Viper is here! But if you have to ask how much, you can't afford to buy one Dealers have handful of Dodge sports cars


Linda Matthews was still a bit giddy as she left the showroom of Towson Dodge and walked to her faded, six-year-old Toyota parked outside near the display of multi-colored balloons.

"If I had Cal Ripken's money, I'd have one," she said with a laugh.

She was referring, of course, to the Orioles shortstop, who recently signed a contract for more than $30 million. And what she had her eye on was the fire-engine red, racy Viper RT/10 sitting in the dealership's front window.

The long-awaited Viper is finally beginning to show up at selected Dodge dealerships around the state. And if you want to buy one, you had better bring a truckload of money.

Although Chrysler Corp. has put a suggested retail price of about $50,000 on the V-10 sports car, there have been reports around the country that it is selling for $200,000 -- or even $250,000 --as serious collectors compete against other affluent car buffs to gobble up an initial model-year run of only 196 cars.

At Towson Dodge, a printed notice on a pedestal that stands just outside a rope separating the lookers from the car tells prospective buyers that this is the first and only 1992 model the dealership will receive. The dealership is accepting bids starting at $125,000. The price does not include air conditioning.

For those who find the price tag a bit steep, Viper fantasies can be somewhat fulfilled with a 31-page sales brochure that the dealership and Chrysler are selling for just $10. But it pays to shop around: At least one other local dealer is selling the book for $7.

There are also Viper posters available at some dealers or from the manufacturer for $14.95, according to Terri Houtman, a Dodge public relations manager in Detroit.

For those who want to put their Viper on the fireplace mantel, there are plastic and die-cast toy models ranging in price from $8 to $25.

Ms. Houtman advised that if shoppers can wait, there will be real savings in buying a 1993 model. She said dealers have already taken about 2,800 orders for next year's cars, which "for the most part, are selling at the tentative price of $50,000." She said the only difference is that buyers of next year's model will double their choices to red or black compared with this year's red-only model.

Dealerships, however, are finding few people who want to wait.

Tom Collins, sales manager at Towson Dodge, said the showroom crowds have been growing as word spreads. But the most promising offers were not from people coming in off the street, but via the telephone from places as far away as Miami and Germany.

Only 10 dealers in Maryland are scheduled to receive the new Viper, and three are still waiting for their shipments.

"All I can say is wow," exclaimed Charles Edwards, sales manager at Tate Dodge in Glen Burnie, who has driven the 400-horsepower, nine-miles-to-the-gallon muscle car that its maker says can do the 0-60 -- in 4.5 seconds.

"It's quite an automobile," he said. "It's awesome." Mr. Edwards' ride was from the front lot to the showroom floor.

It's basically the same story at Smith Motor Co. in White Marsh, where Bob Masurek reports that he has been contacted by brokers from Florida and Boston representing overseas buyers offering $95,000 to $100,000 for a Viper that was due to arrive later today.

Only one state dealer reported having sold its 1992 allocation. Roy Daves, sales manager at Colonial Dodge in Rockville, said the car was sold before it even arrived last week. He said it was bought by an out-of-town collector but declined to disclose the sales price.

Laurel Dodge is still waiting for its Viper. It should be in by Friday, said Elias Kymingham, sales manager. The lack of a car, however, has not discouraged potential buyers.

"The owners have been offered $110,000 for the car, but they turned it down." He explained that the dealership is not too eager to sell. "You can't buy the kind of publicity it generates by sitting on the showroom floor."

Indeed, dealers say word of the Viper's arrival is making its way around the state and the car is sparking a flurry of showroom traffic. "We're probably getting 25 to 30 people a day coming in looking at the car," said Ken Musselman, vice president of Musselman's Dodge in Catonsville.

"Everybody wants to sit in it," said Mr. Collins of Towson Dodge. "They want their picture taken sitting behind the wheel. One guy came in and sat in it for an hour. He videotaped it. He taped under the hood. He taped the interior. . . . People really get excited when they see it."

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