Bobby Cerchione’s motivation for spending $95,000 four years ago on his second Dodge Viper was simple. He was worried about how much longer the car and company that built it, Chrysler LLC, might be around.
“It looked like that might be the end of it,” said Cerchione, the executive vice president of a trucking company in Secaucus, New Jersey. “If it was the last chance to own one, I wanted to have it.”
Cerchione will be among 500 Viper enthusiasts at Skylight Soho gallery in New York City tomorrow to see the car they call “the Snake” reemerge from two years of hibernation. The car’s return, after Chrysler explored a sale of the Viper business during its tumble into bankruptcy, will show the extent of the carmaker’s resurgence following its own brush with extinction.
“When this car comes out, it’s really going to scream that Chrysler’s back,” Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Troy, Michigan, said in a phone interview.
Chrysler’s SRT Viper joins the likes of Honda Motor Co.’s NSX and Nissan Motor Co.’s GT-R as “halo” performance cars that draw buyers who make follow-up purchases of other models in the company’s lineup. The Auburn Hills, Michigan-based automaker is betting Viper will help sustain momentum in the U.S., where sales climbed 26 percent in 2011 and increased by 34 percent in March, Chrysler’s fifth consecutive monthly gain of more than 30 percent.
Halted in 2010
The draw to the car for some purists, said Chris Marshall, who has owned three Vipers and lives in Overland Park, Kansas, is that it lacked “gizmos” like cruise control, offering drivers a pure connection to the 10-cylinder engine.
“It was just a big bruiser of a motor that made lots of noise and scared the crap out of Grandma when you took her for a ride,” he said in a phone interview.
Viper production stopped at the Conner Avenue Assembly plant in Detroit in July 2010, a year after Chrysler Group LLC emerged from bankruptcy thanks to a $12.4 billion government bailout and a rescue by Italian automaker Fiat SpA. The plant, which Chrysler said in a bankruptcy court filing didn’t get an offer at its $10 million asking price, was cited by the company as evidence of the lack of bidders for its assets during the 2009 recession.
The alternative to the government’s rescue was Chrysler’s failure and messy liquidation, said Van Conway, chief executive officer of the restructuring firm Conway MacKenzie in Birmingham, Michigan.
“If the government doesn’t do a bailout, simple math -- Chrysler shuts down,” Conway, who owns two Vipers, said in a phone interview.
Led by Sergio Marchionne, who is also the chief executive officer of Turin, Italy-based Fiat, Chrysler shelved the Viper as it focused efforts on churning out 16 new or refreshed vehicles in the 19 months following its bankruptcy. Chrysler expects profit to more than double this year to about $1.5 billion from the $734 million earned in 2011, excluding costs associated with paying back U.S. and Canadian government loans.
“Chrysler building the Viper again is their way of saying ‘We’ve got enough extra bandwidth that now that we’re going to bring out the cool stuff,’” said Janni Cone, who along with her husband, Henry, have owned four Vipers since 1997. “They’re not worrying about surviving anymore or dressing in gray and take their licks because of the bankruptcy. They’re back.”
The Cones, who live in Raleigh, North Carolina, are members of Viper Club of America. Chrysler started the group in 1995, three years after the company’s then-President Robert Lutz led the car into its first year of production. The club has interacted with celebrity owners including Tonight Show host Jay Leno and wrestler Hulk Hogan.
Chrysler offered an early peek at a prototype of the new Viper to club members last year at its annual invitational in Salt Lake City. The company encouraged fans to weigh in on naming Viper’s new snake-face logo, try out different seats and select from a palette of color choices.
“Let’s just say sexy is back,” Cerchione, who attended the invitational, said of the Viper’s new look. “It’s elegant and mean-looking at the same time. It’s got the curves in all the right spots.”
Ralph Gilles, Chrysler Group’s head of design and president of the company’s SRT performance brand, told reporters last year in Detroit that the new Viper’s look was “drop-dead beautiful” and inspired by “a naked woman on the beach.” He said Viper won’t use engines from Fiat’s Ferrari brand. The Italian automaker also owns Maserati.
Viper probably will remain the most expensive model in Chrysler’s lineup. The previous model sold for starting prices of more than $90,000. Viper’s reputation still was “a little bit blue-collar” for a halo car, Janni Cone said, in part because of its bare-bones interior.
‘Bring in Bankers’
Sullivan, the product analyst at AutoPacific, said he expects dramatic changes to the Viper’s interior. The car may add features such as navigation and timers for owners who race their Viper on the track.
“It was a pretty crude car inside before,” Sullivan said. “For some people, that’s what they wanted.”
With Viper’s sleek design and upgrades inside the cabin, the car will bring in “a whole new group of buyers,” Cerchione said.
“It will bring in those bankers now,” he said.
Chrysler has shared few details about Viper ahead of its unveiling to reporters tomorrow at the New York auto show. Viper Club of America members said they expect the car will continue to offer the 10-cylinder engine, which in the last model achieved more than 600 horsepower and could accelerate to 60 mph (80 kmph) in less than 4 seconds.
Dozen a Day
“If it wasn’t a V-10, it wouldn’t be a Viper,” said Randall Arnold, a furniture salesman in Dayton, Ohio, who owns a 1993 Viper. “That’s what it was born with and that’s what I’m sure it will stay with.”
Chrysler sold 392 Vipers in 2010, the last year it was in production, according to Autodata Corp., a researcher in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. Employees at the Conner Avenue plant made about 22,070 Vipers in the 15 years before shutting in 2010, or about a dozen cars a day, according to the company.
The Viper will continue to be a small-production model, with researcher IHS Automotive estimating 2013 production of less than 2,000 units. Still, the reopening of the Detroit factory will restore about 150 jobs, part of the more than 9,400 the company has said it has added since June 2009.
“That’s just another momentum builder where somebody else has confidence in the city of Detroit to make that kind of investment,” Dave Bing, the city’s mayor, said in a March 21 interview.
More important to Chrysler than the number of Vipers sold will be its status as a halo car. Alex Ristanovic, of Algonquin, Illinois, said he never owned a Chrysler product until he bought his first Viper in 1994. He has owned more than a dozen since, and has bought several Dodge minivans for his IT consulting business.
“Just like with Mac and Apple, with Coca-Cola, when you’ve built a fan base, it’s almost one of the most important things you can do if you can pull it off,” he said. “Chrysler’s done that with the Viper. Viper has a fan base that goes beyond just liking the car.”