The Dodge Viper’s massive engine and Spartan approach fuelled plenty of fun, says Jules Christian
Most sports cars of recent years have been very civilised. By the time that emission control, ABS brakes, automatic gearboxes and traction control have been put into the equation, you have a sophisticated, efficient and reliable piece of practical machinery to drive around in. There is just one thing missing – fun.
An open top car, the adrenalin buzz of raw power when you hit the throttle, the guttural roar of the exhaust note, the sensation of being shoved back in your seat, seemed a thing of the past.
Admittedly, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been a long time since legendary muscle cars in the likes of the AC Cobra have been available, let alone affordable. Well, not quite. In 1989, American giant Chrysler unveiled a concept car that was designed to be just that. Three years later, enter the Dodge Viper RT/10.
Now we’re talking US here, so let’s think big. One of the criteria was to use as many Chrysler parts as possible – so what about an eight-litre iron truck engine? No, let’s ask those nice guys in that subsidiary we own (at the time), Lamborghini, to help out. So an aluminium eight-litre V10 – 400bhp at 4,600rpm – will do nicely, and, it’ll fit under that ridiculously long bonnet at the front.
Sophisticated suspension? No, lets shove big fat tyres on it – that’ll do. And keep the cost down. Fibreglass body, no exterior door handles, no air conditioning, a canvas roof, vinyl side window flaps – there you go. Not that it was entirely benign – it had alloy wheels, excellent seats, a sports steering wheel, proper carpeting and a good sound system.
The car was cumbersome, with really heavy controls, the gearbox change was clunky, the brakes heavy and the engine not as smooth as you would expect from a V10. Despite its massive power, however, it was not uncontrollable, with the enormous tyres giving you an unexpected amount of front-end cornering traction before the inevitable rear tail-out with too much exuberance on the throttle.
In a straight line it was outrageous, going from zero to 97km/h in just 4.2 seconds, and up to 171km/h in just 9.2 seconds, claiming a top speed of 266km/h. That speed in that car was not for the inexperienced or faint-hearted.
The Viper, despite its bite, clearly needed development and, over its production run, became a very different beast from the original. With the second of five generation changes, the GTS Coupe was introduced which then had 90 per cent of the car’s parts replaced or upgraded. By the end of production the GTS equivalent, the SRT had all the interior comforts and mechanical features you would expect of a sports car today with an 8.4-litre engine pushing out an outrageous 645bhp! As to the price, well, a 1960s AC Cobra could cost you around €500,000 while a 1990s Viper SR/10, in the region of €40,000. That aside, for me, it was always the look of the thing, and the torque, that made it extraordinary – an exercise to create a stubborn yet exuberant piece of driving fun.