With the public debut of the 2013 SRT Viper scheduled for the New York auto show, we’ve scoured the Autoweek archives to bring you some classic Viper stories from our past. For exclusive Viper Week content, including the latest news as it happens, check out Autoweek’s Viper Week.
By Mark Vaughn, originally published in Autoweek 04/09/2001.
500/500/500-you remember those figures from the new Viper’s introduction at the Detroit show. More specifically, that’s 500 horsepower and 500 lb-ft of torque coming from a 500-cubic-inch V10. Those are the numbers the world is waiting to experience in the 2003 Viper, which goes into production a little over a year from now. Nice, round figures that reel the mind and fry the imagination. In a world where 400 hp is considered pretty good for your average semi-supercar (BMW Z8, Ferrari 360, Porsche Turbo), the new Viper will be more powerful by a long stretch of quarter-mile.
How did the Viper team come up with such a lofty performance goal? Surely the designers had some high-minded concept when they aimed at these targets, some technically complex engineering formula? As they say in Hollywood, what was their motivation? To find out, we asked the man with the longest title we could find in all of DaimlerChrysler, Herb Helbig, senior manager, vehicle synthesis for specialty vehicles engineering/Team Viper. We expected an answer so complex it would be presented in binary code, with lots of x and y axes and little arrows pointing at strange-looking diagrams of Greek letters in lower case, then transferred onto a floppy and analyzed by a Cray supercomputer. We braced our brains, then he said, “We thought it would be real cool.”
Turns out it wasn’t all that hard to do. The current Viper already makes 450 hp and 490 lb-ft of torque. From there it was just a matter of tweaking and tuning.
“We did a lot of the traditional hot rodding tricks,” said Helbig.
Like his colleagues in the engineering group, Helbig is a self-admitted lifetime hot rodder, and he knows hot-rodding tricks. While growing up he street-raced ’56 and ’57 Corvettes of his own making. He also had a flathead Hi-Boy roadster and has run on the dry lakes, setting a record of 180 mph at Muroc in a Viper Coupe in 1998.
“I live, eat and sleep hot rods,” he said. “The only thing I ever wanted to do was go to Detroit and build hot rods.”
He knows the top speed of the current Viper is 176 mph, because he drove it that fast at the proving grounds.
Yet the Viper project wasn’t just about power.
“The key to doing this whole thing is to get the emissions legal and still get the horsepower and torque up to those figures.”
It was a balance-monster horsepower and the California Air Resources Board. So the engineers took the current aluminum V10 and made changes to the cylinder head airflow, the intake and exhaust, and the cam timing. Exactly what changes, Helbig isn’t saying. He wants something left over for the car’s introduction next spring. The most obvious change to the engine is the increase in displacement. Engineers stroked and bored the cylinders to bump displacement from 8.0 to 8.3 liters.
“The cubic inches speak for themselves,” said Helbig. “The engine architecture hasn’t changed drastically.”
We do know that the redline goes up from 6200 rpm on the current car to 6500 on the 2003. The speedometer tops out at 220 mph. And the 500-hp figure is called “conservative” in a quote by a Chrysler exec in the Viper press kit. So it might be even more of a beast when it rolls into showrooms in late spring/early summer 2002.
Handling all that power is a chassis very similar to the current Viper, a steel space frame carrying unequal-length upper and lower aluminum A-arms at all four corners, matched with coil-over shocks.
“There are differences [between old and new],” said Helbig, but he didn’t say exactly what they were.
The most obvious difference is that the new convertible chassis does without the stiffening qualities inherent in the current coupe’s roof and current roadster’s “sport bar.” Despite the convertible design, the new model will be stiffer than the old.
“We did a lot of computer work in designing the new chassis,” said Helbig. “Our position was we were going to leave no stone unturned; we looked at every piece of the chassis, as well as localized stiffness of the suspension, and we’re significantly stiffer than the old car.”
The new top was done in conjunction with Dura, the same company that did the top on the Prowler. It stows under a solid rear decklid that clamshells backward for access. The top is manual, and therefore lightweight, and fastens onto the windshield header with one clamp in the middle.
When the top is up it almost looks like a Jag convertible. When it’s stowed, from the rear three-quarter view, it looks like a stretched Honda S2000. From a sharper rear three-quarter view, it almost looks like a Corvette L88, what with the rear decklid higher than the hood and side window sills.
If you like it, credit Osam Shikado, the designer who penned the GTSR concept car last year (AW, Jan. 17, 2000). As often happens with these things, the concept car was designed after the production car program was signed off, because concept cars have fewer requirements to meet.
“The concept car is just one model, it doesn’t have to meet any crash tests or other governmental requirements,” said Shikado. “With the production car, everything has to be feasible and reliable. The concept is just a free sketch.”
There are elements common to both concept and production car, though. The door is almost the same and the rear fender uses the same “design cue.”
“Almost every design vocabulary is the same, but the new one is more sophisticated,” said Shikado. “I used more crisp lines on the fender, the top of the body sides and also the side gill.”
The 10 slits on the hood and all the other air openings are functional, though not directly routed to intakes or radiators. The front grille opening is larger to get more cooling air through the radiators and into the engine bay. To get that air out, Shikado added the slits at the top of the hood and kept the gill slits at the sides.
Helbig says that helps make the new car more stable and gives it a lower coefficient of drag than the old car.
Stability is also helped by a longer wheelbase, 100 inches vs. 96.2. The new car is longer overall, and wider and higher. Inside, that means more room for the occupants, particularly legroom. The pedals are no longer offset but still adjust fore and aft; there’s even a dead pedal.
Ultimately, it is more comfortable than the old car, easier to get in and out of. But that is almost incidental. The main point of the new Viper is clear.
“We expect the car to be more of a hoot, more of a rush, more of a testosterone thrill ride than the old one,” said Helbig. “I’m what’s called the keeper of the Holy Grail. I guard the sanctity of the car so it doesn’t stray from being the absolute best performance car on the planet. We are committed to making sure the car lays to waste any pretenders.”