If you take away one thing from reading this today, please note: the switch for the electric fan in a 1994 Dodge Viper activates when the coolant reaches approximately 220 degrees Fahrenheit. I need you to know that because that mark is precisely one-quarter heartbeat away from the danger zone on the temperature gauge.
Hello and howdy, mechanical anxiety in Someone Else’s Dodge. Given the rambunctious reputation these have for maiming their drivers, I wasn’t expecting to have to talk it out of self-immolation mere minutes into the experience.
Sitting on I-5 and trying to feed cold air to this parts bin hyperbole in the middle of a California heat wave is a formal introduction to spiteful extroversion. It pours heat into the cabin to the point where I believe both Dodge and Lamborghini engineered the car in such a manner as to use its occupants’ flesh and blood as integral elements in the cooling system.
There is nobody to blame here but myself: I’ve not just volunteered but paid for this experience. Landing in San Francisco about an hour earlier, I’m here for my first vacation in a year and a half to attend Radwood NorCal and I am already nervous as I’m about to exercise social muscles that have atrophied over a year and a half of involuntary introversion.
Initially, I was just supposed to take a cab from the airport, to my hotel, and then to the show. The “I’m just gonna look, just to see what’s available” routine on Turo took a turn upon uncovering that a gentleman named Trevor had taken upon himself to introduce his own brand of chaos unto the public by renting a 1994 Dodge Viper to anyone who could click through the approvals on the app.
I’ll note here - this Viper has been rented dozens of times, and, based on the reviews, hasn’t had an impeccable mechanical track record. However, this Viper has also murdered approximately zero drivers or passengers, which did not line up with the mental picture I have been meticulously constructing since watching the “Viper” pilot episode live on NBC in 1994.
This specific example had covered an indicated 78,000 miles, and was, based on the scrapes, creaks, and fading, not attempting to hide a single rotation of the odometer drums. One warning for those who want to rent this car - Trevor offers, when you book the car, to bolt on the hardtop to provide shade and shelter for your experience. At your request, he will leave it off. This is a binary choice as the hardtop requires an advanced engineering degree to install and the soft top that came with the car was “destroyed” at some point in the past and I didn’t probe further because the mental image of what happened to it was too funny to ruin with reality.
This Viper does not have a functional dead pedal, which, speaking practically, it does not need. The entire scenario is akin to being inside a Porta Potty in that you realistically only want to be inside to conduct your business and immediately seek out a more comfortable set of circumstances. If you’re in there long enough for your legs to fall asleep, you’re likely facing a greater threat to your overall wellbeing in addition to acute dehydration.
In that vein, the car has ample trunk capacity. Does it fit more than a couple changes of clothes and the car cover you’ll need to padlock to it when you park it for the night? Absolutely not. Are you travelling far enough to require that sort of contingency with your wardrobe options? You’re not going to have sufficient energy or bodily fluids to do much other than nurse your calf wounds from the scalding side pipes, let alone do anything that might require a dinner jacket.
With the top down or just completely absent in this instance, this vehicle’s chief consumable is no longer oil, or coolant, or even gasoline - but sunscreen. Running back and forth from SFO with unabsorbed Banana Boat SPF 50 adorning my face and cooking in this Iacocca-era sous vide under the Santa Clara Valley sun, I am propelled only by raw excitement for what has become one of my favorite ways to spend time here on planet Earth: Radwood.
The morning of the show, I’m lucky enough to hand over the keys to the Viper to Victoria Scott as Marsha, her 1995 Toyota Hiace, has paused her journey for some unscheduled frame repairs some 300 miles south in Burbank. We fall into line with the rest of the Radwood Dawn Patrol and are immediately enraptured by the in-period glory around us. I’ve tried over the course of the last few years to figure out what it is precisely that Radwood taps into to make it a successful venture, and I think I’ve finally nailed it down.
Being an automotive enthusiast and taking in whatever content you can is like walking out into a forest at night with a flashlight and taking in only what you can illuminate. It’s more than enough to develop a fascination with the weird and wonderful, but there is only so much you can take in at once.
Showing up and meandering up and down the rows of shuffled subcultures is sort of like strapping yourself into a rocket and shooting off to the edge of the enthusiast orbit. It might not be enough to take in the whole universe of the hobby, but it gives you a viewpoint with which you can perceive the entire spectrum of what’s out there and remind you that you’re not wandering the forest alone.
And in a first-gen Viper? You are never alone. Taking weekend custody of this car is like wearing a sandwich board with “COME OVER HERE AND EXPRESS CHILDLIKE WONDERMENT” written on it. For someone who skews squarely on the introverted side of the spectrum, this car’s physical demands are matched only by the conversational exercise extracted every time the ignition is switched off.
This car exists so far outside of my comfort zone that I’m not sure it’s built from spare bits of LeBarons but out of pleasures and fears plumbed from the depths of my subconscious. By the time I’ve schlepped it back to the hotel in San Jose after the show, I’ve got just enough energy to sit at a bar on a patio alone, drink exactly one round of some smoky tequila concoction, and let my brain work through the day.
Before I finish the drink, I’m struck by the realization that I have only requested basic transportation from this car - which, if we’re being frank, is something that it specifically sucks at. So, I set an alarm for the next morning at a time of the day where the two mortal enemies of the Dodge Viper - traffic and the sun - will be caught off guard just enough that I might escape their pernicious grasp.
At daybreak, I stop for a can of cold brew, another bottle of sunscreen, and a full tank of premium. Sitting in the driver’s seat at Chevron, I scroll westward to the part of the map deep within the Santa Cruz mountains and type in “PANCAKES”.
This car has been objectively terrible over the course of the last 36 hours, from being the physical manifestation of heat exhaustion to converting me into a vehicular hypochondriac watching the temperature needle constantly flirt with catastrophe. This car is a crime against ergonomics, an assault on my body, and a mental drain that’s hosed down with premium at an alarming rate.
However: hunting down a short stack of chocolate chip pancakes with two eggs (scrambled), two links of sausage, and a tall glass of ice cold fresh-squeezed orange juice down an unfamiliar squiggle through a California mountain range early on a Sunday morning?
By any measure, this car is an uncompromising success.
I’m sitting on the patio at Rocky’s Cafe off Highway 9, drunk on torque and enabling a maple syrup induced sugar high looking at the roads that snake off in every direction. With the Dodge pointed toward the marine layer hovering over US-1 in the distance, I realize I’ve been trying to find the purpose for a car that sits at the pinnacle of the automotive food pyramid for the better part of three decades.
Can we go to the airport? Can we idle in weekend traffic? Can we merely get from point A to point B without bathing in sunscreen and requiring an IV upon arrival?
These are logical questions. Reasonable requests. Logic and reason has no place here. Nobody reads the nutritional values on Four Loko. Let’s try that again.
Can we find delicious breakfast foods on Sunday mornings a thousand miles from home in the California mountains? Can we find redline in a car that’s geared for interstellar travel? Can we pass consecutive rental Mustangs on Highway One and then go eat pie on the coast?
It might have all the hallmarks of a car, with the four wheels and pedals and engine and all that jazz. But it, along with the rest of the first generation, barely clears that hurdle. The Viper does not make sense: it didn’t when it came out, it doesn’t now, and it never will. Once you’ve given that up, the car becomes downright magnificent.
The roads just outside Bonny Doon amplify this enlightened form of nonsense. Behind the snarl in the exhaust note is a friendly neighborhood torque curve. The reputation this car has for slaying ambitious bail bondsmen and ostentatious orthodontists is similar to the reputation pit bulls have as hellacious beasts - they’re capable of carnage, but it’s almost exclusively because you started it.
The ambient temperature drops in discrete increments coming around the second and third gear corners on Felton Empire Road as I meander my way toward the Pacific. By the time I stop at Pie Ranch, I don’t even notice how hard I’m smiling until it starts to physically hurt. The fact that I can derive real joy on a solo venture to the coast without having to dig deep into this car’s bright red bag of party tricks and other peoples’ nostalgia means it is capable of delivering something better than basic transportation: genuine satisfaction.
The car is striking in the sort of way that will arrest your gaze in a visual beartrap. This car isn’t stunning for a 1994 Dodge, this car is stunning, full stop. Every inconvenience - from the clutch travel that requires a visa to the nonexistent roof which will lead you to consider whether this is an inferior method of transportation to a horse - is just noise lost in a cacophony of aesthetic and exhaust.
This is an experience you should give yourself at your earliest convenience by any means you can. The automotive world is filled with compelling cases for ownership, but this car does not interact with our reality in any such manner. It is pure energy, lacking anything that could be mistaken for substance - cocaine-flavored cocaine, lit on fire and chased with an EpiPen stabbed in your chest. This car would get booked for felonious vandalism for jackhammering “F*** YOU” into the sidewalk outside the Consumer Reports headquarters, and would still take a very flattering mug shot.
This is the part of the piece where I try to convince you either that you need a Viper in your life or you very much don’t, and frankly that’s a question I am not equipped to answer. The Viper’s entire existence is gratuitous - everything this car does is lightyears outside the margins of sanity. You might as well be asking if you should spend the rest of your years on this planet breeding unicorns.
Sure, why not? Just don’t forget that thing about the fan.