That was so because of that pesky gas crisis, and those emissions regulations choked engines to a dismal point. And what do you do when you’re the United States and your biggest gift to the world is the all-mighty, gas-guzzling V8? Well, you should start panicking. That time period, from 1973 to 1983, is known as the Malaise era, and its boring, underpowered cancerous cars would spread long after.
People were driving boxy grandpa mobiles that were as dull to drive as my last class on the Friday before summer break, and Chrysler was no different. Lee Iaccoca, who was in charge of Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth, came up with the idea of building every car on the same platform, just different body styles, known as the K-Car. While this strategy achieved his goal of saving the company from bankruptcy and changed the way American cars were built, it didn’t meet the sales expectations, and he needed something better.
In order to do so, he needed a plan and, first and foremost, inspiration. The new Chrysler sports car would take inspiration from the Jaguar E-Type and the Shelby Cobra. Then, he had more requests - no electronic driver aids, a manual transmission, and a big honker of an engine. This task was handed off to someone by the name of Tom Gale. At first, he carved a model out of clay and showed it to Bob Lutz. Everyone was happy, and the green light was given to commence the project.
After creating the clay model, Tom assembled a team of 21 people and proceeded to work in secrecy on the project, with no limitations or pressure from the bigwigs. While this might sound like the dream scenario for any petrolhead who dreams of designing their own car, Team Viper also had an astonishingly low budget: 50 million dollars for the whole development. That might sound like a massive number, but to put it into perspective, during that same time, Lexus spent one billion dollars developing the LS400.
So, in order to save money, they had to cut a lot of corners and create a sort of parts bin special when it came to the new creation. Nicknamed ‘Felicity,’ the first mule was actually a Corvette widened to match the Viper’s proportions - and it was scrapped, as it was still not wide enough. Parts from the truck division were also snuck in, like suspension components and wheel hubs from the upcoming Dodge Dakota.
Dick Winkles, from Dodge’s performance division, even dusted off an old racing Hemi V8 from the ‘60s just to get the prototype moving. So, the prototype was kind of ready, but there was one more obstacle - getting the big boss, Lee Iaccoca, on board, and that was no easy feat. He was the king of cheap, boring cars made with volume sales in mind. But, while that was the story when he was chief executive of Chrysler, he was also the man who brought the Mustang into the world, so was that petrol heart still beating inside of him?
What's more, it even had the perfect name. Legend has it that, on a trip to Italy, Tom Gale was having dinner with the head of ItalDesign, who, at the time, was helping design the Eagle Premier for Chrysler. Talk of the project came up and the inspiration behind it being the Shelby Cobra. So Tom asked what an Italian name for a snake was: Vi-pe-ra - Viper. So, everything was laid out and promising for an outstanding car.
Following the 1989 Auto Show, the team working on the project was expanded to 85 people, and the first thing on the agenda was getting rid of that god-awful V8. This task fell on a man named Herb Helbig, an engineer for Chrysler’s big horsepower division. Tales of why the Viper got a V10 range from crazy stories to even crazier stories, but the truth is this - it was cheap. This supercar was powered by a truck motor, but it’s not that simple.
You see, I said at the beginning that Lee Iaccoca did a really smart thing to save Chrysler with the K-Car. But he made another smart move - he bought AMC and Lamborghini and shared resources between the companies. So Team Viper turned to the Italians to modify the iron beast of an engine and re-cast it in aluminum. They also refined the parts and sent the 8.0-liter (488 ci) power plant bag to the States. The push-rod, truck-derived behemoth produced 400 hp (406 ps) under that massive hood. Getrag was approached to design the gearbox, but they passed on the opportunity, so Borg Warner stepped in to design a manual transmission that was able to negotiate the power to the rear wheels.
Team Viper had done it. They built a car in three years - and what a car. It was raw and unforgiving, a true spiritual successor to the Shelby Cobra, and it even got the blessing from Cobra’s father. In 1992, the venomous snakes were released to the public, and the first gen was just an engine with four wheels. The top was made from a cheap canvas, there were no door handles, and the only safety features were a seatbelt and how good of a driver you were.
And that’s what made the Viper such an unexpected car. It was the car America needed at the time. It blew the doors of the Corvette while costing less money, and it came from the company that, at the same time, was offering you a minivan. This was the car that might be your very last drive, and it came at a time and from a company that was building square cars with barely 100 hp. But that’s what made it so great. It reignited the American rebellious spirit. It was a car that didn’t care - loud, too powerful, and insanely unsafe. It was the car needed to rekindle America’s passion for power.