Guest editorial by former Chrysler engineer Ian Sharp. The 2013-2014 Viper was a “make do and mend” project, refining the prior Viper with relatively few changes. The question is whether the marque can survive this brush with a photocopier design process.
Whilst the Viper is more sophisticated now, it doesn’t seem to be stirring the spirit of the buyers. There’s hand-wringing on the sage automotive blogs, and a drop in sales that has led to production cuts.
Though engineers focused on NVH (buzz, squeak, and rattle), they forgot both “fit and finish” and, more importantly, the larger picture of what Viper needs to “continuously improve” into.
The Viper has always suffered from having sponsors and patrons of various personalities. Ralph V. Gilles took on the mantle of savior of the marque, but unfortunately did not evolve SRT’s customer understanding beyond those who had already purchased Vipers. (The lady and her husband who own a whole slew of them, in every color, needs, I think, to take a little vacation where cars are banned, to get a little perspective in their own world, to break an acquisition habit possibly bordering on a neurosis.)
Chrysler (or, rather, SRT and Dodge) needs a halo vehicle, which was part of the thinking behind the original Viper concept. That halo car must have the company’s signature stamped all through it, but what does the new Viper say? Timidity in design and engineering, and a sprinkling of lack of vision. Maybe this is the signature of the New Chrysler, but I doubt it, and it deserves better.
Every vehicle evolves and hopefully improves, but it has also to improve in the psyche of the potential customer, new or returning.
This basic premise was understood when the team asked me for a “thought starter” proposal in 2010. I looked at the product and at the staff that was going to enact this new vehicle …. a shiver went down my spine as a cold realization sunk in. Not only was there a dearth of quality engineering in the original vehicle, derived from a truck chassis and a truck engine; the agricultural thinking of the Viper that resided within the company was encouraged, nourished, and flourished as “Heritage.” The Viper’s character as a brutal machine was loved by many, but too many specific technologies and choices had become ingrained as “essential,” holding back its progress.
The problem possibly harks back to early days of “Le Monstre at Le Mans,” but this garish vision of American sports car engineering is no longer sufficient to win, and calcifies the negative reaction of many euro skeptics.
Even companies with agricultural histories have managed to shrug off those humble feudal beginnings, producing ever more exotic examples of their ethereal thinking. Yet Viper seems to relish and foster this image, and lose itself in myopic introspection.
A parallel can be found in the history of Formula 1 (F1) racing. In the 1980 season, the Tyrrell 010 was launched, to the derision of the racing media and the F1 engineering community. It was designed by Maurice Phillippe, a gentleman and talented designer who learned his trade at AV Roe Aviation and preceded Tyrrell at Lotus under Colin Chapman. He designed marvelous vehicles at Lotus, but always through the spark of inspiration of ACBC.
Maurice, and to be fair every other F1 designer of that day, was petrified of the all-conquering Lotus 80 with its new “Ground Effects” technology. Not being able to understand how it worked, and losing his confidence, Maurice went about copying the Lotus 80 down to every detail he could glean from scaling of the vehicle at F1 races – from photos, even cigarette packets resting on components. I wonder if this is how China does it today, though I suspect they just buy one and run a laser over it.
The new Viper seems to be in a similar rut. The 010, incidentally, was never successful, because Lotus developed an even faster car for the following year. Likewise, Viper has not had a winning Le Mans season, despite a single race whose late caution flag allowed Viper to avoid a lead-losing pit stop when it needed to refuel.
What is my solution?
I believe that the Viper needs an external engineering crisis manager and team, with the authority to get things sorted out. He (or she) must have an understanding of high performance vehicles in every aspect, including chassis, aero, and powertrain, and a working knowledge of Chrysler itself. He has to understand that he is going to get resistance, and be on guard for malevolent connivance within the company. For this reason, he and a hand-picked team must work almost completely devoid of contact with the mother ship.
A raw vehicle must be developed with a fully functioning running prototype in six months, including two months of intense road and track development. (It’s not the easiest time of year to do this in Detroit, but Chrysler has facilities in Arizona as well.) It must respect the assembly constraints at Conner Road, and still pass the senior management stop/go ride-and-drive with its “Roman Emperor’s thumbs down.”
Any new Viper must have a significant weight reduction, especially above the suspension upper ball joint center line. Perhaps the current luxurious interior should be replaced with a cost-saving brushed steel and brushed aluminum Spartan-yet-functional interior (such as Lotus Exige). Viper has never been about luxury, but about performance; adding creature comforts in this generation has not added sales.
The current chassis needs a re-think. The roof and windscreen should be removed and replace by a Tonneau cover with a zipper section for driver spouse, friend, or dog, whichever is the driver’s most prized possession. The windscreen needs to be a couple of dickey bug deflectors, even convex if need be, like a sport bike fairing, but not overly Batmobile-ish.
A rear stylized, but fully functional, “manly” roll hoop, with a cross bracing bar for a 6 point harness, should be installed for the road.
While Mr. Gilles has pledged his support for a Chrysler V-10 — no Ferrari power, no Maserati turbo six, no forced induction — the current V-10, whose roots go back as far as the 1950s, is no longer practical. Perhaps in time a new V-10 engine could be developed from the Pentastar V6; but economically, having an engine for the Viper and only for the Viper means added development costs that have to come from higher pricing or less investment in the rest of the car. The V-10 is heavy, large, and already tuned to the limits of its design.
Because of this, I believe that the powertrain needs to be a lightened version of the upcoming Hemi V8 normally aspirated, and as a factory tuning option as a supercharger kit, without the Hemi auxiliaries. A simple flat cheap weir and gate oil pan would prevent oil surge but allow the engine to be as low in the car as possible. A lightweight “dual pass” radiator cooling system would work — good old racing techniques adapted for the road. There are many other aerodynamic and design tricks that can be adapted from various racing programs.
Adding an optional KERS (kinetic energy recovery — that is, regenerative brakes, electric motors, and superconductor or flywheel storage) rear axle system after the first year, at around $25,000, would give an additional 100 hp, or to be more accurate “give back” 100 hp.
A year or two ago, the Viper community was firmly against any suggestion of an engine other than the “big Ten.” That seems to have changed, with an increasing number of people now suggesting that, if it does the job, a V8 would work. Losing to Corvettes, with their eight cylinders to Viper’s ten, has probably had a lot to do with the attitude change. I believe that if higher performance can be had from a Hemi, that Viper owners, and new demographic prospective buyers would accept it. What’s more, it would allow Chrysler to cut their costs quite a bit and end an outsourced tuning program that yields no benefit for anything else in their product lines.
I envision no air conditioning, but a flow-through cabin ventilation system ducted for cooling on warm drives. The HVAC system should consist of some nicely made Carhartt (a Detroit brand) jackets with leather wear strips sewn onto the pockets and sleeve edges and a nice leather Viper patch. There was a Viper technician at the Phoenix Chrysler Arizona proving grounds who used to make some nice stamped impressed Viper belt buckles – so, really, engage the workforce past and present in this effort.
This is a sport car, and it must be sold at a list price of no more than $55K. The performance must be able to at least take it to the Corvette C7 up to 100 mph, and equal or beat the C7 around Laguna Seca.
How these crisis programs work is raw, basic and somewhat ugly. A number of cars are delivered, and a select one or two on the project look at the parts availability over the whole corporation. A series of parts are delivered within a week to the facility and some serious thinking is done looking, at all components. Work commences and evolves in an organic way.
I have been the crisis manager on similar projects for Asian automakers. Big wooden boxes would be airlifted from Japan or Korea, along with (in one case) a team of three Korean workers from their companies’ vocational training school; this was their commitment to getting it right. I suspect, however, that these projects were launched mostly to avoid a career ending loss of face.
A seriously competitive (production and Le Mans) 2016 Viper could be achieved if a serious program is executed, but it can’t be done within the current corporate structure, due to the endmic roadblocks of “not invented here” and “but Viper must have this!”
It’s a tall order, or in miserable corporate parlance a “stretch goal,” but this truly has merit for the company and marque’s image and success. It’s a worthy challenge to salvage a heritage, many careers, and assembly jobs in hard-pressed downtown MoTown — to say, “Yes, we can get things done ‘double lively.’”