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Dodge Viper RT/10

Dodge Viper RT/10

By Jack Nerad

Dodge Viper RT/10 A lot of water passed through the mill from the time the Dodge brothers built engines for Henry Ford until the Dodge Viper peeked out from under its wraps at the 1989 Detroit auto show. Over the course of that time the Dodge brothers split with Ford to start building cars of their own under the imaginative Dodge Brothers name; Dodge Brothers was acquired by Walter P. Chrysler as he built Chrysler Corporation in the image of his former employer, General Motors; and Dodge (sans Brothers) went from an icon of performance during the halcyon years of the Sixties to becoming largely irrelevant by the late Eighties. K-cars and Omnis will do that, no matter how proud one's history.

A rapidly fading brand with a dreary image were what faced Chrysler Corporation planners as they considered what they should do for the '89 Detroit show, and their response -- a big, brutal two-seat sports car -- stood show attendees, including your author, on their collective ear. Who could have expected such a thing from a nameplate that seemed to be barely producing a pulse, lot less a vibe? But the Dodge Viper did emerge from the corporate cauldron -- somehow -- and it proved there was still some life in the old Dodge brand yet.

The goal of what was referred to as "Team Viper" was a purpose-built performance vehicle. Everything else took a backseat to performance and, because of that, the Viper had no backseat at all. Like the Shelby Cobra that inspired it, the vehicle was rough, crude and unsophisticated but, at the same time, brutally powerful. The benchmark of the team was to build a vehicle that could blast to go from zero miles per hour to 100 and back to zero in under 15 seconds, a test inspired by the Cobra.

The fruit of this effort show car that appeared on January 4, 1989, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Many observers who saw it there figured it would go no farther. After all, by that time Dodge was pictured by most observers to be in its dotage. The only Dodge product that really had any currency with the buying public was the Caravan minivan, so the idea of a production Dodge two-seat sports car seemed to be as fantastic as a movie sequel that was better than the original. Strictly a show car, many said.

But immediately the buzz began -- build the Viper; build the Viper! Now whether Chrysler public relations started the buzz or simply fanned the flames is open to question, but there is no doubt that press and public sentiment did stir the Chrysler folks into seriously considering production for the brutish show car and then giving the final okay. While Chrysler never expected to make much money on what were certainly destined to be limited sales of the Viper, it did expect to reap public relations benefits. It was suggested the Viper could be a "halo" car that would send a warm glow of sportiness over the entire Chrysler line.

To help assuage its stockholders who might be leery of the "halo" concept, Chrysler execs also claimed building the Viper RT/10 would allow them to test the new platform team concept, which was a carbon of Honda's process. An independent cross-functional team was created, recruiting its own suppliers, which wasn't how the domestic manufacturers traditionally went about building new vehicles. With the small volumes expected for the Viper, however, it seemed a perfectly plausible way to go, because if the team thought it could get the alloy V-10 engine blocks fabricated more rapidly by using an Italian supplier, why not? It wasn't as if they needed 100,000 of those engine blocks.

Since one of the goals of the new team process was to prove that dowdy old Chrysler could move as fast as the Japanese, the developers of the Viper were put on a fast track in more ways than one. Within 12 months of the car's first auto show appearance a V-8-powered "mule" was being tested, but the Chrysler execs felt a V-8 just wouldn't do, since part of the effort's goal was to "out-Corvette Corvette." And in their heart of hearts the men of Team Viper knew their creation wouldn't be as sophisticated as Chevrolet's supercar. That meant a giant V-10, drawing on Chrysler's truck engine experience, should be brought into play. In May 1990, Chrysler announced it would build production Vipers and that they would be equipped with massive aluminum alloy V-10 engines. Incredibly, in December 1991, less than three years after the Viper concept had been unveiled, production Dodge Viper RT/10 roadsters rolled off the company's new Mack Avenue assembly line.

But what had Dodge wrought? Was it the equal of international supercars like the contemporary Ferrari Testarossa or even the Acura NSX? Was it a match for the aforementioned Chevrolet Corvette? Or was it simply a failed exercise in reach exceeding grasp?

Frankly, it was none of those. Instead, it was a car with a character all its own. It lacked the continental sophistication of the Ferrari. It lacked the technical wizardry of the Acura. It even lacked the balance of value and technical prowess that marked the contemporary Corvette. What it did have was a presence and brute strength that set it apart from all other cars - save perhaps the Cobra that inspired it.

When the production car emerged from Chrysler many car critics were amazed that the styling of the show car was preserved virtually intact. Even though it seemed that open roadsters would be an incredibly hard sell in the 1990s, Dodge opted to retain that configuration instead of making the Viper a convertible or grafting on a targa top. Actually, it should have come as no surprise, because building the Viper as a roadster made the vehicle easier to engineer, and of course, if it weren't for the hey-look-at-me styling, the car had no reason for being anyway. It didn't (and still doesn't) seem to matter that the Viper's ostensibly "swoopy" styling actually had the aerodynamic efficiency of a potato sack filled with tubers (a reported 0.495 coefficient of drag.) It looked cool.

And if the body shape wasn't wind-cheating in the modern idiom, at least the Viper had the raw horsepower to hustle the potato sack along at satisfyingly high speeds (a claimed 165 miles per hour.) The unique V-10 was what one might expect to get when crossing an American truck engine with an Italian block fabricator. The huge 488 cubic inch displacement is a hint of its American heritage as is the two-valves-per-cylinder overhead valve configuration. The continental influences include the aluminum block and head construction and the sequential multipoint fuel injection system. In its first iteration this engine tossed out 400 horsepower at a lazy 4600 rpm and a colossal 465 pound-feet of torque at a mere 3600 rpm. Bolted into the 3600 pound Viper, it resulted in zero-to-60 mph sprints of 4.6 seconds or so.

The Viper's chassis reflected the hurry-up atmosphere in which it was created. It consisted of two massive rectangular-tube frame rails attached to a central backbone of smaller rectangular tubes. At the rear another arrangement of tubes provided location for the rear suspension, 19-gallon fuel tank, spare tire battery and trunk space. The rear suspension, like the front, used unequal-length upper and lower "A" arms and coil springs damped by gas-filled shocks. For brakes the Dodge engineers also went the "bigger is better" route using 13-inch vented rotors front and rear. (They were of different thicknesses.)

Along with the gargantuan P275/40 ZR17 front and P335/35 ZR17 rear Michelin Pilot Sport tires, the brakes were specially designed to help meet the stated test-track goal of 0-100-0 mph in less than 15 seconds. And the huge tires helped give the Viper an amazing 1g lateral acceleration capability.

All in all, the Dodge Viper RT/10 was a brutish car to drive. Plenty of raw horsepower and loads of torque gave it a high fun quotient, but in terms of finesse it fell behind Corvette, NSX, Porsche and Ferrari by a wide margin. The rudimentary interior accommodations -- side curtains, no top, no air conditioning -- also left some test drivers less than enthralled. To those who like its style and its throwback demeanor, all that is meaningless, however. If you like to go fast -- and who doesn't? -- you have to like the Dodge Viper RT/10.
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