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The 1989 Dodge Viper Prototype

Dodge Vipers

In 1989: The Plymouth Reliant was a huge seller, and Chrysler Corp’s final mass-produced rear-drive car was in its final year.

The first Viper concept debuted at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, before the car had been green-lighted; orders began to flow before the show ended, and the project was approved.

The first major prototype was built in late 1989; labelled VM01, it used Chrysler’s biggest surviving V8 engine, the 360, still used in trucks. The basic design of that engine went back many years, with some linking it to the company’s very first V8s.

Viper mule

The second major prototype, dubbed VM02, was powered by a cast iron V10, designed for trucks, which had been created from the 360. Chrysler tapped Lambourghini (partly Chrysler-owned at the time) for help on the cooling system, crankshaft balance, weight reduction, and fine tuning. The Viper’s aluminum block saved roughly 150 pounds of weight over the truck version.


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.

The Viper’s public goal was 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. Bob Sheaves wrote that was secondary to its private goal — to see if Chrysler really could use independent platform engineering teams to lower vehicle cost. The team leader sifted through scores of volunteers to find appropriate people.


The Viper was only supposed to last through 1997, at which point it would be replaced by a completely new car.


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.”

1989 viper prototype

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.

1991 prototype Dodge Viper

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.

Viper engine

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.

exposed pipes

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