The Complete Buyer’s Guide to Affordable Dodge Vipers
Fast, crude, gnarly, and just a little bit Lamborghini, the last Viper will soon slither (loudly) off the factory line. Here’s how to buy a future classic.
You could say the Viper is going out with a bang, but it also came in with a bang, and pretty much banged all the way through. Instead, let’s say it’s dying the way it lived: obnoxiously. And fast. And loud. And hot. And chintzy. And what could be more American than all of those things mashed together?
Born out of Chrysler president Bob Lutz’s fevered dreams, the Viper was a never-meant-to-be-shown exercise, with a V-10 built by Roush Engineering out of one-and-a-quarter ancient Mopar LA-series 360-cubic-inch V8s. But we went crazy for it at Detroit in 1989, so Bob—who was very much a man of his time—got his car.
The production V-10, with a unique aluminum block casting, benefited from Chrysler’s then-recent purchase of Lamborghini, and owed very little to the LA block: “Contrary to what many people think, Lamborghini did not design or build the engines,” said Maurice Liang, founder of both major Viper clubs and author of Viper Buyers Guide and SRT Viper—America's Supercar Returns. “The initial engine designs were done at Chrysler, and Lamborghini helped get the prototype castings, since they had suppliers who were familiar with large aluminum parts. Lamborghini also helped refine the cooling system and cylinder liners, based upon their experience with large V-10 and V12 engines. They did provide some consulting on the best way to do cooling on an aluminum block engine. Dick Winkles, the chief engineer on the V-10, was on assignment at Lamborghini, so there was some cross-sharing of knowledge.”
Liang says that Lutz originally intended to use Dodge's still-in-development V-10 truck engine: “He thought they could stuff the iron-block Ram V-10 engine in a body only slightly less voluptuous than Raquel Welch,” he said. But by the time the engine was redesigned for use in the Viper, "the only shared parts were the oil pan bolts.”
Debuting at 400 horsepower on 91-octane pump gas, the first Viper creamed the 375-hp Corvette ZR-1—and Dodge’s $50,000 MSRP undercut the Chevrolet by $14,000. To find more power in a production automobile, your choices were limited to Ferrari's 478-hp F40 or 428-hp 512 TR; a 465-hp Aston-Martin Virage 6.3; a 492-hp Lamborghini Diablo . . . you get the idea.
Famously, The RT/10 Viper had a total of zero creature comforts or driver aids. Neither ABS nor air-conditioning was available, and it came only as a roadster with an afterthought top, no exterior door handles, and no windows. In the hands of skilled track drivers, speed was possible; for most people, the only safe place to open it up was on a dragstrip. A very, very wide dragstrip.
Incremental changes made the first generation faster and slightly more livable. These included optional air conditioning, in 1994; rear exhaust-replacing side pipes in 1996 (the last 300 with side pipes have special badging); and a 15-hp boost for the ‘96 RT/10. A lighter and much faster second-gen GTS Coupe with 450 hp appeared in 1996, with the new RT/10 convertible coming a year later. Interiors were vastly improved and included (federally mandated) dual airbags and power windows.
Not surprisingly, Gen II Vipers bring a substantial premium over the first, with a GTS Coupe commanding around $20,000 more than the 1992-1996 RT/10s, which today start in the $25,000-$30,000 range. 1997-2002 RT/10 Convertibles split the difference, and are probably the best bargain of the range. Most collectible are the 100 GT2 ORECA race car replicas, and 1996-’97 blue with white stripes. “That seems to be the iconic paint scheme for the Viper, and everyone loves the classic GTS body style,” says Liang. If you can find one of those that doesn’t bring a premium, there’s potential for upside.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING A VIPER
The great news is that Vipers have proven to be about as reliable as supercars get, and probably one of most dependable cars from the early Nineties Chrysler lineup. Breakdowns just aren’t common, although the earlier cars were often not driven regularly. Maintenance isn’t cheap, exactly—go price out 11 quarts of Mobil1 synthetic oil and you'll see what we mean—but it’s a dream compared to a contemporary Porsche and can generally be done in your driveway. “The only issue I would say would make me walk away from a Viper is if it's been crashed and poorly repaired,” says Liang. “Low mileage does not guarantee the car hasn't been wrecked.”
Some 1992 and 1993 Vipers had oil consumption problems from a piston ring issue, and some engines were replaced under warranty; getting one of those both eliminates the potential problem and gets you a slightly fresher engine than the mileage indicates. If you’re a matching-numbers person, check the block number. Minor issues include leaking thermostat gaskets on Gen I cars and rear main seal and timing cover gaskets on Gen II. Both are easily explained by the very high temperatures at which the Viper engine was designed to operate.
All of the first two generations are at least 14 years old, coming up on the end of many rubber parts’ lifespans. You especially don’t want hard tires on this car, and you’ll have a hard time finding the 1992’s stock front 275/40-17s and rear 335/35-17s. Eventually, the Gen II got a slightly more available 275/35-18 front and 335/30-18 rear—which still don’t have many options. Fortunately, Gen V wheels and tires retrofit the earlier cars, and are easily available.
Age also cracks the phenolic power steering pump pulley, which sheds its toothed gear and kills the serpentine belt. It’s only an engine-destroying issue if you keep driving without cooling, but look for aluminum replacements in many cars, along with a billet replacement for the pump bracket itself.
“GTSs tend to have saggy doors, but that doesn't mean it's been in an accident,” says Liang. Dodge used the same hinges in the heavier Coupe doors as in the Roadster, which didn’t have windows, window cranks, or anything else. “You can adjust them fairly easily. If you don't, it wears out the weatherstripping along the bottom of the door.”
2000 RT/10 with hardtop, 40,399 miles, $30,000 on Chicago Craigslist.
Had an NOS engine replacement in 2015, with less than break-in miles on it. Repairs and maintenance in the ad describe most of the high points you want to hear about: door hinge, power steering pump and bracket, weatherstrip. Where upgrades were made, most of the original parts are included. Arrest-Me Red, but the price is right.
1996 Dodge Viper RT/10, white with blue stripes, 29,950 miles, asking $29,990 at VOA
If the paint is correct, then this is all you could ask for a Gen 1. The interior has a blue steering wheel and seatbelts, but the year, price, and mileage hit a lot the right notes. Liang says that white cars came stock with a blue steering wheel, shift knob, and hand brake boot, but the seatbelts should be black. Not too much information is offered, so you’d want to inspect thoroughly, but it has potential.
1997 Dodge Viper GTS, tuned/upgraded, 50,267 miles, $48,995 at AutoBarn Classic Cars
If you’re going to get into a GTS for under $50,000, you’re generally looking at a car like this with higher miles and noticeable departures from originality. It’s on the conservative side, at least, with a things like a big aluminum radiator, chip tune, and Borla exhaust.
IS THIS CAR A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR A PROJECT CAR?
Vipers were essentially hand-built by a small team, and while mechanical parts are not too difficult to come by, body and interior pieces can be a major hassle. Like an English sports car, there were running changes, meaning not all parts from a given year will fit a car from the same year. Body panels are resin transfer molded plastic, and the big clamshell hood is one piece of composite. They get damaged, and could easily be 10 percent of the car’s value to replace from a dismantler. Even if they’re not, early RTM hoods required thick body filler that eventually shrinks and cracks the paint. Later SMC hoods do not have this problem. Splitter, sill, and other lower body damage is common and expensive to fix, so many people live with scuffs, cracks, and chips. And forget about finding unique interior parts, not that there was very much in there to begin with.
Vipers have an active club scene that, not surprisingly, seems a little raucous. Preeminent are the very new but large Viper Owners Association and Viper Club of America, both of which have useful forums and available technical advisors. About a dozen businesses specializing in new and used Viper parts are a search away, and there are several performance and tuning specialists, as well.
As Vipers still inhabit a gray area between exotic, collectible, and used, you can find them everywhere cars are sold, especially enthusiast sites. Hemmings Motor News had 55 listed as of this writing; every midsize city Craigslist has a few; and major used car sites such as Autotrader and Cars.com are lousy with them.
Loud, dangerous and fast, infamous for severe burns from the side pipes and a scalding hot bargain-bin cabin, the Viper was one of those fingers-in-the-eye of common sense that Detroit flings up every now and then—a high school sketch in steel, aluminum, and fiberglass. Eventually they grew up a little, but being grown up is not the point. Owning a Nineties Viper is your way of telling the owners of sophisticated cars to just fuck off and get out of the way.