Dodge Viper Pacifica Prototype – the forgotten concept that never was (VW 2021)

After the trail went cold for 2 years, I have finally found the answer that explains what this Viper is

6w ago
7.4K

No, this is not the RT/10 Concept that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show back in 1989. I knew this when –back in 2019– I used this image in my Ultimate Dodge Viper quiz for a question that referred to the actual RT/10 Concept car, yet I used it anyway (because I didn't want to reuse the correct image for a second question). I hated doing that, it felt like a sin to knowingly use the incorrect image for that question, and thus I vowed to dig deep into this car and right the wrong.

Then the trail went cold and I didn't pick the case back up in a little over a year. But now, finally, after neglecting the investigation I started all that time ago, I can decisively tell you what this RT/10 actually is.

Before we do that though, let us go over the differences for those who don't see it.

The Differences:

On the top, the normal RT/10 concept. On the bottom, the car we're investigating.

On the top, the normal RT/10 concept. On the bottom, the car we're investigating.

While it might not look like it, the two cars above are radically different from one another. The car on the left is the original RT/10 we all know and love from the 1989 Detroit Autoshow, and the car on the right is... not. Let me explain why.

There's No Pseudo Rollbar:

One of the defining features of early drop-top Vipers was the fact that they weren't true convertibles at all. Instead, in a very Lamborghini way, you had to erect a cloth roof if you wanted to be protected from the elements (and add some fake windows as well). This gave a practical reason for the RT/10 to have a “rollbar”, but I suspect it was mostly added into the design because it looked cool; I mean Chrysler designers probably didn't think that far ahead when designing the RT/10 concept, so let's chalk it up to it looking cool.

If it looks so cool, why was it omitted from this Viper though? As I said above, the fake rollbar was a defining visual characteristic of Gen 1 and 2 RT/10s, even a defining characteristic of the RT/10 Concept! The fact that it isn't present here is the biggest giveaway that something isn't quite right about this red sportscar.

With that said, allow me to be transparent for a moment: This isn't the first Viper to omit the “rollbar”. After the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, Chrysler cooked up their first Viper test car known as “VM-01”. Well, it actually wasn't the first Viper test car made but that's a story for another time. VM-01 was a chassis and suspension development car (as neither the all-aluminum V10 nor the test V10 were ready at that point), and had a bright white paint job while also –you guessed it– lacking the rollbar from the concept and even the later Viper mule “VM-02”.

Viper Mule 01 with the people who made it possible – Photo Credit: International Viper Registry - https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.php (User: jbisanz - http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

Viper Mule 01 with the people who made it possible – Photo Credit: International Viper Registry - https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.php (User: jbisanz - http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

Why VM-01 lacks the rollbar I don't know, but my best guess would be time and money constraints. In the MotorTrend article Great Snakes! Dodge Viper Origins (which I have a PDF version of with seemingly a bit of extra info), it's said that VM-01 was made to test chassis and suspension components (something I mentioned earlier). What I didn't mention earlier was how there was a third purpose for the VM-01: Persuading Chrysler senior management to give the go-ahead on the Viper program (particularly Bob Lutz). The story goes that he drove VM-01 around the back lot of Highlands Park in December of 1989. Coming back and telling Viper Team Engineer Pete Gladyz to build it.

Whatever the reason for the obvious omission of this detail isn't important on this car, because we (largely) know the story of VM-01 (and if not, information isn't hard to find). The red car is different though. We don't know the story of this car (not widely at least), and information isn't easy to find. That's why we're focusing on it rather than the VM-01 (though the story of the red car is out there in bits and pieces). Enough rambling, let's get back to the mystery Viper (and onto the next disparity).

The Mirrors:

The devil's in the details, and often those details are small and seemingly innocuous. The side mirrors of the real RT/10 are probably the least talked about yet most intriguing part of the car. Like the cat-fish generation of Camaros, the side mirrors aren't free-standing. Unlike the Cat-fish Camaro though, the RT/10 concept molded them right into the window (as opposed to the body). For a back-to-basics spiritual revival of the Cobra, that looks pretty futuristic and radical to me. Alas, it didn't make it to the production version, but you know which Viper it also didn't make it to?

This one:

Photo Credit: Stellantis

Photo Credit: Stellantis

Like prototype and production Vipers, this red oddity uses free-standing side mirrors. Not bad looking, but nothing like the real concept car either. I suppose that's better than the VM-01 –which had none at all– but it's another weird variation from the real deal.

The Seats:

Yeah, really seems like I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel now huh? There is a good reason I'm pointing out the seats if you look closely enough though.

If you've ever seen the seats on the RT/10 concept and production Gen 1 through 2 Vipers, you might have noticed that the seat is a typical bucket design (really hard-hitting journalism I know). All Vipers from Gen 1s to 5s have had some kind of bucket seat in them. Now take a look at the “odd Viper” that we've been looking at multiple times throughout this article:.

Those are not bucket seats. At least not as far as the (lack of) integration of the headrests is concerned. Even the RT/10 concept shown at Detroit in 1989 had proper bucket seats (and ones that looked quite similar to the production units as well). Again, why is this Viper different in this aspect too? It seems so minor, but if it's so minor, why doesn't the fake RT/10 have the same –or similar– buckets?

The Size:

Photo Credit: International Viper Registry – https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.ph (User: jbisanz – http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

Photo Credit: International Viper Registry – https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.ph (User: jbisanz – http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

OK, I'm sure this is going to sound crazy, but I don't believe this is a full-size car. I don't think it's a tiny model, but I don't think it's as big as the real RT/10 concept either. It's really hard to explain but the overall size of the vehicle seems smaller than the aforementioned concept. This is blatantly apparent when you look at the rear wheel and how it sticks out beyond the body. The car that was first shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 1989 –the real deal– doesn't have this problem. For that car, the body sticks out just beyond the wheel and tire.

That to me suggests one thing: The body on the fake-RT/10 isn't as wide as the one on its brother (in Gen-Z speak, this Viper isn't as “swol”). There is no good reason I can think of that explains why Dodge didn't make the body cover the wheels properly. They did with the authentic RT/10, so why not here?

With all those differences outlined, there is no way this is the same car. For me, the biggest thing that differentiates the two is the size difference. The fake RT/10 just doesn't have the same imposing aura that the other one has. It's a more svelte sports car than a bodacious supercar, and there was little chance Dodge was going to do a half-baked Viper (as we can see from the ludicrously spartan but visceral production RT/10). If that is truly the case, what's the story behind this Viper then? I'll tell you.

The 1989 Dodge Viper Pacifica Prototype

Photo Credit: International Viper Registry – https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.ph (User: jbisanz – http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

Photo Credit: International Viper Registry – https://www.theviperregistry.com/index.ph (User: jbisanz – http://www.theviperregistry.com/gallery/member.ph)

This is not the real deal RT/10 just earlier in the design process (a thought I'm sure came up but didn't address previously). Remember how at the very end I felt the Pacifica Prototype didn't seem to be the same size as the RT/10 Concept? Well, I was right. There are two –largely similar– stories regarding the Pacifica Prototype but in both instances, they state that this car is a slightly scaled-down version of the original concept car (both physically and conceptually). This source states that the Pacifica Prototype (done at the Pacifica Design Studio, hence the name) was meant as a “Plan-B” Viper. In the event that the V10 “full-fat” Viper couldn't be produced, then the leaner Pacifica Prototype would take its place. In addition to it being smaller physically, it also would've used a smaller engine: A V8. This is what I meant when I said it was a scaled-down version of the real car conceptually (a point that is hammered home by its slightly less radical design). The International Viper Registry even tells us that the Pacifica Prototype was a 9/10 scale model built by the aforementioned design studio. So that puts it close to the original RT/10 but, again, slightly smaller.

The second source comes from Motor Trend. In this story, they catch up with Tom Gale and Chris Theodore to talk all things Viper. Lucky for me, one of the things they talk about is a V8 Viper. In their retelling of events, Carroll Shelby really wanted a V8 Viper (and for it to be very very light). Obviously that was hard to do with the intended scale of the Viper and all the safety regulations of the time. In the article, Gale then says he built a V8 model to keep Carroll happy, mentioning that it was about 90 percent of the way there to the V10 car but narrower, shorter, and had a far more traditional windshield (as compared to the windshield plus side mirror combo of the concept).

Given that verbiage, it's very possible that he is actually talking about VM-01. That car also looks shorter and narrower than the concept (and VM-02), didn't have the funky windshield from the concept, and had a V8. There's also the matter of what Theodore talks about before that. It seems a little strange Chris would bring up safety in relation to a concept car (even one that is supposed to mimic what a production version could look like) unless he too was talking about VM-01. It's hard to say, given that the Pacifica Prototype wasn't mentioned by name. It does fit the bill though. It's also shorter, narrower, was meant to have a V8, and didn't have the funky windshield.

However, there is a clue that suggests both Gale and Theodore are talking about the Pacifica Prototype. In the same article, Gale says it was 90 percent of the size of the V10 car. This is a clue because VM-01 came before VM-02, and unless VM-02 was way further along in the development phase than I think it is, how did Gale know VM-01 wasn't the full-fat Viper VM-02 was?

In any case, all those attributes do describe the Pacifica Prototype pretty well, and both stories paint a full picture: The Pacifica Prototype was just a (frivolous) alternative to the V10 beast we know and love. Whether you believe the first story saying it was a “Plan-B Viper”, or you believe the second story stating it was simply meant to satiate Shelby's desire for a V8 car is up to you. Personally, I think the truth might be somewhere in the middle: The Pacifica was going to be the backup car in case something happened with its big brother, and the designers decided to kill two birds with one stone by making it a “trimmed out” Viper with a V8 to keep Carroll on board. Such a car would cost less money and less time to make after all.

Now we know what this Viper is though. It's a smaller, less extreme, V8-powered Viper possibly meant as a backup to the real deal and or purely meant to satisfy Carroll Shelby. Why the (then) FCA media site has this car in its database is completely beyond me, but I'm glad they do! I'm not sure how long it would've taken me to discover this car if it wasn't on their site (if ever). Thanks FCA, for the massive investigation and a great story to tell.

What do you guys think of the Pacifica Prototype? Would you have rather seen a Viper closer to this car or are you glad we got the monstrous V10 car? Let me know in the comments below! See you all in another Viper Week article!

Credits:

The International Viper Registry (user jbisanz): Additional images of the Pacifica Prototype (specifically the side-profile and rear-three-quarter images) plus the description I needed to close out this article.

This Motor Trend article: (Possibly) additional confirmation about the Pacifica Prototype and some bonus information about that.

Glad I finally cracked the case on this near-RT/10-looking Viper.

Glad I finally cracked the case on this near-RT/10-looking Viper.

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Comments (12)

  • As a Viper fanatic, I love the old beast with its original shape, but this is also sort of . . retro appealing. I mean, without the bar it looks more like a 70s cabrio. Love it ❤️

      1 month ago
    • The Pacifica Prototype is definitely appealing in its own way for sure! Kind makes me think of a rounder 1969 Maserati Ghibli convertible without the rollbar (or, uh, a modern Cobra lmao!)

        1 month ago
    • Exactly the model I was thinking of! It really hits the Italian vibe, even without counting the Lambo-modded engine. 😊

        1 month ago
  • This concept is kinda cool tho it’s in the book Concept Cars by Richard Dredge btw

      1 month ago
    • Is it really!? I'm gonna need to check that out and maybe put that book on my Amazon list! Thanks for the info :D

        1 month ago
    • Definitely that book has hundreds of concept cars from the 80s to the early 00s really great book I had it since my childhood

        1 month ago
  • WOW what a VERY cool article and I NEVER new or saw this Pacific prototype. But I did make it to the Walter P Chrysler Museum quite a few times and was able to see the official or "full fat" viper in person!! In my opinion to two biggest things that were missed in the transition to production were: seeing the headers visible through the edge of the front fender, of course they couldn't do this in a production car but it made the car look so amazing. The other was the red detailing of the wheels that was lost in production, I'm sure due to cost.

      1 month ago
    • I'm very glad you enjoyed it :D! I just can't (and couldn't) believe this thing had a fully-fledged story, rather than just being the normal RT/10 Concept in the early stages of its design. I'ma also surprised FCA/Stellantis would have a...

      Read more
        1 month ago
  • Remind me to call you if I need a detective🤣. A smaller V8 viper would definitely be square in the sights of the corvette, who at the time weren’t doing so Hot with the C4. I definitely think it’s better the viper came full fat, but maybe the nameplate would have lasted longer with a more manageable V8?

      1 month ago
    • LOL! Sure thing hahahaha. You're very right about that (even more than it arguably was in the first place).

      Perhaps the best company to look at in this regard is TVR. They made cars similar to the Viper –but without the big engines of course–...

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        1 month ago
  • Very good article, but what makes a Viper a Viper, is the V10. Without that, it would’ve never had the same following and status as it did/ does. They were just hard core naturally aspirated old school cubic inch monsters with the biggest engine you could get, and that’s what made the car, well, that and the side pipes . I PERSONALLY feel, as someone who worked for dodge/Chrysler at the time of this cars release and early days, all the respect and excitement was over that monster v10, take that away, it just would’ve been another bland v8 car, probably a dumpy magnum 5.9 with about 245 horsepower, and a passed over forgotten what if. Sort of like the prowler. Just a personal opinion.

      1 month ago
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