The First Dodge Viper Is A Brutal Bargain
Story by Dave Novak
This Affordable Classic article originally ran in the August 2013 Sports Car Market issue. Since then Dodge Viper RT/10 prices have risen, but not substantially. With just an average increase of $3k since publication, RT/10 Vipers still represent a great buy.
When you mention Affordable Classic, it’s unlikely that the first generation Dodge Viper RT/10 pops into many minds. But with prices starting in the mid-$20k range for a decent driver example, I believe that most performance-hungry buyers agree that a Dodge Viper RT/10 is a ton of car for the money.
We shall set our sights on the first generation of this brutal roadster. Those built from the introduction year, 1992, through the last year of the first-generation body style, which ended in mid 1996—or by some enthusiasts’ standards — in 1995.
Inspiration From A Famous Snake
If you ever wondered whether the original Shelby Cobra inspired the Viper RT/10, you’re right. The idea was born in 1988 during a five-minute discussion between Chrysler President Robert A. Lutz and Chief of Design Tom Gale.
Gale recalls Lutz suggesting that Chrysler kick off a project like the original Shelby Cobra. “That was our intent right from the beginning,” Gale said.
What Lutz had in mind was a modern supercar, inspired by his pal Carroll Shelby and the original 427 Cobra—but one with a modern engine management system, sophisticated transmission and a computer-aided suspension design that would take advantage of modern high-performance tires. At the same time, Lutz and his team wanted the new machine to be austere, lacking any creature comforts. Luxury (and power-robbing accessories) didn’t belong in single-purpose design. They wanted to resurrect the spirit of the original street-pounding Shelby Cobra, and, remarkably, they did it.
The prototype was first tested in January 1989, and the first pre-production model whetted our appetites as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500. Carroll Shelby was tapped to drive the car around the Brickyard, which was a brilliant marketing move—as it solidified the intent of the machine as a brutal two-seater with massive horsepower. Chrysler’s brilliant marketing whipped up the notion that the spirit of the Cobra could once again terrorize boulevards across the United States.
Let’s Put A Big Engine In It
Chrysler already had the engine, a massive 10-cylinder beast that was used in their truck lines. Problem was, engineers needed it to be lighter—and to massage the horsepower without radically modifying the design, which is costly.
At the time, Chrysler owned Lamborghini, and the boys in Sant’Agata Bolognese knew a thing or two about going fast. Lamborghini engineers cast the engine block and heads in aluminum alloy. The original thought was to alter the heads to a more sophisticated four-valves-per-cylinder design, but cost evaluations kept the blueprint at two valves with a standard pushrod build.
Still, the 8-liter beast was ready for duty, hitting the scales at 711 pounds and producing 400 horsepower and 465 foot-pounds of torque. Not bad for a time when performance cars were choked under the grip of fuel economy regulations, bureaucrats and complicated emissions systems.
Fast, Brutal And Crude
The resulting Viper was a hit. Orders poured in, and performance-hungry buyers lined up with checkbooks for the privilege of first dibs. Some pundits said the build was crude, overly sparse, and lacked any reasonable creature comforts—it didn’t even come with outside door handles, glass side windows or a hard roof.
But few people cared about all that.
The Viper was a purpose-built weapon—made for sitting down, shutting up, and hanging on. It wasn’t really about anything else. It was a car that was designed to give modern gearheads an opportunity to buy a factory-built rocket, one that would go fast (try zero to 100 and back to zero in 15 seconds or less), and stick to the road like pine sap in your hair.
The Viper got the job done. In the performance department, the RT/10 covered a straight line in 12.6 seconds in the quarter mile. It also could reach a top speed of 160-plus mph and contort your face in the skid pad with close to one lateral g in the corners. This was truly a genuine supercar that was within the financial reach for plenty of middle-aged, slightly balding men yearning to relive their youth.
The Good, The Bad, And The Good Again
There’s not all that much to complain about with a first-gen Viper.
Guys who have owned one from new told me that very few parts have failed, and that when something does break, it’s relatively inexpensive to repair. Yes, the steamroller-sized tires are expensive, and any major repair will ding your checkbook — as it will for just about any performance car.
But, even considering the blistering street specs, these are utilitarian cars that are based on generally simple technology. It’s a supercar by the performance specs —but not by the maintenance and repair hoops. In short, you’re not going to get handed a $10,000 routine service invoice like you will with a Ferrari or Lamborghini. Like a Corvette, these are fairly simple machines, and access to components under the hood is very good.
The bad news is the plastic parts can crack and fade, and the build quality is questionable, especially for the early cars. Otherwise, the cars are fairly bulletproof, which is good news for guys who want to actually pound on one rather than gaze at it in their garage.
A good friend of mine who deals in these cars told me Vipers are perhaps the best bang-for-your-buck powerhouse of an American-built muscle car you can buy. He’s owned two and bought and sold dozens of them over the years. Here’s what he had to say about the early Dodge Viper RT/10:
“I lost two cloth tops going too fast. They were sucked off the car and went flying. I think that might be why the cloth tops are so rare to be found with the car. The side pipes were a treat. I still have burn marks on my legs from getting in and out of the car. But that being said, the cars are so pure. A lot of cheap plastic, but you had to love the simplicity of the design. I beat the daylights out of them and never had any real issues. The Borg-Warner T65 6-speed manual transmission was great, especially if you installed the short-throw shifter. The motor was so big I guess it was difficult to strain it. The Viper was the only car I really missed after I sold it. Putting that car through its paces was absolute pleasure, and you knew, unlike with most high-performance cars, it was not going to punish you financially for doing so.” — Bill Niessen, Prowler Heaven, Pompano Beach, FL
A Great Car At A Great Price
The market for these cars—again, only speaking about the 1992–96 models—may be ripe for the picking. The introduction-year Vipers, which are fairly scarce, can be found for $35,000 to $45,000 for a decent example.
We’re not talking about “wrapper” cars, those that have been mothballed so a guy can presumably bankroll his kid’s college education, but nice drivers with low miles and great documentation. For the balance of the production years (1993–96), buyers can hunt one down starting in the mid-$20k range. That’s a whole lot of car for the money, especially one that won’t give you much grief and agita. It’s unlikely that you’ll see these cars deflate much further—with the exception of those that have been pounded to death. A quick search of the SCM Platinum Auction Database found six 2013 sales with an average price of $36,600. The highest sale was for a 1994 RT/10 that sold for $57,200. The bargain of the bunch came in at $25,145 for a 1996 model.
Most of us simply can’t afford to own an original CSX Cobra, which is why the re-productions (kits) are so popular. They allow guys to experience the facsimile of Shelby’s machine at an affordable price. The Dodge Viper RT/10 may just be the closest thing to it in a factory-production car. Given the styling, outrageous performance and value, these halo cars truly are an affordable classic—and one of the purest muscle cars (or supercars) you’re ever likely to own.
Years produced: 1992–96
Number built: 5,676 (U.S.-spec models)
Original MSRP: $50,700
Pros: Uncompromising power and bulletproof performance at a bargain price.
Cons: Fantastic plastic can fade and break. Don’t drive this car if rain is in the forecast.
Best place to drive one: Anywhere you can find plenty of open road, light traffic and few police officers.
A typical owner: Would never sit in a Prius.
Alternatives: 1992–95 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1,1996–2001 Dodge Viper GTS, 2002–03 Corvette Z06
SCM Investment Grade: B