VENI, VIDI, VIPER

05 September 2018
Author: Peter Robinson

Modena: God, I love this place.

Nowhere on earth is more exciting for the car enthusiast. I've been here now maybe 25 times and I swear every time I drive past the Modena sign my heart stops. I can't quite believe it's happening to me.

Modena, population 175,000, lies on the fertile Po River plain at the junction of the Brenner Pass to the north and the Autostrada del Sol to the south. Here the artisans drink sparkling red lambrusco, eat samponi -stuffed pig's trotters- and build the world 's most exciting cars.

Or so I thought, until today. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Maserati, Cizeta and de Tomaso. Outrageous, irresponsible supercars? Over-priced toys for the mega rich? Sculptures on four wheels? Motoring legends? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

And all are built in and around Modena. It's been this way for half a century. Maserati started by moving to Modena when Adolfo Orsi bought the firm from the Maserati brothers in 1937. Then Enzo Ferrari decided to build cars in the small town of Maranello, now virtually a southern suburb of Modena, after the end of World War II.

But coming to Modena was never like this. Today, the Viper has come to town and, hell, I'm the bloke at the wheel of the only Viper in Italy, one of six flown to Europe to test the market before sales begin. Our idea is simple, let's take this voluptuous, blood red, 8.0 litre, V1 0 powered, Michigan registered, Yank roadster to the heartland of exotic sports cars. A reverse conquest, America raising the stars and stripes over Modena, Italy, 500 years after Columbus.

Will they talk to us? Will they want a drive? Will they even let us take photographs of the invader on hallowed, foreign soil? Phone calls are made, faxes sent. I'm certain only of Lamborghini. Chrysler owns Lamborghini. Besides, Sandro Munari, former world rally champion and now Lambo's PR boss, is a dead-set car nut and would kill for a turn at the wheel.

The others? Maybe.

Rain threatens, but the clumsy, awkward roof is stowed in the trunk where it belongs. The side-screens are left behind to make room for Colin Curwood's camera bag.

We cruise the 180 km from my home, near Brescia, to Modena at 2000 rpm. Two grand in the Viper is 170 km/h in sixth. Turbulence swirls around the screen and off the targa-like structure. The cockpit is a frenzied tempest, talk is impossible. We shout. Rarely. If you're the driver, conversation in a Viper is superfluous: It's enough to look out across the sublime curves of that enormous bonnet and feel the almost limitless torque through the accelerator.

Curwood buries himself under his leather jacket, waiting, watching the stunned reaction inside cars on the perimeter of the Viper. This car's even exciting from the passenger's seat. The autostrada traffic approves - the Viper gets the thumbs up- but will Modena? We leave the motorway at Campogalliano and take a shortcut to Sant'Agata Bolognese and Lamborghini. Munari is expecting us, but Lamborghini is quiet. The recession has halted production for two months, 200 assembly line workers have been stood down. A stockpile of 55 Diablos gathers dust.

Still, nothing douses the enthusiasm of these men. Few industries are more cyclical than the supercar business. Lamborghini has seen it all before, too many times.

Immediately there's a small crowd - engineers, technicians, marketing people - around the Viper. Their interest is not superficial, they're examining the method of securing the body to the chassis and talking about the engine's electronics. Luigi Marmiroli, Lamborghini's technical director and the man responsible for the Diablo, explores the engine bay with discerning eyes. Munari organises a yellow Diablo for the photographs. It's a fantastic sight, like two opposing bulls in a ring. Who would ever believe the Chrysler of mini vans, K-cars and padded-vinyl-roof New Yorkers could be responsible for two such extravagant cars?

Giuseppe Girotti, Lambo's service and after-sales manager, wants to know how the Viper drives.

"Easy, so easy you can't believe it," I tell him. "It might look like a brute but the thing has so much torque you hardly need change gears."

Girotti takes it as a direct affront to the flexibility of the highly tuned Diablo. It's 362 kW (485 bhp) and 5.7 litres of 48 valve V12 versus 300 kW (400 bhp) and 8.0 litres of 20 valve V10. Or, more importantly, 580 Nm of torque at 5200 rpm opposing 460 Nm at only 3600 rpm.

"But will it go from zero to 200 km/h in one gear?" he exclaims. "That's my demonstration. We should have a race."

Munari is nervous, sceptical. About the Viper and Girotti's invitation.

I see him sigh with relief when I defer, but Girotti insists I come for a ride in the Diablo while Munari and Francesco Verganti, director of production, are out in the Viper.

The mechanical hammering inside the Diablo is deafening when the engine comes on cam above 4000 rpm. Girotti has a captive audience and he knows it. Compared with the Diablo, the Viper sounds like a suffocating five cylinder diesel, an orchestra against a recorder.

Giuseppe has found his demo road. We stop, he slips the gear lever into third, increases engine revs to 2500 rpm and gently, yet quickly, slips the clutch. Engine revs drop to 1000 rpm but the Diablo pulls away smoothly, without a hiccup or snatching driveline.

"So, the Diablo also has torque," he says, defiantly.

"You can even do it in fourth, then you go from zero to 250 km/h ."

Another time Giuseppe. Still, I'm impressed.

And so is Munari.

"The grip, the traction, are very good, but there's still enough power to induce oversteer," he shakes his head in wonder.

"It stays on line even with the wide tyres. Do you have a problem, fifth to six? I kept finding fourth. But the wind is terrible, it's like riding a motorbike."

Munari is convinced.

Girotti wants to know the Viper's price in US dollars. "Only $50,000. The Diablo's five times that."

There's stunned silence. Everybody looks at the Viper with new respect. I'm not even sure they believe me.

Valentino Balboni [in overalls, left], official test driver for Lamborghini since 1968, is small, wiry and scarily fast when he wants to be.

Munari insists he drive the Viper. "Go slowly." "Come back." "Have a nice weekend." The others chide Balboni. He leaves quietly, his eyes shining with excitement.

We wait, and wait. Valentino has a selection of test roads. If it weren't so close to lunch time, he could be hours.

We hear the Viper before we see it. Balboni is laughing. He has clearly enjoyed himself and more than likely scared a few chickens and old ladies on bikes.

"It's very American in the way it drives, so simple and easy," he declares. "And so powerful. I like it, it's a very good car."

"The noise, it doesn't give you emotion." Next to a Diablo few cars do. "They must do something about the sound, it's like a four cylinder Abarth."

We forgo the culinary delights of the Osteria Degli Angeli, the only place to eat in Sant'Agata, and head off into Modena for brave little Cizeta.

Claudio Zampolli's tiny factory is behind the old Scaglietti works now owned by Ferrari.

The immensely likable Zampolli - known locally among the car people as Salvadeg, Modenese dialect for a wild, strange thing - who once worked as a test driver for Ferrari and Lamborghini before realising there was more money to be made exporting exotic cars to California, is working with four other people on a near completed V16 Cizeta. Both his businesses have been sold to fund Cizeta.

"You can't bring an American car to Modena," he shouts, as we pull into the factory, unaware of the irony. "It's the wrong place."

Claudio is openly derisive. "It's a typical American car. Just because it's easy to drive doesn't mean it's any good," he says, climbing in behind the wheel. "It's only good for tall people."

He wants to know how far in front of the car he can see the road from the driver's seat. I walk away until he yells,

"There!" and then pace out the distance to the Viper's fangs. It's six metres.

As far as Claudio's concerned that proves his point.

He has the wheel and is not about to let go until after a test drive.

Curwood, displaying noteworthy courage, takes the passenger's seat. I wonder if he realises what's in store.

They're gone for 20 minutes. Claudio is captivated, Colin wide-eyed. "I'll tell you later," he whispers. He doesn't have to.

"It's not bad, not bad," Zampolli's doubts have vanished. "The low end torque is fantastic. I can't see the instruments when I drive but that's okay. For fifty thousand this is just the greatest."

Claudio is always impassioned and he's away. Still, his comments are perceptive, accurate.

"The steering's sensitive at the beginning but I'm sure you adapt. The brakes are fine, but you need to hold the wheel when you brake hard and the road isn't smooth and they're a lot better than some sports cars around Modena ... "

"Don't compare it to a Cobra. You can't drive a Cobra, if you talk you bite off your tongue it's so rough riding."

We lift the bonnet and he's absorbed.

"Cosmetically the engine's beautiful. That's a new alternator, you don't know if its 140 amp do you?" he asks. I don't. But I notice it sits between the cylinder banks, at the front of the engine.

"It's well cooled in that position ," says Zampolli. I wonder where the alternator is mounted on his 6.0 litre V16?

"Did you know the bonnet's just one mould and made of fibreglass? You could only make this car in America in this material. It's the right way to build a car everyone can afford."

Remember, the Cizeta is twice the price of the Diablo; $50,000 seems peanuts. So far five have been delivered and the sixth is about to go off to Singapore. Once Zampolli talked of building 50 cars a year. He has another six outstanding orders. After that ...

"If Ferrari is going well , everybody in Modena is doing well , including me, and Ferrari is at half tempo."

Not that anybody at Maranello is prepared to admit it. But, a few weeks later, Ferrari announces it's cutting back on production and halting the assembly lines for 19 days.

Ferrari is quiet. Everybody is either in Brussels for the release of the new 456GT or at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix. My contact is in Modena. Ferrari doesn't want to know.

In the courtyard a group of British trucking journalists wait for a factory tour. A committed Ferraristi, who happens to be a British clergyman, joins them.

But, on the road bridge overlooking the Fiorano test track, just a mile down Via Abertone inferiore, the Viper stops the traffic. "What is it, this Veeper?"

I'm asked, in Italian, at least a hundred times. "Che bella machina."

Nicola Larini is testing Ferrari's long-awaited active suspension Formula One car and the tifosi is out in force. A group of German Ferrari owners on a pilgrimage to Maranello line the bridge with their 348s, 308s and TRs. The Germans understand the Viper, though not surprisingly this is the first they've seen. They don't ask why we're in Maranello, that's understood, but they do want to know about the Viper.

More photographs outside the Ferrari museum, more questions. An English couple saw us at Lamborghini in the morning. Now they can touch the Viper.

I tell you, people come to Modena for their annual holidays.

Next stop de Tomaso. The factory, hardly more than a workshop, has stopped building Panteras and is assembling Maserati Barchettas. Isabelle de Tomaso, Alessandro's wife, gives the Viper a scathing glance.

How are relations between de Tomaso and Chrysler these days?

We leave. Bugatti is just a mile away. Romano Artioli, Bugatti chairman, Giampaolo Benedini, the architect who designed the Bugatti complex [top] and modified Gandini's design for the EB110 and Pavel Rajmis, manager of the test and development department, are keen to see the Viper. So is Simon Wood, a talented British engineer, who only two days earlier joined Bugatti from Lotus.

Claudio Zampolli abandons the construction of a V16 Cizeta bound for California to take a 20-minute test in the Viper: 'Low end torque is fantastic. For US$50,000, this is the greatest.' 

While Artioli explains the subdued Modena mood - "It is not mistakes but a problem of the system. We are victims of the system" - Rajmis returns enthusiastic.

"This is a very good car, the acceleration is fantastic, the gearbox strong, the steering fine. The brakes are not too good, I can't modulate the pedal. I would change only the brakes ."

Nobody likes the steering wheel. "It's not special like the body, that's fresh and functional and still beautiful."

Wood is away for 20 minutes.

"I'm surprised," he blurts, "I didn't expect it to be a properly engineered car. For what it is, it's remarkably well put together - a pretty sound, simple car.

"The shut lines aren't consistent, the dash doesn't fit well, notice the different spacers used for the doors? But that's natural variation in a low volume car."

Remember, he's from Lotus so he knows about these things.

Curwood's turn. We cruise at 170 km/h. He can't help himself, the Viper blasts up to 220 km/h. It's been a fabulous day.

But Modena will never be the same again without a Viper. And I still don’t know if it will do 0-200 km/h in third gear.

Of the six cars Team Viper flew over for the European press, three were US-spec models, the others Euro-spec. With the roadsters came key members of Team Viper.

"As usual we came back with more questions than answers," says Jean Mallebay- Vacqueur, general manager of the special projects at Chrysler.

Ron Bauer, a Team Viper engineer on his first visit to Europe, says: "We were surprised at how aggressively people drive or"' public roads in Europe. But now we know how the cars will be treated, we're recommending a European shakedown for every new model."

Chrysler engineered the Viper's hood to be safe to speeds of 190 km/h. At 240 km/h, they learned, it sometimes blows off. The hood, already the object of constant modification to make it more user friendly, will be changed again.

Euro models, on sale early this year, have six-inch diameter exhaust pipes instead of five. Designed specifically for the Viper rather than being taken off the shelf, they have less back pressure. There's more room around the pipe running below the door sills and therefore less heat soak.

The change to rear, instead of side, outlets also means you're less aware of the exhaust note inside the car.

Other mods include active seats with the buckles on the outside of the seats, EC regulation lights, tow hooks and metric gauges.

All Vipers soon will get an electronic lock-out for reverse and, probably, wind deflectors for the windscreen pillars, while air-conditioning will be an option for the '94 model year.

Chrysler's gearing up to build 1000 Vipers for Europe this year, in addition to the 2000 slated for the US market. Modena may never be the same again.

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