By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. By now, most people who follow this industry know that FCA has chopped $15,000 from the Dodge Viper’s sticker price of $100,000, which translates into a stunning admission that the cult sports car is, for all intents and purposes, dead in the water.
How could this happen, you might ask? How could the vaunted Viper end up in the fire sale dustbin, a forlorn afterthought in this red-hot market?
I’m not going to regurgitate the car’s history because if you don’t know it by now, you can look it up elsewhere. I am going to talk about what happened to the Viper after Chrysler went bankrupt, and how the Viper went from nowhere, to reborn, to bust.
Back in 2010, when Chrysler was on the ropes and the Obama administration was forced to give the company to Sergio Marchionne and his espresso-swilling minions for a song, the Viper was officially mothballed. The company didn’t have the resources to support it, and it languished in the “what used to be” file at the now Italian-owned company.
But Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s chief True Believer and one of the most committed – and talented – executives in the business, just wouldn’t let go of the idea of bringing the Viper back. His team was just as committed to the car as he was and they were all chomping at the bit to resurrect their pride and joy, and thus it was Gilles’ duty and calling to lobby Marchionne to return the Viper to the fray.
As anyone who reads this column knows, Marchionne is a prickly person to deal with. His ego defies gravity, he views the car company formerly known as Chrysler as a cash machine that exists to prop up the perpetually failing Fiat - one of the most miserable excuses for a car company extant - and he views the American car business as somewhat provincial and well, beneath him. Oh, he loves the money alright, and the gushing praise that the intermittently pathetic automotive media in this country seems to bestow on him at the drop of a hat, but beyond that he couldn't care less. And this was the guy that Ralph Gilles had to convince that the Viper was worthy of bringing back to life.
But there’s one more thing you need to know about Marchionne within the context of this story, and that is that he takes a dim view of American high-performance machines. He dismisses them as unsophisticated sledgehammers and completely devoid of the kind of passion that the Italians are known for when it comes to their idea of a high-performance machine, specifically Ferrari, unsurprisingly. Those Hellcat-powered machines that have the enthusiast community buzzing? If they make money, fine, but it’s nowhere near Marchionne’s cup of finely crafted espresso.
So into the breach went Ralph Gilles, lobbying and cajoling Marchionne to let him and his team bring the Viper back. And after a while, Marchionne agreed, but in classic Sergio fashion, he told Gilles he had to do it on the cheap, that whatever the number Ralph needed to pull it off he had to do it for less than that. Much less.
Which, as most suppliers dealing with Sergio and his minions have found out (the hard way, I might add), is standard operating procedure for the carpetbagging Italians ensconced in Auburn Hills. They want something for nothing, or they want to cut a supplier’s number in half before they’ll even negotiate (ask any major supplier doing business with FCA, especially the ones who said “no more” and walked away, and they all say the exact same thing too). In other words, they’re relentlessly cheap bastards, led by the cheapest bastard of them all.
So Ralph Gilles and Co. went to work on resuscitating the Viper, but in the euphoria of working on “their” car again, the painful reality set in: They couldn’t do what they wanted to do with the car. They couldn’t even come close, in fact. So what they were left with after all of that was a “new” fifth-generation Viper that in the harsh light of day didn’t look new at all.
In fact I was there at the unveiling of the “new” Viper at the New York Auto Show that spring and the response was muddled. They brought the old Viper back the crowd seemed to say, but where was the new one? Underwhelming, in other words.
Oh, the Viper-isti were happy that their car was back, but selling to Viper stalwarts wasn’t nearly enough to sustain the car in a market that was simply overflowing with hot new performance cars from Audi, BMW, Ford, Chevrolet, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche.
So a not-so-new Viper was expected to compete in this hotly contested high-performance arena with dated clothes on. Yes, it was a Viper all right, but the newness wore off the moment they took the wraps off of it, and beyond the hardcore Viper fanatics, the car simply didn’t move the needle.
But the death knell for the new Viper came when they announced the prices for it. Yes, it was a Viper and it had gobs of serious horsepower, and it was cool and all of that, but $100,000? An instant nonstarter, especially when you can get a brand-spanking-new Corvette loaded up with decent options for $35,000 - $40,000 less, not to mention all the other serious high-performance machines out there that are in the same price range but that aren’t tagged with the “throwback” moniker or resembling a re-hashed execution, as in something everyone has seen before.
So now, here we are. A $15,000 slash on the sticker price for the Viper. And anyone who bought the new car will get a $15,000 certificate good for a new Viper purchase, although somehow I don’t think that’s going to fly with many people. Not to mention all the bad press associated with it, including just how dismal the sales numbers are for the car, as in 38 Vipers sold in August, total. Yeah, ouch.
Will that be enough? The short answer? No.
If the Viper is to survive, let alone thrive, Ralph Gilles and the True Believers out in Auburn Hills need a brand-new car, not one that is a re-hash of what has come before but an all-new car bristling with everything they know to be righteous and good, including the Hellcat engine. (Yeah, I know, Viper purists just fell to the ground suffering apoplectic fits, but get over it. If there’s a new Viper, that’s what it will be powered by.)
But then again, will there be a new Viper? How about no? Why? Because Sergio couldn’t care less. Take a look at what The Great Sergio is up to (see “On The Table”) vis-à-vis Ferrari and you’ll know why. He wants to get rid of Ferrari Chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo so he can get his hands on Ferrari and start dumbing down the brand with his endless schemes of platform sharing while pumping various nameplates up (Maserati, Alfa Romeo) with heretofore exclusive Ferrari technology and calling it good – and supremely profitable, by the way - which for Sergio is the only thing that matters.
Yeah, you heard me correctly. The Master Manipulator and consummate deal maker wants to take control of Ferrari, which, if you’ve been taking away anything from reading my columns over the years is nothing less than a giant pasta bowl of Not Good.
In fact it may be The End of The World for enthusiasts’ as we know it, because The Great Sergio will not stop until Ferrari is but a steaming hulk by the side of the road, a mere shadow of itself that has been brutalized and marginalized and left for dead.
I sense the chill of an early fall.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor's Note: As feared, it was announced today that Luca Cordero di Montezemelo will step down from his role as chairman of Ferrari effective October 13th. He will be replaced by FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne. Not Good doesn't even begin to cover it, as Peter would say. WG