posted on April 2, 2018

The Dodge Viper is famous for behaving like it wants to hurt whoever is driving it. Its massive V10 engine, limited safety features, and constant begging to go faster can make it a recipe for disaster in the wrong hands. It’s an absolute joy to be in and around, but push the Viper too far and it will not forgive you.

To test this reputation, I borrowed a 1994 Dodge Viper SRT10 from very generous Turo host Trevor H. This absurd beast is from the Viper’s first and scariest generation. It’s an incredibly powerful, insanely stylish, and laughably unrefined sports car that perfectly represents the mindset of the automakers of the era.

Which made it the ideal car to bring to Radwood at HooptieCon last week. The first-ever HooptieCon, held at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California, is a multi-event automotive festival that celebrates the wacky and overlooked in car culture. One of the main events was Radwood, a car show for vehicles hailing from the eighties and nineties with compulsory period-correct dress for the attendees.

Radwood had a great turnout. There were rad hoopties with colorful airbrush graphics and drivers in acid-wash denim to match. There was a DJ spinning the jams of the times and an Atari video game station. There were rollerblades, boomboxes, and someone in a complete velour Prince costume. It was rad.

As for the cars, there was an excellent range of eighties and nineties machinery ranging from iconic to obscure. A concours-condition Porsche 959 was the priciest in attendance, and exotics like the DeLorean and Ferrari Testarossa made expected appearances. But oddities like the Nissan Pulsar Sportbak, a two-door coupe with t-tops and a sportback rear hatch, were the real stars of Radwood. The weirder and tackier, the radder. Or is it ‘more rad’? Either way, check out some scenes from Radwood at HooptieCon:

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The big bully

Our ‘94 Viper held its own against many of the cars at Radwood. On the road or at an eighties-and-nineties car show, the Viper gets lots of attention because it’s unapologetic, unrefined, and just plain wild. For kids at the right age in the early nineties, the Viper was the bedroom wall poster car. With its wide, squat stance and cartoonish proportions, the Viper sits somewhere between a Hot Wheels toy and an alien.

The car has no exterior door handles, so you have to reach for the inside handles to open the doors. Inconvenient, but easy enough. But with the removable soft windows in place, you have to unzip the vinyl window panels before reaching in to open the door — American engineering at its finest. The best way to experience the Viper is with all the windows (except the windshield) safely stowed in the trunk, which they were for the entirety of our trip.

The wheels are perhaps the raddest part of the first-gen Viper. The 17-inch, three-spoke wheels are not finished metal, but painted gray, a major contributor to the Viper’s toy-car look. As a package, the Viper is a certified head-turner. It’s rare to see a first-gen Viper on the road, and it looks even crazier in person than on a poster. Everyone stares. It’s a spectacle.

Trevor lets people take his car either with or without the roof for the duration of their trips. Unless you’ve owned a Viper in the past, the roof is generally too finicky to remove or install yourself. The roof’s locking mechanism was poorly designed, and the design was poorly executed. It’s one of the many endearing quirks this toy has hidden away.

The interior is as barebones as it gets — it’s a nineties Chrysler after all. I noticed a couple knobs that the exotic Viper has in common with my 1998 Jeep Cherokee, a budget family SUV with roll-up windows. Trevor has installed a retro-styled radio unit with bluetooth, aftermarket speakers, and new rear brakes, but otherwise his is a completely stock Viper.

On the road

The 1994 Dodge Viper does not have frivolous luxuries like airbags, ABS, and traction control. This is an issue in general, but it’s especially problematic in a sports car making 400 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque from an 8.0L V10. A V10, by the way, which is barely contained by the Viper’s vast expanse of hood.

When you really drive it, the Viper is everything you want it to be. It feels rough and heavy and pieces of the body rattle around. It’s fast (zero-60 in 4.4 seconds) and it feels even faster than it is. The clutch is heavy and the shifter takes a strong arm. The pedals are probably too close together. Visibility is far from ideal.

Once the monstrous V10 warms up, it pours heat into the cabin from the tunnel and the side pipes. Drive for too long and your legs get uncomfortably hot. To avoid burning your calves on the superheated and very wide door sills (which has indeed happened to Trevor), you must awkwardly unfold yourself up out of the car in a strange dance not unlike the birth of a baby giraffe.

Since I drove quite gingerly, I found the Viper to be rather well behaved — at least more behaved than the internet would have you believe. It was a handful to be sure, but it moves well and is comfortable enough on the highway. And it’s plenty loud, but because the exhaust pipes are on the sides, I only went deaf in one ear.

All of these inconveniences and discomforts are vital parts of the Viper experience. With ludicrous impracticality, rudimentary interior, and dedication to speed, Trevor’s Dodge Viper perfectly encapsulates its era of American auto manufacturing. The engineers set out to make a car that was as cool as possible with as big of an engine as they could fit in it, and people love the Viper for it.

Radwood takes a fond look back at the eighties and nineties and recognizes a simpler, radder time. Radwood recognizes you don’t need to have sound reasoning to like something. The Viper takes this exact attitude and multiplies it until you can’t help but laugh at the thing. It’s ridiculous and flawed but that’s precisely how you like it.

Steven is an avid car guy and content maker at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.