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Could Someone Keep the Viper Alive?

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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