I remember exactly when I first heard the Dodge Viper’s siren call.
Back when I was barely old enough to drive myself, I learned that my motor racing hero, the late Canadian open-wheel star Greg Moore, had bought himself a 1997 Viper in blue and white.
I didn’t need to ask why. I knew that if a driver of Moore’s calibre had chosen it, then the Viper must behave much like its namesake animal ― lithe, agile, difficult to control, and potentially venomous in the wrong hands.
I knew that one day, somehow, I’d need to find a way to drive one for myself.
And it seems that I just barely squeaked it in: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has confirmed that the 2017 model year will be the Dodge Viper’s swan song. That means that my first chance to drive one, which came at a press event held last week by FCA at their Chelsea Proving Grounds in Michigan, was likely also my last.
From the outside, one glance at a Viper has always brought me to my knees. And I’ll admit that those same knees started shaking a little when I walked up to it and felt the door give way as I pressed my fingers down into the handle.
As I lowered myself into the cockpit, I once again became aware of my knees. It felt like they were edging awfully close to my torso, which is so freakishly tall that the roofline comes across approximately at my nose. Comfortable, it is not, but I didn’t care.
I fired the Viper up and rolled it out onto the autocross course. As I took the green flag and headed into the first few turns, my initial anticipation was replaced with a touch of disappointment. In the course’s tight confines, the car was surprisingly well-behaved. I’d expected to be wrestling, but it wasn’t needed. The Viper glided through the turns with grace and compliance.
In any other car, I would have been satisfied that I’d experienced its true character. But this was a Viper.
I turned past the checkers, stopped, climbed out, and gazed at it woefully, wondering where I’d gone wrong. That happened to be the precise moment when FCA’s global head of design, Ralph Gilles, walked by.
I asked if he would talk to me about what the Dodge Viper has meant to the company. He wiped away an imaginary tear and offered to take me for a spin while he answered my question.
“When the Viper came on the scene, it really did a lot for Chrysler Corporation by showing the world that they had a spirit,” he said as he got himself comfortable. “I’ve always loved the Viper because it represents the most ardent enthusiasts inside the company. Every member of the team puts in more effort than is normal. It’s a very tiny team doing a lot of big things.”
Although from a technical standpoint the Viper is perhaps best known for its aluminum-block V10s, Gilles says the car led to many more innovations inside Chrysler’s walls.
“It taught us how to use carbon fibre, hot-stamped aluminum, structural magnesium,” he explained.
However, one point that stands out for Gilles in particular is how tightly the Viper connected the automaker with its enthusiasts.
“We have access to our customers in ways that are unusual,” he said. “We hang out with them. We go to club events. We purposely inject ourselves into all the goings-on that are Viper.
He went on: “You get what the customer wants from the car, but you also see the passion first-hand. You take that back to work with you, and it drives you to keep pushing. It also gives you great ideas. That’s why we have so many versions, so many colour permutations. These all come from conversations with owners.”
Among the products of these conversations are a handful of limited editions that celebrate the Dodge Viper’s 25th and final year of production.
The Viper 1:28 Edition ACR ― named after the 2016 Viper ACR’s production car lap record at Laguna Seca (1:28.64), one of 13 lap records the ACR currently holds at racetracks worldwide ― will have just 28 units available. The GTS-R Commemorative Edition ACR in its character pearl white paint and blue pearl GTS stripes will see up to 100 built. The VooDoo II Edition ACR is limited to 31 units, and the Snakeskin Edition GTC, which features green paint and a snakeskin-patterned SRT stripe, will have only 25.
“At the same time,” Gilles continued, “(those customers) always tell us, don’t change the car. It’s one of the reasons it’s stayed so fundamentally the same. A lot of people like the formula. Maybe the industry has moved on to much higher-tech things, but I love driving the Viper, not being driven by computers. You get a certain sense of accomplishment through this car.
He explained further: “It takes a while. It’s not a car you just jump into. People say, ‘it makes me uncomfortable,’ and then those same people months later say, ‘I love it.’ They know they’ve conquered it or they’re still in the process of conquering it. You can jump in a lot of cars today and feel very good immediately, but I’ll bet you’ll get bored of that car. I never get bored of this. I’ve been driving Vipers for 15 years, and I’m still just intimidated enough to keep it interesting.”
And with that, Gilles set off. He dug into the throttle right away and bit hard into the turns, sending the car sideways and reeling it back in with it hissing and spitting and gnashing the entire way.
By the end, I was breathless. Suddenly, I knew where I had gone wrong ― I hadn’t loosened the car’s reigns enough to even scratch the surface of its capability. I wanted to learn about the Viper, but I left having learned far more about how to improve myself as a driver. There’s no better marker of the beauty in a great car, I don’t think.
Sadly, and to the chagrin of many devotees, it’s long been in the cards that the Dodge Viper was destined to lose the numbers game. Efficiency and downsizing are clear trends across the industry right now, even in many supercars, and big blocks like the Viper’s 8.4L V10 are rapidly going the way of the dodo.
Of course, the Viper has been discontinued before ― after the 2010 model year, to be precise. That makes it too easy to hope against all hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll see its salacious curves in another form again someday.