NEW YORK TIMES - December 29, 1991
1960's Deja Vu; New From Detroit: A High-Power, Gas Guzzling Muscle Car
By KEITH SCHNEIDER
ONE by one in a small factory in Detroit, the Chrysler Corporation is assembling by hand the American auto industry's newest car for the 90's: the two-seat, sunset red, 10-cylinder, 400-horsepower, $55,000 Dodge Viper.
Because Chrysler took just three years and $70 million to move the car from concept to market, Popular Science magazine this month named the Dodge Viper one of the year's 100 greatest achievements in science and technology. USA Today, reacting to the car's muscular design and raw power, said the Viper would "rip through the nation's automotive consciousness with the bite of an overamped electric current." The irony that seemed to escape them was that Chrysler's hot new car for 1992 is basically a 1960's muscle car.
Indeed, four months before the car's introduction, many people are talking about the Viper, but not always for reasons Chrysler expected. Conservation groups and some of the country's young car designers are criticizing the Viper as an anachronism, a gas-guzzling embodiment of an American auto industry looking backward to old successes instead of grappling with new political, economic, technical and environmental challenges.
One critic is Craig Durfey, who worked for Chrysler from 1986 to 1988 and designed the Viper's exterior. "This car represents a denial state in Detroit," said Mr. Durfey, 30 years old and now a senior designer for Audi in California. "It recognizes nothing about the world as it is today. It's an old technology car and an energy hog. The chairman and president of Chrysler see their childhood dreams crashing down around them. The Viper is their last scream, their last hurrah."
In the executive offices of the Chrysler Corporation, where the Viper is being counted on to add sizzle to the Dodge division's stodgy image, the criticism stings. "Forgive me, but this car is no more irresponsible, if you want to use that term, than any of the big high-powered Japanese sports cars," said Robert A. Lutz, the president of Chrysler. "Our intention was to produce an exciting, attention-getting sports car in limited quantities because when the car was shown as a prototype in 1989 it caused such an unbelievable amount of interest. We concluded the world was trying to tell us something."
It is no accident that the inspiration for the Viper was another powerful, reptilian, 400-horsepower two-seater manufactured in the mid-1960's, the Ford Cobra. Mr. Lutz and Chrysler's chairman, Lee Iacocca, former top executives of Ford, are seeking the same kind of steamy, explosive sports car -- an American Ferrari. The company hopes to build and sell 300 to 400 Vipers in 1992 and 3,000 in 1993. "I look at it as a sparse car, low in weight for its performance," said Mr. Lutz. "It's a very athletic car, like a male or female sprinter wearing a skin-tight track suit."
In January 1989, Chrysler introduced the Viper at the annual Detroit auto show, where it caused a sensation. Last May, Chrysler engineers quickly readied a prototype to be the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. Jay Leno and David Letterman are among the hundreds of car buffs who have placed orders for the Viper. And in television commercials, Mr. Iacocca talks about how the Viper was developed in record time by a small team of engineers and designers allowed to work largely without corporate interference.
The company's enthusiasm is shared by the industry's trade press. "It's radical," said Jean Lindamood, deputy editor of Automobile Magazine in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Big engine. Big cartoony design. It's very cool and it's done wonders for the morale at Chrysler."
But environmental groups say such talk is empty boosterism and hype. Other than its design, they say, the Viper is an old-technology car conceived at the end of an era of credit-stoked excess and ignoring the need for cleaner air and lower oil consumption.
"It's time for Detroit to respond to the present and the future," said Julia May, a staff member at Citizens for a Better Environment, an environmental group in San Francisco that wants to see gasoline-powered cars gradually replaced by cleaner electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles. "The car industry should be visionary and use their technology to solve environmental problems and provide jobs at the same time. Instead, they're waiting for the Japanese to beat them."
Robert Watson, an energy resource specialist in Los Angeles for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, noted that Chrysler is introducing the Viper while auto industry shows in Japan and Germany are featuring an abundance of electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, and even cars that can close up like a clam for use in crowded cities. In Detroit, the auto show continues to feature roomy, big-bodied cars.
Image cars, like the Viper, are never meant to sell in huge numbers, but Chrysler's new car could hardly come at a worse time. Led by an expected $8 billion loss by General Motors, which plans to lay off 74,000 people and close 21 plants, the industry is suffering through another year of poor sales and continues to lose its share of the United States market to Japanese manufacturers. But the very bleakest trend is the market for pricey performance sports cars, which is tumbling faster than any other segment of the industry. Sales of Chevrolet's Corvette this year were the lowest since 1962.
"You wonder if Detroit will get the message," said Daniel Sturges, a 28-year-old designer from Frankfort, Mich., who has started a company to develop electric vehicles. "America is really rich in creative resources and Detroit needs to rethink what the car should be. It's such a different world. These are the problems American car companies should get excited about, really take on and daze their competition. Instead, they get inspired by what they did in the 1960's."
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