Today’s car was inspired by yesterday's news that Chrysler would no longer support its Viper racing program.
On my personal facebook, I noted that, if you were comparing press coverage, the Chrysler marketing team would have the tools at their disposal to notice that mentions for the word "Hellcat" have probably earned as much press in an hour after its reveal than they would have received after a decade of racing the Viper.
Let me explain.
Dodge doesn’t do sports cars. Until the Viper, you could argue that the company has never made a “proper” sports or grand touring car before. Sure, Chrysler and its subsidiaries were very active during the muscle car years, but Chevrolet had the Corvette and Ford had the GT40, followed by decades of Mustang, Escort, and other race cars.
While Bob Lutz had his wish of getting a halo sports car to cement Chrysler's course as the new, hot, American automaker, a course that would result in the company's "merger" with Daimler, internally Chrysler had its wish of a project to figure out how to build a car inexpensively. That’s what the Viper was: a lesson in doing something on the cheap.
It was an obsession carried forward as the company was working to shake off the last decade of K-Cars, radically simplify their range and introduce something new to the market, which would first be the cab forward 1993 Dodge Intrepid—that Ford, Hyundai, Kia, and others have since copied to great success with their latest generation of sedans.
Design and perception are strong forces: in 1995, the Neon, Stratus, and Avenger hit the market, and everyone acted like they forgot about K.
According to Allpar, “…the Viper’s public goal (of showing they were still the best at building a low-cost vehicle of any type, and beating the (original Shelby) Cobra’s 0-100-0 times to achieve that) was secondary to its private goal — to see if Chrysler really could develop new methods to lower vehicle cost. For that reason, it was originally intended only to last through 1997, at which point it would be replaced by a completely new vehicle.”
The first Viper was supposed to last just five years on the market, but the company kept it on sale for a decade. And when “redesigning” the car for the first time, they relied upon owner feedback to justify building the car that they wanted to: a European sports car-beating, Nurburgring-crushing V10-powered monster.
Even the latest car is more of the same, even as sales post-recession (or, uh, in this recession) are less than half of what they once were. Despite introducing a vastly improved car in 2013, there were only 591 sold in the U.S. In contrast, from 2002-2006, the company never sold fewer than 1455 Vipers each year, with a high of 2103 in 2003.
So what gives? Why aren’t buyers fighting to acquire the ultimate piece of suburban garage jewelry?
The enthusiast market is shrinking because enthusiasts are becoming more and more mainstream. I have zero demographic data (or data of any kind) to back this up, but it seems as though as the middle class gets hollowed out there are more ultra-expensive sports cars (and variants of them) than ever before, with fewer “middle-class” sports cars models.
Increasingly, the sporty, enthusiast-focused versions of vehicles tend to be variations on a mainstream car. My Fiat Abarth is a great example: looks to impress Posh Spice and a drivetrain that makes rude noises and affords me the chance to talk about THE TURBO UNDER THE HOOD.
For dedicated sports cars—I refuse to count the Camaro and Mustang because they may go like sports cars but aren’t bought exclusively by enthusiasts—the market starts at the Toyota FT-86…uh…BRZ-whatever, then (kind of includes) the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, heads to the Mazda Miata, then the Nissan 370Z…and then you’re into BMW Z4 / Porsche Boxster money.
Pretty much everything else is just a hot version of something normal, from the Audi RS cars to BMW M models to the much-loved Fiesta ST.
I think it’s because automakers realized that the enthusiasm for a particular vehicle always trumps the enthusiasm for a mythical set of “car enthusiast rules” where manual transmissions are the only transmission and rear-drive cars have to be hooned like it’s Jeremy Clarkson’s last day on earth.
Why are Viper sales soft even though the car is better than ever? Because everyone who wanted a Viper now has one, and the “Viper enthusiast” has been replaced by the GT-R enthusiast or Porsche 911 GT3 enthusiast or whatever. There’s simply nothing new with the Viper, nothing to interest new buyers.
I ended yesterday’s quick Facebook post by saying, “Let's hope they notice that the Viper is a just a V8, sound deadening, and a few styling tweaks away from being a better AMG GT.”
That’s where I’d like to see the car go, and where I think it’d find success. But first, a quick look at the first and only Rinspeed Viper.
It’s easy to forget that upon its introduction, the Viper was extremely limited in production, only came in Red, and hit Europe nearly a decade later—after its first refresh in 1996. As early as 1993, however, companies like Rinspeed were trying to figure out how to import the car into Europe, while offering a vehicle more tailored to European tastes. Rinspeed creations tend to be extreme, but this Viper is one of the exceptions.
“Veleno” is the Italian word for poison, and I suppose besides the wild green paint is most notable for its Nitrous Oxide injection system, pushing power to 550 horsepower and torque to more than 600 lb-ft.
Styling was updated with a new body kit and striking rear roll hoop, plus larger O.Z. wheels and Pirelli P Zero tires.
Inside, Rinspeed treated the cockpit to a makeover with “Vinerus” material; a lightweight, waterproof artificial cloth used mainly for luggage. Yes, the Veleno had a set of fitted luggage. A new CD changer with steering wheel-mounted controls and a Nokia 121 mobile phone “weighing only 275 grams,” as Rinspeed was proud to mention, completed the changes.
I think Rinspeed had it right, way back in 1993: give enthusiasts something unique, fun to drive, and a little bit practical. But leave the NOS at home.