In the ever-shrinking distance, spires of glass mark the march of gentrification, a rolling tide of money to drown industrial areas in condos, townhouses, and apartments. Yet in the east end of the city, it still stinks of fish processing plants and welded sheet metal, of work done in steel-toed boots. It’s the kind of place a truck-engined supercar finds itself at home.
In a dry gravel lot filled with detached truck trailers and ringed by razor-wire, a first-generation Viper rumbles hoarsely. Each beat from its massive engine stirs puffs of dust from the ground, a baritone panting like that of some huge, extinct, reptilian creature. It’s the imagery of Yeats writ in green fibreglass: and what rough beast/its hour come ’round at last/slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.
Yet, there will be no second coming for the Viper. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ plans, released weeks ago, show a path forward for the Dodge Challenger and Charger, but not the company’s purpose-built sportscar. The Conner Avenue Assembly plant in Detroit that produced Vipers for more than two decades was shuttered in August, 2017, and will become the home for Chrysler’s heritage museum. It will undoubtedly have a Viper in the collection, but as a static display.
In the words of an R-rated movie redubbed for daytime television audiences, forget that. Reach in through the Viper’s window to open the door – there are no exterior door latches. Fold yourself carefully over the sills scorched by the side-exit exhausts, and stomp the long-travel clutch deep into the carpet. Slot the ludicrously long-throw gearshift into first, find yourself a straight stretch of road, and drop the hammer.
At less than 3,000 rpm or so, the Viper’s titanic heart has the charm and character of a delivery truck. Add 600 rpm more and it’s producing a peak of 450 lb-ft of torque and changing from workaday warble to prehistoric howl. Each one of those 10 cylinders is the size of a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Viper at full bore sounds as if it’s running on bourbon and rage.
Even today, in a city where a Lamborghini Huracan is about as interesting as a Volkswagen GTI, a Viper raises eyebrows and turns heads. When it debuted in the early 1990s, it must have landed like a tactical nuclear strike.
The concept was championed by Bob Lutz, the larger-than-life automotive executive and former U.S. Marine pilot (if ever there was a car to have a USMC tattoo on its forearm, it’s a Viper). François Castaing, previously head of Renault’s Formula One efforts, was head of engineering for Chrysler’s truck division, and together with Lutz was working on a powerful, torque-rich gasoline engine for the Dodge pickup truck brand.
The subject of European-American hybrids like Bizzarrini and DeTomaso came up, which led to a discussion about the Shelby Cobra, as Lutz owned one. At the time, racing and car design legend Carroll Shelby was working with Chrysler to produce turbocharged pocket-rockets such as the Dodge Omni GLHS. Lutz, with typical decisiveness, pushed for a reborn version of the Cobra.
Under the direction of Chrysler’s head of design, Tom Gale, initial sketches were drawn up by Neil Walling and a concept built and shown at the 1989 Detroit auto show. At the time, the ascent of the Japanese automotive industry seemed unstoppable, with the just revealed Acura NSX and Lexus LS400 putting Japan on an equal footing with the rest of the world. The Viper showed America could still strike out with strength and audacity.
The Viper’s specifications were nearly cartoonish, a car sketched on foolscap by a high-schooler serving detention. The 400-horsepower V-10 engine, cast in aluminium thanks to input from Lamborghini, represented one-fifth of the curb weight. The rear tires were 335-millimetres wide, the same as a Diablo. There was no permanent roof and the side windows were made of vinyl, similar to a Jeep Wrangler. The bodywork was almost unchanged from the concept, and the roofline lower than an NSX, Testarossa, or even a Ferrari F40.
The Viper’s first public appearance was a triumphant, if hasty entrance at the 1991 Indy 500. Here, at the all-American arena of speed and courage, an early Viper acted as official pace car as a last-minute substitution for the planned Dodge Stealth R/T. Not only was the Stealth little more than a badge-engineered Mitsubishi 3000GT, it was also an all-wheel-drive technological masterpiece. By comparison, the Viper was a board with a nail sticking out of it – but the crowd loved its brutish simplicity.
That singular, bloody minded purpose still rings true today. This 1995 example, painted Emerald Green, is rare for both its colour and for being a Canadian-spec machine. Its owner, Helen Poon, has a varied and impressive stable of cars ranging from a pre-Second World War Rolls-Royce to unique oddities such as a Fiat Jolly 600. “It was my childhood dream car,” she said. “I kind of forgot that it was my dream car because I got distracted by all these other cars.”
This Canadian-spec Viper was one of a pair traded in on a V-10-powered Audi R8, which seems fitting. Dodge never sold more than about 10 per cent of Viper production north of the border, but this most American of cars found an ardent fan base here.
“I had numerous dream cars, but this was the one I obsessed over,” said Justin Pritchard, a freelance automotive writer and Viper owner in Sudbury, Ont.
Pritchard currently has a 2008 SRT-10, but expresses fondness for his previous, somewhat cruder 2000 GTS. “That was the one I fell in love with,” he said, “I like the newer one a lot, but it’s not the Viper I fell in love with as a kid.”
Even as modern refinements crept in, the Viper still had no real equivalent. Michael LaFave, creative director for Contempo Media, has owned several European coupes, including a couple of Porsche 911 GT3s. He took delivery of one of the last cars made, a 645-horsepower Viper ACR.
“It seemed like an opportunity to own something special,” LaFave said. “Right off the grid at LeMans!”
As one of the last customers, LaFave was able to visit the Conner Avenue factory. “The line was pretty quiet that day,” he said. “Everyone I spoke to obviously had a lot of pride in the Viper and I think they were a little sad it was coming to an end. The plant manager walked us through the whole line and it was astonishing how much hand work was done.”
That hands-on feel extends to Viper enthusiasts as well. While other manufacturers underwrite big-dollar attempts at Nürburgring lap-time bragging rights, Viper fans crowdfunded their own record attempt and had only a couple of runs to make it into the history books. Bad luck meant that the two-car effort didn’t quite crack the seven-minute mark, as hoped for. Even so, this manual-transmission, rear-wheel-drive, front-engined American dinosaur managed a 7:01.3, enough to blast technology-aided mech-suits such as the Nissan GT-R into the weeds.
With electrification and computerization, we’re entering an era where speed is just another commodity. It won’t be skill that sets your lap times, it’ll be the depth of your bank account and the length of the alphanumeric designation on the back of your car. Beyond the horizons, a fleet of featureless pods where driver engagement further erodes into the virtual world.
But driving a Viper demands finesse, respect and a little bravery. The future promises a life of ease and distraction. Here’s to a car that shocked the world, and rewarded those who were willing to put in the effort.