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Chris Theodore: creating the Viper and Prowler

interviewed by Marc Rozman, 2012

Chris Theodore was instrumental in several major projects in his time at Chrysler, including two "flagship" cars: Viper and Prowler.

Dodge Viper

Before I went to Highland Park, I got a call from Francois Castaing. I was working on the V10 for the Ram truck, and Francois said that Lutz was thinking about doing a sports car. He called me up one day and said, "I want you to come down to the conference room and I want you to meet Carroll Shelby."

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I was really excited because I'd worked on some Shelby, the first time around. I'd worked on some successors to the Shelby, if you will. We built a Shelby Charger that we called the Super Turbo Daytona. We took the Lotus 3-valve heads, put them on a 2.5 liter four-cylinder motor, with a variable vane turbocharger. We were getting a 250 horsepower in a front-wheel drive car. It was a rocket. It never became a Shelby, but that was a fun project.

Anyway, the first time I met Carroll was when I went down to Francois' conference room and showed him the V10. John Kent was also there and showed him a frame that might be used for a sports car. And the V10 - I said if you're going to do a sports car, we've got to do an aluminum block version of it.

Carroll wasn't too keen on the V10. Carroll would have rather done a V8, and there were a lot of people in the Chrysler camp that wanted to do a Hemi-powered Viper.

Lutz really wanted the V10 to distinguish the car, and Formula 1 cars were all V10 at the time. Chrysler also owned Lamborghini, and we wanted to do an aluminum block. Francois had met Mauro Forghieri at Lamborghini, who was a fabulous engineer and one of the all-time greats at Ferrari. He was the guy that invented the rear spoiler on the GTO and the transverse transaxle on the 312T Formula 1 car.

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The guy was a genius, but he was kind of past his prime. But he had all developed the Lamborghini Formula 1 engine, so we decided to try him out on the aluminum block V10. Mauro took a crack at doing the engine. Meanwhile, Roy Sjoberg was head of the Viper team and of course I provided Dick Winkle and the performance dyno services to the Viper team so they could get going. Mauro designed the first V10, but it had short water jackets and Formula 1 cooling distribution, and nothing worked. It was a disaster.

One of the guys I put on the Viper team, he later passed away, he ended up straightening the Viper engine out, and we supported the Viper program. Anyway, that was somewhere in-between there.

Viper was running under the Small Platform Car team at the time. It got rolled into Small Car under Bob Marcel and John Fernandez, and then we did the Prowler show car and that was put under the minivan team.

Plymouth Prowler

When I saw the I said Prowler, I asked Francois to let me develop it. He asked, "What does that have to do with minivans?"

I said nothing but one thing we learned, when we set Viper off as a separate team, is that you still need what I call coffee break support from the main organization. The guys didn't have all the resources to do it themselves.

I said, "If I put a team within a team, I'll make sure that the 700 guys on the minivan team provide all the coffee break support the Prowler team needs."

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So we asked Craig Love to be head of Prowler. He agreed, and it took a while to convince everybody to do Prowler. Prowler was supposed to be a technology test bed for aluminum.

So we set up that little team-within-a-team differently. We selected what I call the dirty dozen. Some of the best, most cantankerous engineers in Chrysler. Craig Love's job was to keep them from killing each other! We had talented guys like Jon Rasbach on chassis and Bob Holdreth on the body.

The Prowler and it was a great learning experience. Yeah, I wish we had a bigger transaxle that could have taken the torque of a V8, but we didn't at the time.

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As for Small Car, we combined the Prowler team and the Viper teams under John Fernandez. We did the coupe, and we had the race program going, which was fabulous. I was at LeMans for the Viper's second year as an entrant to watch the race and learn. We had the fastest cars and we were leading the race.

About 2AM the lead car comes into the pits while our other car is in third place. The lead car's rear differential was cooked. "Okay, we'll just replace the differential." Well, it took two hours to get the differential out of the car!

Now Porsche is in first place, and the other Viper is closing in, but it develops an electrical problem and it comes into the pits goes into the garage, and they can't diagnose what's going wrong. Finally the car with the new differential gets back on the track and starts to chase down the Porsche, but time is running out. It's about 3 or 4 in the morning and the Porsche blows its turbo and I think: "Great, we're going to catch them."

The Porsche races into the pits, but doesn't go into the garage. They changed the turbo in the pits wearing Nomex mittens! A hot turbo. And they were out of the pits in 11 minutes!

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Obviously we lost that year. When we got back to the states, Neil Hannemann was running the Viper race team and we had a debrief. I said, "Guys, two things we're going to do next year: One of them is we're going to design this car so it can be serviced, because this is an endurance race, not a sprint. Secondly, we're going to have complete diagnostic procedures in place for all the electronics."

The next year we did go back and that was the first of the three consecutive wins at LeMans. That was fantastic.

It made a good presence just being there, it didn't show well, but people liked it.

And the Europeans loved it. I mean the French loved the Viper. And that was Francois' baby doing the GT-R. People laughed when we introduced it and it was a great success.

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It was the American version of the European sports car.

But if you watched the French - and the Brits all go to LeMans - they all cheered every time the Viper came around. It was just fabulous.

When it came time to do the second-generation Viper, I wanted to do mid-engine car. We took two runs at it - Lutz and Castaing were in agreement - but there were others that didn't and we ended up with the second generation Viper, which was more refined, but lost some of the sex appeal of the original.

Chris Theodore, Chrysler engineer and car development leader

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