The History and Legacy of the Dodge Viper
After 25 years, production of the Dodge Viper stops on August 31st, 2017.
This is a momentous occasion.
Referred to by car journalists as the last great American car, the Viper has inspired feelings of adrenaline, envy, admiration, and pure driving enjoyment for its dedicated fan base over the last 25 years.
The Viper is known for its insane levels of torque, acceleration, top speed, and overall power. It represents an unfiltered, rock you to your core approach to the sports car.
To honor the Viper, we put together our first article here on American Supercars.
- The roots of the Viper
- The different incarnations throughout the years
- How the Viper stacks up against the foreign competition
- The financial and experiential reasons to buy a Viper
But before we get into all that, let’s answer one question that may be on your mind: why did Dodge decide to stop making the Viper in the first place?
Why Is Dodge/FCA Stopping Production of the Viper?
At the end of the day, car companies are about profits first and foremost.
While they may be staffed by automobile enthusiasts, their fundamental loyalty is to their shareholders first and to car lovers second.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s just a reality of business.
How does this apply to the Viper?
The Business Side of The Viper
Image source: Motor Trend
As Dan Carney wrote about the Viper: “The Viper was introduced in 1992 as a raw, no-compromises, no-amenities 400-horsepower missile meant to cast a halo over the rest of Chrysler’s product line, which at that time was entirely composed of pathetically sad, cheap, front-drive economy cars.”
The Viper is in a class referred to as “halo cars.”
Halo cars are high-end, performance-oriented vehicles that are supposed to represent the pinnacle of an automobile company’s capabilities and excellence.
However, companies don’t create halo cars just for the sake of making a cool car. Car companies don’t expect to make a lot of money through selling their halo cars either.
These cars are designed to be marketing investments that pay off in terms of brand image.
Indeed, Ford and Dodge often lose money on each individual sale of their halo cars like the Viper and the Ford GT.
The idea is that everyday Joes and Janes will see these cars, be impressed by how amazing they are, and then want to buy another car from that company.
So maybe 16-year-old Jimmy drools over the Viper in a copy of Motor Trend and decides that his first car is going to be a used Dodge Challenger as soon as he can save up enough money.
He doesn’t have the purchasing power to buy a Viper. But he likes the way a Viper makes him feel, and he feels another Dodge can make him feel the same way.
The basic idea is that Dodge is spending money through creating Vipers in order to get as many people “through the door” as possible into their brand.
The Writing On The Wall
There are a few contributing factors that led to the end of the Viper.
Dodge AKA Chrysler has merged with Fiat to create Fiat Chrysler Auto, or FCA for short.
This absolutely massive international company makes much more profit on its mid-range trucks and SUVs than it does selling the Dodge Viper.
So while the Viper may indirectly contribute to FCA’s bottom line via the halo car effect, in terms of direct revenue and profit generation it doesn’t do much.
There’s also the issue that the Viper is handmade in uses a proprietary platform to make it that is not shared with any other FCA vehicles.
These monetary issues made the Viper live in a precarious position.
The Final Straw
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when new federal safety standards required side airbags in street legal cars.The Viper in its current form does not have these side airbags.
This created a decision for FCA: should they retool the Viper considerably, costing a fair bit of money in the process, or shut down production entirely?
FCA decided to do the latter.
The only good news about the shutdown is that they stated that all of the plant’s employees in Detroit would be offered jobs at other locations.
Now that we’ve examined the end of the Viper, let’s travel back to its beginning.
The History of the Dodge Viper
Image source: Road and Track
The origin of the Viper is a story of pure love for the art of driving. Not driving with a lot of electronic aids or fancy doodads.
Just driving – with a lot of power to make things fun.
Legend has it that Bob Lutz, then president of Chrysler, was driving a Ford Cobra in 1988 with the Ford tags removed because he enjoyed the car too much to quit it.
And at the time, Chrysler didn’t make anything like the Cobra.
Lutz decided to change that.
He assembled a dedicated team of true of car lovers with the mission of making a Cobra beater – both in terms of 0 to 100 acceleration and 100 to 0 braking times.
Using a V10 engine, a new five-speed manual transmission, and independent front suspension parts that had enough strength for a muscle car, they assembled the Viper.
They did so without interference from nosy marketing staff, mostly unknown to the rest of the company.
The Big Unveiling
The first version of the Viper, known as the “Copperhead”, was shown to the public at the 1989 North American International Auto Show.
This was a big deal.
If the public wasn’t interested in the Copperhead, the Viper team had spent a lot of time and money making a car that nobody wanted to buy. Since Lutz had only recently switched from Ford to Chrysler, this failure would reflect badly on him and on the company’s new direction as a whole.
Luckily, things went even better than expected.
Chrysler started getting orders for the concept version of the Viper before the show even ended.
In entrepreneurial circles, they call that kind of reaction “product-market fit” and it’s the most important thing you can have with a new project.
That meant that it was all systems go for the Viper.
The Viper Over The Years
After that fateful auto show, the Viper would continue to evolve and improve over the course of its five generations.
Gen 1 (1992-1995)
Image source: Mecum Auctions
Available only as a convertible, the first gen of the Viper started things off on the right foot – pun intended.
It stood for the brand promise of Viper: a massive amount of torque, horsepower, and top speed.
One fun fact that you may not know about the Viper is that the V10 engine used in the first generation shares its roots with Lamborghini. This is because Lamborghini was owned by Chrysler at the time.
Another interesting snippet is that a version of the Viper was driven by Carroll Shelby as the pace car for the 1991 Indianapolis 500.
1st Gen Specs:
- Horsepower: 400 bhp
- Torque: 465 lb*ft
- Top Speed: 165 mph
- 0-60 time: 4.6 seconds
- Quarter Mile time: 12.9 sec @113.8 mph
Gen 2 (1996-2002)
Image source: Zombdrive
The second generation of the Viper featured a coupe in addition to the convertible. This was also the first generation that featured ABS, which started to be included with the Viper in 2001.
Big changes from the first generation include a lighter body, improved handling, more horsepower and torque, and better braking to handle the additional power.
Specifically, the second generation had a top speed of about 25 mph higher than the first generation. It also finished the quarter mile about 0.7 seconds faster due to the additional 50 HP and 38 torque.
This Viper continued to be in the racing world as a pace car for the Indianapolis 500, serving again in 1996.
2nd Gen Specs:
- Horsepower: 415/450 bhp depending on model
- Torque: 488 lb*ft
- Max Speed: 185 mph
- 0-60 time: 4.0 seconds
- Quarter Mile time: 12.2 sec @119 mph
Gen 3 (2003-2006)
Image source: MomentCar
This was the generation when Dodge decided to switch up the styling for the Viper.
Previously, the Viper had been softer and more curved in design.
However, beginning with the 2003 model and ending with the fourth generation, the Viper looked more hard and angular in nature.
The third generation was also when Dodge offered a retractable soft-top for the first time. In 2006, they offered a coupe version that hadn’t been built since the second generation in 2002.
Other big changes included the addition of massive Brembo brakes, and a hefty reworking of the suspension and transmission. Creature comforts were added, like a 6 CD player and a dead pedal for your left foot to rest on.
Finally, this generation continued the Viper trend of adding more power, with 50 more horses and 50 more pound feet of torque.
3rd Gen Specs:
- Horsepower: 500/510 bhp depending on model
- Torque: 525/535 lb*ft depending on model
- Top Speed: 189.5 mph
- 0-60 time: 3.8 seconds
- Quarter Mile time: 11.77 sec @123.68 mph
Gen 4 (2008-2010)
Image source: Top Car Rating
The fourth generation is when Dodge really started to kick things up a notch in terms of performance.
For starters, they added 100 more horsepower than the previous generation. Another big change was a body and aerodynamic design that produced much more downforce than previous generations of the Viper.
Due to these big changes in addition to numerous smaller tweaks, the fourth generation was not only more powerful than ever before but had better handling and easier to drive as well.
All of these performance upgrades translated into some amazing track times.
For example, the 2008 Dodge Viper was faster around the Virginia International Raceway than the Corvette Z06, The 911 GT3, and the Audi R8.
4th Gen Specs:
- Horsepower: 600 bhp
- Torque: 560 lb*ft
- Top Speed: 202 mph
- 0-60 time: 3.79 seconds
- Quarter Mile time: 11.5 sec @126 mph
Gen 5 (2013-2017)
Image source: Edmunds
This is it: the final generation of the Dodge Viper.
This car performs at an absurd level, with 640 horses, 605 lb*ft of torque, and a 0 to 60 time of 3 seconds flat.
It’s also an engineering dream in terms of the car’s body and construction. Instead of using plastic and fiberglass like previous generations, the 5th gen employs carbon fiber and aluminum like nobody’s business.
The 5th gen also returns to the stylistics of the first two generations, with softer, more organic lines.
Finally, this is a car firmly planted in the 21st century. The 5th gen Viper boasts cruise control, electronic stability control, and even launch control.
You know – for those times when you need to go from a dead stop to really fast as quickly as you can.
You can even upgrade to the “Laguna Seca” package which features a lot of interior leather trim for a swankier experience.
However, Dodge didn’t forget their roots – love of an unfiltered driving experience. All of these electronic aids and measures can be turned off and you’ll still have amazing grip and downforce from the Pirelli tires and aero package.
5th Gen Specs:
- Horsepower: 640 bhp
- Torque: 605 lb*ft
- Top Speed: 206 mph
- 0-60 time: 3.7 seconds
- Quarter Mile time: 11.7 sec @124mph
The Final Evolution of the Viper: The ACR
Image source: Road and Track
The ACR is the final and most powerful version of the Viper.
The ACR has set records at over 16 race tracks, holding more track records than any other street legal production car.
It has some insanely sticky tires and a rear airfoil that generates crazy downforce – along with some seriously in your face styling.
How Does The Viper Stack Up Against The Competition?
Image source: Dodge Canada
No matter how amazing the Viper may be, it’s always going to be compared to its performance relative to the supercars from abroad: the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porches of the world.
Even back here in the States, the Viper has enjoyed a bitter rivalry with the Chevy Corvette since its very beginning.
So how does the Viper compare to its peers?
Vs The Domestic Competition: Corvette
Before we get too far into the Corvette comparisons, it’s important to note that the Corvette and the Viper serve slightly different customers and needs.
The Corvette has always been more of an everyday kind of car than the Viper has been. This doesn’t mean that the Corvette isn’t fast, capable, and exciting to drive. It just means that if you want to go buy groceries, a Corvette might be a better choice.
However if you want to go set a record lap time, a Viper might suit your needs better.
This doesn’t mean that one car is better than the other. They’re simply different.
As an Autoweek article from 2005 summarizes, the Viper basically kicked the Chevy’s butt in regards to performance – up until the release of the Z06 Vette in 2005:
“In the past there was no comparison. The Dodge Viper always won.
That is, if anyone ever thought about comparing it to the Chevrolet Corvette, which no one did because, like we said, the Viper would always win.”
Chevy Ups The Ante
However, Corvette was busy making performance upgrades over the years in order to make their car lighter, more powerful, and more capable on the track.
They did this out of a sense of rivalry, as the Viper was their main American competitor to beat.
Autoweek states that once the 2000s hit, the Corvette and the Viper were pretty evenly matched. The arms race between them had raised the bar for both cars.
The piece continues to say that the Z06 and the Viper were very close in capabilities, but they ultimately give the winning edge to the Chevy.
To briefly summarize, the Viper kicked the Chevy’s butt up until the early 2000s, when things got pretty even.
Let’s fast-forward to the most recent comparison we could find in order to set the record straight once and for all.
The Vette vs The Viper: Final Round
In an article titled “Track Day Bros: A Hard Look at the Three Fastest Cars for Less than $1 Million” The Motor Trend editorial team compared the 2016 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the 2016 Dodge Viper ACR, in addition to looking at the Porsche 911 GT3 RS.
The Viper was faster around the famous Laguna Seca track than either the Chevy or the Porsche.
In addition, the Viper was faster than the McLaren P1, which costs $1.15 million dollars.
For the moment, the Viper is the undisputed king in its rivalry with the Corvette.
It seems like Dodge wanted the Viper to go out on top. As Motor Trend raves, “The ACR is without question, doubt, or hesitation the best Viper ever made.”
How It Stacks Up Against The Foreign Competition
Our last point about the Viper beating the Corvette also applies to all of its competition from across the Atlantic.
Not only is the Viper ACR hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than today’s Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches, it also performs better on the track.
Remember how up above in the 2016 comparo the Viper held second place to the Laguna Seca record? The number one spot was held by a Porsche 918.
Well, a Viper ACR with the Extreme Aero package set a new record of 1:28.65 at Laguna Seca and shattered the Porsche’s time.
To add insult to injury, the Viper cost about $700,000 less than the Porsche.
If this isn’t reason enough to choose a Viper over a European supercar, our next section on the value of investing in a Viper and its low cost of ownership should be enough to convince you.
The Financial Side of The Viper
The Viper is a great car to invest your money in.
In any investment, you want to make more money than you spend. This is common sense.
However, buying a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or even a Porsche, you’re almost always going to lose money.
Because when you drive these cars off the lot for the first time, they depreciate heavily in value and never regain their original worth.
The Dodge Viper is different, for two reasons: it’s low cost of ownership and the limited supply available compared to demand.
The Low Cost of Ownership
The ownership costs of the Viper are much lower than that of a foreign exotic.
With its manual transmission and naturally aspirated engine, the Viper lacks a lot of the electronic doodads that increase the complexity of other cars. This added complexity makes other supercars more expensive to maintain and service.
For example, a typical oil change on a Ferrari will cost you $500 to $800. A typical oil change on a Lamborghini will run you $400 to $2,000.
Meanwhile, a Dodge Viper oil change will cost you anywhere from $100 to $150 bucks.
And we’re not even getting into how many fewer service centers there are for Ferrari or Lamborghini as compared to Dodge.
Supply and Demand
The law of supply and demand is one of the basic laws of economics. The more demand there is for the same supply of high-end cars, the higher prices will rise.
For example, the original Shelby Cobra cost $9,000 and is now worth over a million and a half dollars due to the insane demand for a limited Supply.
Since Dodge isn’t making any more Vipers the supply side of the equation has been locked down. There also aren’t that many Vipers in existence in the first place.
There were 31,947 Vipers built over the last 25 years. This is in comparison to 40,000 Corvettes being made in 2016.
That means if demand for the Viper rises even a little bit in the years to come, values will rise sharply.
This rise in demand is a pretty solid bet, as the Viper has always had a hardcore fan base. Now that the ACR is making waves across the world with its track domination, more and more people want to become part of the legacy of the Viper.
However, let’s put finances aside for a moment. Let’s talk about a deeper reason to become a Viper owner: your values.
What The Viper Represents
Image source: Dodge
All of the automotive trends today are moving towards more technologically advanced cars. In some ways, this is a good thing. ABS, for example, saves lives.
However, in other ways, this technological advancement comes at a cost.
Instead of having manual transmissions, new American super cars like the Ford GT have paddle shifting automatics. Instead of having naturally aspirated engines like the Viper, they have turbocharged or supercharged engines.
In contrast to this hand-holding and artificiality, there is the Viper.
The Viper represents raw, rugged and extreme performance without hand-holding or coddling. Owning a Viper says a lot about you and your values about the world.
It says that you want to be directly involved with what you’re doing. It says you would rather have to improve your performance to meet the demands of the world than have the world fed to you on a silver spoon.
Or as Road and Track puts it, “to go out and buy the last stick-shift, non-turbo, ten-cylinder, big-wing, hot-cockpit, snake-shaped car on sale in the world today…
That’s a pretty manly thing to do.”
The Legacy of the Dodge Viper
The Viper will forever be remembered as an embodiment of the American Spirit in car form.
It’s direct. It’s powerful. It’s uncensored.
And it doesn’t apologize or any of those qualities.
While Dodge may not be making any more Vipers, we here at American Supercars will continue to serve you and connect you with Vipers that still are on the market.
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