Snake-Bit

“We have been approached by third parties who are interested in exploring future possibilities for Viper. As the Company evaluates strategic options to maximize core operations and leverage its assets, we have agreed to listen to these parties. We will do so keeping in mind the best interests of those who have shown tremendous support for the vehicle—including employees, suppliers, dealers and a worldwide group of loyal Viper owners and enthusiasts. Viper is an integral part of this Company’s heritage. While this is a strategic review, our intent would be to offer strong operational and financial support during any potential transaction in order to ensure a future for the Viper business and perpetuate the legacy of this great vehicle.”

That was then-Chrysler LLC chairman and CEO Bob Nardelli on August 27, 2008. Seems like a lifetime ago.

That third-party interest didn’t pan out.

On July 10, 2009, Chrysler Group LLC announced that while it had been previously announced that the Viper would go out of production in December of that year, the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant would continue to produce America’s over-the-top sports/muscle car, as it had since 1995 and as it continues to today.

The Viper was a fast-tracked car in terms of development. There was a concept car, the Viper RT/10, at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit in January 1989, and the crowds were so knocked-back by the car that Team Viper—designers, engineers, managers—went to work on developing a production version. It was green-lighted for production in May 1990. It went into production at the New Mack Assembly Plant in December 1991 and the production version was revealed to the public at NAIAS in January 1992. Production was moved from Mack to Conner Avenue in October 1995.

The company, now FCA US LLC, has used the tagline “Imported from Detroit.” The Viper is one of the few cars that has legitimate, deep Detroit roots, as Mack and Conner are both in the Motor City. Approximately 30,000 Vipers have been hand-crafted at those plants since the original 
’92 model.

But the big-blocked beast—it debuted with a 400-hp V10; the 2017 model has a 645-hp V10—is going to be having its final run, as the company announced in late June that model year 2017 is the last for the Viper.

The Viper just may be the last devil-may-care-car ever built by Detroit—by which I mean the Traditional Three. It is hard to find a pure concept car at auto shows nowadays, as most of the vehicles that are presented are “production-intent,” not flights of fancy that will cause a team of Absolute Enthusiasts to be quickly assembled to execute the seemingly un-executable.

And there were flights of fancy associated with the vehicle, as in when, back in the early ‘00s, Dodge took the car to Luke Air Force Base in Goodyear, Arizona, and did the sort of thing that the previous Top Gear team was known for: they raced the Viper with a U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon “Viper” in a half-mile run. The car won.

Or consider it from the perspective of production. It takes about 10 days to build one. Painting requires as many as 160 hours—and it is worth noting that they’ll customize Vipers with more than 16,000 unique paint colors (gloss or matte) and more than 48,000 unique stripe combinations. Crazy. In 
a good way.

There are 11 wheel options, 16 interior trims, seven aero packages, three brake packages, four suspension options and more than 50-million ways for someone to get her or his specific Snake. Which is even crazier. In a better way.

Although the Viper starts at around $90,000 and goes north from there, odds are good that FCA doesn’t make much, if anything, off of the production of the vehicle. In 2015 the company sold just 676 Vipers, down from 760 in 2014. Presumably, there will be a bump for the last model year, but let’s face it, there won’t be many even if there’s a barn-burning demand.

Some people might argue that vehicles like the Viper are superfluous. I disagree. The Viper may be considered so exaggerated as to be silly (I found in a statement put out in September 2005 for the MY 2006 Viper the company itself described the vehicle as “extreme” and “outrageous”—and they were proud of that), but in an industry predicated on passion, there needs to be more than a data-driven approach to product development. Designers, engineers and managers need things like the Viper. On the one hand it can provide them with an extreme challenge. And on the other the sort of smile that extreme pride can provoke. Both are priceless.