The Dodge Viper began as a twinkle in his eye. In 1988, Robert Lutz, then president of Chrysler Motors Corp., envisioned a two-seat roadster with a mammoth V-10 engine. Its style would capture the essence of the Shelby Cobra of the 1960s.
The inspiration came to Lutz as he was driving his 1985 Autokraft Mk IV Cobra, a re-creation of the Shelby Cobra, one warm Michigan weekend. The following Monday, he had Chrysler designer Tom Gale begin some sketches.
Lutz's vision soon became reality, first as an eye-popping concept car unveiled at the 1989 Detroit auto show, and then as a production model in mid-1992.
Lutz wanted to show with the Viper that Chrysler Corp. could design and build a sports car that could evoke passion. He wanted the world to know that Chrysler had more up its sleeve than just K cars.
The Viper became far more than Lutz ever dreamed of on that weekend in 1988. It became the symbol of the dramatic rebirth of Chrysler Corp. in the 1990s.
The Viper was the first step. Then came the LH large sedans, the bold Ram pickup, the spunky little Neon and the Plymouth Prowler. That remaking of the company ultimately led Chrysler down the merger path with Daimler-Benz AG in 1998.
Lutz was vice chairman of Chrysler Corp. when he retired last year, before the merger was consummated. Now he is CEO of Exide Corp., a major battery supplier to DaimlerChrysler.
The development of the Viper is dear to Lutz, and he devotes a chapter to the sports car in his book Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World's Hottest Car Company.
Lutz spoke with Staff Reporter Ralph Kisiel this month about the Viper and its place in Chrysler history. Edited excerpts follow.
In what environment was the decision made to create the Viper?
We had the minivans that were a source of profitability, and we had the Jeep Cherokee. Everything else was either not profitable or not significantly profitable. So there was this environment of a lack of faith in Chrysler, a lack of confidence in Chrysler's engineering.
We were beginning to be criticized for doing endless variations off the K platform. The engineering reputation was really heading for the tank. We just had zero credibility with the enthusiast publications, which, in turn, was eroding our credibility with the financial institutions.
How did you respond to that eroding credibility?
The Grand Cherokee was coming, the Ram pickup already existed in clay model and was in clinic testing. The LH family (of large sedans) was pretty much being finalized. So we knew what all was coming.
But how do you tell the rest of the world without showing it all to them? One of the ways we did that, of course, was by starting to do really, really exciting show cars. And that at least showed that we weren't brain dead from a styling standpoint.
How did you initially conceive the Viper?
One afternoon, I was driving my Autokraft Cobra, and I felt somewhat guilty about enjoying that Ford heritage car. I thought, what a shame Chrysler doesn't have something like this. I thought, I'll bet if we look through our future parts bin, we could do two things: We could demonstrate some of the future hardware we've got coming, and we could do a Cobra-esque car. And I thought, holy smoke, why not?
Were you pleased with the 1989 show car and its reception?
It was just a sensational response, the kind of thing you don't get very often. That made it pretty easy for us to start studying production.
Was there any initial resistance from the bean counters or others?
Sure. I was torn myself. Two things were always under attack. One was the V-10 engine for the (Ram) pickup. And the other was the Viper. Of course, they were kind of related because if we didn't get the V-10 for the pickup, we wouldn't get the cast-iron version to do the aluminum version for Viper. So I really protected both programs.
People were sending letters with checks in them. I got one check for $60,000. The guy said, 'Here's my check for $60,000. I want a red one for me and a black one for my wife.'
Were there any major departures from original plans?
Francois (Castaing, vice president of vehicle engineering) and I had fought to keep the program very simple. The only departure we made from the simplicity of the program was to go with an aluminum engine instead of a cast iron engine. Initially, I had a tough time with that because it meant a departure from our very rigorous investment target.
We had said $50 million, and finance was sort of OK with $50 million. But then the aluminum engine added another $20 million. But Francois talked me into it, and I'm glad I listened because he was right. But every time we were confronted with our financial frailty, there was obviously a temptation to say, 'Do we really need this car?' We always managed to save it for another three months or another six months.
Is the Viper more than just a sports car?
The car became a living, breathing testimonial to the creative and engineering rebirth of Chrysler Corp. It was the only Chrysler product in the last 10 or 15 years, except for the minivan, that had received any kind of positive press and had triggered any visceral enthusiasm.
What was its impact on employees?
You can't forget the motivational effect that it had within the company. To the employees, the Viper became a symbol of how America kicks butt again.
How did the Viper change the way the public perceived Chrysler?
It just transformed the way the press looked at us. They even started liking the K cars better. It gave us credibility when we said to the analysts and to investors, 'Look, just bear with us, everything's going to be all right because the Viper is just the tip of the iceberg. Don't look at the Viper as a car, look at it as a symbol of our newfound creativity, our willingness to break out of the box, to do the unexpected, to adopt solutions that are different from everybody else's.'
So we were able to use the Viper as a vehicle to get a lot of Chrysler's message across.
Were there detractors within the company?
It was the first American car ever to retail at over $50,000. It's amazing, and I've encountered this in every company that I've worked for, that the sales and marketing guys often don't get it.
You would think they'd be the ones who would be the most enthusiastic about a thing like the Viper. All they are interested in is interfacing with dealers and moving iron. The easier it is to move, or the higher volume it is, or the more it's a clone of a competitor's car that's selling real well, the better they like it.
That's why most of them don't like anything exotic like a Viper because, from their perspective, it just complicates their lives.
How about the dealers?
At one point the Dodge dealers didn't want it. At a dealer council meeting they said, 'Can't we make this stupid thing go away? Why don't you use the money to get us the Ram pickup a couple of months earlier?'
I explained to them that that wasn't a trade-off. The Ram pickup was going to be introduced when it was going to be introduced, and having another $50 million available wasn't going to make it appear one day sooner.
Who in the company supported the Viper project?
All of the creative guys in the company wanted it, even some of the clear-thinking finance guys.
Was the Viper the prototype for the platform teams?
Yes and no. That's partly true, and it's the way we like to tell the story because the Viper came out before the LH. The Viper was the prototype for the extreme platform team with no bureaucracy, almost no paperwork and unconventional actions - almost violations of written rules to get the job done. But the LH platform team was inaugurated by Francois (Castaing) before we got going on the Viper.
Was the LH team able to learn from the Viper team?
Yes, absolutely. In terms of reducing steps and defining new ways of working with suppliers, I think the Viper team served an extremely useful prototype function.