Dan Pearlman was largely responsible for designing the Viper’s exterior body panels. He created and developed the original body panels for the Gen 1 Roadster, and led a team of body engineers and designers creating a good portion of the Gen 2 Coupe and Roadster bodies as well as those for the Gen 3 Roadster.
Dan was born in Chicago, Illinois and grew up in the northwest Chicago suburbs. Like most kids, he had a love of sports cars and in particular Corvettes and Trans AM’s caught his eye. He received a BS in ME/Civil Engineering at the University of Illinois, where he fulfilled one of his dreams and bought his first sports car, a 1978 Trans AM. He was recruited from U of I by Chrysler late in 1983 and was offered a job to work in one of several engineering departments. He chose a position as a design and development engineer working for Jim Sayen (Hall of Fame Class of 2020) in Body Engineering. Jim was his first mentor, but unfortunately Jim moved out of Body Engineering shortly after Dan started. Fortunately, they stayed in touch.
Dan worked on the tail end of the K-car generation of vehicles for the next 5 years, concluding with the cradle to launch of the A-Body (Spirit/Acclaim). He enjoyed Body Engineering and had an affinity for the work but after 5 years felt he was ready for new challenges. After a short time in a quality/business group, that new challenge arrived at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show; the Dodge Viper. Jim Sayen had already joined the original Viper group of volunteers and called for Dan to again join him. With promises of hard work, long hours, and a lot of autonomy… a small group doing whatever it took to get the job done. It was just the challenge he was looking for.
Dan started out setting up Viper designs in several body areas. Bumpers, lighting and the first tube frame packaging designs. As the vehicle package started taking shape, he was asked to turn his focus on the body panels. He worked with Dick Lapointe on design and the materials expertise of Nippani Rao to develop the first body panel concepts. The resources and timing required working with minimal formal designs at first. Sections and sketches working directly with model makers in a local shop, turned ideas into the first fiberglass concept parts quickly.
One of the body’s biggest challenges was the enormous RTM clamshell hood. The size of the hood was not only beyond the capacity of most plastic molds but creating a simple hinging system that kept the original show car theme and still met all federal requirements was a significant challenge. It was an industry-first accomplishment. Heat management for a composite body was also a major challenge, especially in the side sills. The rear structure, door surround and sport cap required significant material and structural development using RTM and injected foam core construction. At all times, Roy and the leadership team insured the body designs, like the rest of the vehicle, followed the rules of 1) keep it simple, 2) back to basics and 3) light weight. After creating the first year Gen 1 body panels on a shoe string with minimal resources and time, formal designs were reverse engineered, refined and parts retooled as necessary to support the volume for the remaining Gen 1 years.
As a side note, Dan also has the unique distinction of receiving the first speeding ticket ever in a Dodge Viper. Before the first car was ever sold, Dan was participating in a ride and drive with some of the early prototypes outside of the Chelsea Michigan Proving Grounds, and returning to the grounds, a local Policeman (with no interest whatsoever in a never-before-seen Dodge Viper; its looks, performance, nothing), escorted him back to the gate entrance and issued him a citation in front of the guard shack. A memorable moment captured on polaroid film by the security guard and presented to Dan after the officer left.
By 1994 Gen 2’s body design and development was a much more traditional program where Dan led a team of engineers and designers to create CAD surfacing and panel designs for the Viper Coupe body. The plastics material portfolio was expanded slightly to include a few injection-molded parts as well. The hood was upgraded with louvers and a functional NACA duct but otherwise remained the same. The rear structure also got re-engineered to accommodate one of two support structures, one for the Roadster and a new unique one for the Coupe. Dan was joined by Jack Atabak to share the load on the expanding body task. Jack and his team designed and developed all of the new windshield surround and the massive Coupe roof system. Led by Body Engineering Manager Sandy Emerling (Hall of Fame Class of 2020), Jack and Dan were again challenged to maintain the look of the styled surfaces and shapes and that meant creating some large and complicated body panels. The team worked hand in hand with input from key Craftsmen from Manufacturing during the design phases and Dan and the rest of the body engineers moved into the assembly plant to support the body builds at all launch phases.
By the 10th anniversary of Viper development, horsepower and performance was still the game. The need to continue to further reduce weight was the major challenge for the all- new Gen 3 body. This time Dan and his team pursued innovations in the materials area and developed several applications for introducing carbon fiber into production processed composites. He and his team received 3 United States Patents for body structural and mechanical inventions on the Gen 3 body. Dan’s team also designed and developed an all-new manual fold-down stowable convertible top, another first for the Viper.
After the launch of the Gen 3 Viper, the group was chartered to create some SRT tuner packages for the main platform cars. Dan created the new steel performance hoods for the first Neon SRT4 and the SRT10 truck. After both of those programs launched, Dan left the Viper group (although its name did undergo several name changes in the later years) after 15 years of dedicated Viper service and moved back to the main platform Body Engineering organization. He returned taking a position as a BIW supervisor for the new Sebring program. Dan remained in the main platform organization, taking on several assignments but mostly he continued to design and develop until he retired from FCA in April of 2019 after a 35 year career. Dan concludes, “My career after Viper was good but nothing can compare to the experiences, passion and pleasure I had creating Vipers with a great team of talented people who all did whatever it took to get the job done!”
In retirement Dan and his wife Raelon have been enjoying life on a small lake south of Kalamazoo Michigan. Besides lake life, and enjoying their grandchildren, they have been spending the last several winters taking their travel trailer down to South Carolina to stay on the ocean and avoid the cold Michigan weather.
Dan’s quote upon being selected for the Hall of Fame Class of 2021:
“It is an honor to be recognized with such a great group of talented and passionate Viper teammates. Looking back, this time was certainly the highlight of my career; many great memories, accomplishing something very special.”