupe and a convertible, heads to auction as part of Mecum’s Houston, Texas sale.
Though the tale may be apocryphal, the Viper’s origins began on a Sunday afternoon drive. Lutz, behind the wheel of a continuation Shelby Cobra (with its “Powered by Ford” badges removed in the interest of employer harmony), pondered why automakers no longer built such engaging and rewarding sports cars. Knowing that Chrysler was developing a 10-cylinder engine for its pickup trucks, “Maximum Bob” had a moment of zen: That engine, he mused, may be ideal to power a Mopar roadster akin to Shelby’s big-block Cobra.
Neither vice president of engineering Francois Castaing nor vice president of design Tom Gale needed much in the way of arm-twisting, and Carroll Shelby was also brought in to consult during the project’s early stages. Since the Cobra name wasn’t available, Lutz reportedly turned to a thesaurus and chose the next-best reptilian descriptor – viper – and instructed the team to begin working on the concept. Sketches by designer Craig Durfey were turned into a clay model, and that clay model served as a template for builder Metalcrafters to create a life-size example, which debuted at the 1989 North American International Auto Show.
To call the Viper RT/10 a hit is an understatement. After years of forced-induction, four-cylinder sporty cars and smog-choked V-8 pony cars from Detroit automakers, here was perpetual underdog Chrysler showing off a V-10-powered roadster chock-full of testosterone, flipping a single-digit counterpoint to other automakers. That Chrysler still didn’t have a production V-10 engine – or that the car wasn’t yet slated for production – seemed irrelevant, as prospective buyers lined up to write deposit checks.
Lutz and Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca weren’t on the best of terms, so as Wallace A. Wyss writes in Shelby: The Man. The Cars, The Legend., it fell to Carroll Shelby to pitch the idea to his old friend Iacocca. Shelby played down the development cost, insisting that the project would stay within an impossibly low budget, and played up the importance of the Viper as a halo car for Chrysler, and as a rolling testbed to develop new manufacturing techniques. Shelby hadn’t lost his ability to spin a sales pitch, and the Viper received a green light for development.
“Team Viper” began work on the project in March 1989, turning to Chrysler subsidiary Lamborghini to cast an aluminum V-10 engine block for testing. Both body and chassis were developed in house, with Chrysler pressuring suppliers to provide components strong enough to handle the engine’s anticipated output. In the spring of 1990, Iacocca granted approval for the Viper to enter production, though it would still be a few years before the cars began to hit dealer showrooms.
In May 1991, the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time Viper received its second moment in the spotlight. A Dodge Stealth, built in Japan by partner Mitsubishi, had originally been chosen to pace the 75th running of the Indianapolis 500, but representatives from the United Auto Workers Union objected. Strongly. Instead, a pair of Viper prototypes was pressed into service for pace car duty, with The Snakemeister himself – Carroll Shelby – serving as pace car driver.
Seven months later, the production Dodge Viper debuted at the 1992 North American International Auto Show, just a scant three years from the introduction of the Viper RT/10 concept. Like the Shelby Cobra that inspired it, the original Viper – available only in roadster form – made few concessions to comfort or safety. Its canvas top was crude, but functional, and in conjunction with the provided snap-in plastic windows, would likely keep occupants dry in all but a driving rain (in fairness, a fiberglass hard top was later included with Viper roadsters). In lieu of anti-lock brakes, the Viper used 13-inch discs in all four corners and then-massive tires (335/35ZR-17 in back and 275/40ZR-17 up front) to scrub off speed. Traction control was the sole responsibility of the driver’s right foot, and the car soon developed a reputation for biting careless owners. While such tales were often exaggerated, it was true that that early Vipers weren’t exactly forgiving of mistakes.
What the original Viper lacked in amenities, it made up for in performance. The 8.0-liter (488-cu.in.) V-10 produced 400 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque, enough to propel the 3,400-pound car from 0-60 mph in just over 4.5 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 13.1 seconds at a trap speed of 108 mph. Fit and finish of the early cars reportedly left much to be desired, but the same can be said about Shelby’s Cobras and the first-year Chevrolet Corvette. Given that early Viper demand far outstripped the first year’s production of 285 cars, few buyers complained about things like panel gap or loose trim.
The Viper evolved over the course of its production run, getting more refined but somehow no less civilized. Gen I gave way to Gen II in 1996, the same year that the GTS coupe joined the family, and the following year, output from the Viper’s V-10 grew to 450 hp and 490 lb.-ft. The Gen III models arrived in 2003, when an all-new Viper SRT-10 convertible debuted to replace the Viper RT/10 roadster. Power now came from a larger, 8.3-liter (505-cu.in.) V-10, rated at 500 horsepower and 535 lb.-ft., which reportedly dropped the 0-60 mph time below four seconds and the quarter-mile time below 12 seconds. Initially, the Gen III Competition Coupe – for track use only – was the only solid-roof offering, but the road-going SRT-10 Coupe joined the product mix for the 2006 model year.
All the Vipers to be sold by Mecum in Houston are said to be “investment grade” cars from a private collection. Gen I RT/10 roadsters to be offered include a first-model-year 1992 Viper with 5,780 miles; a 1993 Viper with 7,450 miles; a 1994 Viper with 1,030 miles; and a 1995 Viper with 9,630 miles. Gen II cars include a 1996 Viper RT/10 roadster with 4,242 miles; a 1996 Viper RT/10 roadster with 6,165 miles, said to be one of 25 produced with mustard yellow wheels; and a 1998 Dodge Viper GTS-R coupe, complete with a molded composite body and the GT2 aero package. A sole Gen III example, in the form of a 2005 Viper SRT-10 convertible, in Viper Club of America Edition trim, rounds out the single-collection offerings.
Mecum’s Houston sale takes place from April 5-7 at the NRG Center, located at One NRG Park in Houston. For additional details, visit Mecum.com.