Take a look at it and go for a drive in today’s Viper, though, and it’s quickly evident, behind the wrapped interior, the aluminum doors, carbon-fiber hood and 21st century electronics, the original’s visceral character survives intact. So we thought it appropriate to trace its origins and legacy with someone who was there at the very beginning, former Chrysler president Bob Lutz.

Now retired after a stint at General Motors, in the mid-1980s Lutz had joined Chrysler Corp. after serving in various Ford roles, including running its European arm. A passionate car enthusiast with credentials from each of the Detroit Three automakers, he brings a unique perspective and enlightening stories to any table.

“Viper’s legacy is that it’s got to be an affordable American car, as powerful as you can make it, exhilarating to drive and exciting to see,” Lutz told us. Though often credited himself for coming up with the idea that became Viper, Lutz is careful to acknowledge the contribution of Hal Sperlich, Chrysler president through 1988.
“Sperlich had a product plan that included three sports cars, the little one was codenamed Slingshot, the top one would be Big Shot,” Lutz recalled. “These were sort of vague design proposals, not compelling enough on their own when we were dependent on minivans and K-car technologies, so they just sort of lingered there as clay models.” Sperlich’s plans also included an all-new Ram pickup and the mainstream V6 sedan range that became Dodge Intrepid.
Trouble was, the corporation was cash poor, struggling to come up with enough money to develop new products after a slew of investments in acquisitions intended to diversify its business. One example: Chrysler owned Gulfstream Aerospace. It also owned Lamborghini, which proved serendipitous, as we shall see.

Back to Viper origins. Lutz’s personal fleet when he came to Chrysler in 1986 included an Autokraft Cobra, a well-done replica of the 1960s Shelby AC Cobra sports car, itself a product that emerged when Sperlich had been at Ford and Carroll Shelby came looking for an engine to power a two-seat roadster. Speaking with Autoweek in 1987, Lutz had mentioned this Cobra he owned, lamenting that though he’d transferred his personal loyalty to Chrysler, he couldn’t swap out the car’s engine (though he hastened to tell us, also, about the Hemi-engined Monteverdi from his native Switzerland).

In his 1998 book, “Guts,” a chapter is devoted to Viper development. He explains a Chrysler engine of the time would have meant giving up half the power in his Cobra.
“So in 1988,1 was driving my Autokraft in Michigan one day, sort of idly wishing Chrysler had something like this, when the pieces came together in my head,” Lutz recalled. “We’ve got this monster V10 coming for the Ram, we’ve got a manual transmission coming, maybe we could use some front suspension from the Dakota.” (In the end, they borrowed Dakota front A-arms). “I was willing to use a live-axle from Dakota, too, though it turned out we could get a rear diff from Dana and do an independent rear suspension.”

It all seems so obvious now. It was hardly so then. Lutz took his brainstorm to design vice president Tom Gale and reached out to Francois Castaing, who was then running Jeep and truck engineering, where Lutz sought to source the necessary parts. Together, they agreed to build a concept car to tell the world their company had an exciting future, that it hadn’t forgotten passion and enthusiasm even though it was best known as the minivan creator. Justifying it as a showcase to trumpet the coming V10 for the truck line, they went to work. Gale assigned the West Coast Pacifica Studio, then headed by Neil Walling, to draft the lines.

“In truth, I was sort of disappointed when I first saw the design/’ Lutz admits. “It took me some time to warm to it; the front end, especially, wasn’t what I had in mind. My mental image was of something that looked more like an update of the Cobra. Gale and his team had the right instinct, though, to do an entirely fresh design that had the something of the muscularity of a 427 Cobra, like a well-trained muscle builder in a well-fit suit.” The world didn’t need another replica, but what emerged from the design studio would be on the leading edge of a retro-themed industry trend, inspired by history but not beholden to it.

“When I saw the full-size clay, I was happier,- it worked in three dimensions.” Already in Dodge’s quiver was Carroll Shelby himself—he’d transferred loyalties with Sperlich and Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, to lend his expertise to Dodge performance variants such as the Omni GLH and Shelby Charger. Shelby got excited by the idea right away, Lutz recalled. ‘”Hell/ he said, T own the name, we’ll call it Cobra.’ … It emerged that the courts decided he couldn’t do that, that Dearborn had kept it in use on parts and accessories sufficiently to retain ownership.”

The Viper name emerged during a flight on the corporate Gulfstream jet after a visit to the Pacifica Studio. “We knew we wanted a snake,” Lutz recalls. Asp, python and rattlesnake were all rejected. Once they’d settled on Viper, the first logo, now known as Sneaky Pete, emerged in minutes. It’s been updated twice now, replaced by the character known as Fangs in 2002 and today’s logo, Stryker, in 2013.

This has all become automotive legend today, but when that first concept car was revealed at the North American International Auto Show in January, 1989, it was a sensation. We asked Lutz if the original team had intended Viper as the big splash to make at the first “international” Detroit show. “You know, that’s the first time that’s occurred to me, that it was the first international show,” Lutz said. “So no, it wasn’t about that at all. We were focused on what we were doing, and of course you want to make your big reveals at home.”
Intended or not, the show’s new status as an event on par with the world’s biggest in Frankfurt, Tokyo and Paris made for expansive media coverage, shining a brighter spotlight on a car already stunning in its brash appeal to emotion.

That might have been the end— another pretty show car only historians and car geeks remember. But it was quickly evident if Dodge could build it, customers would come. People were practically pleading with the company to manufacture the car, stapling checks to letters, pulling executives aside and offering deposits on the spot.
In reality, though it could move on its own and was conceived around production parts, the original concept was barely a real car. Making it so and putting it on sale in 1992 with its evocative styling intact was a monumental project, marking the start of a corporate revival as dramatic as any in Chrysler’s history. The project pioneered a new team-approach to product development, put design and passion back in the forefront, and gave the company credibility with the public and media in ways that cascaded across the range.

The development story alone would take up more space than we have here, and much of it has passed into common Viper lore anyway, but Lutz does mention that dealers weren’t as excited by the prospect as management. They were eager to get the new pickup and told the company to spend its resources there, instead. “It’s hard to explain to people how development works; we shortened it up a lot, but some things just take time. It’s like baking a cake. If it wants half an hour at 350, you can’t just crank it up to 500 and take it out in 10 minutes.”

Regardless, there was enough resistance among dealers and corporate execs, Lutz says, that the Viper nearly came to market with the now-defunct Eagle brand badge. “During a biological break, I took the head of the dealer council aside and told him the car should be a Dodge, they were the performance guys, and if they rejected it, that would be a big mistake. In the end, they signed off, but they still said they wanted us to accelerate the truck project.”

In fact the company was accelerating every product development project, using leaner, more responsive and empowered teams to bring cars to market faster. Viper’s team, under Roy Sjoberg’s direction, showed the whole company how to do it, earning accolades for bringing the car from rough idea to reality. The initial $50 million investment target swelled to $80 million—still just a third of what was typical for a new car then.
“It should be said, too, that Francois Castaing was a powerful force in all of this,” Lutz said. “He argued that we needed to keep the weight down and the truck engine was too heavy for the Viper, for instance.” French-born Castaing had joined Chrysler when it acquired AMC/Jeep from Renault in 1987 and brought his European racing experience at Le Mans and in Formula One to the table to go with Shelby’s input on the project.

“Since we owned Lamborghini at the time, we sent the engine to them and said, ‘Don’t spend a lot but figure out how to make this in aluminum/” Lutz said. “While they were at it, they gave it bigger valves and improved just about everything to get us to 400 hp, which was huge at the time. That took 200 pounds out of the car. It’s not going too far to suggest that engine was designed by Lamborghini.”
There were many changes along the way but today, when Dodge shares a corporate umbrella with the Fiat Group brands, it’s worth remembering the Italian connection goes back a ways and the company had partnerships with Alfa Romeo and Maserati 25 years ago, too.

Contributions from afar notwithstanding, it was the hometown team that took the original Viper and kept it up to date and vital, adapting to regulatory and market changes over the years so we still have a Viper worthy of aspiration. Today’s fifth-generation model benefits from repeated refinement and re-engineering efforts, continuously improving the car without losing the thread of what always made it special. The 450-hp GTS coupe came in 1996 and carried Viper’s banner into international racing; the GTS-R competition model won Le Mans in 1997 and ’98. Viper competed in the Tudor United Sportscar Championship and won both the 2014 GTLM driver and team championships at the season-ending Petit Le Mans 10-hour endurance race at Road Atlanta.
Indeed, racing has influenced Viper’s evolution throughout, even as the devoted owners were informing Dodge about changes and upgrades they’d like to see to make the car more capable, special and desirable.