Snakes alive! The story of the Dodge Viper

From extreme lightweight roadster to sophisticated sports car, over 25 years the V10-powered Dodge Viper developed into an accomplished American muscle machine. With production now finished, we take a look back at its serpentine story.

1989 Dodge Viper Concept

1989 Dodge Viper Concept

Intended to replicate the drama and success of the Shelby Cobra, the Viper concept was the product of Chrysler executive Bob Lutz and chief designer Tom Gale. Following an enthusiastic response to the concept car’s debut at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, Chrysler pulled together a dedicated ‘Team Viper’ to push the car into production in less than three years.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster

Given the raucous reaction to the design of the concept car, the rapid transition to production machine saw very few changes. A tubular steel chassis with fibreglass panels had more in common with kit car construction, with Dodge planning to replace the Viper with something more substantial within five years. A $50,000 (£31,000) asking price comfortably undercut the rival Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, with some buyers paying a premium to secure the very first 285 cars offered.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster

Just like the Shelby Cobra that had inspired it, the Viper kept the side-exit exhaust pipes from the concept version. Owners would quickly learn of the potential for burnt legs when exiting the low-slung roadster. The RT/10 also took the prize for the coolest use of three-spoke alloy wheels, wrapped in giant tyres. Front rubber was 275/40/17, while the rears were huge 335/35/17-sized in order to keep all the power in check.

1992 Dodge Viper Engine

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Roadster

The heart of the Viper, and its enduring legacy, was the 8.0-litre V10. Based on a Dodge truck engine, but upgraded and recast in aluminium by Lamborghini (then Chrysler owned), this was a monster motor. The first-generation Viper had 400hp, and a tremendous 465lb ft of torque, helping shove the 1,500kg RT/10 from 0-60mph in 4.5 seconds. The 0-100mph sprint in under 10 seconds was even more impressive, with an outright top speed of 165mph.

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Interior

1992 Dodge Viper RT/10 Interior

Given the speed with which the Viper was developed, and the need to keep it light, something had to give. The first Vipers lacked a proper roof, side windows, or even exterior door handles in an effort to reduce weight. Plastic side screens and a fabric roof would be added later, but these were very much an afterthought. ABS braking, traction control, and air conditioning were all absent, with all efforts focussed on raw performance.

1996 Dodge Viper GTS

1996 Dodge Viper GTS

Keen to build on the success of the RT/10 roadster, Dodge pushed forward with plans for a coupe version of the Viper. Inspired by the classic Shelby Daytona Coupe of the 1960s, the GTS featured a special ‘double bubble’ roof to allow drivers to fit comfortably while wearing helmets. A glass hatchback was also part of the changes, with the spare wheel visible beneath it. Most significant was the colour scheme of GTS Blue with white full-length stripes.

1996 Dodge Viper GTS

1996 Dodge Viper GTS

Replacing the side-exit exhaust pipes from the roadster with ones that exited from the rear bumper reduced back pressure, helping boost engine output to 450hp, while torque also rose to 488lb ft. The GTS bodyshell boasted far superior aerodynamics to the RT/10, but kept weight low despite the standard fitment of airbags and air conditioning. Improved performance was the result, with the GTS capable of 0-60mph in 4.0 seconds, and a top speed in excess of 185mph. Commendable for a car that cost $66,000 (£49,500), representing around half the price of a Ferrari F355.

1996 Dodge Viper GTS Pace Car

1996 Dodge Viper GTS Pace Car

In order to ensure as many people as possible got to see the new streamlined coupe, Dodge offered the Viper GTS as the official pace car for the 1996 Indianapolis 500. As the man who had promoted the idea of the Viper from the outset, and the Chrysler Corporation President, Bob Lutz was given the honour of driving the Viper ahead of the Indy 500 field.

1997 Dodge Viper Range

1997 Dodge Viper Range

The launch of the GTS also marked the start of the second generation of the Viper. For the RT/10, this meant the addition of luxuries like air conditioning, electric windows and even airbags to the roadster. The RT/10 also received the same 450hp version of the Viper engine from the GTS, making its performance even more extreme, although it too lost the side-exit exhaust pipes. Track action was also catered for with the Le Mans-ready GTS-R.

1998 Dodge Viper GTS-R Le Mans Winner

1998 Dodge Viper GTS-R Le Mans Winner

Motorsport success didn’t take long for the Viper, with the Team Oreca-ran GTS-R car winning the GT2 class of the 1997 FIA GT Championship. This was a success the GTS-R would repeat for four more years in a row. However, the biggest prize came with a GT2 class one-two finish at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, repeating the success of the Shelby Daytona Coupe that inspired it. More Le Mans glory would follow in 1999 and 2000.

1998 Dodge Viper GT2 Championship Edition

1998 Dodge Viper GT2 Championship Edition

To celebrate the impressive victories by the GTS-R, and to ensure it met FIA homologation requirements, Dodge produced 100 examples of the GT2 Championship Edition Viper. With a colour scheme inspired by the race car, the Championship Edition also featured the same giant rear wing and front splitters. Power was increased to 460hp, with torque upped to 500lb ft.The interior featured a special commemorative plaque, blue trim accents, and 5-point racing harnesses.

1997 Dodge ‘Copperhead’ Concept

1997 Dodge ‘Copperhead’ Concept

Buoyed by the success of the Viper, the Chrysler Corporation wanted more. Based on a shorter and narrower version of the Viper platform, the Copperhead used a 2.7-litre V6 with 220hp. A snakeskin theme continued inside and out, used on both the interior trim and even the tyres. A legal challenge over the name by rock legend Billy Gibbons caused Chrysler to drop the Copperhead title. Production was planned for 2000, but was subsequently cancelled.

1999 Dodge Viper ACR

1999 Dodge Viper ACR

Keen to promote the Viper to amateur racers, Dodge created the track-ready American Club Racer variant in 1999. Based on the GT2 Championship Edition, the ACR featured the same 460hp engine. Stiffer adjustable suspension, lightweight BBS wheels, and uprated Michelin tyres were part of the deal, as was an interior stripped of the radio and air conditioning.

2000 Dodge Viper GTS-R Concept

2000 Dodge Viper GTS-R Concept

With the Viper fast approaching a decade on sale, preparations were made for the third generation version. Previewing the design direction was the one-off GTS-R Concept, designed by Osamu Shikado who would be responsible for the subsequent production car. With a 500hp version of the Viper V10, the GTS-R Concept was a fully working machine, capable of terrifying journalists who got to experience it. Most important was the reemergence of the side exhaust pipes.

2002 Dodge Viper GTS Final Edition

2002 Dodge Viper GTS Final Edition

Starting a tradition of special editions that would continue throughout the Viper’s lifetime, the end of the original version came with a special production run of 360 cars. The Final Edition wore red paintwork with silver stripes, in honour of the GTS-R race cars which had won the 2000 American Le Mans Series. Red stitching featured on the interior, while all cars received a sequentially numbered plaque. The last Vipers also benefited from standard ABS braking, introduced across the range the year before.

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Roadster

2003 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Roadster

Built under the control of DaimlerChrysler, the Viper underwent a comprehensive overhaul for the third generation. Weight dropped from both the engine and body, with the latter featuring more dramatic angles and creases. The Viper V10 remained, but grew in size to 8.3-litres, resulting in a power hike to 500hp with 525lb ft of torque. Wearing Chrysler’s ‘Street and Racing Technology’ badge, the 2003 Viper boasted a 0-60mph time of 3.8 seconds, and a top speed close to 190mph. Side-exit exhausts were present, as was a proper folding fabric roof.

2003 Dodge Viper Competition Coupe

2003 Dodge Viper Competition Coupe

Looking remarkably similar to the GTS-R Concept from 2000, the Competition Coupe was the race-ready variant of the new Viper. Utilising the same 8.3-litre V10, but with 20hp more, the Competition Coupe tipped the scales at just 1,360kg with a stripped out interior and composite body panels. Racing teams would later adapt the Competition Coupe for usage in both GT2 and GT3 championships around the globe.

2003 Dodge Tomahawk Concept

2003 Dodge Tomahawk Concept

Seeing the Viper V10 engine as a brand in its own right, DaimlerChrysler experimented with a number of different applications for it. The Tomahawk Concept was the craziest, using the 8.3-litre engine to create a monstrous motorcycle resembling something from the film Tron. With four wheels, debate raged as to whether it was really car or bike. The headline-grabbing theoretical top speed of 300mph made sure Dodge gained plenty of attention at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show. Unsurprisingly, full production did not follow…

2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10

2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10

Production reality did happen for the Ram SRT-10, mating a Dodge pick-up truck with the 500hp V10 in 2004. Although notably heavier than the Viper, the Ram SRT-10 was still capable of 0-60mph in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 154mph in Regular Cab form. Dodge would later introduce a Quad Cab version for those who liked to scare multiple passengers at once. In 2004 the SRT-10 notched up a Guinness World Record for the world’s fastest production pick-up truck, recording 154.987mph.

2004 Bristol Fighter

2004 Bristol Fighter

Proving that the appeal of the Viper V10 was transatlantic, Bristol Cars utilised the 8.0-litre version of the engine to power the Fighter supercar. Modified to deliver 525hp, the Fighter was claimed to be capable of 0-60mph in 4.0 seconds, and achieve 210mph flat out. The later Fighter S version took things further with 628hp from the V10, while a planned 1,000hp+ turbocharged Fighter T never saw the light of day.

2005 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Coupe

2005 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Coupe

After a notable absence, a fixed-top coupe version of the Viper SRT-10 appeared in 2005. The coupe was almost identical in construction to the roadster, beyond the obvious ‘double-bubble’ roof. In common with Vipers before, a new addition meant more power, with a subtle tweak to 510hp and 535lb ft to offset the slight weight penalty of the fixed-roof. A top speed in excess of 190mph was granted by the cleaner aerodynamic profile.

2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10 ACR

2008 Dodge Viper SRT-10 ACR

More developments for the V10 engine saw displacement increase again for the 2008-model Viper, now some 8.4-litres in size. This meant peak power of 600hp and 560lb ft of torque, but the biggest news was the dramatic return of the ACR. Unlike the subtle 1999 version, the ACR of 2008 wore gigantic carbon fibre wings and splitters capable of producing 1,000lb of downforce at 150mph. Limited to just 500 cars, the SRT-10 ACR would also go on to set a new production car lap record at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 2009.

2010 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Final Edition

2010 Dodge Viper SRT-10 Final Edition

For the final year of production, Dodge planned a number of special editions, such as the Voodoo and 1:33 versions of the racy ACR. However, the Final Edition was most important, with 50 cars built split between coupe, roadster and ACR variants. Even a special chassis build code was used to signify the final cars, all of which were painted Graphite Grey with a black centre stripe outlined in red. A black interior featured red detailing, and also had the all-important numbered plaque.

2012 SRT Viper

2012 SRT Viper

The dire situation faced by Chrysler following Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2007, and the need for federal government bailouts, nearly led to the death of the Viper. However, FCA Chairman Sergio Marchionne was determined to keep the Viper, with a finished fifth-generation car shown off in 2012 as a 2013-model year offering. Determined to make SRT a brand itself, the Dodge name was dropped, and the Viper was now coupe only. The 8.4-litre V10 remained, but power had naturally risen even further to 640hp with 600lb ft of torque. Less weight, but new features like launch control and cruise control were also the order of the day.

2012 SRT Viper GTS

2012 SRT Viper GTS

The 2013 Viper also came in two flavours – the basic coupe, or the more luxurious GTS version. The latter gained a bonnet with more dramatic air intakes, along with leather upholstery and gunmetal interior details. The Launch Edition of the GTS came in the classic livery of blue with white stripes. Both standard Viper and GTS were able to achieve the 0-60mph sprint in 3.5 seconds, while a top speed of 202mph meant the American snake crossed into true supercar territory.

2012 SRT Viper GTS-R

2012 SRT Viper GTS-R

The Viper returned to competition the American Le Mans Series with the launch of the fifth-generation car. Built in conjunction with the successful Riley Technologies team, the GTS-R used a six-speed sequential gearbox in place of the regular manual unit found in the Viper. After a slow start in 2012 and 2013, the GTS-R came good in the 2014 United SportsCar Championship, taking the GTLM title ahead of Corvette Racing. Mission accomplished, Dodge subsequently terminated the factory racing programme.

2013 SRT Viper TA

2013 SRT Viper TA

In order to keep track day enthusiasts happy, SRT developed a limited edition Time Attack (TA) model. The unique Crusher Orange paintwork was the most obvious change, with the addition of lightweight Sidewinder alloy wheels and carbon fibre splitters slightly harder to spot. Power output remained at 640hp, but track-biased Pirelli tyres, adjustable Bilstein suspension, and uprated Brembo brakes covered the significant changes for circuit driving.

2016 Dodge Viper SRT ACR

2016 Dodge Viper SRT ACR

First shown as a concept car during the 2014 SEMA show, the ACR returned in 2016 sharper than ever. The Dodge name was also back, with SRT consigned to the branding history books. Little more than a street-legal race car, with the optional Extreme Aero package the ACR could generate 2,000lb of downforce. Carbon ceramic brakes, specially developed Kumho tyres, adjustable Bilstein suspension, and even lightweight carpet was part of the package. Fourteen new lap records at circuits across America justified the $122,000 (£92,000) price tag.

2017 Dodge Viper 25th Anniversary Editions

2017 Dodge Viper 25th Anniversary Editions

Despite a dedicated fan base, slow sales made continuing the Viper impossible to justify. To celebrate the end of production, and the 25th anniversary of the Viper, multiple special editions were created. VooDoo II and GTS-R Commemorative Editions celebrated previous limited run cars, along with green Snakeskin edition and the special 1:28 ACR. All 28 cars of the latter sold out in under 40 minutes, while the remaining final-year models took just five days to be snapped up.

End of the Viper

End of the Viper

After twenty-five years and more than 31,000 cars built, the very last Viper rolled off the Connor Avenue assembly line In Detroit, Michigan on the 16th August 2017. Although its appeal may have been limited by the end, the world is still a slightly sadder place without the existence of a rumbling V10-powered American sports car in it.