Owning an older high-performance car can be a mixed blessing. It might offer the raw, aggressive experience you desire but, on the flip side, the fear of scattering its rods and pistons all over the road can blunt your enjoyment of it.
Cars such as the earlier iterations of the Dodge Viper, however, offer up a blend of charisma, involvement and brute force without that looming threat of catastrophic failure. Consequently, a Viper can make for an interesting - albeit somewhat agricultural - alternative to other high-end performance cars.
The Viper RT/10 Roadster began rolling off the production line in late 1991, in SR I specification, and offered up an unquestionably evocative cocktail. For starters, it was powered by a naturally aspirated all-aluminium 8.0-litre V10; this monstrous powerplant produced 400hp and 450lb ft in early cars, all of which was channelled to the rear wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential.
Although the engine wasn't the most tuneful thing around, there was no arguing with the performance available - as the 1,488kg Viper could sprint from 0-60mph in around 4.5 seconds. The Dodge also benefitted from a stiff chassis, independent double-wishbone suspension all round, substantial 13-inch disc brakes and assisted rack-and-pinion steering with just 2.4 turns from lock to lock.
There was no traction control, or even ABS, so everything was down to the driver. A facelifted version called the SR II followed in 1996, which featured numerous revisions including more power, a removable hardtop and a single central exhaust. A coupe, called the GTS, was also made available - and Dodge would continue to upgrade the car as it aged. In 2002, though, the SR generation of Viper would be retired and superseded by the heavily redesigned ZB I.
A usable RT/10 starts at around £30,000 these days and even later cars sometimes don't command much more. Despite their durability and comparatively simple design, however, there's much to look out for if you're considering buying a Viper. Read on to find out what you need to bear in mind if you're considering one of these fabled American sports cars.
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Bodywork and interior
The Viper's exterior panels are moulded out of reinforced composites - they're fibreglass, for all intents and purposes. Many are no longer available and even used panels can be extremely expensive, meaning relatively light accident damage tends to result in a Viper being written off. Many detail or assembly parts, however, are often available off the shelf from companies such as Viper Parts of America.
The clamshell bonnet can often drop out of alignment resulting in unpleasant gaps, particularly around the lights. It can be adjusted but it is a painstaking and involved process that involves trying various shims and tweaks. It's rarely perfect, regardless of how much time you pour into it.
It's absolutely critical, regardless of the apparent condition of the example in question, to get both a UK and US history check. Anything that's happened in the US won't show up on a UK report so, even if a car appears clean, it could have been damaged in the US and later repaired.
The interior can suffer from wear in the usual places but one of the key things to check is the centre armrest. If the panel under your elbow appears creased then that means its support structure has cracked; fixing this entails pulling the centre console and reinforcing it with fibreglass sheet and resin.
Don't forget to check, if you're looking at a roadster, that it comes with its canvas roof and pop-out door windows; replacements are available but you'll pay, for example, around £400 for a new clip-in window panel. Hardtops were available later too, if you fancy something a little more permanent. There are also several aftermarket offerings.
Engine and transmission
The Viper is a relatively straightforward car and easy to look after, which is one of its main advantages. Its all-aluminium V10 is a durable engine, for example, and there are only a few things to look out for - aside from obvious issues and evidence of regular servicing using high-quality fluids and parts.
Firstly, you need to check the crankshaft damper for any signs of vibration or try and ascertain if the car's ever thrown its auxiliary belt. The bolt that clamps the balancer assembly to the engine can slacken off, causing the hub to spin on the crank or wobble around. The solution is to apply a locking compound and simply tighten it up to the specified 250lb ft. An upgrade kit is available to pin the hub to the crank, if desired, to avoid the problem repeating itself.
Secondly, some Vipers can suffer from head gasket-related issues. The original gaskets were made from a material that degraded excessively over time - ultimately resulting in leaks, overheating and cross-contamination of the oil and coolant. The original gaskets are a brown composite material, while the later revised gaskets are a black multi-layer steel affair; from underneath, you should be able to see the edges of the gasket and identify if they've been changed or not. Check the sides of the block for signs of staining, caused by leaks, in any case.
Replacing the gaskets isn't an overwhelmingly difficult job but, if you want a specialist to do it, budget around 10 hours' labour. A set of MLS gaskets will only cost you around £250, but you will need to factor in the cost of fresh intake and exhaust manifold gaskets, as well as other consumables that you may wish to replace while you have the top end apart.
Do watch out for excessive oil consumption, as some early cars can suffer from piston ring-related problems that resulted in some receiving replacement engines. You might also encounter some minor problems, such as an erratic idle caused by a partially blocked idle control valve, but these tend to be easily resolved.
The Viper-specific Borg-Warner T56 transmission and the limited-slip differential rarely suffer from major issues. Just keep an eye out for any obvious problems, such as excessive noise, a slipping clutch or fluid leaks.
Some parts can be costly but they're often available for less if you source them from the Dodge donor vehicle they were originally obtained from. It's worth trawling through parts numbers and alternative sources, as a result, in order to avoid paying an unnecessary premium.
Tuning options are rife for the big V10, ranging from drop-in filter upgrades and big-bore throttle bodies through to off-the-shelf supercharger kits. The complete Paxton NOVI-2000 supercharger kit, for example, is repcrank. You will, however, pay around £13,000 for such a kit if you import it into the UK.
Suspension and steering
The Viper features double-wishbone suspension, with unequal length control arms, all round. You'll find coilovers at each corner and the Viper also benefits from front and rear anti-roll bars. Problems are rare so simply inspect the car for any age-related issues such as leaking dampers.
In any case, complete bush sets are available and comparatively inexpensive. Even replacement coilovers won't break the bank; a new set of Aldan American coilovers will cost around £1,450 landed in the UK.
One common issue with the steering system is the failure of the power steering pump's mounting bracket. This cast bracket can break, causing the pulley to throw the belt and all assistance to disappear. Upgraded billet versions are available for around £100. Similarly, the factory power steering pulley can also fail. Again, billet replacements are available.
Regardless, consider investing in a four-wheel laser alignment session - in order to ensure the Viper's driving as it should - if there's no evidence of it being done in recent history.
Wheels, tyres and brakes
There's a sting in the Viper's tail - and we're not talking about the 450+ lb ft sledgehammering its way through the limited-slip differential; the rear tyres are steamroller-like 335/35 ZR17s which cost in excess of £450 a corner.
The front tyres are more common 275/40 ZR17s but buying sets that match the large rear tyres will prove similarly expensive; Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s in the required dimensions, for example, cost around £400. Consequently, keep an eye out for a Viper that's on worn or aged tyres and bear the cost of replacement in mind.
Braking components for the Dodge are readily available and not overly expensive; parts are available in the UK but, even if imported from the US, a set of front discs and pads will cost you less than £400 - including shipping and customs charges.
Given the Viper's performance, and its engine's ability to support far higher outputs, you may well feel inclined to upgrade the brakes at some point. Fortunately, complete bolt-on kits are available to upgrade the original front four-piston calipers and 13-inch discs. Manufacturer Stop Tech, for example, offers a six-piston caliper kit that includes larger 14-inch discs; delivered, it'll set you back around £3,000. Do check with any manufacturer that the kit in question will fit under your stock or aftermarket wheels, though.
SPECIFICATION - DODGE VIPER SR I
Engine: 7,990cc V10
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@4,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 450@3,600rpm
Price new: £55,000
Price now: Upwards of £30,000