Word came out this week that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is officially shuttering the Detroit assembly plant that made the Dodge Viper, off and on, for the last 25 years. It's last day is set for Aug. 31.
That's not really a shock. FCA announced in 2015 that it would stop production its niche sports car, and no other vehicle is planned for the Conner Assembly Plant. The plant hand assembled the Viper with 80 employees and in 2016, FCA sold only 630 of the $90,000 cars. (In a closing notice to the state of Michigan, the automaker said it expected its employees would all move to jobs at other plants.)
But in a sense the Viper represented far more than a plaything for those with enough discretionary income for a two-seat sports car. For much of its product life, the Viper also was a testing ground for new materials, especially composites.
Consider the 2002 Viper with nearly 100 pounds of sheet molded compound — including the 75-pound SMC hood — more than 100 pounds of resin tranfer molded parts and 30 pounds of reinforced reaction injection molding.
And that 2002 Viper was the first car with a list price of less than $100,000 to offer carbon fiber, using chopped CF in support structures. (The Viper beat out the Corvette to be the first non-supercar to use carbon fiber by just a few months, although Corvette long ago passed the Viper as a bigger user of CF.)
The Viper and its competitive cousins from the Detroit Three automakers — Ford's Shelby Mustang and General Motors' Corvette —have provided a steady demand for higher end composites that made it possible for suppliers such as Plasan Carbon Composites and Meridian Automotive Systems to lay the groundwork for future growth.
Maybe the Viper was never the icon sportscar that the Corvette or Mustang have been, and I was never the target customer for it. But I'll still miss it when it's gone.