Mom’s Ex-Curbside Classic: 2001 Dodge Viper GTS – Yes, You Heard Correctly

(first posted 11/19/2012)      My mother has always had pretty nice cars. As I mentioned in previous CCs, her first and second cars were a ’59 Dodge Custom Royal Lancer and a ’60 Chevrolet Impala Sport Coupe, respectively. Later on she had a ’68 Mustang, a ’73 1800ES and a ’74 Capri. After my arrival, Volvo 240DL and 740GL wagons became the rule, followed by a series of Grand Caravan ESs and Durango R/Ts. After a decade of Dodges, she went back to Volvo, and now has a black XC90. Still, there was one more Dodge, one that only recently departed us. Yes, folks, my mother owned–and drove–a Dodge Viper GTS.

Clearly, the Viper was a bold move for a company fresh from having teetered on the brink, but the gamble paid off handsomely; it announced, in a way impossible to ignore, that Chrysler Corporation was back. Not all that many were sold, but that wasn’t the point. Its mission was to be a ‘halo car’ and a showcase of the company’s capabilities. That it also sucked the doors off the ’92 Corvette was a bonus.

Nevertheless, it was primitive, and most certainly was not a car for everyone. Early models had only a rudimentary “toupee” canvas top, no exterior door handles or side windows (side curtains were provided for inclement weather), or any other concessions to comfort or convenience. Although most Viper owners didn’t mind, Chrysler did make their snake a bit more livable in 1996, with the introduction of the GTS. The fixed-roof  GTS sported power windows, outside door handles, and even a rear hatch. Ol’ Shel himself drove one in the 1996 Indianapolis 500. We were there, and I remember the impression it made on me–so, so cool! I got myself a Maisto 1/18-scale version a short time later.

The Viper received only minor refinements after the coupe’s debut. By 2001, the classic, original roadster remained available alongside the GTS, but with power windows and outside door handles now standard. Its handsome, dished chrome wheels had come along a year earlier.

The 2001 Vipers got a revised engine with a milder cam and updated lifters. The changes were mostly due to stricter emissions regulations, but the 8.0-liter V-10 was still very brawny, developing 450 hp at 5,200 rpm, and 490 lb-ft of torque at 3,700 rpm. It would still blow away a Corvette, but the far more civil and civilized C5 Corvette handily outsold it. They were both sports cars, but still very different.

My mother always liked the looks of the GTS coupe, but you’d have to know my Dad to understand how we wound up owning one. Although he is one of the most generous people I know, he often acts impulsively and gets caught up in what he considers a cool idea.

In 2005, unbeknownst to my mother, he decided to get her a second-hand Viper for her birthday. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if his idea was going to fly; in fact, I tried to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Dad found the yellow 2001 coupe on a certain ubiquitous auction website and had it delivered from Houston to  his office in Rock Island, IL.

On the night of Mom’s birthday we all went out to dinner to celebrate. As we were leaving, Dad said we needed to stop by his office. We kids were in on the ruse, but Mom just thought he’d forgotten something. We pulled up just as this gonzo automobile was being unloaded off the flatbed. Mom immediately knew what was up. “What did you do?” she said, in her ‘what’s Dad gotten into now‘ voice. All the same, it was still a pretty neat unveiling. I still remember Mom’s first comment: “Well, we don’t need it, but it’s cool.”

Believe it or not, Mom actually drove the Viper, albeit not on a regular basis. She knew how to drive a car with a manual transmission, but the Viper truly was a bear to drive around town. She much preferred her Durango R/T or Jag XJS. Dad often commented at how easy it was to break the tires loose, even at 25-30 mph. Four hundred-fifty horses will do that.

We talk a lot about center consoles taking up ever more interior room in modern cars, but I submit that the Viper’s takes the cake. It’s even bigger than it looks in the picture; the passenger could play solitaire on it. At least it was huge for a reason: The Viper’s mighty V-10 and six-speed transmission, both originally designed for the Dodge Ram, were not exactly petite.

Inside, the Viper was all business with its attractive, black-on-white gauges. Unlike early Vipers, this one had both driver- and passenger-side airbags.

Although the glove box had been replaced with a passenger-side airbag and the steering wheel was a newer design, the rest of the 2001 interior was much the same as in ’92–right down to those parts-bin A/C vents. I remember that Mom’s ’92 Grand Caravan ES had the same ones.

In lieu of the now-missing glove box was a small storage compartment at the end of the center console. You can just make it out between the inboard seat belts, another Viper peculiarity.

Here’s what the Viper was all about: A giant engine, and brakes and tires to match. I happen to believe the Viper V-10 was the most aesthetically pleasing engine of the 1990s. No silly plastic covers on this one; you can actually tell it’s an engine!

Many times during the mid ‘oughts, Dad took his 356 to a big Porsche show in Effingham. One year we took the Viper along as a display-only car. I rode in it with Dad on the trip back to the Quad Cities, and for such an uncompromising speed machine, it rode quite nicely on I-74. We were going 65-70 mph most of the way, and that was in third gear. Watching all the double-takes from passing cars and trucks was fun.

But ultimately, it just didn’t get driven much. We used it as the “limo” for my sister’s wedding, in 2010, but otherwise the Viper basically became a stationary object. It was a shame for such a cool car to go unused, and it had been around 2009 that Mom first talked about selling it. At the time, what would turn out to be a long and ongoing recession was just getting started, so I advised her to hold off a couple years and get more money for it when the economy improved. That worked–at least for a while.

Earlier this year, a friend of Dad’s who owns a car lot made him an offer on the Viper. I thought it a bit low, but after a little negotiation and a slightly better offer, Mom okayed the sale. Actually, I think she was relieved: One less car to insure!

I literally took these pictures the very morning it was sold; in fact, as soon as I was done Dad drove it, for the last time, off to Jeff’s lot. I was sad to see it go, but it quickly found a happy new owner. These days it’s up in Carroll County, being pampered along with a bunch of other specialty cars.

Only 291 2001 GTSs were painted yellow. A 2001 GTS in any color is rare, as only 650 were built. And while that spoiler is a factory-installed accessory, it is seldom-seen, as very few were actually ordered. It kind of reminds me of two other Mopar supercars, the ’69 Charger Daytona and the ’70 Road Runner Superbird.

Yes, my Mom had a Viper. Too bad it was about a dozen years after my middle school days. It sure would have been cool to get picked up in this thing!

Viper brochure images are courtesy of