World-renowned cutaway artist David Kimble had the pleasure of illustrating several iterations of the Dodge Viper during its 25-year tenure as America’s in-your-face supercar. I say pleasure because as far as visuals go, few cars evoke such a raw, visceral reaction among enthusiasts. Even with much of the external skin peeled back on this third-generation 2003 SRT-10 cutaway, Kimble properly captures the Viper’s wide, menacing, unmistakable stance and bulging bodywork. That’s important, because while your eyes immediately gravitate to the miles-long aluminum intake crowning the infamous V10, it was the Viper’s glorious shape that brought the car to life in the first place
And I should know, because I was there.
l was 13 years old when the Dodge Viper concept debuted at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. I went to the show for the first time that year, just to see that car. I was already into cars at that age, courtesy of my Dad who hauled them out of the long-shuttered Willow Run assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and my brother who made a big deal out of his 1980 Mercury Cougar XR-7.
At that age I knew very little about engines and suspensions and how such things worked. My awesome meter for cars – as I suspect is true for most 13-year olds – consisted primarily of looks and sound. In 1989, the Viper concept, with its wide and low stance, thin blacked-out headlights, side pipes, tri-spoke wheels, and black side mirrors integrated into an insanely raked windscreen was simply awesome. There were other concept cars at the show that looked futuristic. But the Viper looked like it was actually from the future.
The V10 is the focal point of Kimble’s Viper handiwork.
I wouldn’t see it again until the spring of 1992, when I spied a production Viper at a gas station near my rural Michigan home. The driver had the hood open, talking to a few locals while he wrestled with the hinges trying to get it closed properly. At that time l didn’t know the car had no windows, no air conditioning, no door handles, and no functional soft top. I didn’t know the massive V10 was heavy and not exactly sophisticated. I didn’t know people were burning their legs trying to get in and out over the side pipes. It looked like the devil that sits on your shoulder, and it sounded like something out of Star Wars. So my awesome meter was still pegged.
It would be more than a decade before I had a better understanding of the Viper’s polarizing existence. In many ways it had been a double-edged sword for Dodge – shaking the pillars of automotive heaven with such a quick transition from concept to reality, but disappointing many with its utter lack of basic equipment, ill-conceived ergonomics, and its brutish interpretation of performance driving.
By the time I better understood this, the Viper had transitioned into its third evolution and most of the polarizing gripes (like the lack of windows) had been addressed. One thing that remained, however, was the sledgehammer of an engine that refused to be pigeonholed as a low-tech throwback. Like it or not, the Viper’s 8.0-liter, two-valve pushrod mill got the job done with 400 horsepower in the original R/T10. It jumped to 450 for the unveiling of the GTS coupe in 1996, and was punched up to 8.3 liters and 500 horsepower for the completely redesigned third generation in 2003, which is what we see in Kimble’s famous cutaway.
The concept’s other-worldly styling may have launched the Viper into reality, but it’s this massive engine that ultimately defined the car. That’s why the V10 is the focal point of Kimble’s Viper handiwork. The ribbed hood vents and center scoop in his 2003 rendering are ghosted in as subtle placeholders for the lengthy, aggressive snout, but it’s the intake that first captures the eye. He leaves just a portion of the trademark Viper Red valve cover for good measure, and honestly, if the rest of the illustration were to disappear, you’d still know what you were looking at just from those two bits.
The level of detail given to the engine is borderline criminal. I say that because it’s easy to gloss over the rest of the intricate details that make this particular cutaway come alive. I’m speaking of the side-exit exhaust, the rear differential, the intricacies of the mechanical shifter, the way the chrome somehow reflects off the paper, and a thousand other tidbits carefully scribed into this masterpiece.
The Viper’s engine would ultimately grow to 8.4 liters and crank out 600 ponies before succumbing to the Great Recession in 2010, only to return in 2013 with 640 naturally aspirated, two-valves-per-cylinder pushrod horsepower and 600 pound-feet of twist. Sophisticated it isn’t, but when you have that kind of horsepower in a car weighing less than 3,400 pounds, who cares?
2017 is the last year for what has arguably become America’s most iconic supercar. That means the Viper’s slow evolution from supersized go-kart to somewhat-civilized supercar is complete. I say “somewhat” because, in a world gone mad with technologically restrained horsepower, the Viper was something of a holdout. When Ferrari was implementing various stability control settings, Vipers were merely thinking about traction control and anti-lock brakes. Stability control did finally grace the Viper in 2013, which was just a few years after cruise control was offered.
These items didn’t really affect the Viper’s reputation. Even in its final at-bat with a whisper of technological assists, it’s still a hard-core driver’s car that you grab by the scruff of the neck. To get the best from it requires no small amount of manhandling, and to be honest, there are a fair number of enthusiasts out there who still don’t like the Viper for that very reason.
But when you do become the Viper’s master, there’s no denying its performance. The current Viper ACR – a street-legal car, mind you – holds lap records at 13 race tracks. It’s lapped the Nürburgring in just over seven minutes. And the Viper’s success isn’t relegated to recent models; first-generation GTS-R Vipers enjoyed a slew of racing victories through the late 1990s and early 2000s, claiming three straight class victories at Le Mans.
Would the Viper have become such a legend if it hadn’t been a hairy-chested animal?
And now, 27 years after my personal experience with the Viper concept, we’re preparing to say goodbye. You’re probably expecting me to lament the Viper’s passing, and I suppose there’s a part of me that will miss it. But my awesome meter has evolved through the years to include more than just looks and sounds. The Viper was an amazing performer, but there’s a nagging part of me that can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been. What if that massive V10 had been a bit less massive and a touch more clever? What if the chassis had been a bit less blunt and a bit more refined?
That’s blasphemy to the 31,850 or so people who’ve purchased a Viper since 1992. But the 600,000 Corvette owners from the same time period probably understand what I’m saying.
Then again, would the Viper have become such a legend if it hadn’t been a hairy-chested animal? I won’t say the 1989 Dodge Viper concept is the car that inspired me to pursue motoring as more than just a hobby. But there isn’t another car I remember so clearly – and fondly – from my childhood.
And there still isn’t a car that looks so ferociously delightful, either as a skillfully crafted cutaway illustration, or with its hood up at a gas station.
Technical illustrator David Kimble has been drawing cutaways of some of the most important cars and race cars in existence for over 50 years. A graduate of the Pasadena Academy or Technical Arts, Kimble has painstakingly produced dozens of accurate cutaways based on actual engineering drawings, CAD files, and hands-on inspection, documented with photographs. His career pursuit began in 1964 and he has continued to push the boundaries of hand-drawn illustrations, appearing in many publications including Motor Trend and Car and Driver. Kimble resides in Marfa, TX, and operates a studio where these drawings – which often take months to produce – are carefully crafted without the use of computer technology.
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