By on July 1, 2016

Dodge Viper Conner Ave - Source: Ronnie Schreiber / The Truth About Cars

Some cars don’t die when they are discontinued. The tooling and intellectual property associated with those models are sometimes sold to automakers in the developing world. It’s not a new phenomenon. That’s more or less how the world got the Yugo. Fiat offloaded some of their aging gear to the then Eastern Bloc.

Fiat now owns Chrysler and the corporate entity known as FCA has announced that 2017 will be the final model year for the Viper. As part of his rapprochement with Iran, Pres. Obama’s administration has been encouraging American firms to do trade with that country, but I doubt that we’ll see a Khodro Viper anytime soon, or ever. However, if FCA head Sergio Marchionne was indeed willing to sell, I think it would be possible for a well-financed individual or a small group of dealers to keep the Viper alive here in America.

I believe it because something like that has happened before.

Nate Altman

Nate Altman

Nate Altman is one of my automotive heroes. With his partner Leo Newman, he ran a Studebaker dealership in Studebaker’s hometown of South Bend, Indiana. Because of proximity to so many loyal Studebaker employees, the Altmans’ shop was one of the biggest volume dealers for that brand.

When Studebaker was circling the drain and decided to discontinue production of the fiberglass bodied Avanti sports coupe, Altman and Newman bought the tooling, the remaining new-old stock of Avanti parts and part of the Studebaker factory to put the Avanti back into limited production as the Avanti II. Making just a few hundred cars a year allowed them to introduce the kind of bespoke personalization that’s now commonplace in the high-end of the automotive market. More important to car enthusiasts is that Altman was so successful at keeping the Avanti alive that it actually survived him after he died in 1976.

Nate Altman and an Avanti II

Nate Altman and an Avanti II

One reason Sergio Marchionne, the head of FCA, gave for killing off the Viper was that it shares almost nothing with any other of the company’s products. It has a unique platform and its V10 engine, derived from a Mopar truck engine, is only used for the one model.

While that may make the Viper a poor fit in FCA’s portfolio, it also makes the Viper a good candidate for the Nate Altman treatment, maybe even a better candidate than the Avanti was. The Avanti’s fiberglass body, designed by Tom Kellogg, Bob Andrews and John Ebstein of Raymond Loewy’s studio, may have looked ahead of its time, but it sat on a rather prosaic Studebaker Lark chassis with a drivetrain and other mechanical parts also shared with other Studebaker products. Nate Altman bought all of Studebaker’s stock of Avanti specific parts and as many chassis and other components as the company would sell him.

Eventually, Avanti Motors was constrained by the availability of those parts. Studebaker was still in the car business, after a fashion, when the Avanti II was introduced in 1965, but the Studebaker engine and transmission were replaced by a small block Chevy V8 and a Hydramatic transmission sourced from General Motors. Mechanically, though, the rest of the car was still mostly Studebaker, which created issues when they ran out of parts.

Keeping the Viper alive wouldn’t run into those issues. As mentioned, it shares almost no parts with other Chrysler vehicles. Just about everything comes to the Conner Ave Assembly Plant from vendors.

Dodge Viper Conner Ave - Source: Ronnie Schreiber / The Truth About Cars

The heart of the Viper is its famous V10 engine, which is assembled on-site in a dedicated assembly line at Conner. While it was derived from a 10-cylinder Chrysler truck engine, it shares no parts with those motors in current form that are still in production at Chrysler.

The Viper has a body-on-frame construction. The frame is manufactured by an outside vendor. All Chrysler does to it before assembly begins at Conner is run it through a robot that checks dimensions and punches a few holes. Body panels arrive already painted by a supplier whose shop is in suburban Detroit. That’s what has allowed Chrysler to offer the “one-of-one” customization option.

Parts and tooling aren’t all you need to build a car, though. You need a place to build it. Studebaker’s board of directors was hell bent on getting out of the car business (which was profitable, but apparently not profitable enough for the folks running what by then was a diversified corporation), so it wasn’t hard for Nate Altman and his partners to arrange the purchase of some of Studebaker’s many South Bend factories.

To keep the Viper in production, any buyer would likely have to acquire Conner Avenue Assembly (which is actually on Conner Street). Following the federal bailout of Chrysler and its acquisition by Fiat, production of the Viper was suspended in 2010. Before bringing back the Viper in 2012, the Conner facility was the recipient of millions of dollars worth of upgrades.

Dodge Viper Conner Ave - Source: Ronnie Schreiber / The Truth About Cars

The Conner facility has everything needed to assemble, test and validate Vipers, including a chassis dyno, a water leak test booth, and a four post shaker. It takes less than a hundred people to run the facility and build Vipers. The annual labor costs are reported to be about $11 million a year.

Obviously, any potential buyer would need pockets deep enough to cover labor and other operational costs. Someone with more financial expertise than I have would determine if a standalone Viper company could even break even at realistically anticipated sales volumes.

The Viper, the Conner factory, and the people who staff it are special. The people who assemble the Viper hand build a supercar that can go faster around tracks like the Nurburgring than cars that cost multiples of its price — and they do it in Detroit.

I don’t know exactly how many Vipers they sell, but Tomball Dodge in Tomball, Texas and Roanoke Dodge, in Roanoke, Illinois sell enough Vipers that the five special final editions of the Viper that FCA will produce will include the Viper Dealer ACR, available at only those two stores. Maybe I’ll send the principals of those dealerships some history on Nate Altman.

[Images: © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars]

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view over at Cars In Depth. – Thanks for reading – RJS

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56 Comments on “Could Someone Keep the Viper Alive?...”


  • avatar
    threeer

    While I have a special place in my heart for the Conner plant (I was allowed to drive my late father’s Dodge Ram right up to the Prowler assembly line to deliver tooling/gages for the front fender supports…too bad it was before cellphone cameras became so prevalent!) and the Viper, but I just don’t see it surviving after FCA kills it off. As has been alluded to in other articles, the public has spoken. Even with one-off “bespoke” variants that could be offered, I think the Viper has run its course. I’ve had the pleasure of being shot down the road in a first gen Viper and couldn’t wipe the smile from my face for the rest of the day, but cars like the Corvette handily outsell it. For the sake of Detroit (my wife’s hometown) and American manufacturing, not to mention automotive lore, I’d love to see it stay put. But I’m not betting on it.

  • avatar
    thalter

    It’s a different world. Nate Altman didn’t have to deal with crash tests, emission standards, electronics and software everywhere. Don’t see it happening.

  • avatar

    IF HE DIES…

    HE DIES…

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Have Shelby American (Carroll Shelby International) buy it all out. The Cobra was supposed to have been part of the inspiration for this.

  • avatar
    Speed3

    Just drop the V-10 in the Maserati Alfieri and throw a Viper badge on it. It would probably sell more anyway.

    Or even better make the next Viper a crossover with awd and an automatic. Is that what Sergio meant when he said he wanted to focus on crossovers and trucks?

  • avatar
    thattruthguy

    Auto production wasn’t remotely profitable for Studebaker by 1963. It was a dead, dead line of business with no way forward. Note that AMC already was declining by 1964 before the Abernethy plans kicked in, and AMC had the up to date products and factory that Stude didn’t.

    I can see two reasons that FCA wouldn’t sell the Viper: FCA will continue to sell products in the super sports car market, and Viper is part of the Chrysler/Mopar image and heritage. The name and image are the only valuable part of the business; there’s nothing stopping you from organizing a super sports car business that’s just like Viper except that there isn’t a big enough market for the Schreiber Brougham to make it pay.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    “Could Someone Keep the Viper Alive?”

    Well, last week I learned Meatloaf is still alive so why not this porker, too?

    Wow.. my new glasses look just like Mr. Altman’s!

  • avatar
    VoGo

    Just my opinion. The Viper is dying for lack of interest, because the nature of money has changed. A generation ago, there were plenty of 50+ year old men who had “made it” and could afford a $100K+ car to show off their nouveau riches. These are men who had started their own firm, like a tractor dealership, or a medical supplies distributor, or a restaurant.

    These days, that’s not how wealth is created. The people looking to buy a supercar aren’t interested in hairy chested V-10s. They want something that reflects how they made their money – in technology. They want an advanced hybrid — behind the driver– encapsulated in modern styling.

    They want a McLaren.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      You must live in some tech valley. Down here people get rich through being contractors. Making stuff. An $80K car purchase is gonna be something like a decked out pickup or a boat.

      Plus for the same money a Corvette is a much better car. Sadly people are not buying cars like this for the performance or driving experience… it’s just about the image, which is fine I guess. Viper has no image and is a complete PITA to live with compared to a Vette.

      And I am feeling like conformity is at an all time high… Viper is definitely a contrarian, outlandish choice. People aren’t that brave anymore.

      • 0 avatar
        Kenmore

        “People aren’t that brave anymore.”

        Or carelessly unmindful of their economic futures unless they’re already aware they haven’t got one.

        • 0 avatar
          Mandalorian

          The Viper is a relatively new nameplate to boot. Those who grew up lusting after a 911 or Corvette and have now “made it” are going to buy a 911 or Corvette, which offer automatics, are (possibly for the 911) less expensive, and most importantly FAR easier to live with and use.

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          How is a Viper any more financially reckless than a $100K S-Class, Escalade, Z06 etc? All car purchases in that price bracket are beyond the realm of reason. Problem with the Viper is manifold, but it basically boils down to being an outdated concept. When it was new it was outrageous, but now a chipped 3 series will keep up with it in a straight line on the street. And there are cars that are 95% as fast but 250% more livable and versatile at its price point.

          Sadly something like a JGC SRT8 is the new Viper.

          • 0 avatar
            Mandalorian

            Even fully loaded, an Escalade won’t touch $100k, neither will a Z06, neither will a mid-level S550. These cars are vastly different. The Escalade may be expensive, but it’s absurdly practical: it can tow a boat, carry many golf bags, and carry a family and their luggage. To a lot of people, it’s just a higher level Suburban. S-Class is practical too. Even a Z06 is a fine daily driver.

            Problem is the Viper is built for the track… And nothing else. Tiny cabin, no room for a few bags, hard ride, etc. Corvette (esp non-Z06) and many iterations of the 911 are softer and useable as daily drivers.

          • 0 avatar
            Kenmore

            “How is a Viper any more financially reckless than a $100K S-Class, Escalade..”

            Resale, for those with 4 doors.

            How many geriatric arrested-adolescents can take a Viper off your hands? And who else would want one?

          • 0 avatar
            golden2husky

            ….Even fully loaded, an Escalade won’t touch $100k, neither will a Z06, neither will a mid-level S550. These cars are vastly different…

            Do some people make up their facts instead of researching before they post? A well optioned Zo6 can easily top $110K…

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            Build out an S550. I’m not sure any exist with five digit bottom lines on their window stickers. Base price is $96,575 for a car that is intentionally configured to look like it needs better wheels and some trim. If you can get through the options list for less than $110K, you’re still going to notice stuff you’re missing every time you ride in your nanny’s RX350.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    The Viper is dying when it is not only because of low sales but an inability to meet new standards for side airbags in 2017. Apparently, extensive reengineering is required to get airbags in (I believe it, I’m not a big guy and my shoulders basically touch the doors in a Gen V). Unfortunately a deep pocketed buyer wouldn’t just be able to buy the plant/tooling, but would need a significant engineering effort as well. Sad as it is, I don’t see it happening.

    • 0 avatar
      ToddAtlasF1

      I think I read it was about there not being room for curtain airbags. This could be an excuse made by Fiat to avoid a backlash from fanatic customers.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    The carpetbagger Marchionne is King Midas in reverse – everything he touches turns to sh-t.

    • 0 avatar
      jthorner

      You must have missed the news that FCA just had its best June in 11 years. https://www.yahoo.com/news/fiat-chrysler-nissan-report-higher-june-u-sales-131556868–sector.html?ref=gs

    • 0 avatar
      tanooki2003

      Umm you need to stop with the childish hate blasting bandwagon. It just shows how uninformed you truly are in the world of cars. Marchionne had nothing to do with the low sales of the Viper. The Viper has been suffering a slow dying death and a lack of a fanbase way before FCA.

      The Viper was falling behind everyone else each year that hoes by. Nowadays there are far better supercar choices for the same money. Even me I would prefer to drop money in a Nissan GT-R or Audi RS8 before even considering a Viper.

      Like one commenter has mentioned, the Corvette is a much more livable car vs the Viper and the Corvette is more comfortable to use as a possible daily driver. The ride in a Viper is quite punishing. The only time it is rewarding is when you are flooring the accelerator.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    And the Saab name is still available. Hmmmm. “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!” shouted the Saab nerd as he pulled into the university faculty parking lot…

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Ever tightening safety, emissions and fuel economy standards make this idea a technical non-starter.

    Oh, and the market doesn’t really want new Vipers any more either :).

    There will always be plenty of Vipers around, many of them with hardly any miles on them, for the diehards to play with.

    Who would really buy a brand new Viper instead of a Corvette Z06 or Challenger Hellcat today?

    According to Autotrader, there are 35 brand new 2015 model year Vipers for sale in the US at dealers on their network. 2017 model year vehicles are already trickling into the market, and there are left overs from last year still gathering dust.

    The Viper is dead. Have a little service, cry a few tears and then bury it with dignity.

  • avatar
    Wizegui

    They really could rectify this by fitting the Hellcat drivetrain into the Viper. The 8 speed auto could really boost sales and they can still offer the 6 speed manual for the enthusiasts.

    • 0 avatar
      sportyaccordy

      Not really. The only sports cars thriving are the ones with high volume long standing legacies (Miata, Corvette, 911). Everything else is either truly exotic or just barely holding on. Viper doesn’t have the cachet of even an R8, let alone a 911, but it’s way too expensive for someone looking for an upgrade to their 370Z. It’s dead

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I’ve seen an Avanti on the road once or twice; not like they blend in anywhere. So of course I shout to whoever else is in the car, “OH STUDEBAKER AVANTI!”

    It’s always met with a “What?”

    Nobody understands me. -_-

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      There’s one a block from our old house. Whenever we pass it I yell: “There’s an old Camaro with a Studebaker Avanti body on it.”

      Nobody understands me either.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        This has got me thinking – was the sedan version ever an actual model offered by the company, or was that an aftermarket hack job?

        • 0 avatar

          You may be referring to the two concepts that the Loewy studio did for Studebaker, both of which are in the Studebaker museum in South Bend. As far as I know they’re one offs. I think the museum may also have the molds in the basement.

          http://www.carsindepth.com/?tag=loewy-studebaker-concepts

          • 0 avatar
            geozinger

            From Wikipedia: “The company was acquired and run from 1987 – 1991 by John J. Cafaro. With the help of the State of Ohio, he moved all Avanti production from South Bend – its birthplace – to the Rust Belt area of Youngstown, Ohio. In 1988 and 1989 Avanti made two-door coupes and a convertible. The 1988 Avanti were called the “Silver Year” models, marking 25 years since the Avanti’s introduction.

            In 1989, Cafaro lost faith in the original coupe and introduced a four-door version, of which 90 were built. In four years, only 405 Avantis were made at the Youngstown plant, which closed in 1991.”

            If I hit the lottery, I would like to have one of the four doors in my fantasy garage.

        • 0 avatar
          VoGo

          Wikipedia is saying that 90 Avanti sedans were made in 1989-1991.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Yeah, I know I’ve seen photos of them in traffic as normal cars, definitely not museum pieces either.

        • 0 avatar
          ...m...

          …oh, it’s real: i have a friend with a sedan avanti II…

      • 0 avatar

        While some of the later “Avanti” models were rebodied Camaros, as far as I know all of the Altman era Avanti IIs were based on Studebaker Lark chassis. They did switch to GM drivetrains after the Studebaker V8 was no longer available.

        • 0 avatar
          Steve Lynch

          Did someone say Avanti? :)

        • 0 avatar
          geozinger

          Depending upon which era of Avanti, I think in the mid-70’s they started using the GM engines. IIRC, during the Blake era, they started using GM B-body chassis and powertrains. I know they were using them for the Cafaro era four doors and convertibles. By the 2000’s, some were rebodied F-bodies, others were rebodied Mustangs. I think the final run of cars from Mexico were the Mustangs.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Several items I want to address here. I personally believe the new Mercedes GTS *IS* the new Viper, just not produced by FCA. I still think that Daimler got some good ideas from their time of owning Chrysler, and to my eye, the GTS looks like a distinctly German take on a Viper GTS.

    I thought of the Avanti a few words into your article; not a bad idea, but I think that FCA has already done what could be done with the car. If the near-total customization that is available now for the Viper isn’t moving them, then what will? We (in the US) really don’t support car cottage industries, they come and go, but generally they don’t last very long.

    Using the Avanti as an analogy, without the steady guiding hand of Nate Altman, the marque floundered and finally died after being owned by several people who had a less sincere devotion to the concept of the car. Frankly, someone should have let the Avanti die a dignified death about the time of the Blake era, the succession of owners (including a man from my hometown) really didn’t do the marque any favors. By the 2000’s, the efforts to keep the car alive were bordering on ludicrous.

    I was kind of surprised by your comments on the Yugo. Someone with your historical background should remember the multiple Cold War-era agreements FIAT made with many communist and non-aligned countries to engineer their cars. Zastava signed an agreement with FIAT to produce cars under license with engineering and technical support.

    Not like nascent Indian, Korean, Turkish or even Israeli car companies that bought old car designs and struck out on their own, sometimes with less than stellar results. That Malcolm Bricklin had the gall to sell these cars here with only the slightest amount of preparation is another (well documented) story. Eventually the Zastava managers got something of a handle on it, but then my distant relatives started shooting each other again. So much for that plan.

    There were some fascinating concept cars in the 90’s and 00’s that could take the place of the Viper in the Dodge lineup if FCA wished. I could see something like the Copperhead or the ME-210 concepts with a Hellcat (or is that HELLCAT?) establishing a new supercar. But maybe the times have changed and a 2010’s supercar paradigm may not involve a V8 and 700 HP. Maybe it will be something else…

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Way back in 2005, Chrysler showed the Chrysler Firepower concept car, a 2-passenger coupe based on the 2nd generation Viper and using the Chrysler 6.1 liter hemi V-8. It seemed like a more civilized version of the Viper that offered Corvette levels of performance. By then the Daimler-Chrysler merger of equals was starting to sour. Daimler and Chrysler split in 2007 followed by the economy tanking at the end of the year.

    I’ve always sort of suspected that the 2nd and 3rd generation Vipers probably shared a lot of their platform development with the Mercedes-Benz SLR and SLS, and maybe even the SL, although they were probably not exactly the same, given the timelines involved.

    Since Chrysler merged with Fiat in 2014, I always figured that a new Viper might share its platform with a concurrent Maserati, but with its own unique American slant on things and using the Chrysler V10, or maybe even the Hellcat V-8.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Had they produced the Firepower they would have had a common chassis to work with and I would bet the Firepower would have outlasted the Viper with the softer suspension and smaller engine.

  • avatar
    DownUnder2014

    It’s kind of a shame that the V10 wasn’t fitted into the new gen Ram Trucks. It could be a nice sleeper again that way!

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