Escape From L.A. In A Dodge Viper
Photography by Michael Banovsky
It’s hot and I’m not used to it.
I’ve pulled off of Interstate 15 on the way back from Henderson, Nevada; everything here seems to be named to keep people indoors, hell, Death Valley is less than 100 miles away and I can’t imagine even a reticent corporate focus group would want to label it anything else.
Out here, it’s just me—a soon-to-be bright red Canadian—and an Adrenalin Red Dodge Viper SRT, a car I think many of you would agree is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis: sales were down enough last year to idle production, even though the latest model is objectively the fastest, most technologically advanced, and best-made.
Twenty-three years ago, this pet project debuted in just one color, Viper Red. In 2015, they’re offering 8,000. It has won major races, but factory racing support has ended. Is it a supercar? Grand tourer? Race car? Fashion statement? I know what the Viper was, but am unsure of what it is now.
I’m in the Mojave Desert and I’m studying the snake caught in my lens.
When handed the keys to the car, its handler said, “Have fun,” which is a faster way of saying both, “Wish it was me,” and, “Don’t crash.”
Have fun? In a Viper? In the middle of Los Angeles? “Have fun” while handing a child a soccer ball makes sense. Snaking a six hundred and forty-five horsepower car through the L.A.’s often decrepit concrete arteries is not fun—both have reputations, after all.
The keys are mine because of an email exchange with Dodge representatives, who were keen on my plan: to write and illustrate a story about the history and architecture of the city’s parking garages…with their $121,190 press car as my muse.
It would be a chance for me, I said, to show the car in a different way, far from the braggart, often shouty pages of car magazines. That story turned out well, but it was another email thread that caused me to drop everything and point its nose toward the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nevada.
I hope they don’t mind the extra 600 or so miles on its odometer—but at least I’ll now have enough time with the car to complete a review. Let’s go.
I don’t much care for numbers, but the Viper has always been defined by them.
Since development started in early 1989, it’s been through four major model changes under five different corporate owners. If I’m counting correctly, across both convertible and coupe, the car has also worn five different model names: RT/10, GTS, SRT-10, SRT10, and SRT Viper.
There have been three different snake logos on its snout: “Sneaky Pete,” “Fangs,” and the latest, “Stryker”. It even starred in 78 episodes of its own, forgettable, TV show named Viper.
Horsepower has increased from 400 in 1992 to 645 in 2015; weight varies by trim, but now sits at around 3,320 lbs (1505 kg); it’ll comfortably pull more than a lateral g in corners. Flat out, it runs 4 mph into the 200 club.
Make no mistake: the new Viper sounds like a race car and goes like a race car.
Only tracked in an official capacity since 1997, Vipers have taken three overall wins at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, two at the Spa(-Francorchamps) 24 Hours, and one at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Reviewers often say the car lags behind road-going rivals like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, Porsche 911 Turbo, and Audi R8 V10 in performance, but when Viper race cars are dialled in they tend to eat the competition for breakfast—something often forgotten in the face of rivals’ generous marketing budgets.
Marketing this hellion has always been a challenge. Unlike its rivals, the Viper has never enjoyed a stable corporate parent. The Chevrolet Corvette has been around so long it has its own museum. In the U.S., the Porsche 911 outsells the BMW 1-Series, Subaru BRZ, and Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Audi R8 has been marketed more than most Hollywood blockbusters, appearing in both Iron Man 1 and 3—not to mention in many more places, including its very own iOS game.
The Viper was given the cash to win its class at Le Mans and for its own TV show. Apart from a recent attempt at rekindling its racing glory, it seems as though motorsport is quickly becoming a hostile environment for a sports car with an enormous 10 cylinder engine.
Maybe the next will be a hybrid.
Merging onto the 405, “This car is audacious,” I said aloud in its cozy, chilled-to-seventy-one-degrees cabin. The Viper didn’t originally come with air conditioning. Or roof. Or windows. In 20 hours’ time, I’d see an original RT/10 at the Henderson Cars & Coffee, and marvel at how dire its insides looked. Seriously, the only car I’ve seen with a more depressing interior was in a Tatra T613. As a Czech car developed during the Cold War, I can understand why.
The first Viper was developed at a time when the company was trying to shake its bargain bin image after years of churning out millions of models designed around a single platform, the K. Chrysler had just bought Lamborghini, who helped to develop the car’s first 10-cylinder engine into a world-beater. Chrysler engineers then designed a fine chassis around its 8-litre heart.
In every measurable way—acceleration, handling, braking, you name it—the first Viper was the car to have if you wanted to scare the hooves off of a passing Prancing Horse. In doing so, your rival thankfully wouldn’t get a look at its fossil-like grey interior. That’s important: the RT/10s best feature remains the four white auxiliary gauges…mounted just above air vents borrowed from the Caravan.
Ironically, much of the improvement inside the new Viper comes from the parts it shares with the other, more economy-minded cars in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stable. In the first Viper, its cost-cutting, economy car roots were what held it back—now, its contemporary and useful touchscreen controls are shared with vehicles as diverse as the Dodge Dart and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Behind the steering wheel, there are volume control buttons that fall to hand like the ones in my 500 Abarth. And I’ve seen that switch for the adjustable pedals before…
I don’t say this as a negative—the Viper is better because of its shared parts. Fact is, any owner of a new supercar this side of a Pagani should volunteer the same.
The materials and finishes unique to this Viper GTS measure up to what upper crust enthusiasts now demand: supple leather, soft Alcantara, and a range of trim choices too extensive to cover here.
The agreement I signed didn’t restrict speeding per se, only: “I will operate the Vehicle(s) at all times in accordance with all applicable federal, state, and municipal laws…and will not operate the vehicle in a careless or reckless manner.”
On the way to Henderson, I endured about four hours of stop and go traffic on Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas before becoming impatient and ducking south onto Interstate 40. It added 20 miles onto the drive, but I hoped I could regain some time on the less crowded route. If it wasn’t for a very long train that stopped my progress, my average speed was such that I would have saved time.
Anyway, I was finally able to stretch its legs.
For 2015, the car has a revised sixth gear to both increase fuel economy and reduce engine noise at high speed. This overdrive is so long-legged that it seems unhappy being used at speeds of less than 90 mph (where it hovers around just 2,000 rpm). Curiously, at that speed other motorists hogging the left lane tended to accelerate and match my pace as if pilot fish traveling with a great white shark. Awfully flattering, mind you, but I prefer to travel alone.
Faster still, I find its slippery, downforce-making body keeps it composed and, importantly, its aggressive LED-trimmed snout seems to scare other drivers out of the left lane—where they shouldn’t be, anyway.
As many enthusiasts interested in purchasing a Viper claim it’s difficult to get a test drive at their local dealer, it’s probably best that I let it off its leash on these arrow-straight roads. If the Mojave Desert was a safe enough place for the U.S. government to test nuclear armaments at its Nevada Test Site, this triple-digit drive offers little to worry about.
The car? Didn’t break a sweat.
I made the trip at the invitation of Peter Brock, with whom I’d been casually exchanging emails for a few months. After writing about the stunning (and sadly forgotten) Hino Samurai, I received a note from him complimenting me on my story. When I featured it in my book, I sent him a copy, and since then have said I’d swing by the shop if I was ever in the area.
After flying to L.A., I sent a note that I’d be closer than usual and that if he was going to be near L.A. to let me know. “Well, Henderson, Nevada is only a few hours’ drive away,” he said, sealing Friday’s fate: I would take the Viper out of L.A., through the desert, and say hello to Brock myself.
As one of the first American designers to both understand and integrate aerodynamics into burly American race cars, his closed “Daytona” Shelby Cobra Coupe was nearly laughed out of the shop before netting Shelby American multiple GT class wins, the 1965 World Sportscar Championship, and 25 land speed records set at Bonneville. That first car, chassis CSX2287 is so significant to American racing history that it was the first entry in the Historic Vehicle Association’s National Historic Vehicle Registry and was the first vehicle to be recorded by the United States Secretary of the Interior Standards for Heritage Documentation—a feat filed at the Library of Congress.
But CSX2287 wasn’t always a national treasure. In a 2013 interview with Car and Driver, Brock said, “The salt chewed it up so bad that the headlights were falling out. Back at the shop, Carroll said to us, ‘Anyone wanna buy it for $800?’ We all turned it down.”
Without the Daytona Coupe—especially after seeing the two side-by-side—I get the impression that without Brock’s design there’d be no Viper coupe. As such, he’s uniquely qualified to comment on the car’s place in the world. Further, his daily driver is a Superformance Coupe, a brand-new component car better than the Shelby Daytona Coupe that he helped to develop years ago.
For Brock, it’s the fit and finish of the new car’s aluminum and composite bodywork that impresses most, and for a few minutes before dinner we played the game of spot-the-design-cue with his Superformance. Over the next few hours, we’d both occasionally pause when both were next to one another.
The original Viper RT/10 and Carroll Shelby, Brock’s old boss and, later, rival have an interesting history, with Shelby as one of the first four members recruited by Bob Lutz’ for his “Team Viper”—along with former Renault Formula 1 Technical Director François Castaing and Chrysler’s Chief of Design, Tom Gale.
Imagine the déjà vu a few years later in 1996 when Dodge decided to race the car and exactly followed Brock’s original recipe, simply grafting a roof onto the RT/10 and calling it the GTS.
Today, the worst thing about the Viper is how other enthusiasts talk about it online.
Let me get their protests out of the way now: It’s too expensive. It’s too squirrelly. It’s ugly. The Chevrolet Corvette is better. The Nissan GT-R is faster to 60. It’s not as pretty as the first generation RT/10. It should be a convertible. Dealerships are terrible. It’s a Dodge. It’s difficult to drive fast. It’s too unrefined. It’s only available with a manual transmission. It’s not built like a Porsche.
I could go on.
While I don’t defend years of renaming and relaunching the Viper—seriously, why isn’t it just called the Dodge Viper—I do defend its abilities. To start, how many of us are skilled enough to extract every ounce of performance from a Toyota Yaris, let alone a Viper? Yes, driving it on rough pavement rewards a light right foot and the use of a taller gear. Yes, driving it for six hours straight eventually starts to feel like sitting on top of a washing machine. Yes, it’s more expensive than many of us can afford.
Lest you think I’m blowing smoke to flatter Dodge because I got to drive the car over a weekend, I should state that when it’s my money on the table, I tend to prefer cars made for proletariats. So imagine my surprise when I measured fuel economy on a relaxing 85 mph-on-cruise run back to Los Angeles at 21 U.S. mpg—just a few points worse than my Fiat 500 Abarth with 1/4 the horsepower would return. Actually, its highway economy was about equal to what my Citroën 2CV would do in the city—a car with eight fewer cylinders and twenty-two times less power, traveling at 1/4 the speed. That’s progress.
I drove it everywhere but the race track, and it was an engaging companion. It didn’t protest when I steered it onto a desert dirt road for photos, or up six decks in Santa Monica parking garages. I understand that the Viper is not the world’s only performance car, but it’s hardly fair to ignore the facts: its interior is now a nice place to be. It’s comfortable to drive. People love seeing it on the road. It’s faster than all but the most elite hypercars. It has a surprisingly large trunk.
To me, judging the character of a car is simple: do I think about driving it when I’m not driving it? Over the hundreds of vehicles I’ve driven, it’s an exclusive club: the second-generation Ford Mustang Bullitt. Porsche 914 2.0-liter. ‘B7’-platform Audi RS4. Nissan Pao. Lancia Delta Integrale. Messerschmitt KR200. ‘R35’ Nissan GT-R. Citroën 2CV. Fiat 500 Abarth. Saab 9-3 Turbo X wagon. Tatra T700.
Writing this a few days after the car was whisked away, I add this car to my list. To me, it’s simple: all of the things we’re losing as enthusiasts is a core component in the Viper: a manual transmission, a normally-aspirated, large-displacement V10 engine, and styling inspired in both profile and spirit by the past.
Some may wish for the Viper to return to its bargain bin roots, but to do so would be to throw away the years of struggle that have forged a usable modern supercar inside a form first drawn in the ’60s. From Shelby and Brock in 1964 to Lutz’ “Team Viper” in 1989 and, recently, Ralph Gilles’ team for the current model, this snake’s lineage is a far from perfect—but still enviable—family tree.
As enthusiasts, we often linger on the past and worry about the future…at the expense of the present. Time spent with it in the Mojave has given me clarity: it looks like a race car, sounds like a race car, goes like a race car.
But most importantly, for those who often indulge in this sort of car: on a hot L.A. evening it will slink through a tight In-N-Out drive-through without complaint.