Michael Cipponeri

I was born at the old Harper hospital in downtown Detroit on September 17, 1949.  It was a great time to be born, as I discovered later in my life.  It was shortly after World War II ended and excitement in America was ramping up.  The American automobile industry was responsible for a lot of that excitement because it gave Americans, especially returning GIs, the opportunity to express their freedoms. 

My Dad was a first generation Sicilian-Italian-American who met my Mom during the war in Bari, Italy where my dad was stationed.  After marrying in Italy, my Mom and Dad moved back to Detroit and settled in the Gratiot and Harper area which at the time was a predominantly Italian stronghold affectionately known as Cagaloop (Italian broken English pronunciation for ‘Car-Loop’ named for the streetcars that ran up Gratiot from downtown and then did a ‘loop’ to return to downtown).  We later moved to the northeast part of Detroit, still within the city limits, where I grew up in a Ford family.  My Grandpa worked in the foundry at the Ford Rouge plant, my Dad worked at Ford, my uncle and cousins worked at Ford and even I had a summer job at Ford during my first year in college.  Even my first car was a 10 year old 1957, black 2 door Ford Fairlane that I bought for $120 that required nursing back to health on a regular basis. 

I attended grade school at Guardian Angels Catholic School in the 50s and early 60s where I was active in sports amid the constant stream of new vehicles being introduced by the Big 3 American automobile companies.  As guys, we could recognize the brands, the models and the years of just about every vehicle the Big 3 were putting out.  We knew the intricate differences of the tail lights from one model year to the next or if the headlights were a 2 beam design or a 4 beam design or the cool wheels or the cool look of the gauges and the controls on the dash or what engine was under the hood or the different color schemes as in two-tone.  It was always cool to witness the unveiling of the new model year cars usually introduced in the September time frame.  My high school years at DeLaSalle Collegiate in Detroit saw the advent of the muscle car era.  These were the cars that really gave us a rush and got the juices flowing.  These cars would be the catalyst for all of us to get our driver’s license as soon as we could.  This truly was the golden age of exciting cars.  C’mon does it get any better than 442’s, 429’s, Hurst, Mustang, Camaro, Trans Am, Dodge Challenger, ‘Cuda, Plymouth Road Runner, GTX, Super Bee, 383s, 440s, Hemis and on and on … 

My summer of ’67 job after high school was at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit where I worked with a small team doing maintenance around the Grounds.  It was outdoor, physical work where I learned to drive a tractor and really learned how to drive a manual transmission on an old, old dump truck.  What a blast tearing around the old dirt horse track at the Grounds keeping the long floor gear shifter from popping out of 2nd gear.  That’s when I fell in love with manual transmissions!  After graduating from high school in 1967, I enrolled in the University of Detroit where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree in 1972.   

My first job out of College was in May, 1972 with Chrysler in Highland Park as a Product Development Engineer in The Exterior Lighting Lab on the afternoon shift.  Responsibilities included testing tail lamp and headlamp systems to meet the safety standards before they went into production.  Little did I realize that this job would be my pathway onto something called Team Viper some 17 years later.  Shortly after moving to the day shift I transferred to the Instrumentation department where I worked with very bright engineers and technicians to develop and maintain electronic test and control systems for Chrysler Engineering and Manufacturing.  Rising to Supervisor with various responsibilities, my Manager at the time Bob Clements, and I decided it was time to get back into the Product.  Bob was very supportive as I had opportunities presented to me but I kept searching for the right fit to move my career forward.  I was looking for something that had more system responsibility rather than component responsibility. 

Be careful what you wish for because then it happened!  Chrysler displayed a 2 door, red fiberglass sports car, with huge 17 inch (huge at that time) deep set wheels, all packaging a 400hp V-10 engine, named the Viper at the January, 1989 Detroit Auto Show.  This car was awesome and getting great reviews, and down payments from wannabee customers, with screams to build it.  The Viper’s Godfather, Bob Lutz, invited a small group of engineers to a presentation in February, 1989 at the Styling dome to announce the intention to build the Viper and to gauge interest in joining the team.  I attended with my good buddy Frank VanWulfen but have always considered myself to be very fortunate to be part of that meeting.  Especially when I looked around and saw some very talented engineers who were there.  Bob was accompanied by my future boss, Roy Sjoberg, who was introduced as the Chief Engineer of the new Viper project.  Bob and Roy formed the duo presenting their take on what this car could mean to Chrysler, known then as the K-car company and how this car could be marketed more as a recreational vehicle rather than a daily driver. 

A couple months later I received a call from Lydia Fleming, Roy’s Admin, setting up an interview with Roy on Friday, May 5 for an opportunity to be part of Team Viper.  That morning, with the full support of Bob Clements, I drove from my office in Highland Park to the Plymouth Road Office Complex (PROC) in Detroit where Team Viper had set up shop.  PROC was the former American Motors (AMC) headquarters that was part of the deal when Chrysler acquired AMC in 1987.  What stood out to me that morning was the openness of the Viper Team first floor office area.  Especially Roy, the Chief Engineer of Team Viper.  His desk was not in a secluded office but right in the middle of all the action … with a little chaos thrown in.  The interview with Roy was pretty short as I recall.  But the interview ended with a “… so can you start on Monday?”  “Absolutely, I’ll be here” was my response!!  On returning to my office, I informed Bob Clements that the interview went well and Roy wants me to start on Monday.  Bob congratulated me and honestly wished me all the best.  So I officially became a member of Team Viper on May 8, 1989.  The proudest moment of my career.  The best decision of my career and the second best decision of my life after marrying my high school sweetheart Diane in September, 1971. 

That first day as a member of Team Viper was a little chaotic as the team had moved from the first floor of PROC to the second floor in an area that had previously housed the AMC design studios.  Team Viper still had the open office concept – no walls – with Roy right in the middle and the rest of our desks and Designer stations scattered around the office.  The garage area was across the hall within a few steps of our desks.  Behind Roy’s desk was a huge conference room known as the War Room where team meetings and a ‘few’ battles were held.  I was welcomed that day as the newest member of Team Viper. 

As the days and the weeks and the months went by it became clear to me that Roy was the right person to lead this group.  We were, for the most part, a group of individuals gathered from around the Corporation that Roy was responsible for molding into an effective and winning team.  Because of the crazy hours that we were putting in, Roy was sensitive to the sacrifices that the Team members’ spouses and families were making.  Team family outings became common place to help mold us as a close knit team.  Our motorhome became Viper tailgate base camp for University of Michigan football games.  One such event was an Open House held in July for all Team family members to come in and experience the ‘Viper Pit’.  My wife, Diane, took this opportunity to bake a Team Viper sheet cake including her best icing sketch of the Viper car.  From that point on Diane became known as ‘Mother Viper’ to Roy. 

As Team Viper members, we were allowed a lot of freedoms that normally would not be allowed on other programs.  One such moment for me was the opportunity to sneak Diane and my two young teenage daughters Christy and Theresa into the Viper Pit for a photo-shoot with the original Viper Show Car from the Detroit Auto Show.  Still have those pictures!! 


For the first year or so the Viper project was internally labeled a “feasibility study”.  In other words, the Corporation had not officially or publicly committed to putting this car into production.  During this time, all of us except Roy and Lydia were still on loan from our original departments and not budgeted as part of Viper although 100% of our workload was Viper.  In April, 1990 Chrysler announced that they intended to move forward and put the Viper into production.  From that point forward all of us were transferred to the Viper project department.  I was promoted to manager of Viper Electrical and Electronic Systems.  I remember one of my suppliers calling to congratulate me and asking me what the overall feeling was at the Viper Pit.  I looked around the room and I told him “stunned seemed to be the feeling”.  Now it hit us – we were committed to putting this car into production by the end of the 1991 calendar year – a mere 20 months from now.  Yikes !! 

The next 20 months were intense.  Bouncing from one electrical design issue to another supplier issue to tooling issues to timing issues to support issues to whatever came up.  Combine that with the Viper being chosen to be the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car in May, 1991 – a decision that came out of the blue requiring 3 additional Vipers to be hand built for Indy.  But the Team made it happen and the event came off without a hitch but with a lot of anxious moments.  I have to admit though that I may have been the most relieved person when that race was over.  But there were rewards during those 20 months leading up to production.  The times that I took our test vehicles to our Chelsea Proving Grounds with my suppliers and support teams or brought the Viper home for street testing with the help of my daughters.  Do you know how easy it is to meet your neighbors when you drive home in a Viper that isn’t even in production yet?  Or how easy it is to meet police officers in your community as you ‘street test’ the Viper?   I found out!!  The 1992 model year Viper went into production in November, 1991. 

Viper was a unique project even by automotive standards.  I mentioned earlier that Viper initially was a feasibility study.  Which is true.  What is also true is that the automotive industry is full of past feasibility study projects that put in time then just didn’t go anywhere and were never put into production leaving workers scrambling to latch onto other projects.  Some felt that Chrysler at the time had no business putting a 2 seat, plastic sport car with a 400 hp V-10 engine into production in the early 1990’s.  And many of us were told it just wasn’t going to happen.  But it did!  Chrysler had the balls to follow through with this icon of a vehicle.  One more thing and I’m no automotive historian but I have to believe that the Viper project and Team Viper have to go down as one of the top 10 automotive projects of all time.  Maybe top 5! 

I left Team Viper in July, 1996 after serving a little over 7 years on the project as Viper Electrical and Electronic Systems manager and after launching the 1992 Viper R/T10 Roadster and the 1996 Viper GTS Coupe.  After leaving Viper, I was fortunate enough to have some really great and exciting assignments working with some really bright and talented people.  Immediately after Viper, I returned to PROC as manager of Instrumentation, then on staff to the VP of Scientific Labs and Proving Grounds, then Aerodynamics manager and at-the-track factory rep for Dodge Motorsports, then Instrumentation department manager at our Chelsea Proving Grounds and my last assignment as manager of the Electromagnetic Compatibility testing department.  Although I loved every one of these assignments and wouldn’t change a thing and still maintain relationships with many of the people, none of these assignments defined my career but really my life more than being a modestly proud member of Team Viper.  I developed lifelong friendships with Team Viper teammates.  Sandy Emerling, Dave Buchesky, Pete Gladysz, Ken Nowak, Herb Helbig, George Irwin, Larry Neblett, Bob Brownlee and definitely my Team Viper boss who gave me the opportunity, Roy Sjoberg, among others are not just Viper teammates but evolved into close friends.  And I am thankful for that.  To be a member of the Spirit of Viper Hall of Fame is special and humbling.  To be recognized some 32 years after joining Team Viper and some 14 years after retiring from Chrysler is special to Diane and me and I am grateful for being chosen to this elite group by the Spirit of Viper members.  And I am extremely thankful for that!