Also see original Dodge Viper and 2013 Dodge Viper; thanks to Jim Benjaminson for use of his photos
In 1989: The Plymouth Reliant was a huge seller. Chrysler Corporation's final mass-produced rear-drive car was in its final year.
The first Viper concept debuted at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, to test public reaction; orders began to flow before the show ended, and the project was approved. There were two major prototypes, the late-1989 V8-powered VM01 and the cast iron (truck) V10-powered 1990 VM02. The VM01 used the 360 V8 engine, then the largest Chrysler made, whose basic design went back many years; that engine was also the basis for the V10.
The original V10 was based on Chrysler’s venerable 360, but Lambourghini (partly Chrysler-owned at the time) worked on the cooling system, crankshaft balance, weight reduction, and fine tuning. The Italian automaker’s expertise in aluminum was also tapped, since the Viper had an aluminum block to save roughly 150 pounds of weight. Legendary Chrysler engine designer Willem Weertman, who had headed the design of the 273-318-340-360 series, was also called in to help out.
Bob Sheaves wrote that the Viper’s public goal (of showing they were still the best at building a low-cost vehicle of any type, and beating the Cobra’s 0-100-0 times to achieve that) was secondary to its private goal — to see if Chrysler really could develop new methods to lower vehicle cost. For that reason, it was originally intended only to last through 1997, at which point it would be replaced by a completely new vehicle. In addition, the Viper was a test of Francois Castaing’s preferred engineering system, as used at AMC; an independent cross-functional team was created, making its own rules and creating its own supplier base. The team leader sifted through scores of volunteers to find appropriate people.
The first generation Viper was, according to Sheaves, “a crude and rude ‘kit car,’ similar to what home builders had been building for years in Cobra replicas. Chrysler (actually JTE engineers working on their own time) translated this into a vehicle and production line that, in one fell swoop, became the most sought after assignment in the corporation up to that point.”
Team Viper began three years of intensive, often around-the-clock operations that stretched from Italy, where the aluminum engine block was perfected, to the race tracks at Nelson Ledges and Road Atlanta, where they fine-tuned the chassis and powertrain. Team members worked closely with suppliers. Still, the Viper itself was less important than the lessons learned in the platform teams, which would soon create in rapid succession the LH (Intrepid), PL (Neon), Clouds (Stratus), new minivans, new Ram, Prowler, and more.
Chassis prototypes, ("mules") were used to study and tune dynamics. Within a year of Viper's auto show appearance, a V-8-powered mule was being tested. In May, a Viper was the official pace car of the Indianapolis 500. Finally, in December 1991, the first red Viper RT/10 production vehicles rolled off the New Mack Avenue assembly line — exactly three years after the concept car's 1989 auto show debut.
The engine held 11 quarts of oil, and used Chrysler’s first bottom-fed fuel injection system. The Viper was the first U.S.-production car to use structural urethane foam trim, with the goal of reducing weight. The twin exhausts, exiting on the side of the car, were an early hallmark which increased the visual appeal but were later dropped due to the burn hazard.
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