The Garage has returned from a fantastic 2012 New York Auto Show, and without a doubt the introduction of the highly anticipated 2013 SRT Viper would be the highlight of the show. And yes, you read that right, it’s an SRT, not a Dodge. The Viper has been a remarkable car for the image and credibility of Chrysler on and off the track, and as Chrysler faced bankruptcy, the Viper was essentially put up for sale. With that in mind, it was miraculous that Ralph Gilles, CEO of SRT, was able to show us a new Viper at all.
I’ve been reading about Ralph Gilles for years. Born in New York City and raised in Quebec, Ralph has been a Chrysler man for twenty years as a designer-credits include the very successful Chrysler 300. But if the Viper has someone to put a face to, it is Ralph Gilles. It is his baby, and his passion and commitment to the Viper has been outstanding. If you think the automotive greats who were passionate about supercars-Enzo Ferrari, Ferrucio Lamborghini, as I stood in the Javits Center to a packed room, stone silent hanging on every word, Mr. Gilles seemed the pioneer and hero of the Viper cause. Yet after a morning of press conferences with men dressed to the nines in custom tailored suits, Mr. Gilles, dressed in jeans, black Detroit (in Ferrari font) t-shirt and sport coat was causal, excited, easy with himself. This is a guy you’d like to take out for a beer.
But, forgive me-what about the Viper? In considering the new Viper, SRT did consider using platforms from it’s Italian parent, Fiat, but none seem to fit the right proportions SRT wanted. So SRT took the old Viper’s chassis and completely re-engineered it, utilizing technologies that did not exist before. The result is a lighter and stiffer structure. Extensive use of carbon fiber body panels make the 2013 Viper the lightest one ever made. Motivation for the Viper comes from an 8.4L V-10 rated at 640hp, with 600 lb. ft. of torque, the most amount of torque for a naturally aspirated engine available. The Viper has a 4.91 horsepower to weight ratio, putting it just behind the Bugatti Veyron and Ferrari F12. In layman’s terms, that means the Viper is going to terrifyingly fast, as it should be.
When the Dodge Viper debuted in 1992, it made no apologies for being a brutal, spartan sports car. It was essentially the modern interpretation of the Shelby Cobra. The purpose was to go as fast as possible, not to be pampered. With the new Viper, all that changes. Mr. Gilles admitted Vipers of the past had a reputation for kit-car quality interiors. Chrysler had taken mass-production car techniques to build a low-volume car, and for that the Viper had its share of detractors. In working with Maserati and Ferrari, the people at SRT learned how to make the Viper’s interior right. The Viper will be offered in two trim levels. The SRT Viper will cater to the hardcore Viper enthusiast with a minimal amount of creature comforts, while the SRT Viper GTS will offer drivers a more cosseting driving experience to put it on par with the competition.
At the press conference for the Viper, you could hear a pin drop except for Ralph Gilles talking to us about the Viper and its remarkable resurrection. With TV crews and a few hundred journalists dying to see a car that was miraculously never leaked, Ralph Gilles shared with us a poignant quote from the man who makes the decisions for Chrysler: Sergio Marchionne.
“There are times when you are given the opportunity to give life to something which is so beautiful and unique, so just and equitable, that you pay a lot less attention to the numbers, to the financial reality that surrounds it.
And so I leave you with this.”
And with that, Mr. Marchionne gave life back to the Viper. Mr. Gilles had walked off-stage, and as the room dimmed, and music pounding, from a wall about 15′ away from me the 2013 SRT Viper fired up. Even at that distance I could physically feel the bark and loudness of the Viper go right through me. It was a beautiful sound, and a great feeling. The SRT Viper GTS was literally lit up under under an endless torrent of flashbulbs as Mr. Gilles drove the car on stage. In watching video of the event today, Mr. Gilles is seen in the car, moved at the totality of the event, bowing his head in the cockpit of the Viper.
In a shocker, Mr. Gilles proceeded to show us footage of the new Viper in Microsoft’s Forza 4 racing game, toying that virtual racing was all on the table for now. While the footage played onscreen, another thunderous, even more violent Viper came to life-the SRT Viper GTS-R. Plans kept totally under wraps, the Viper GTS-R will race in the 2012 American LeMans race series. Fielding two cars, SRT currently has Dominick Farnbacher, Marc Goosens, Ryan Hunter-Raay and Kanu Wittmer contracted to race the Viper this season.
The close of the press conference was only the beginning of my day covering the Viper. I want to personally thank Lisa Barrow who takes care of Chrysler public relations on the east coast for inviting me to the SRT Viper Gala held in Soho that evening. The event was held for members of the Viper Club specifically. Arriving at Skylight Soho I was greeted with SRT’s other offerings on the street. That night I was a spectator at an event tailored for the truly dedicated Viper owners.
Ralph Gilles was again onhand to unveil the Viper not to the media this time, but to the people who buy Vipers. Playing again to a packed room, when Mr. Gilles took the mike, as a journalist I expected silence. Did not happen. About half the crowd was gathered around the stage listening intently as he rehashed his speech at the show, but the other half seemed to have cared less and talked loudly. Repeated shouts from the crowd for everyone to quiet down, and earnest attempts from Mr. Gilles himself were seemingly ignored. SRT was donating a considerable amount of money to local charities that night, and the crowd’s disrespect at letting these people who have been through hell and back have their say left a bitter taste in my mouth.
At the event, there was a lot going on. There was a silent auction for original artwork for the Viper, and a live auction for other Viper related items. On display was the mock-up concept for the Viper, the Dodge Viper GTS-R that won its class at LeMans in 1997, and the very first 1989 Dodge Viper concept car, which I admit looked pretty rough. After enjoying delicious food and premier beer, I scooted outside to call and wish my six-year old son goodnight, telling my wife I just needed to shoot pics of the original Viper concept, and then I would head home.
After a grueling day at the auto show, I sat down on a couch to finish my Brooklyn Lager, when I met Bob, a Viper owner. I ended up staying an extra hour speaking to Bob, and hearing from a man who is passionate about the Viper provided some terrific insight. Bob is a doctor from Arizona, and has been on the Viper bandwagon from the start-he has 0wned eight in total. Bob fits the profile of what I expected a Viper owner to be-this is a supercar, afterall, so you have to have the spare change to afford a the Viper as a second or third car. With a thriving practice, Bob fell in love with the looks of the first Viper and has been hooked ever since.
Interestingly, Bob had never owned an exotic or a sports car prior to the Viper, and he never cross-shopped any of the European competition. Bob relishes and exercises his Vipers to their potential, and has gone on 2,000 mile trips in them. His dedication to the Viper is remarkable, and in talking to him it comes as no shock to me he took the time and money to witness the reveal of the 2013 SRT Viper.
But as a hardcore Viper owner, I had my own questions for him. Mainly, I wanted to know how he felt about all the interior refinements. The Viper sort of wore a badge of pride for being so basic, so with that in mind I wanted to hear how Bob felt about such a leap forward. His take was very practical. In essence, for the Viper to remain viable, it has to appeal to a larger audience. He knows Viper fans have their core fans, but in order to sustain the Viper, interior refinements was the right way to go.
I told Bob my biggest regret was that SRT did not let anyone hear the Viper. As I was about to leave, Ralph Gilles corrected that. He fired up the Viper GTS, then shut it down. The crowd, egging him on, jumped into the GTS-R for a wondrous thunder from the V-10. Welcome back, Viper.