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Iacocca Rolls Out Viper Sports Car, Hints He'll Stay On

May 19, 1990|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca wrapped up a six-city road tour in Los Angeles yesterday by unveiling the pricey Dodge Viper sports car--and hinting that he might rethink his planned 1991 retirement if Chrysler sales take off.

Iacocca made his remarks after Chrysler announced, as expected, that it would begin commercial production of the V-10 Dodge Viper, a $40,000-to-$50,000, two-seat sports car scheduled to debut on Jan. 1, 1992.

"I'm going to be here through '91," said Iacocca, 65, who has taken center stage in an aggressive marketing campaign to revive Chrysler's flagging sales. "If this stuff starts to sell, I might want to sit around a while and enjoy it," he added after a news conference, the last of six "Chrysler in the '90s" promotions.

He declined to elaborate.

Last year, the colorful chairman, who rescued Chrysler from financial ruin in the early 1980s, said he would probably step down when his four-year contract expires at the end of 1991. It is widely believed that Gerald Greenwald, Chrysler's vice chairman, is in line to succeed Iacocca.

But at Thursday's annual meeting of Chrysler shareholders in Universal City, Iacocca showed signs that he was waffling on his plans to leave the chief executive's suite. "Well, that's the plan at the moment, but I'm not going to tell you exactly what I'm going to do because I haven't made up my mind yet," he said in response to a shareholder's question.

Meanwhile, Iacocca confirmed on the second day of his two-day Los Angeles visit that Chrysler will produce the Dodge Viper. The convertible, designed to compete with General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Corvette, will feature a new aluminum V-10 engine to be cast by Lamborghini, Chrysler's Italian unit.

The 400-horsepower Viper should be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds and will have a top speed of 188 m.p.h., he said. Designers included Carroll Shelby, the man behind the Shelby Cobra.

With rounded styling and exposed exhaust pipes that recall mid-60s roadsters, the Viper is perhaps the flashiest of several products Chrysler will introduce by the mid-1990s to boost sales.

But with only 200 Vipers to be built during the first model year, the car is designed primarily to hone Chrysler's image rather than grab big sales, analysts said.

"It's designed to further support and reincarnate Dodge's image as a performance leader," said Chris Cedergren, an automotive analyst at J. D. Power & Associates, an Agoura Hills-based automotive market research firm. "It's a toy."

The new car is also intended to showcase Chrysler's streamlined development process for new vehicles. It is scheduled to go into production just three years after its debut as a concept car at 1989 auto shows.

Iacocca said Chrysler spent "tens of millions" of dollars developing the Viper. But he said a team of 50 designers, engineers and others brought the project in under budget.

"Building this (car) the way they're going to do it, (we are) learning a lot that can find its way into new programs," Iacocca said. "I think it's got a lot of ancillary benefits."

Production of the Viper could eventually top 5,000 a year. The company must still work out which U.S. Chrysler plant will build it and which Dodge dealerships will market it, officials said.

Iacocca said 3,300 potential buyers had already expressed interest in the first year's run, but added, "This one right here is mine; I don't care what they do with the rest of them."

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