PASSIONS Taming the Snake

Wake up, America. With 400 horses and a $62, 000 price tag, the Dodge Viper is what’s been missing from today’s car market.

IT’’S A BEAUTIFUL TEXAS spring morning, the kind where the air shimmers with cerulean blue precision. I’m flying down Airport Freeway at well over posted speed limits in a bright yellow Viper, top down, heart rate way up. The wind’s velocity nearly snatches away my hat, and I briefly consider sta-pling it to my skull. Sinking deeper into the leather spaceship seat, I sneak a quick peek at the tach through watery eyes. Is it possible I’m barely turning 3K rpm? Did I just leave a ’Vette driver nursing his wounded self-image? Am I driving the most exciting American production car to come off the line in over 20 years?

Yes, Dr. Galakowitz, I am, and I’m loving every second of it.

This is what’s been missing from today’s car market. Oh sure, minivans and SUVs (sport utility vehicles) get snapped up by the gentry like espresso. But back when cruising was an American pastime, Cobras, GTOs, ’Vettes, and anything with a Hemi in it left rubbery footprints all over Texas. Now, those fire -breathing dragons of our youth are waxed and polished into car show oblivion. The Gorvette remains, but it’s lost that snarling aura it had in days of yore; now, it’s merely an icon to a balding, pot-bellied generation in midlife crisis.

Enter Chrysler Corporation’s Dodge Viper. Built strictly for the enjoyment of raw, unadulterated power, the Viper packs a 488-cubic-inch V-10 engine, 400 horses, 465 pound-feet of torque, and a body with more curves than Claudia Schiffer. If it’s high-tech you want, look elsewhere, because this is a car for the 1990s with roots firmly planted in the 1960s.

“It’s a very simple car, really, ” yells Danny Baum over the wind noise as 1 disengage from warp and sail by a school bus loaded with whooping, hollering kids waving at us frantically. (A sales manager at Fred Oakley, Danny arranged tor us to drive this particular Viper, owned by Ken Addington, ) “Gigantic engine up front, rear-wheel drive, fat tires, big brakes, and that’s about it, Oh yeah, on the highway in overdrive, it gets 22 miles per gallon. “

Like it matters.

There’s no littering up this monster with burled wood inlays, seat warmers, electric door locks, cup holders, or computerized trip planners. The things you might expect, like ABS brakes, airbags, even outside door latches, aren’t available, either. And if you’re expecting a cush suspension, check out the New Yorker instead. The Viper offers up an honest-to-God, authentic muscle car ride. Which is, I might add, as it should be, because the Viper isn’t just dressed up for the party; it ts the party.

Crank the Viper’s key, and 10 mighty cylinders roar to life while dual stainless-steel exhausts rumble impatiently. Slip into the first of six gears and feel how forgiving the clutch is. Then, shift into second, drop the hammer, and surprise! You’ve just rampaged to 60 in under four seconds. Hit third, and as you hurtle toward 100 mph, mashed mercilessly into your seat, you notice that this beast isn’t even panting yet. But you are, and then comes the stunning realization that there are still three more gears to go.

So how does Dallas, adoptive home to prestige-laden German iron, react to this vicious brute? As we toured around town, people honked, waved, flashed thumbs up, and even propositioned us. A young man on LBJ in a Mazda RX-7 tried to take us; he lost, but enjoyed himself anyway. One lone killjoy, an anarchist driving a 15-year-old Subaru, refused to budge from Central’s fast lane; he angrily flipped us off as we cut around and zoomed by.

But for the most part, Dallasites seemed to take pride in recognizing a new Ameriean classic. At Sipango, we parked the yellow monster on the street and lunched on the front patio while people were drawn irresistibly to the car, asking questions like: “How did Nate Newton ever fit into something like this?” (Custom-made seats). “How fast does it go?” (165 mph). “Ees vat I vant!” exclaimed a Russian emigre. “You to me now sell?” (Talk to Danny, big guy. )

(Vipet and its real owner made a return visit to Sipango that evening and encountered Gary Busey. Notorious for his star turn in The Buddy Holly Story and for nearly bashing his brains out in a motorcycle accident several years ago-and, most recently, for an apparent cocaine overdose-Busey went gaga over the Viper. He instantly got on his cellular phone with the producer of his next movie and wheedled a Viper for himself as a down payment for his services. Hopefully, a helmet will be included. )

At Keller’s on Northwest Highway, we bought tater tots for our neighbors and slipped the carhop a five in exchange for taking up two spots, but it did little to appease her obvious wrath. We moved on, cruising the boulevards of Highland Park to restore our spirits. We garnered lots of envious glances and even the staff at Park Place Mercedes waved cheerfully as we passed by.

However, the Viper’s menacing growl must’ve frightened the delicate, world-weary souls at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, because security haughtily declined to allow us a photo op. Being the hoi pol-loi that we are, we roared out of the drive, filling the rarefied air with indignant thunder and the acrid stench of burning rubber.

By this time, I was feeling a bit Elvis-like (remember Spinout?), so it seemed appropriate to swing by The Men’s Club for a reaction. We weren’t disappointed; a bevy of dancers obligingly posed with the Viper (and even more importantly, this writer). Which brings up possibly the most important point about the Viper: What it does tor your blue book is zip compared to what it does for your little black book.

With all due apologies to feminists out there, it’s a fact that, on the weekday that we drove the Viper, an inordinate number of attractive women made their presence, and intentions, known to us in no uncertain terms. Case in point: two blondes in a blue Miata motioned vigorously for us to pull over; we waved, laughed, grinned stupidly, and drove on. Since neither Danny nor 1 represent classic stud material (except to our wives, of course), we found all this attention pretty amusing- One young dancer at the Men’s Club neatly summed up the Viper’s aesthetic appeal: “If you can’t get laid with this car, you might as well hang ’em up. “

Hang them up we did, reluctantly heading back to the dealership. As the sun set, I switched off the key, and the Viper obediently went to sleep, I drank in the smoothly sensuous hood and the massive 17-inch wheels with one last, longing gaze.

Okay. Is this car worth $62, 000? Sixty-two grand can get you to Paris and back 10 times in first-class splendor on American Airlines. A six-carat brilliant-cut diamond could adorn your beloved, or you could just sock the dough away in a NationsBank CD and make three grand a year. You might even get a Porsche 911 (yawn) or half of a Mercedes Benz 600SL (stodge city).

Or, you could blow it on a Viper and spend the next few years grinning like an idiot, leaving blackened, rubbery scorch marks all over hell and gone, being the absolute center of the universe everywhere you go.

Gimme the keys.

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